10 Things Depression Is NOT
A Primer for the Un-depressed
(And Everybody Else)
The recent death of Robin Williams has opened a wellspring of discussion about depression. I’m invested in this discussion for a multitude of reasons:
i. That image you saw when you opened this post – it’s a self-portrait. I drew it years ago, but the experience it depicts has been a constant companion, on and off throughout my life. If my personal experience can help someone else – it needs to be shared.
ii. I’ve lost a number of people in my life to suicide as a result of depression. In many cases – nobody even knew they were suffering until it was too late. This should never, ever happen again.
iii. Many of my clients, who I care about deeply, experience depression. I owe it to them, and to all of you, to contribute to this conversation.
iv. Many of my friends, family, and community members experience depression – even if they don’t recognize it, or won’t admit it for fear of being judged, ridiculed, misunderstood, or shamed. If I can speak about my experience without fear or shame, perhaps it will inspire someone else to do the same.
v. We need to talk about this. We need to do it now.
I hope this article will help someone understand, or find compassion, or be able to help, or not feel so alone …
10 Things Depression is NOT:
1. Depression is NOT the same as normal sadness, discouragement, grief or anger.
One of the hardest things to describe to someone who has never experienced genuine depression, is the difference between depression and normal hard-times. It’s like trying to describe the difference between choking on water that went down the wrong way, and actually drowning… Depression is full-on dragged-under-can’t-breathe-can’t-swim-can’t-see-the-surface-lungs-filling-with-water-oh-my-god-please-somebody-help-me-why-can’t-you-see-me-i’m-dying-all-alone kind of drowning. And it’s relentless. And even when you don’t feel terrible, you don’t feel good. And it doesn’t matter how great your life is, or how many people love you, or how much money you have, or how much you know about yourself, or psychology, or spirituality, or medicine. Depression erases you. Depression snubs you out. Depression sneaks in under cover of the night, and ties you down, and covers you in cement, and sits on your chest, and presses its hands over your mouth, and stares deep into your soul with black-ice eyes, and smiles a slow, creeping, i-told-you-you-couldn’t-get-away kind of smile. And there’s nothing you can do but keep trying to breathe, and wait for him to tire of you, so he’ll leave you alone for a while…
2. Depression is NOT something you can simply “snap out of” or “get over”.
Have you ever been sick? I mean really, really sick? I bet it was awful. I bet you really wanted it to stop. I bet you did everything you could to make the symptoms go away as quickly as possible. I bet you knew what the sickness was called. I bet you looked it up online, and could name all the symptoms, and probably had some ideas or theories as to how you got sick in the first place. And I bet that no matter how bad it was, no matter how miserable you were, no matter how much support you had, no matter how desperately you wanted to get better – you weren’t able to simply “snap out of it”. You couldn’t just will the illness away. Depression is like that too.
3. Depression is NOT the fault of, or a choice that a person makes.
Depression can occur due to a whole bunch of different causes: nutritional deficiencies and imbalances; food allergies; infections; life changes and challenges; different chemical activities in the brain; vitamin & mineral deficiencies; environmental toxins; seasonal changes; hormonal changes and imbalances; birth control pills; thyroid and adrenal disfunction; medications; genetics; illness; the list goes on and on… These factors can occur in isolation or in combination. They can be occasional or constant. They can change. They affect us on an involuntary level, like breathing, or digestion, or heartbeats. People do not choose to be depressed. Blaming someone for experiencing depression is akin to blaming someone for having cancer or ALS. Not cool.
4. Depression is NOT weakness.
The idea that depression is weakness couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that people with depression are some of the strongest people on this planet. Imagine that life is a marathon. It has its uphills, and its downhills, and its refreshment stations and its finish line. Imagine that we are all running. Some of us are in better shape than others. Some of us have better gear, or have done more training, or have bigger cheering sections. All of us are running the same race. Now, here comes someone running with depression. Imagine that race. But imagine running it without being able to see the track. Imagine running shoe-less over rough terrain. Imagine running uphill, dragging a car behind you on a rope. Imagine running downhill, holding back a train. Imagine no refreshment. Imagine the crowds throwing garbage, and discouragement, and ostracism, and blame. Imagine watching all the other racers sail past with ease. Imagine the strength it takes to keep on going, day after day, week after week, year after year. To summon the courage to stay in a race like that at all, requires a special kind of strength.
