I spent yesterday on my couch. It was great, and I mean that without sarcasm because finally after 32 years of existence I feel safe doing absolutely nothing, feeling nothing, and being a lump on the couch. Am I depressed? Yeah, a little, but that’s okay!
In February of 2020, I wrote “I’m Sorry I’ve Been Gone: Depression Sucks.” I wrote it as an apology for dropping the ball on everything in my creative career. That post was cathartic to write and I needed it. Though, maybe it’s time for another apology for not following up on it sooner.
To say a lot has changed in the two years since I wrote that post is an incredible understatement.
Let’s go back in time.
For as early as I can remember, I have felt like an alien. A very nervous alien. Anxiety was a default factory setting of mine. I was the kid that went home with stomachaches in primary school and nervous sweat so much I wore oversized hoodies in 7th grade to hide my wet pits. Not that the knowledge would have helped, but I had no idea I was a sweaty mess from anxiety so I slathered myself in questionable antiperspirants I found on the internet that left me all itchy and rashy. I do NOT miss the early teen years one bit…
Anyway, for those who care about personality tests, my results will not surprise you. I’m an INFJ according to Myers-Briggs, a Highly Sensitive Person according to Elaine Aron’s books, and a 4w5 according to the Enneagram test. Basically, I’m just a big highly sensitive, empathic, exposed nerve who is prone to bouts of melancholy and getting lost in her own head. I think I was born that way. I was already an emotional artist as a tween. All I needed was the right dose of trauma to really solidify my position as a true stereotypical artist. *Cue the complete upheaval of my sense of security and safety with a generous side of emotional abuse around the age of 14.*
I took on a new label my junior year of high school while I cried in the doctor’s office. That label was ‘depressed’, and it has stuck with me way longer than I’ve wanted it to. Though, I’m beginning to see it less as a label and more as a vacation home I travel to unwillingly.
“Where’d you go this summer?” They ask.
“I went into a deep dark hole! But I’m back now.”
Life, I tell ya.
I don’t know exactly what causes depression. Is it purely chemical? Is it a reaction to our environmental? Is it a combination of both? It’s different for everyone it seems. For me, I always believed it was primarily environmental, and I spent a good 15 years desperately searching for the place, the person, the job, the school, the thing, the diet, the routine that would make me happy. With some changes I found brief bouts of relief before I’d dive back into my darkness again.
I have been lucky that my deep dark hole isn’t permanent. I fall into it and I come out of it. I propel down the sides, and then I claw my way back up. I dip my toes in sometimes while keeping the rest of my body firmly planted in the sun. My depression isn’t my all the time. Maybe that’s why I’ve been obsessed with figuring it out all these years. Can I keep myself from falling back into the darkness? You can bet your sweet ass I’ll never stop trying.
In early 2018, I thought I conquered my depression and I wrote this stupidly simple blog post with my recipe for happiness. I’m trying to practice self-love so I’ll edit my true thoughts here, but I’d like to go back in time and poke past me in the ribs and yell something along the lines of “You’re not seeing the whole picture! You lied to yourself!”
I rise, I fall, and I self-sabotage.
At many times, I have been the cause of my own misery. I learned coping mechanisms that helped me survive in abusive environments, but they would inherently prevent me from thriving when I left the abuse.
Through trauma, I internalized that I was too much. That I was too emotional and needed to change. That I was too sensitive and needed to be tougher. That I needed too much. That I was a burden and needed to be as low maintenance as possible. That I didn’t work hard enough. That I didn’t achieve enough. That I wasn’t perfect, but I should be. That I was, at my core, a deeply flawed and unwanted person. Trauma has a way of doing that. If you witness people struggling around you, laying their pain at your feet, especially at a young age, it changes you. You stop living to experience life and you start living to avoid more pain. I lived in a state of hypervigilance, always willing to make myself smaller in the presence of anger, sadness, or discontent.
I tried to be something else for a very long time to avoid this pain. If I behave the right way, I won’t get yelled at. If I say the right things, they won’t get mad. If I feel less, my partner will want to be around me. And ultimately, if I can make them happy, I will be safe from the big bad dark hole in the ground I keep falling into.
From the age of 16 to the present day, I morphed into a tenacious toiler that burned out every 3 months, because I set impossible standards for myself. I lost my sense of self while trying to be “Me 2.0”. I pushed myself constantly to be more, better, stronger. I was aiming to be some perfect version of myself because that version was the one that would be worth loving and would know how to be happy. But none of it was good enough.
