Lessons I Learned From Depression

[Content note: depression]

People struggling with mental illness (or any sort of illness, or anything crappy, really) are constantly exhorted by well-meaning people to find the “silver lining” in their experience. This often takes the form of tropes about “learning who your real friends are” or “learning how to fully appreciate life” or “understanding what’s really important in life” and on and on.

For a long time I resisted the entire notion of finding “lessons” or “learning opportunities” in my decade-long struggle with depression. (Yes, decade-long. Yes, I’m 22.) Part of this was because the people who demanded that I do so were just so damn annoying, frankly. No, I will not spin you a convenient story about What Depression Has Taught Me to make you feel better when you see my tears or my scars.

But mostly I resisted because I felt that admitting that I’ve learned things from this experience requires intentionally forgetting the fact that most of it had no meaning. There is no meaning to losing half of your life to something you can’t even see or prove to people or sometimes even describe in words. There is no meaning to having most of the memories of your life discolored, blurred, and tainted by a misery and terror that had no name. This is not the stuff of inspirational memoirs or films. While some people suffer for political causes or for their children or in order to produce a great work of art, I suffered for absolutely no reason at all.

But, of course, I did learn some things. Maybe I would’ve learned them even if I’d had a more normative emotional experience, but right now it really seems like I learned them as a result of being so miserable a lot of the time. And while I reserve a very special fury for those who implore us to create meaning out of meaningless suffering and produce “lessons” and “silver linings” and “bright sides” carefully repackaged for their consumption, I think these are lessons that are worthwhile to share.

I am not my GPA, weight, debt, scars.
Lesson 1: Not everything your brain tells you is accurate.

Most people, I think, go through life without giving much thought to whether or not their perceptions are providing them with the most accurate possible picture of reality. But sometimes our brains are pretty crappy at this. Of course, I would’ve learned that without the help of depression, because I study psychology. So I’ve known for a while about stuff like the fundamental attribution error, the halo effect, anchoring, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the false-consensus effect, the just-world hypothesis, in-group favoritism, the hot-hand fallacy, the Lake Wobegon effect, status quo bias, and all sorts of other biases, fallacies, and errors.

But what really brought it home was depression. While the cognitive errors I’ve listed are generally adaptive and keep people happier, depression was the opposite. Instead of telling me that people like me despite evidence to the contrary, my cognitive distortions told me that everyone hates me despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than telling me that I’m above-average in most things, they told me that I’m below-average in most things. On any given day I would invariably feel like the stupidest, ugliest, least likable, most worthless person alive. True story.

At some point it occurred to me that I would never recover if I didn’t learn how to treat what my brain said with a healthy amount of skepticism. So I started to. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the time in my life when my political views evolved the most, because I also started challenging my knee-jerk reactions to various issues in our society.) Of course, this is a lesson that is not limited to folks with mental illnesses, because everyone’s brain does this to them at some point. For many people, including some of those who proudly label themselves “skeptics,” thinking critically about what happens inside one’s brain does not come nearly as easily as thinking critically about what happens out there in the world.

So, for me, this meant a lot of time spent repeating to myself, “Yes, I feel like Best Friend hates my guts, but that’s just a feeling and it’s not necessarily true” and “Yes, not getting that internship makes me feel like I’m a complete failure who will never amount to anything in her chosen field, but that’s just my brain lying to me again” and “Yes, Partner wants to see their friends rather than me tonight, but this doesn’t mean that Partner doesn’t care about me and doesn’t want to keep seeing me anymore.”

Pause, rewind, repeat, and there you have my recovery.

Lesson 2: Your feelings are valid.

Does this seem like a contradiction to the previous lesson? It’s not. Unfortunately, when confronted with the apparently irrational emotions of others, many people immediately jump to the conclusion that those emotions are WRONG. (These people should never try to be therapists.)

However, just because someone’s emotions do not seem like a “rational” response to what they’re going through, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for them. That reason can be whichever complicated and still-misunderstood brain processes cause depression. It can be that those are the emotions they saw expressed in their families growing up, and learned to mimic at an early age. It can be that last time this sort of thing happened, it ended terribly and now they’re freaking out over this seemingly minor thing because it could end that badly again. It can be that what’s currently happening to them is reminding them of something else entirely.

Or it could be for any number of other reasons that you do not know, and that the person having the “irrational” feelings might not know either. So why assume?

It’s important to remember, too, that there tends to be a pattern to the emotions we decide are “irrational” and “inappropriate” in others. Anger from a woman or a person of color is perceived differently than anger from a white man. Sadness from a woman is perceived differently than sadness from a man. Archetypes like the Angry Black Man and the Hysterical Woman are sometimes so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice ourselves applying them.

