13 Lessons I Learned from a Five Year Depression
My journey with Depression isn't over
The title of this hub is pretty self explanatory, and it comes from the fact that at the very end of May 2013 I came out of a depression that had been full blown for at least five years at that point, and maybe even longer. This was a living hell I don't think anyone who hasn't been through it can ever understand, but I think it's so important to try to help people who want to understand get a little bit closer to doing so - because it's too rare to find even that much openness. As more and more people are coming forward with their stories, I found that a mention of depression here and there among friends, co-workers, strangers, would lead to incredible stories and a strong realization that not only was I not alone, but the sheer relief that came from knowing that was shared by the other person who suddenly felt comfortable sharing their story with me, too.
This page is my story in dealing with depression and the recovery from my worst bout to date, and I pray the worst I ever experience. If you've had depression, read on to know you're not alone and see the videos that have helped me come forward and deal with my situation. If you know someone in your life who has suffered from depression, read on and watch the videos and visit the links if you want to be able to finally get at least an idea of what it's like for those of us who get stuck in the dark part of the mind.
In a way it's simple. I know I've had a pretty amazing life with plenty of adventures and joy and a lot of amazing friends to boot, but my name is Shane and I suffer from depression. And I won't suffer in shame or silence anymore.
Amazing Message on the Dual Life of Depression
Lesson 1: Depression is a disease
Depression is a disease - like cancer - and shouldn't be stigmatized because that is costing lives. This is important for talking about depression in a larger societal context, as a general philosophical problem, but it was important to me as an individual, as well. One of the hardest things about dealing with depression was the obvious stigma that comes with it, and the shame. If I hit my head really hard, friends would want me to go to the hospital to check for a concussion. The many times I hurt my leg, friends would jump on my case if I tried to limp without crutches, and they wanted to know how to help.
But depression was another beast. People were uncomfortable around me. Instead of support I'd hear, "Don't be so moody," "You need to get over it," or "What's wrong with you?" There was also the classic "You don't have any reason to be depressed," as if it was a logical choice I was making or even flat out "You don't know what it's like to be really depressed."
So I led the dual life, did my best, and died more and more inside with each day until I just didn't feel anything - and somehow kept on drowning. I could go on for pages on this comparison, but depression needs to be treated like a serious disease.
- I'm not weak because I'm depressed, I'm sick because my brain doesn't work the way it should
- Depression needs to be recognized and treated early. The sooner, the better, just like any disease before it gets to the point of suicide
- I think the term "remission" is dead on. I'm not "cured" of anything - the struggle will always be there. Maybe the depression will never come back for more than a few days here or there or maybe it'll come back for months and years. All I can do is take one hour at a time the best I can.
- Parents, family, and friends who have never experienced this need to understand real depression is a disease, it's not anyone's fault. I'm not depressed because Mom, Dad, grandparents, teachers, or friends failed me. They didn't. And even if that wasn't true, it has nothing to do with it. I'm depressed because my mind isn't well. That's it.
- It's okay to be depressed. I wasn't a freak, a weakling, an abomination, a failure, a loser, a disappointment. I was depressed, and that's okay.
This can be a very freeing understanding. If something's just "wrong with me" or if I'm depressed because I'm just too weak - there's nothing that can be done about that because I'm just saying I'm broken. But sickness can be treated, and I can work to make myself, and keep myself, well. If you're depressed I want to emphasize that one more time: that's okay. There's no shame or failure on your part there - embrace that until you begin to believe it and fight to get better because you are worth it.
Amazing depression pic by George Harden
Lesson 2: Attempts at support, when you even get them, suck
Most supposedly supportive comments will come off as insulting/infuriating, and that's assuming you get any at all. It wasn't that I didn't try to reach out at times - I did. The problem is a lot of advice won't necessarily be wrong or shallow, but it comes across as shallow and condescending. Phrases like "I'll pray for you," "You shouldn't be depressed because you have a lot to be happy about," or "You need to change your thinking to be more positive," are all well intentioned pieces of advice, and they all often come across (at best) as ignorant and condescending. We won't even get into how annoying the "Have you tried not being depressed?" comment is. Yeah, if you're dealing with someone who is suffering from depression you should be there for them...but think about what you say. Anything that can be seen as patronizing, condescending, or as a blow off and minimization of what we're going through - that's exactly how we will end up reading it.
