“But you don’t look depressed…you’re so cheerful…I bet you never get upset…it’s hard to imagine you having a bad day…easy for you to say, you’re always happy…”
I’ve heard many variations of these well-intentioned statements. They don’t bother me much anymore, and I know people mean them as compliments, but there are times when they feel like a knife in my heart. “If only they knew. What is wrong with me? How can I be such a happy person most of the time, yet still succumb to crippling sadness so severe it puts me in bed for days, even weeks? Shouldn’t I be able to prevent this by now?” After many years of research, therapy, yoga, meditation, and self-inquiry, I’ve not so much arrived at an answer as I have become better at accepting the reality: I am a happy, optimistic person who sometimes experiences depression.
I think there are many misunderstandings out there about what depression is. It’s not the same as being in a bad mood, having a negative attitude, being a pessimistic person, feeling sad from time to time, or getting discouraged by the inevitable challenges of life. Depression is a mental illness with physical components that is a mixture of nature and nurture. There are biological factors such as genetics, hormones, and neuro-chemistry; mental and emotional factors such as stress, negative thought patterns, sensitivity; and also circumstantial factors such as traumatic events, loss, or abuse. Science doesn’t fully understand it yet, but there has been much more study about it over the last few decades. Often people who have not experienced depression don’t understand why those who do can’t “just get over it” or “shake it off” or even one I sometimes say myself, “choose happiness.” If I’m just in a shitty mood over something small or I catch myself in a negative thought pattern, I can certainly turn it around through gratitude or affirmations or meditation. I’m not saying that these practices can’t be helpful to someone with depression also, there are many things you can do to help manage the symptoms of depression. The key word is manage, depression can’t always be prevented or snapped out of so easily.
Think of depression as a latent virus that lives in some people, similar to a cold sore. Just like a cold sore, the potential is always there, even if the evidence isn’t on the surface. You can do some things to help prevent an outbreak, but you can’t necessarily prevent one from ever happening again. And once an outbreak happens, it takes some time to heal. There are no quick fixes.
Similarly, depression can stay dormant for months or even years, then suddenly get triggered to express itself. Eating a healthy balanced diet, getting exercise and fresh air, talking about your problems with trusted friends, going to regular therapy sessions, practicing yoga and meditation–these things all help to manage depression. But sometimes these aren’t enough. Sometimes a major stressor comes along, like a death, divorce, job loss, or trauma. Sometimes brain chemistry gets a bit off, or hormone levels fluctuate. Sometimes people even fall into cyclical patterns of depression with no specific trigger. Whatever the cause, the once latent disease now manifests in the body and mind as a full blown episode.
Once that switch gets flipped and I’m in the midst of a depression, the catch is I don’t have the energy to do the things that I know would help me get out of the depression. It’s not just mental energy or will power that is lacking. There are actual physical symptoms that can affect motor coordination, muscle strength, sleep patterns, and appetite among other things. It simply feels impossible to get up, function, and be around people, even to do fun things that I typically enjoy. It’s hard for anyone, and especially as a yoga teacher it’s very easy to beat myself up for not being the perfect example of health and happiness, which only adds to the stress and frustration.
Not every depressive episode is the same. In my experience, staying healthy and on top of my self-care has helped to reduce the number of episodes, lengthen the time between them, and reduce the severity when they do hit. In the past my major depressive episodes lasted for weeks and months, often including suicidal thoughts and harmful behavior. In between major episodes I would feel mildly depressed the majority of the time. There were a few rays of light, but they battled heavy clouds. These days I tend to experience mild depression for a few weeks or months at a time. In these phases I can function at a basic level but there’s an underlying discomfort that lingers without a known cause. I only have a few major depressive episodes a year, and they usually only last a few days. I’m better at noticing them coming on and better at taking care of myself when they do. The majority of the time I feel good with no major symptoms of depression. Often I feel great and go long periods without feeling depressed at all. That doesn’t mean I’m happy and ecstatic every day during the good times, just that I’m flowing with the natural ups and downs of life without getting pulled under. It’s still an ongoing learning process and I still beat myself up from time to time. It’s hard to accept that I may have to deal with this in one form or another for my whole life, but I’ve worked hard to get where I am today and by the grace of the divine and a little help from my friends, I’ll keep working. I have created a life worth the effort. I am worth the effort. And so are you.
- If you’d like to learn a little more about depression and it’s many bio-chemical factors, I recommend this video from Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University. It’s long, but the first 15 minutes cover the basics.
- If you or someone you know is suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts, please reach out:
- Text 741-741 – This service is run by CrisisText.org, a nationwide organization that connects people in need with trained crisis counselors any time at no cost.
- Call 1-800-273-TALK – The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides confidential and free services from skilled counselors at a crisis center in your area.
If you’re local to Dallas, join me for FREE group therapy courtesy of Foundation45. This support group is led by a licensed counselor and meets every Monday night at 7 PM in the back room of Independent Bar and Kitchen at Main and Crowdus in Deep Ellum. We also do a short seated yoga/meditation session after group.
You aren’t alone. There are others who understand. Come, sit, talk or don’t talk. We love you.