But all emotions are valid. Some are less adaptive than others, some we want to change, some can contribute to unacceptable behavior if we don’t address them, yes. But they’re all valid, and telling others (or ourselves) that some emotions are not okay to have doesn’t help in changing them.

Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to keep your mental health in mind when making decisions.

This is the one I’ve resisted the most. I had to quit studying journalism because it was giving me panic attacks, and I chose not to pursue a PhD in part because I didn’t think I could handle it emotionally (well, and because the thought of it just bored me). When it comes to my personal life, my mental health is a big part of the reason I gave up monogamy, although I’m now glad I did for many other reasons. It’s also part of the reason I never studied abroad, gave up many other opportunities, and chose to move to NYC.

When I first started to realize that mental health is a factor that I need to consider when making decisions about my academic, professional, and personal life, I felt abandoned and betrayed by my own brain. I understood intuitively that sometimes you can’t do things because they require physical traits or abilities that you lack or because you don’t have the cognitive skills or because you just lack access to those opportunities. But to have all those things and still give something up just because my brain doesn’t like it? That seemed ridiculous.

In fact, that way of thinking is just an extension of the stigma of mental illness. Just as we think that mental illness isn’t really “real,” we think that mental health isn’t really important. It’s reasonable, we think, to choose not to live in Florida because you can’t deal with the weather or to choose not to go running because it’s too hard on your knees or to choose not to be a physicist because you can’t do math worth a shit, but not getting a PhD because grad school would make your depression relapse? Not being a journalist because interviewing people gives you panic attacks? Not studying abroad because being away from people you love makes you suicidal? What the hell is up with that. Just deal with it.

So for a long time I did stuff that made me miserable because I was fighting so hard against the notion that mental health is something you need to take care of and cultivate, just as you would with your physical health. But one of the most important things I’ve learned how to do in college is knowing when to say “no” to things that sound fantastic but might break down the levees I’ve built up to keep the depression from flooding in.

Of course, sometimes it still makes me furious. I recently gave up a great opportunity for that reason; I badly wanted to do it but every time I thought about actually doing it, and the sacrifices it would entail, I broke down, sobbing, paralyzed, unable to say yes or no to it. Eventually I finally turned it down, full of resentment at myself and my useless brain, but trying to understand that my reason was a good one and that I deserve permission to make this choice.

Now, naturally, there are those who would tell me to Just Do It! and Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone! and blabbityblahblah, but those people will just have to trust me when I say that I know the potential dangers much better than they do. Mental illness is a whole ‘nother ballgame. When I want to Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! I try getting to know someone new or reading something I disagree with that makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I move to NYC, I can Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! by joining new groups or going to events where I don’t know people and seeing what happens.

That’s getting out of my comfort zone. Ignoring the fact that I have important needs when it comes to my mental health, though, is not “brave” or “spontaneous” or “gutsy.” It’s just irresponsible, just as it would be irresponsible go ride a motorcycle without a helmet or to not wash my hands during flu season.

So give yourself permission to treat your mental health with the care and concern it deserves. Of course, you might be aware that doing something could make your mental health worse and choose to do it anyway for any number of reasons, and that’s completely fine, too.

But so many of us struggle merely to accept the idea that it’s okay not to do things for the sole reason that they might worsen our mental health, and that’s something we have to overcome.

It's okay not to be okay.

Lessons I Learned From Depression

23 thoughts on “Lessons I Learned From Depression

  1. 2

    Yes, yes, yes, to all of it. I suffered from depression all my life, was even diagnosed at age 12 or so, and my parents rejected the diagnosis. It took until my mid-thirties, when it got so bad that I couldn’t work or study anymore, for me to get professional help. Despite meds and therapy, at age 53, I’m still not okay; I get stable for awhile and then fall back into the pit again. And I still struggle with the fact that I must make decisions about my life with my mental health as well as my physical health in mind.

  2. 4

    If I’m left to my own devices, then finding a “silver lining” to my depression and migraines can be an effective coping mechanism, and worst case scenario it’s a neutral or slightly negative experience when there’s no silver lining to be found.

    But when other people exhorting me to find a silver lining, then it’s just one more thing to hate about myself when I can’t find one. It’s one more reason to think that I’m a failure and everybody hates me.