My adult life has been spent remodeling a lot of the behaviors I learned to survive. I’ve had a lot of success, thankfully, but I’ve also done a lot of things that were counterproductive. I’m sure it comes at no surprise that having unhealthy interpersonal connections modeled for me in childhood led me to find comfort through familiarity of similar relationships and environments. Work places, friendships, partners.
I paired up with the wrong people a couple of times. They felt familiar. I followed the fluttering of my butterflies, and then I found all of my internal fears being validated through our incompatibility.
I am too much. I am a burden. I need to change. I need to be quiet.
It’s not their fault, though. There are no villians here.
Oh depression, is that you again?
Shortly after I moved to California in 2018, depression slowly gripped me again. By summer of 2019, I was deep in it and stayed there for months. By winter, I was miserable and quite possibly the loneliest I have ever felt in my life. The worst part was that I wasn’t physically alone. I was in a relationship, but I felt more alien than ever. But I wholeheartedly believed I was still “broken” and if I fixed myself I’d be happy where I was
In that process, I lost my sense of home. I lost my sense of self. I could hardly recognize me anymore. In an effort to make my new life work, I became too little. I became too quiet. I betrayed myself by trying to carve away my favorite parts of my identity in order to feel less alone.
“What are these emotions? We don’t need them here.” *snip*
I lied in my post from 2020 about not knowing why I was depressed again. I knew why, but I was too busy pretending to be someone else.
Be you, not a character.
I listened to an interview with Jim Carrey and he said: “Depression is your body saying, ‘I don’t want to be this character anymore. I don’t want to hold up this avatar that you’ve created in the world. It’s too much for me, ” and “You should think of the word ‘depressed’ as ‘deep rest.’ Your body needs to be depressed. It needs deep rest from the character that you’ve been trying to play.”
I’ve played a lot of characters in my life. The times I’ve sunk into the darkest places have been when I have denied the voice inside of me begging me to take off the mask. It begs me until my body gives out and then it goes silent. Depression takes my voice. Depression takes it all. It holds me down and tells me to be still, stop pretending to be someone else, just stop everything.
I needed to make a change. Inconveniently, I decided to make that change during the first couple months of this pandemic. I packed all the belongings I could fit into a moving pod and set my sights for Minnesota. June of 2020, I moved in with family. I went on a journey of rediscovering my true self. No masks. No characters to play. No pretending to be something I’m not. It’s a process and there have been a lot of bumps along the way.
“Am I fixed yet?”
It’s easy to ignore the consequences of emotional trauma because we can’t see the wounds it leaves behind, but these wounds are some of the deepest of all. April of 2021, while taking a box out to my car, the screen door of the house snapped closed on my heel. I’ll spare some of the details, but let’s just say the door shaved off a considerable hunk of flesh. The wound was small enough to not make a big deal out of it, but big enough that wearing a shoe was really unpleasant. And considering it wasn’t flip flop season here in Minnesota and I still needed to get around, my shoes reopened my wound almost daily no matter how many Band-Aids I wore. Is this a metaphor for emotional wounds? Darn right.
How often do we get emotionally wounded and then dive back into daily life only to have that normalcy rip us open again and again? How often do we expect ourselves to be whole immediately because we can’t physically see how wounded we are? I can say for me, it was quite often.
I know some of the emotional experiences I have endured have been infinitely more damaging than what that door did to my heel and I know I jumped right back into my life as if I could continue on like nothing happened. Those injuries led me to walk with an emotional limp to take the weight off the wound, but that limp led to other problems down road.
Depression is a disease. Depression can be a disability. Depression is very real and should not be brushed off as a simple case of sadness. Even though I speak out often about the fact I have depression, it has been repeatedly stigmatized in my interpersonal relationships, romantic, friendly, and familial.
I had an ex once say “You’re harder to be around when you’re depressed.” And all I can say to that is “No sh*t. You think I’m having a good time?” For years I have allowed myself to feel guilty for not experiencing “happiness” as much as other people seem to. A few months ago I was reminded of this guilt when a friend said something to me like “But I thought you were doing good. I thought you were happy.”
The words stuck with me. I thought you were happy. I was trying to explain how I experience the world differently than her and that I can’t live in the same perpetually happy bubble she does, but her words came out with pity for me.
I am doing good, but my goal is no longer to be happy. I had it all wrong in the beginning. The goal is just to feel. There are different shades of depression. Sometimes it does look like being a little sad and disinterested in what you used to love, but many times it looks like complete numbness. An absence of everything you used to feel. When depression lifts, I am thankful for any and all emotions that run through me, because even sadness is beautiful when compared to being numb.