The other side to stay away from is the "tough love" out of depression. I know several people close to me meant the best, but I loathe this approach to snapping someone out of it. In my experience the problem is simple: there was a non-stop narrative in my head that would never turn off, and I hated myself more than anyone else could ever hate me, and the only thing I despised more than myself were the people too stupid to see how worthless I really was. Several other people I've confided to about depression had similar stories - you can't shame someone already too ashamed.. You can't shame us into taking action because our brains have already declared all out war on us. That's the personal struggle with depression - it's our brains going all out against the rest of our body/mind/thoughts.
Great talk, but check out the 6:00 mark for great stuff on depression
Lesson 3: You're right - no one understands what you're going through
You're right, no one understands exactly what you're going through - because you don't either. Most of us can't give reasons for why we are always depressed, why some days are good and then why you can't turn that into being normal again.
Personally, I still can't tell you why my depression broke. Renewal of faith? No. Throwing off the bonds and oppressions of past memories or teachings? No. Joy from being surrounded by family? No. Did you just miss fishing that much? It was fun - but no. Any sudden revelation, realization, or philosophical insight? No, not at all.
I can say is that in the morning I was depressed and sometime between 1 pm and 4 pm when the fish stopped biting I went from giving up on my long struggle fighting the idea of suicide to "cured." By the time we docked I wasn't happy, but I was content because the depression was gone. Almost a year later I remember the day incredibly vividly, and I've thought about it frequently since then, and I have no more insight or thought on it now then when it happened. The depression just broke.
Sometimes there is no reason, but that doesn't make empathy any less important.
Joe Biden on depression/suicide
Breaking the Silence for Suicide Survivors TED Talk
Lesson 4: Suicide stops being scary in depression
The scariest time comes when you realize suicidal thoughts are so constant that you don't feel any fear or anxiousness about them at all anymore. You don't feel anything. Depression isn't just sadness. The worst comes when it's right out nothingness - an overwhelming feeling that nothing will get better, nothing can. The fear isn't another great calamity - it's going through yet another day in the same desolate emotional wasteland with nothing but hundreds of more days of the same in any given direction.
Depression became a dullness, a nothingness. I wanted to feel, then I didn't care, then the dullness just became heavier and heavier - and I even got to the point where I was upset because I felt pressure from myself to not want to die because of what it would do to my family, and that was upsetting because I just wanted the dullness and nothingness to stop. I couldn't feel any passion, couldn't get behind any old interests of dreams, couldn't "pick myself up" or "fire myself up" over anything. Everything that had always meant something to me, gave me reason or strength or motivation to push on - it meant nothing to me anymore.
Suicide stopped being scary - it stopped being scary as something to even talk about, although there was that need/desire to talk to someone about how it wasn't scary for me anymore, without the person freaking out on me. But it's such a taboo subject I just never could find that so I felt alone and kept it to myself. How do you tell people you care about that you know you've thought about suicide at least in passing almost every day for several years?
This blog post talks about this in better words than I can manage, and is one of the best descriptions of depression I've ever read. If you want to understand depression more, read this post (preferably after the end of this page): http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html
A good allegory
This is one of my all time favorite books - and a great allegory for the growth that has to happen along the way.
Great book for the break up depression issues
Lesson 5: Hard lesson - seasonal people
Some people only belong in your life for a season. This one can be very hard for me because in true deep introvert fashion, when I want to know someone I want to skip over the small talk and get right to actually learning about the person. People can be fascinating, after all, as long as they're not too normal. This also means I tend to be able to make really deep connections really quickly, or have friendships that go from acquaintance to hanging out all the time in a matter of weeks. Sometimes these last. Sometimes they fade.
Some people are just seasonal people - they're meant to be in your life for a short time, hopefully you're both better off for the other having been there, and then sometimes it's time to move on. Being able to accept this, and not try to keep a seasonal friendship in your life when it's obviously past that time, is one of the hardest lessons for me to accept, and for someone with depression an easy thing to cling on to when I want to dive further into misery.
The hardest part of the lesson? Sometimes they're seasonal friends just because of neglect or bad decisions and not because the friendship has just come to that point - but regardless of reason, being able to appreciate what each person brought to your life without holding on too tightly to what was or what could have been, that's a hard one to swallow, but it's important to understand because it's the first step to lessening that loss and the grip it has on you and depression.
Learning joy - if you think that sounds strange, try having to "learn to be happy!"
Lesson 6: You must learn to feel again
This was a really weird lesson for me, because you could even argue it's part of the post depression recovery, and yet no one ever warned me about it at all and I really had to dig around online to find anything about this. I'm glad more and more people are talking about this because it was a weird stumbling block for me. My depression broke in May of 2013, but I wouldn't say I was really happy, I just wasn't depressed. The month or two that followed I realized I was still struggling to feel anything. I knew when I felt sad because of the instant paranoia that a full blown depressive episode was fighting to break out again. There would be glimpses of smiling or happiness, a touch of sympathy, but I still felt hollow and odd most of the time.
