Depression’s Life Lessons
In last week’s post I listed some negative attitudes and perspectives which can keep you entrenched in the depths of depression. How could I list them so easily? Because I have experienced holding onto each and every one of these negative mantras. In my moments of self-reflection, I realized that these attitudes were quite often the reason for falling to the bottom of my emotional well with little hope of recovery. In time, I understood that if I wanted to learn to cope with my depression I needed to begin by changing my attitude.
It is my belief that depression has a strong biological basis. Some of us may have a genetic predisposition for clinical depression. Some of us may have experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma in our lifetime. Some of us may have experienced multiple losses and overwhelming grief. There are also many of us currently dealing with extreme life stressors such as financial problems, chronic illness, relationship problems, and/or mentally and physically demanding caretaking duties. These are all very real aspects or contributors of depression that nobody can deny. Saying what causes depression is like picking up a tangled up skein of yarn and trying to find the end of it. It is all connected. We are not just biological beings. We are not just our emotions. We are not just a product of our environment. We are dynamic human beings with the wonderful capability of resilience.
Depression is not something you can snap out of as I have written about in one of my very first posts for MyDepressionConnection. It is not something you can will away or cure by a “positive attitude.” Depression is an illness which is not your fault although you may feel guilt and shame. You are not a bad person for having depression and neither are you worthless. One person’s pain cannot be compared to another’s. Emotional pain and suffering is the great equalizer for us all. Nobody is immune. Rich and poor people get depressed. Celebrities get depressed. Children and teens can suffer from depression. The elderly can also be susceptible to depression. Depression knows no boundaries related to age, economic status, race, ethnic origin, or geography. Depression, unfortunately, is part of our human condition just as many other mental and physical illnesses.
Despite the fact that you do have a mood disorder, you are not a victim. You cannot will away your mood or chant a positive mantra and be cured. Everyone who has suffered from depression knows that is ridiculous. However, you can still do some things to help yourself and prevent your depression from becoming entrenched. No matter what we are dealing with, no matter if it is a mood disorder, diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, asthma, arthritis, or any other chronic condition, the one thing you can always control is your attitude. In other words, you can control the way you attempt to cope with your illness or disease. You can choose to hold onto dysfunctional perspectives and remain stuck or you can make an attempt, however small, to find ways to cope. You don’t need to do this alone. You should not do it alone. Finding support and possibly professional guidance can be life saving. We humans have this amazing capacity to change and to grow. But for those who refuse to try, or keep blaming their illness and abdicating all control will be the most vulnerable to depression and every other struggle in life.
Some may say that my message is condescending or preachy (as a matter of fact some of you have responded this way) but I maintain that despite your depression or life circumstances, you are responsible for your life. I keep saying this because this particular realization and truth has saved me from falling even deeper into an abyss. I am saying this to help. I am saying this because I have been there.
Sometimes it helps to illustrate these things with real-life stories.
I received the phone call I had been dreading one afternoon. It was my doctor calling to tell me the results of my MRI. When I heard the diagnosis, “Multiple Sclerosis” my immediate emotion was rage. How dare this happen? To me? Are you kidding? The list of everything I had already endured in my life flashed before my eyes: Growing up in poverty, the loss of my father to alcoholism, a mother with schizophrenia, abuse, homelessness, a miscarriage, three years of infertility, my youngest son being diagnosed with autism, and now this? I was so mad. I was angry at God. Wasn’t life hard enough? Why me? I thought: “Life, God, the universe OWES me for what I have been through.” My thoughts settled into a “this is unfair” mode and I struggled to get out. I did grieve. I did the whole shock, denial, anger, and sadness thing. I stopped exercising or taking care of myself. I thought, “Why bother?” But then I thought of my kids and my family. Just because I have MS and depression doesn’t mean I am no longer a parent without responsibility. I had to find ways to cope and help myself.
