Over the course of one week, I learned of two individuals who took their own lives. Both were successful people, according to cultural standards. One a lawyer, the other a business professional, both were married with children and both enjoyed the admiration of their respective communities. People would argue that these two "just didn't seem the type."
Yeah. See that's the thing. There is no type. Depression doesn't care one bit who you are or what you do.
Depression creeps in and lies to you about your value as a human.
Depression doesn't shy away from professionals who have been trained to recognize its deception. It gives no exemptions to the social worker, minister, therapist, physician, or life coach. Its lies are raw and uncensored.
Look, I don't know the answers. I just know that depression doesn't care if you are red or yellow, black or white. It doesn't care about your bank account, your social standing, your dress size, or your IQ. Depression is about as selective as cancer is: cancer doesn't sort through a list of traits and accomplishments in order to determine who will be afflicted; depression doesn't either.
I don't know why depression kills some people and lets others--like me--live. There is no equation, no formula, that I've found that makes sense. Until that answer is found, though, let's talk about mental health in a way that promotes understanding, not judgment. Let's refrain from oversimplifying complex questions with uninformed responses that just come off trite, dismissive, or even downright mean. Of course we don't know everything about mental illness, but we know this: when depression ends in suicide, it's a tragedy of inconsolable proportions. Even the most enlightened comments will rarely be welcome in the midst of such devastation. So let's just keep our mouths closed and our hearts open. Because nobody is the type to get depressed. And so is everybody.
When I’m depressed, it’s almost like I feel guilty when I experience moments of cheerfulness. It feels as if I am lying or something because in fact, I don’t feel better. Underneath, I still feel the all too familiar, overwhelming sadness gripping me. So if I have a good day in the midst of a depressive episode, or even a good minute, it feels inauthentic. There’s this nagging emotional pull reminding me that the present moment is fleeting and that the sadness is waiting, lingering just on the other side of the laughter.
Can you relate? If you’ve struggled with depression, I bet you know what I mean. But if you have loved ones who have been depressed, my guess is that this sounds completely ridiculous to you. Why would someone fight feeling better? That doesn’t even make sense.
Nope. No it doesn’t. But that’s not what’s happening.
Think of depression as a separate entity from the person; let’s call it Bob. When Bob is visiting me, my feelings range from flat (best case) to despondent (worst case). When I am feeling flat, occasionally something will make me smile or even laugh. Now you might witness that and think, Bob must have moved on! What a relief for Aileen! Yet I know that Bob is actually just taking a quick nap. When I laugh, my brain—which is a terrible liar when Bob is around—says, “Hey stop that! You’ll wake up Bob!” which, naturally, wakes Bob.
This maddening cycle has frustrated me throughout my relationship with Bob. Recently though, I discovered another metaphor that seems to fit this scenario a bit better.
My epiphany moment occurred in the midst of a coughing fit. I’d had bronchitis, or some proximity thereof, for over a week. This is not unusual for me; I’m prone to bronchitis. If I get even a slight cold, it tends to go right to my bronchi (which I just call my throat, but whatever). Sniffle one day, hacking cough the next. It’s always been that way for me.
Anyway, I was coughing my ever-loving head off, so I did what I always did: I reached for my throat lozenges. Of course these are no cure for bronchitis, but they do offer a temporary reprieve from the constant coughing.
Do you see where this is going?
See, I realized that if I could think of the depression in the same way as I do bronchitis, those so-called “inauthentic” moments of happiness could stand in the place of the cough drop, offering welcome (albeit temporary) relief from a troublesome condition.
Think of it like this. Imagine I’m in the midst of a depressive episode. Still, I manage to get myself together and get out of the house. But just as I find myself enjoying the moment, Bob starts screaming.
“HEY! Settle down! You’re sad you know. This is not real! You actually don’t feel happy. This is a lie. Get back to being sad like you’re supposed to be!”
So I just respond, “Chill Bob! I’m just taking a little cough drop therapy. No big deal. I know you are still here and are not leaving any time soon. It’s just a cough drop. That’s all.”
And Bob relaxes a bit. He’ll get all stirred up again; this is only a temporary fix—a momentary respite as it were.
When I thought of it this way, I found a number of cough drop remedies that work for me, giving me more moments of relief. Also, unlike actual cough drops, the more I enjoy the moment, the longer the moment lasts. Of course, Bob is persistent and refuses to be ignored; but I just keep putting him off a few minutes at a time. It works.
So don’t deny yourself a break from the sadness just because it feels like a lie. It’s just a cough drop. Pick a flavor you like and enjoy it. It’s really okay.