  3. 5

    I’ve read this and others posts on depression also from Kate Donovan and JT Eberhard and I have to say it’s uncanny how so much of this stuff relates to me, which is strange because I’m not at all depressed. Although I must confess I was in anguish some years ago, but now I’m pretty much tranquil always knowing in the back of my mind that I can easily resort to exit bags at any time. 🙂

  4. 7

    Great post. I especially like that you mentioned that your mind has kept you from doing things you want, like study abroad, because that’s happened to me before and will probably continue to happen. I’ve suffered from bouts of insane shyness my whole life and it has been a struggle. I’m now able to look people in the eye and invite people to hang out, but it’s taken a long time to get there. Nowadays, I can talk to strangers and make eye contact, whereas before I would just stare at the ground and avoid others. That said, I know I could never be a journalist for the same reason you had–I would get panic attacks interveiwing others. It’s just not something I can do without having a mental break down, breathing heavily, palms sweating, feeling sick, etc.

  5. 8

    I was able to study abroad, but on the balance I’m not sure it was a good thing for me. Grad school in a different country can be a difficult experience for anyone who isn’t an extrovert, let alone someone with depression or social anxiety. The experience of living a day-to-day life in another country is very different from the fun of visiting that country with people you already know and care about, and that’s case with a country where English is the common language let alone where it isn’t. The sheer amount of energy you have to put into making sure it’s legal for you to simply be there, and enlisting help from others in doing so, let alone securing a place to live, setting up a bank account, and so on, is something I don’t think most people think about.

  6. 12

    Miri, you … you … you gem!

    There is no meaning to having most of the memories of your life discolored, blurred, and tainted by a misery and terror that had no name.

    No meaning indeed. One of my last illusions (I was much younger at that time, with very little knowledge of what’s going on) was that it makes me somehow “interesting” and “deep”. Unfortunately for an inexplicable reason other people refused to see it that way (can you imagine?!), treating me instead as someone … oh well. Forget it. Certainly not as interesting and deep, ok?

    What I do now consists really in not touching these memories. Keep away. Don’t think. Don’t feel. No admittance this way, please. As long as it works, it works.

    But so many of us struggle merely to accept the idea that it’s okay not to do things for the sole reason that they might worsen our mental health, and that’s something we have to overcome.

    Yup. In my work conferences are important, and it’s a pain in the ass. To make it worse, there are these dark radfem forces out there (hmm, my wife and my daughter) promising vengeance if I don’t go again. Some years ago the radfem monsters planned a coup de grace. There was a lucrative possibility of work at one the universities abroad. “Just for one year”, they said. As I imagined them collecting me in pieces after one year, I decided to be brave and manly. So I made my Alamo stand, sulking, yelling and kicking heroic and valiant, and they had to let it go. But … since these radfem monsters are really nice and well meaning, I didn’t feel comfortable with my victory. It’s a problem, exactly as you say.

    Thanks for this post.

  7. 15

    Oh my gosh, the business about realizing you can’t believe what your brain is telling you was one of the scariest things about depression for me. (Not as scary as the visions, but definitely #2.) It’s so scary to know that what you are perceiving is not congruent with reality.

  8. 17

    Thanks for a great piece on a an issue that too many people don’t take seriously enough. I actually have schizo-affective disorder and have had hallucinations and such, and though I haven’t really been clinically depressed myself (yet) I actually think I have it easier sometimes, since at least the symptoms I get are so clearly abnormal that it isn’t hard to convince people that my brain wasn’t working right at some points in my life. Depression – it’s f a more severe version of something that seems to be a normal part of life (negative feelings), but comparing depression to just feeling sad is like equating a distaste for a food to a severe life-threatening allergy.

  9. 18

    Thank you. As someone with bipolar disorder type 2, the kind that’s depressed about 90% of the time, I have to make those choices a lot and I get a lot of flak from it, particularly from my family. It hurts so much. Is it okay if I post this article in my blog?

  10. 19

    The idea that one must look for the “silver linings” of bad experiences strikes me as Panglossianism, the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds. That’s from Voltaire’s great satire Candide:

    Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

    “It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”

    For my part, I consider Panglossianism unsupportable — it’s best to accept that some things are just plain bad.

  11. 20

    Thank you, this was so incredibly validating. I also want to thank you for sharing your experience because it’s so hard to talk about mental health. Throughout undergrad (in Psychology) I had plans to pursue a PhD. I am currently in my last semester of my graduate program in Sexuality Studies and it’s very unlikely I’ll pursue a PhD anytime soon–not because I’m not academically or intellectually capable, but because my brain can’t take the emotional and physical stress. I constantly battle with my brain–the sense of betrayal, and it’s an ongoing process for me. I feel a little better knowing that a lot of the ugly thoughts are lies my brain tells me, and learning to let go of the things I can’t control has also helped me. I especially love that you remind us all that it’s totally okay to not feel okay. Sometimes we just have to be present with where we are currently at.

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