Once in a while I would feel a burst of something: suddenly I'd be crying without being sad, I would just feel an overwhelming need to sit down and cry. Other times there would be a sudden burst of uncontrollable laughter without reason. These did settle out over time, but what I found is that it took time to really feel normally again, for my brain to re-wire itself or do whatever it needed to do to overcome years of depression and start feeling normally again.
The best way I could describe a lot of this time was a strange disconnect. I would know I should feel sympathetic, My face might show some sympathy, but the full emotion, the full feeling, would take so much longer to match up again. This took a lot of time, and in fact because of how long my depression was, it took nearly 10 months for me to feel completely normal once again. Sometimes, especially after coming out of the darkness of an insanely long depression, you have to actually learn to feel again.
Use any help you can get to overcome depression
Lesson 7: Time doesn't heal by itself
I could write pages and pages on this one: maybe even an entire book. I hate the "Time heals all," quote because it doesn't. Some things can only heal over time, sometimes over a really long period of time, but I am an adamant believer that time doesn't heal by itself. You still have to make a consistent effort to heal, to keep moving forward. It's not always solid, it's not always consistent. There were months where I spent nearly every bit of energy I had trying to figure out a reason, any reason, just to get out of bed in the morning, and the only answer I could think of was "Well f**k you, that's why." That's all I had.
Time can be an amazing healing process, but only if day after day, week after week, there is an effort to push forward. Time all by itself doesn't mean anything. If it did, no one would still mourn a break up two years after the relationship ended, mourn a lost relative years after the fact, or still let one thing from the past cause them to spiral.
Yes, time is powerful, but it doesn't heal all by itself.
Finding the will to fight on
Lesson 8: Confess to heal, but prepare to be ostracized if you do
You won't get better without admitting it. You will suffer social stigma if you do. The feeling of absolute and complete loneliness because no one understands what you're going through is terrible, but way too often so are the reactions when you try to share with someone. The backlash is part because depression is in general such a taboo topic and one that is tinged with blame because it's so misunderstood.
There's no question some people will be hurt or very unsupportive because I end up publishing this. Or there will be a lot of questions about why and the answer is pretty simple: the more I hold it in and keep these burdens my own secret, the more likely they are to crush me and the more likely I would be to consider suicide again in the future at some point. These are things I desperately do not want. Being able to have someone, anyone, to talk to is a critical part of healing and at times felt like the only thing that let me crawl forward for another week.
People close to you who don't understand depression will often be in denial, think you're "just sad," or feel judged like it's somehow they're fault. That last one causes problems. I'm not depressed because I don't have amazing friends and a good family. No life is perfect, but I have both incredible friends, a good life, and good family. It's NOT their fault I suffer from depression - it's brain chemistry.
And that's why the stigma needs to be removed. It's not just for those of us suffering from depression to be able to get the help we need before depression becomes fatal (in the form of suicide or intentionally bad habits leading to that result) - but also so family can be there to support instead of unjustly feeling they're guilty or being accused because our brains just don't work like normal people's brains do. Confession's not just good for the soul, it's helpful for the mind, too.
Depression is far more common than most people realize
What is your experience with depression?
Lesson 9: Depression aftershocks
Even after depression there are going to be times when waves of emotion flood you. The three most common for me were sudden short bursts of crying, hysterical laughing, and sudden small bursts of moodiness and grief. Almost like mini-episodes of depression. Sometimes I would go a couple of weeks without anything odd, and sometimes I would experience all three of these in one day, like my brain couldn't figure out what it wanted to be and would just flush out any excess emotions with a sudden flush.
Some of this makes sense from a pure bio-chemistry level. It takes only weeks to ingrain a practice into a habit, and your body actually undergoes changes to reinforce those habits. I found myself depressed for years, and it took a lot to break from that habit. Beyond that, it seems like every so often my brain would bring up old traumas or thoughts that my brain just wouldn't deal with when I was too depressed...and now it was their turn to come out. My brain would often fight to bring me back into a depressed state.
They often passed within minutes or hours, as quickly as they first came. Those depression aftershocks are not fun, but knowing they're coming make them much easier to deal with.
