Is my depression real, or am I just avoiding life? Do I have a “good enough” reason to feel depressed?
These are questions I’ve asked myself since my first bout of depression on and off when I was 15.
The way I remember it, life was chugging along smoothly until one day everything became…too much to deal with. Every little thing left me blinking back inconvenient tears. All I wanted to do was sleep and hide. And sleep.
I was lucky in that it happened very suddenly and I was self-aware enough to know that something was wrong. I went through a few counselors, got on medication, and dropped everything that wasn’t vital to school. It took me about six months to feel “normal” again, but I would never look at the world the same way after that.
The most terrifying thing was that it seemed to happen for no reason.
I was convinced that my depression had to have a cause. If I didn’t have a good reason to feel so crappy, well, I didn’t really “deserve” to be depressed. My brain seemed to have turned against me on a whim and I didn’t know if I could ever trust myself again.
Now, I know that depression can show up for any number of reasons. But I believe that I did have a reason for this episode after all: to teach me how to say no.
Between honors classes, fencing practice, music rehearsals, and music lessons, a twelve-hour day was pretty normal (plus homework). I was running on fumes and I wasn’t going to slow down unless my body made me. In that way, my depression was a gift to keep me from running myself (more) into the ground.
I’ve gone a few more rounds with the black dog since then, and almost every time my depression points to an unsustainable environment or situation. As much as I despise feeling so miserable, it often serves as an alert that something needs to change.
Okay, so here’s where I’m going with this: when I’m feeling depressed, I stop what I’m doing. I drop back down to the bare minimum of commitments. I ramp up self-care and rest. If it gets really bad, I might go back on meds for a while. These are good things and equip me for dealing with life.
And yet: I still worry sometimes whether my feelings are legitimate.
“Real” depression = okay to rest and take care of myself. Change the situation if necessary for my well-being.
“Fake” depression = the equivalent of a friend who’s always “sick” on the weekend they promised to help you move. A deception to keep me hiding instead of facing things that make me uncomfortable.
The big plot twist is: worrying about the legitimacy of my feelings keeps me more stuck than the feelings themselves. Does it even matter whether my depression is “real” or not?
After letting these feelings spin around in my head for awhile, I did the only thing that really works for me. I went and talked to someone to get some perspective and clarity.
This is what I came up with. These are notes for when I’m in a funk, but feel free to borrow whatever feels useful.
Notes for Depressed Julia:
It doesn’t matter why you feel crappy.
Your feelings are legitimate. It doesn’t matter if you need rest and self-care or if you’re just hiding. In fact, if you’re hiding you probably need MORE rest and self-care.
You can practice self-care AND take a turtle step.
Then you can go back to hiding, but know that’s what you’re doing. Try to let hiding feel like safety and not like shame. Safety will eventually nudge you back out into the world, shame will keep you hidden forever. What is the smallest possible step you can take before you retreat with your blankets and tea?
Strong emotions are a signpost, not a mandate.
My hunch is that you get stressed out about whether your depression is “real” or not because you think your course of action should be different depending on what the answer is (and it needs to happen right now). Is that true? What’s the worst thing that could happen if you reacted with curiosity and kindness regardless? No matter how urgent those feelings appear, I promise you have time.
It does matter why you feel crappy.
Once you’ve accepted that your feelings are legitimate and useful information, find out what stories you’re telling yourself about your situation. Stressful stories can turn an annoying situation into an unbearable one.
Do your work on your own or with a coach/partner who can support you. Once you’ve cleaned up your dirty pain around the story and brought it back down to actual size, you can make an informed decision much more easily.
I accept that this is part of who I am.
I may have run-ins with mild depression for the rest of my life. I’m not thrilled about it, but I’m beginning to accept that it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong with me and that it might have something useful to say.
Sometimes I think that the biggest thing I’m here to learn is that my emotions are legitimate, no matter what. So are yours, whether you believe it yet or not.
Before I sign off, I want to add: my experience with my depression is my own. If you have a history of depression, your experience will probably be different. I respect and honor your experience, and I ask you to do the same. If there is something useful in here for you, please bring it with you into your day. If not, let it blow on by, knowing it was offered in good faith.
Photo credit: Stock.xchg