Stuff I wish I’d Known About Depression #1

The art of feeling sorry for yourself

An unusual bit of advice here.  When living with depression, you might well be surrounded by family and professionals and self-help books telling you to get off your depressive backside and volunteer at a homeless shelter to see people with real problems to put yours in perspective.  Modern western society tends towards rugged individualism, the idea of personal responsibility and accountability.  Rugged individualism says that you control where you are in life as well as where you’re going: if you work hard you will reap the benefits; if you slack off then don’t expect someone else to come and dig you out.  The problem with that is that it doesn’t make room for bad luck, which is one of the main features of life.  Awful things happen that we can’t control: loved ones die, crimes are committed, houses burn down, cars crash and there is no way to completely insure yourself against it.  For some people, that’s too frightening to admit.  That’s why our society often blames people for their illnesses.  If they can attribute depression to drink, laziness, self-centredness, etc, they can put their own vulnerability from their minds.

We are constantly told that a healthy lifestyle and a busy mind are the best protection against the blues.  But anyone who has fallen foul of major depression knows that all the exercise and sunlight in the world won’t make it better.

The reality is that the factors affecting mood are incredibly complex.  Researchers are always finding new things that may contribute to the onset of depression, and if I try to say what the theory is this week, it will just be out of date by the time you’re reading.  The broad categories thought to influence depression are: family background, environment, age, gender, biology, neurology, weather, financial status, recent events, childhood events, lifestyle and social life.  Some people become depressed when a loved one dies, some people wake up one morning and suddenly can’t face the world.

Depression is among the worst things that could happen to anyone.  It has the same emotional effect as a great tragedy in your life, but it’s much harder to explain and to understand. 

For a moment, take out the word “depression” which is over-used and diluted and comes with a great many pre-conceptions.  Imagine for a moment that you could describe it completely afresh, as if there was no word for it.  A conversation might go more like this.

Friend:  What’s wrong?

You:  I’m sad.  All the time.  Literally all the time.

Friend:  Jeez!  Why is that?

You:  Loads of reasons, you can’t really pin it down.  It’s the pain of having just lost someone, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better.

Friend:  Sounds awful.  Why don’t you go on holiday?

You:  I will still be sad.

Friend:  Do a sponsored run?

You:  Too sad.  It’s that really sharp sadness that stops you concentrating on anything else.

Friend:  Online dating?

You:  Still sad.

Friend:  So… are you going to be sad forever?

You:  I just don’t know.

When you have depression, you have an illness that seems to invalidate everything in your life – it is no respecter of money, age, relationships or physical health, things that would otherwise make you content.  Depression is a brutal illness and it has happened to you. 

Berating yourself for your own misfortune is a disastrous route to take.  Depression feeds off itself voraciously and guilt will only fuel the cycle.  Like this:

“I feel awful.”                 

“Why do I feel awful when there are so many starving children in Africa?  Grow up!”

“I feel guilty for feeling awful”

“My problems are minute, I’m just a selfish idiot, I’m a waste of space”

“I feel awful(er)”

When you feel sorry for yourself, you at least short-circuit the guilt by acknowledging that you are worth empathy rather than accusation.

To be blunt: depression kills people.  It comes like cancer, with a complex cause that you may or may not have any control over, and it destroys lives in the same way.  Even those who recover fully can be left with the emotional, physical and financial results for years to come.  It can take away your job, friends, physical health, self-worth and reason for living.

You are worth feeling sorry for.

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