“As you label it, so it appears to you.”
Recently I received a copy of Single Step from Depression Alliance and noticed an appeal on the first page. The language is quite intense, calling depression a ‘monster’ that’s gotten away with ‘destroying’ thousands of lives.
Almost immediately I felt rather put off. This labelling depression as a monster creates a sense of ‘other’ I’m not comfortable with, and also perpetuates the ‘badness’ of something that, quite frankly, is a normal part of life.
Of course by writing that I could be seen as being controversial, but allow me to explain my thinking behind this.
As a Peer Volunteer on the Friends in Need (FiN) Forum I am used to seeing any number of posts from people sharing their stories of depression, often coupled with something else like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or any number of physical challenges ranging from chronic migraines to hyper-mobility. Often-times these stories are shared in such a way that the difficulties and challenges of life are listed and the person posting them perceives depression as ‘yet another thing’ on the heap of difficulties they’re facing.
I totally get this. I used to do it when I was experiencing a bout of depression. I’d think, “If it’s not already bad enough that I’m being bullied, have no friends, am failing math and my parents don’t understand and won’t talk to me about it, I’m also depressed.”
Looking back on those early years when depression was frequent in my life, I now see my experience very differently. I was being bullied, had no one to talk to about it, felt abandoned and was unable to cope on my own. I became depressed as a result, stopped performing at school and was unable to live up to the expectations I thought my parents had of me.
This isn’t special. I am one of thousands of people who had a similar teenage experience. Just as I’m one of thousands who have become depressed after the death of a loved one, or multiple deaths very close together in a society that puts pressure on people to ‘get over’ loss, not allowing for a healthy grieving process.
So in a world that tells us low-moods should have a limited life span or that bullying is a ‘normal’ part of growing up and doesn't support those who are bullied, depression is normal. Of course it’s going to happen. And even without all those pressures, depression is a natural human response to an overwhelming amount of stress, a lack of proper exercise and sleep and/or stagnation or feelings or a sense of helplessness.
I’m not saying that depression isn't problematic and that people should suck it up. Far from it. Depressions, and all mental illnesses, need to be talked about and addressed more openly. But using fear-based language isn't a helpful way to get that dialogue going.
Most often I find myself replying to the posts on FiN with:
A) What you are going through is normal. Of course you feel depressed when you’ve been made redundant, are going through a divorce, lost a loved one, have just started a new job, just moved to a new city/town/country, are overwhelmed with your workload, are being bullied at work, are in an abusive relationship etc.
B) Be kind to yourself. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling the way you do. Your feelings are not ‘bad’. They are communicating something.
C) Give yourself time and space to heal. Depression is like any other illness, and not merely mental. The idea that mental illness doesn't affect us physically baffles me. The approach to any illness needs to be holistic – diet, sleep hygiene, exercise AND our mental state must all be addressed when we are working towards recovery.
I don’t write this as an outsider looking in. I lived with constant anxiety for seven years. I went through regular bouts of severe depression for nearly ten years. I used to self-harm and I've been suicidal on three different occasions. Ultimately I was hospitalised due to the anxiety, at which point I had to seriously take stock about the approach I had to my mental well-being.
Up until that point my anxiety was my enemy. I rejected it and did everything I could to resist it. When I was depressed I felt guilty for it and rejected that too. Rejecting our experience is incredibly aggressive and not at all helpful.
Einstein said “the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.”
I’m not saying I was stupid, or that anyone experiencing mental illness is stupid. But as a society we’re not terribly clever when it comes to healing ourselves.
After my hospitalisation I began seeing a psychologist and soon discovered my natural Buddhist nature. Buddhism is just a package for what I know to be good common-sense. There are many packages for the same approach to life and finding the one that works is a fun adventure, but ultimately the message is this: Learn how not to reject your experience but instead to embrace it and appreciate the richness of what life has to offer.
When I stopped making depression and anxiety into ‘other’ and ‘enemy’ I began to become far more comfortable and familiar with them. They were no longer threatening but something to explore and learn from. I began to see the way they actually provided me with a lot of helpful communication. In short, I began to make friends with myself by accepting that sometimes I will be depressed and sometimes I will be anxious but neither will kill me and both can and do teach me a lot.
This has not been easy and it’s not a flick of a switch experience. I've been meditating for seven years, seeing my psychologist pretty regularly during that time too, and have completely changed my life-style by establishing better sleep-hygiene, improving my diet and incorporating regular exercise into my life. But the result is that I've not experienced any bouts of depression for years and I never feel unable to cope with and manage anxiety when it flares up. I listen to my body, listen to the emotions, and take care of myself with gentleness and compassion. And I don’t have a black dog or a monster or a demon.
I am a full human being, like anyone else, with a full range of emotions and experiences and a life worth living, for better or for worse.