Life is more complicated than the pursuit and acquisition of happiness. Everything appears to happen in cycles. Happiness is transient. I cannot feel any one thing forever. That’s not what being human is about. I’m only hungry until I eat. I’m only awake until I get tired, I’m only sad until I’m content. I’m only young until I am old. Nothing lasts. Neither depression nor happiness.
My capacity for happiness and joy isn’t hindered by my struggles with depression. My access to it when I’ve burned out is a different story. I feel so much all the time that my brain and body say “we need to take a break now,” and that’s okay. This is part of my human experience and I am working on not punishing myself for the amount of breaks I need to take. Like yesterday, when I sat on my couch doing nothing.
I am not alone.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that do not understand what depression feels like, but I’ve also talked to many who know it intimately. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, over 16.1 million adults suffer from Major Depressive Disorder in the US, and it is the leading cause of disability in the US for ages 15 to 45. (Source) That’s a lot of people.
I share my journey with depression because we need to talk about mental health more. We need this to be a common subject during conversations, because it is a disease exacerbated by isolation. I bring up my depression with the same nonchalance as when I say I didn’t sleep well or I went for a walk today and saw a squirrel. Talking about it helps us process it and destigmatize it. Talking about it helps me feel less alone, and I hope it makes you feel less alone.
Find your fellow aliens. They exist.
I don’t often feel completely myself in social situations. I have a very small social group where I can feel 100% myself. I have learned one very important lesson in my adult life: That yearning that I felt to be understood and accepted just as I am is effortless for the right people. Those who think you’re harder to be around when you’re depressed might not be your people. Those who tell me that to my face are definitely not my people.
Looking back, I’ve spent countless hours explaining my emotions and depression to the people around me with the hope that maybe if they understood I’d be able to relax, be accepted, and feel at home with them. I’d use the little energy I had in the moment to reach out. Instead of feeling supported, I couldn’t help but feel like they were just tourists in my world until I stopped talking about it. Like the friend that thought I was happy. When I don’t talk about my experiences, they assume they don’t exist anymore.
Not everyone needs to understand what it feels like to be depressed to be there for me, but honestly to understand how and why I get depressed is to understand me as a person. Depression isn’t my identity, but it is a part of me. To wish that part didn’t exist is to wish I felt with less intensity. To wish I could be “normal” is to wish I was an entirely different person. Since moving home to Minnesota, I found comfort in my identity. If I can learn to find grace, compassion, and kindness for my own struggles then I know it’s possible to find connections with others who can do the same.
I love that I experience an intense and full spectrum of emotions. I don’t like being depressed, but I don’t tell myself I can conquer it anymore. I don’t think it’s something to be conquered. Depression is my alarm system and a forced shut down when I’ve pushed myself in unhealthy ways for too long. In my efforts to love myself more fully, I have realized I need to keep releasing myself of expectations to be free of depression.
Depression sucks, but it sucks less when you don’t punish yourself for it. And it sucks less when you love yourself fully even when you’re in the depths of it. And it sucks even less than that when you have people near you who will hold you hand when you’re in the dark and tell you to keep resting.
A lot has changed in the last two years. I still struggle with depression. That hasn’t changed, but what has changed is who I give my energy to. Most notably, I found someone I’ve been lucky to love. He walked into our home after work yesterday as I sat on the couch in my sweatpants. I felt a familiar guilt and shame as I admitted I had done nothing all day.
His response: “I love that. You needed it.”
His kindness and compassion came from his own struggles with dark places. I’m still depressed, but I’m no longer alone. Whether a friend, partner, family member, teacher, counselor, or co-worker– find connection. Share your story. You’re not an alien in this world. You can be a light in the dark for other people who are struggling. We can’t fix each other, but we don’t have to suffer alone.
Now, because that first post I wrote in 2018 about conquering my depression makes me cringe, I need to update some of the content. I’m still going to let that post live as it is, but I want to update it here.
I’d like to amend my “Recipe for Happiness” (Ugh, barf. I can’t believe I named it that.)
In that blog post, I wrote a list of five things that helped me come out of the dark. It went like this:
- Recognize personal weaknesses without judgment and objectively realize there is a butt-ton of work to do. Emphasis on “without judgment”.
- Rest. Being depressed takes a lot of energy. Recharge that battery!
- Gratitude. It’s time to focus on all the good things! Make them up if needed.
- Mindfulness. Catch the brain when it goes down a dark path and put up a road block.