I found support in the blogging community. One of the people who was and continues to be one of my greatest sources of inspiration is a writer for our Multiple Sclerosis site, Vicki, who happens to have Progressive MS. We had met in the blogger world. Here was this single mother with a progressive disease writing to help others, and without a shred of self pity. Her positivity and resilient spirit helped me to realize that whatever I was going through, I could make it too. But I had to change my attitude first and get out of the trap of self-pity.
When my youngest son was diagnosed with autism I fell into a depression. I felt so alone. I felt as though nobody could possibly understand what I was going through. And many people didn’t and still do not. I remember going to a playground prior to his diagnosis. My son was silently playing with a toy truck away from the other children. At the age of three my son still wasn’t talking. I tried explaining this to an acquaintance neighbor about his lack of speech and feeling worried. The neighbor laughed and said I was lucky my son didn't talk as her daughter talked too much and that it annoyed her. I never felt so alone in my life.
My son is now a teen-ager and I still face these types of moments. My son has helpers who teach him how to do things in the community such as making a purchase at a store. I went along one day but made my purchases separately. As my helper and my son left the store, the clerk leans into me and says, “I feel so sorry for kids like that.” She hadn’t known I was his mother. I informed her, “The boy you are feeling so sorry for is my son.” I had to ask, “Why do you feel sorry for my son?” The clerk responded that her friend had “one like that.” As her words were slicing into me I tried to maintain control. My son, a human being, was being referred to as “one like that.” The clerk added that she felt sorry for me too: “What will happen to him after you die?” In the span of three minutes or less I felt emotionally devastated. In a perfect world people would understand about things like depression, mental illness, Multiple Sclerosis, and autism. In a perfect world people would understand what to say and what not to say. But they don’t. This woman did not understand how her comments were so inappropriate and hurtful. Most people will not react as we wish and we can’t expect them to. When I let go of my righteousness that the world should always be accepting and understanding, my anger and sadness faded. All we can do is educate when we are up to it. The autism society has cards explaining autism. The next time I see this clerk I will give her one.
Sometimes I wear all the things I have survived as a badge of honor. But it puts me in this lonely place where I think nobody could possibly understand what I have been through. It is easy to isolate and think that nobody has experienced the pain I have had in my life. Then I joined support groups on the Internet and my feelings of being “special” for my depression and life circumstances were blown away by reality. I remember feeling particularly sorry for myself one day as I was having a very difficult day trying to help my son who has autism. Then I read some of the posts on a support group I joined. One mother had recently lost her son. He had a seizure on a school bus and died. This mother was still there in the group, despite her unimaginable loss, so that she could help other parents. A grandmother was on the group asking for suggestions on how to help her daughter’s twins. Both boys had extreme autism and had basically been abandoned by their mother. This grandmother, who was expecting to be relaxing in retirement, was now in charge of raising two five-year old boys who were climbing bookcases, not toilet trained, non-verbal, screamed to communicate and were frequently unable to sleep. She described not being able to sleep herself as she tried to soothe her grandsons to sleep during the wee hours of the night. I also thought I was “special” because I was raised by a mother with schizophrenia. In this same support group I met a mom who was caring for a child with autism along with twins. And her mother not only had schizophrenia but was also deaf. I felt humbled. This is why I say, look around you. You are not alone in what you are going through or what you have gone through. When it comes to pain there is no competition. We are all sometimes fighting for our life and even for other people’s lives.
Depression has been described by some as a beast. It is a beast. But depression doesn’t have to make us beastly. Your depression can quickly turn into rage, bitterness, self-pity, and a lashing out at those who try to help. Don’t let it do this to you. Yes depression can alter our cognition and ways of thinking and even our perspective. It whispers lies into your ears that you are no good and not worthy. It tells you that people don’t care or that you are the only one to suffer like this. Don’t listen. Depression can make you paranoid or make you feel the world is out to get you because you somehow believe that you have been hand selected for suffering. This just isn’t the case. You are capable of change. You can find ways to cope. You do have some control. You do have choices. You can take steps to help yourself. Even the smallest of steps is a victory.
What have I learned from all these experiences including battling depression?
I am responsible for my life.
What lessons have you learned from living your life and coping with depression? We want to hear them. Share your story with us. You can help someone else in the process.