I am twenty-seven years old, and I have struggled with depression for seventeen of those years. It would not be incorrect to say that depression has been a defining experience in my life. This is a fact that is capable of filling me with great shame. After all, I come from a privileged background, I have not suffered significant trauma, abuse, or loss, and I have a supportive and loving family. Despite all this, depression has been and continues to be my companion–often manifesting as a low-grade dysthymia, sometimes blowing up into a debilitating episode of major depressive disorder. And there have been a few brief, sparkling, miraculous-seeming remissions from the illness, which I treasure and study like holy texts. It all feels very random, very senseless. However, I cannot fully believe that my suffering is without meaning, either for myself or for others. And it is in an effort to uncover that meaning that I have compiled the following list of things that I have learned from depression.
1. There is no happiness in material things
Being depressed from such a young age totally took away any desire I might have ever had to pursue wealth or the accumulation of objects. Depression has a way of equalizing the impact of exterior circumstances–whether you’re riding in a broken-down, twenty year-old Toyota that smells like unwashed feet, or a new BMW with heated leather seats and a state-of-the-art stereo, you still feel the same. A depressed person feels no different, whether she’s eating out of a dumpster or dining at a restaurant with cloth napkins and multiple forks. Money simply brings no relief from the suffering. A lot of people throw around the phrase “Money can’t buy happiness,” but depression has made me understand this in a very deep way.
2. A sense of humor is what really makes a person wealthy
If there is one thing that DOES cancel out depression, if even for just a moment, it’s a good, honest, deep laugh. I find that when I am not in my depression that I am in possession of a pretty respectable sense of humor. There is no describing the joy that I get from laughing, or from being able to make others laugh. It is a fortification against the ups and downs of life. And I credit my depression with making life seem absurd and random enough that I am able to laugh, deeply, at just about anything.
3. Attitude is everything
Being a disease of perception and emotion, depression takes away one’s ability to choose his or her attitude. “Positive thinking” simply loses all meaning when a person is utterly unable to connect with himself, others, or anything at all in life. I have had the experience of existing in a state of depression for years, and then being lifted out of that depression and suddenly having the ability to choose my attitude about circumstances. Let me tell you, having that choice is a relief. It feels like a superpower.
4. Wherever you go, there you are
When I was thirteen, I went to Mexico. At that point in my life, I thought I was unhappy because of my circumstances–the stupid shallow American culture, the stupid people around me, the stupid school I went to. When I went to Mexico, I felt the same unhappiness. This was a humbling experience. My unhappiness was not due to any outward circumstance, but to something within me. There is no such thing as a “geographical cure” because you cannot escape yourself, even at the top of a mountain or in a remote third-world village.
5. Have compassion for others
Mental illness takes people and it twists them up into something they never wanted to be. I know that my depression might make me seem aloof, humorless, uncaring, selfish, or lazy. Truth is, I am none of those things, but if you met me during my depths, you would not know it. I know what mental illness has done to my personality, and this knowing has made me more compassionate towards others. You just can’t judge other people, because you never really know what they are going through on the inside.
6. Be adventurous and try new things
Although this might seem contradictory to #4, it’s not. Depression has made me unattached to circumstances. If I am unhappy here, there’s no reason to stay–might as well go somewhere else and try something new and see how that feels. Because of this attitude and the myriad circumstances it has lead me to find myself in, I have learned a lot about myself. I know from my illness that there is no security in “security”, so I might as well pile my plate high from the buffet of life. Consequently, I have a deeper and broader perspective than people who have never ventured outside the straight-and-narrow.
7. Friends are the most precious things in life
One of the most painful parts of depression is that it takes away my ability to have relationships with others. The brain-fog, the uncontrollable crying, the low self-esteem, and the total apathy towards things that I used to find enjoyable make it hard to connect with anyone. This leads to a soul-eating sense of isolation, which compounds the depression. But take away the depression, and suddenly, I regain my ability to connect. To share in the joys and sorrows of others. To help others, and be helped by them. It’s truly an amazing feeling to emerge from the cave of isolation into the sunlit web of relationships with others.
8. It’s all an illusion
When I’m depressed, things are not what they seem. The successes of others fill me with a jealous self-loathing. The sunlight makes me want to die. I know rationally that my perspective is incorrect, but I just can’t help it. My depressed perspective is an illusion–a very persistent one, but an illusion nonetheless. This realization has lead me to question what else might be an illusion. Turns out, everything. There’s a lot of freedom in this realization. And there is something to say about quantum physics here, but I’ll save that for a later post…
I am interested in the experiences of others with depression and other mental illnesses. What have you learned from your experience of mental illness? Please share in the comment section below. Thank you for reading. I hope this post helped you in some way, or at least made you feel not quite so alone.