5. Depression is NOT an indication that a person is crazy, or any less intelligent, less enlightened or less capable than anyone else.
The fact is that in addition to all those we may never know, many people we are inspired by or have great respect for have experienced depression. Scientists, astronauts, physicists and philosophers like Issac Newton, Buzz Aldrin, Albert Einstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, and John Stuart Mill have experienced depression. Professors, poets, painters and authors like Issac Asimov, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemmingway, and Leo Tolstoy have experienced depression. Songwriters and iconic composers like Leonard Cohen, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven have experienced depression. Political influencers like Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, and yes… even bona fide princesses like Diana Princess of Wales have experienced depression. And of course, as brought to light again most recently, actors and comedians like Heath Ledger, Jim Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Robin Williams have experienced depression. Actually, in many cases, depression can be directly linked to above average intelligence. Do not make the mistake of thinking that a person experiencing depression is any less worthy of your respect, admiration, attention or affection than anyone else; or that they are incapable of achieving greatness.
6. Depression is NOT a “quick-fix” thing.
Depression is complicated and complex. Just figuring out the root cause(s) can be an extremely challenging task. For people experiencing depression, making changes to diet, exercise and sleep routines, participating in counselling, taking supplements or prescribed medications, increasing self-care, spending time in nature, learning meditation and other practices can certainly help. But there is no magic cure that will make depression instantly go away. Healing depression takes time. It takes commitment, and focus, and practice. It takes effort, and awareness, and courage, and tonnes and tonnes of support.
7. Depression is NOT something you can “gratitude” or “happy thought” your way out of.
There is no doubt that adopting an attitude of gratitude and optimism can help you experience greater satisfaction in your life. There is no doubt that practices such as meditation, mindfulness, energy therapies, affirmations, and inspirational imagery can help you find more peace, balance and personal insight. I have personally taught these methods to countless people over the years, and can testify to their power and effectiveness. But where depression is concerned, these things alone are not enough. To suggest to someone in the throes of depression that the solution is this simplistic is insensitive at best. More likely than not, your well-meaning advice, combined with a depression induced inability to find relief via these methods, will serve only to deepen your loved one’s experience of feeling isolated, mis-understood, hopeless, and alone.
8. Depression is NOT gender, age, race, religion, sexuality or socio-economic status specific.
Anyone can experience depression. It affects men, women and all the genders in between. It affects children, teens, adults, and seniors. It happens all over the world, and to people of every faith. It happens to straight people, and queer people, and single people, and partnered people. It happens to parents, and grand-parents, and daughters, and sons. It happens to people who are highly educated, and people with little education at all. It happens to rich people, and poor people, and high-powered executives, and the unemployed. It happens to politicians, and athletes, and actors, and doctors. It happens to construction workers, and factory workers, and the kids who serve your coffee. It can happen to anyone. It could even happen to you.
9. Depression is NOT simply a “mental” illness.
One of the problems with the term “mental illness” is that it doesn’t differentiate between disorders that affect how we feel, those that affect how we think, and those that affect both. The word “mental” itself, can be synonymous with “crazy”, and tends to conjure up images of straight-jackets and psych wards. While some factors may be related to brain chemistry, structure or function – in depression, this is not necessarily the singular cause. Depression can also be caused by disruptions in the body and, as is increasingly common in our disconnected, mechanized, falsely regulated world – by a profoundly aching heart and soul.
10. Depression is NOT a death sentence.
Living with depression can be incredibly hard. But people experiencing depression can and do live. A strong support network, and the right kinds of support can make a huge difference. So can getting professional help. So can developing good coping skills, and understanding the phenomenon of depression itself. If you’ve never experienced depression, you may never understand exactly what your loved one is going through, but you can listen. You can learn. You can be there. Sometimes, having someone simply be there, can make all the difference in the world.