Feeling all alone
Lesson 10: You might feel lonelier after the depression breaks
This one really surprised me, but I guess in a weird way it kind of makes sense. Strangely enough, often times I felt more alone than ever after the depression broke than when I was actually depressed. A large part of this could just be the fact that deep in the depression I just couldn't feel anything other than numb. Even when I was "doing well" or "having fun" it was a muted, quiet, gray thing compared to my normal state of being. Once I was feeling again I could actually have great times again and feel so happy while out with friends or doing something I was enjoying, and then I'd come home and feel an immediate crash. I was more aware than ever of not being around friends at that moment, of everyone I knew who was not a night owl, of everyone in a relationship who wasn't me.
At times this loneliness led to the emotional aftershocks where I found sudden irrational bursts of anger at the happy (or seemingly happy) people I imagined out there, and had to fight the feeling of being an outsider who was just kind of accepted. I knew in my head this wasn't true, it was the old depressive thinking again, but after years of thinking that way it was a habit of thinking that my brain was fighting to get back to.
Now that I could feel the highs of life again, I could also feel the crushing lows more acutely, and the loneliness that came with it.
You can still achieve great things
Lesson 11: Re-learning things that used to be natural
One of the largest parts of getting through post-depression recovery for me was having to re-learn things that I had already learned or known before. Stuff like:
- The difference between being alone and being lonely
- Being happy with myself first and foremost
- Learning to be happy, learning to be comfortable with not being depressed
Some of these things seem purely instinctual while others were lessons I had felt like I mastered at various times in my life, and for whatever reason just no longer held close. Getting through depression meant I had a steep learning curve in front of me once again for things that often times are thought of as instinctual or normal. It's been a hard process, and one I'm still dealing with, especially with the being okay with being alone and not immediately lonely.
Kaizen: great for small step by step changes for long term life improvement
Lesson 12: Breaking permanent habits
Permanent is a little bit of a red herring here, but depending who you talk to it only takes 4-6 weeks for a practice to become a thoroughly ingrained as a habit. The longer you keep a habit, the more ingrained it is and the harder it is to break. Science has even shown that they can see new "brain paths" being created by this process, and strengthened over time as the habit continues (which is part of the reason there is such a mental aspect to many addictions).
This meant I had to actually re-learn how to live & how to be happy. This is especially hard not only because of learning to feel again, but after 4-5 of depression my day to day life led to some greatly ingrained habits, and they don't lead to happiness. You have to change everything to keep yourself from sliding back into that old depressive state once again.
The title says it all on this book
Lesson 13: You will never be the same again
This is subtle in a lot of ways, and might even seem like semantics to someone who hasn't been through this, but you really won't be the same again. After my depression broke I kept trying to get "fully back to normal" but the problem is there is no going back to normal - you're a new person, and it's scary because you don't know who that new person is. I realized I would never be the same person again, I couldn't be after an experience like that, so I would have to figure out who I was now, what my passions and interests really were. The old ways of self-motivation didn't work. Many of my old goals and dreams just didn't excite me in the same way.
When you go through this, you will never be the same person again. For a while I made the comment "I'm finally back to being myself," but the problem was that I knew that wasn't true. Don't fight this: embrace it. The core you is still you, but you can grow even stronger and even better over time.
Exceptional depression links and resources
- The BEST blog post on depression I've ever read
This is a long blog post on this author's experience with depression from Hyperboleandahalf and is the best post I've ever seen on the topic. The massive number of comments not only shows great support, but also outlines how important this topic is.
- And Light At Last: Recovery From Depression
Another good description of going from darkness to light.
- Recurring Nightmares - How Do I Get Rid of Recurring Nightmares?
My personal experience also dealing with getting rid of recurring nightmares.
- An Overview of Depression Recovery
Web MD going into the many differences individuals feel when overcoming their individual bouts with depression.
- What does depression feel like - from Wing of Madness Blog
Clinical definitions of depression just fall way too short when describing this affliction. Good post going over the basics.
Depression TED Talk by Andrew Solomon
So does it get easier?
So does it get easier? The heart breaking question everyone with depression wants to know. I'm not a psychologist or a professional, but based on my experience I can give one answer. I believe in being honest so I'll give the same answer I've given half a dozen times in what I consider to easily be among my dozen most important conversations I've ever had.
Does it get easier?
In my experience: no, it doesn't. But it does get better, AND that's what truly matters. If you find yourself in that endless wasteland, and you know every single person telling you to things get easier is lying to your face, just hold on to the fact that things do get better, and they will get better.
Even if you have to do it minute by minute, day by day, whatever it takes, keep fighting forward because when you get to the other side it will be completely worth it.