I’ve been living with depression for the past ten years or so – longer than I’ve known a lot of people! I’ve come to think of depression as a sort of troublesome companion; one I need to keep some distance from and yet, at some other level, recognize as a voice I need to care about and even listen to.
Not Letting Depression Define Who We Are
It’s helpful sometimes to think of depression as not “me,” but an “it.”
It’s so easy to get lost in depression; to wander into a compass-less night with no way home. During these times we just don’t experience depression, we are depression. We can’t get any traction or relief from its withering pain. It rants and never raves; it’s negative thinking on steroids.
Dr. Richard O’Connor writes:
“Most tragically, this depressive thinking is likely to be turned on yourself. You remember all the times you failed, and all the times the other guy succeeded; you literally can’t remember your successes. You probably think of yourself as different from others: weaker, damaged, shameful, and inadequate. You don’t consider that you can’t get inside another person’s skin: the confidence you envy may be just a front; the skill you wish for is just practice and hard work; the success you covet may be bought at a high price.”
During the peaks and valleys of my depression over the years, I have learned to say to myself “that’s my depression talking.” I’ve learned to put a little space between me and this formidable foe.
But I know, deep in my bones, that this companion will travel all of life’s pathways with me – it’s here for the long haul. While it may not define me anymore, it wields a pointy pencil and shades in various features of my character, reality and moods. There will be days when I’m better at seeing this, at cutting through the clutter of depression as I navigate my day. And then there are still days when it bogs me done a bit, cuts into my productivity and colors my face a deeper shade of grey.
For some, like me, it may not be a question of ultimately curing depression, but containing it; of keeping it at the periphery of my life. When it tries to wander into the center, the wise sentinels – my psychologist, psychiatrist and chums – remind me that it’s time to refocus and employ my self-care stuff to keep depression at bay.
You are not your depression. It may be a part of your life, but it isn’t your life.
Listening a Little More Closely
Sometimes we fight our depression too hard. In our attempts to extricate ourselves from its pain, we sometimes chew off a limb like an animal stuck in a steel trap. Sometimes, we need not squelch the pain of depression, but listen to it because it’s trying to tell us something. It can be a messenger from somewhere deep inside of us, not just an illness or a psychological malady.
I’ve often thought that part of depression is a lack of love for one’s self, whatever the reason. This pain, through years of neglect can pathologize into real illness, like depression; it can grow into a giant monster that we’re just too scared to face. So we hide in our work, our addictions and in all the many fronts we show to the world. We kick the can down the road, hoping that things will get better, hoping that depression will just leave us alone.
We need to incline our ears to our pain. As the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote:
“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives we fear are princes and princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants us to help.”
Somewhere in all us is that depression dragon, that part of us long neglected, abandoned and helpless. We need our hearts to turn and love this part of ourselves that wants help from us, wants to be heard, wants to tell us that for us to heal and have a shot at happiness, we must listen – maybe as we never have before – to all that is truly in us and needs our attention.
Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., in her book Listening to Depression, writes:
“We only reflect on those things that break down in our life. For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of your life. We tend to think deeply about life when something is not working. When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem. If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing it.
But if you begin to open to the possibility that there was something fundamentally wrong with your level of functioning before your depression, only then does the idea of depression as a gift begin to make sense. A breakdown can become a gift when it is in the service of increasing reflection on your life which will lead you to ask the fundamentally important questions: What is wrong with my life? What can I do to correct the problem? When you listen to your depression, you can heal your life.”
Depression feels different on different days. Sometimes, try treating it as an “it.” And during other times, perhaps when you’re feeling a little better, try listening to what it is trying to tell you.