- Love. Stop being mean. Learn to love yourself and truly accept love from others.
This list did help me. I did make huge strides in my mental health at this time and past me was so excited about it. I can’t blame her, because I wrote this when I was genuinely the happiest I had been in my adult life up to that point. Though, I naively thought I had it all figured out. I didn’t. I still had a lot of work to do and happily, in the last 4 years, I’ve progressed even further. I’m still no expert, but it’s time to change my recipe for happiness a bit. For one, I’ll stop calling is a recipe for happiness.
My Recipe For Improved Mental Health and Contentment:
Not at all catchy, but mental health topics don’t need a flashy title. I’m not a self-help guru or a therapist and nor do I want to be. The advice in this post should not be a substitute for actual medical care. I just want to share what I have experienced and what has worked for me.
Here’s my new list:
- Seek counseling.- Find someone who can help you gain clarity and a sense of peace. Talking out loud helps me process my own thoughts and feelings. Paid professionals are trained to understand what you’re going through. Talking to someone doesn’t mean you’re broken. I have gone to counseling in multiple phases of my life.
- Recognize your differences (not weaknesses) without judgment. – You are beautifully different and do not need to make an enemy of yourself. I saw my differences as weakness before. We can all improve and keep trying to be better, but you are lovable right this very moment. Don’t reject what is different, and don’t try to change it just because it is different. Speak to a counselor to work through differences that can be changed for better health, and differences that are part of your uniqueness.
- Honor yourself by seeking relationships that nurture your core.– If anyone ever hears me say something like “I just need to be a better version of myself and then he’ll love me,” slap me. For the love of all the puppies in the world, do NOT stay in a situation where you feel unlovable or less than. You deserve to be surrounded by people who see the good in you. Until you find those people, be that person for yourself. Speak to yourself as you would speak to a best friend. (Pro dating tip: If your past is full of emotionally harmful experiences like mine, relationships that feel familiar aren’t always safe. Butterflies can be a warning. I’m 3 for 3 on butterflies being a big ole red flag and anxiety in disguise.)
- Recognize the difference between the discomfort of growth vs. the discomfort of an unhealthy situation.– Chopping wood and feeling your muscles burn? Good discomfort. The discomfort of growth. Crying because someone said “You’re harder to be around when you’re depressed,” and thinking “I’ll do better next time,”–that’s bad discomfort. Unhealthy discomfort. Soul crushing discomfort. Emotions aren’t weaknesses. Feelings aren’t bad. Speak to a counselor to get clarity on these things. I wish I would have during that part of my life.
- Take off the mask and rest. – The mask is heavy. Be you instead.
- Practice gratitude to train your mind to see the good.– I’m still a big fan of gratitude. It’s one of the best tools I’ve ever picked up. Training to see the good does not mean you have no valid reason to be depressed. It just means you’ll be ready to see and receive good things when they come to you. I was prone to rumination before, and this helped me correct that.
- Practice mindfulness.- Still another great tool. Gratitude and mindfulness kept me from going to darker places these last couple of years. Use your senses and be present. I see my mind like three strands of thread. Thoughts, emotions, senses. The more I can untangle them through present sensory observations, the calmer I feel. It doesn’t fix my depression in the moment, but it helps keep me moving.
- Practice love, grace, and kindness.- Painfully generic at times, but being kind and loving yourself and others goes a long way. I’ll continue to stand by this practice. It won’t solve everything and you can’t love yourself out of depression. It’s another tool to ease the suffering. I spent too long being unkind to myself. I’d like to stop punishing myself for being me.
- Let go of what doesn’t nurture you and walk away from the things that hurt you.- People, things, places, jobs, communities, social media, etc.. It’s not easy, and it hurts. Everything I’ve done to improve myself and my mental health has often come with more discomfort than the actual situation I wanted to get out of. Get over the hump. Do the scary things. Make the changes. Seek outside help from professionals to help give you clarity on what those changes might be and if you should make them.
There. That list makes me cringe way less than the first version.
I might look back on this list in another 2 years and shake my head, but it’s the best I have right now. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what is right for you. I’m still trying to figure out what is right for me. The mind is a complicated lump of electrified Jell-O. I’m not an expert in anything except my own existence. Ew, even that’s a stretch to say. I’m a novice at existing. I just wake up and try to keep this body alive, find reasons to smile, and make new things with my hands. And sometimes, despite my best efforts, I spend the entire day looking at random things on the internet while sitting on my couch.
It’s all part of the process.