May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Although I don’t need a special month to talk about my struggles with depression and anxiety, I’d be remiss if I let it go by without doing something. Since it’s easiest for me to explain things in a Q&A format (see my whole interview with a bookworm series), I decided to once again interview myself.
Hi, Jana! Thanks for being here and agreeing to do this!
Not a problem. Happy to be here.
Let’s kick this off with a simple question. What’s depression?
Not exactly a simple question but okay. Clinically, and I’m paraphrasing because I am NOT a doctor, depression is defined as chemical deficiency in the brain, primarily of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, that leads to chronic sadness and loss of interest. In layterms, depression is a lying asshole that makes you give zero fucks about anything and everything. And you give zero fucks not in a good way. It makes you just not care about a damn thing.
That sounds terrible.
It really is.
When did you first realize you had depression?
If I’m being honest, it’s probably something I’ve battled long before I had an official diagnosis. But the first time I sought medical help and got a diagnosis was in 2004. I had just turned 27 and my husband and I were in NYC for my birthday. We went to see Moving Out on Broadway and were having dinner at a restaurant I can’t remember and while I should have been ecstatic, I just didn’t care about any of it. My affect was completely flat. My husband wanted to know what was wrong and I had no answer. I just knew I was sad and had no motivation to care about being sad or anything else.
I battled that on and off for about 10 years. Then, in 2012, after a series of events and a panic attack at work, I once again got help and a diagnosis that made more sense than the one in 2004. That’s what I’ve been living with since.
But couldn’t you just say that maybe you were in a rut?
Maybe. But a rut is short term and it’s usually attributed to feeling stuck or that your life is repetitive and those circumstances bring you down. And you feel like you can do something about it. With depression, it’s chronic and long term and it’s not so much a matter of feeling stuck. It’s a matter of feeling sad or for a lot of us, just not giving a damn. With depression, there’s also the feeling that nothing will ever improve, you deserve all the shit you’re being dealt, you’re an imposter, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop (to use a cliche). With a rut, you can look at your situation more objectively and make changes. With depression, you’re flooded with all kinds of false beliefs that, while false, feel completely true and trying to make changes is futile.
The worst part of depression is wanting to feel better and not being able to. When you’re in a rut, it’s easy to do something to feel better. With depression, it feels impossible.
Can’t you just choose to be happy?
NO. And all that pop psychology stuff that tells you you can cure your depression but just making one small change to your thinking or having a positive thought or that if you’re not choosing to be happy then your depression or sadness or whatever is your fault does more damage to a depressive than anything else. You would never tell someone with a medical illness they can’t cure to just choose to feel better. So why would you do it to someone with a mental illness? To be honest, it’s kind of a dick thing to do, telling someone with an illness they can’t control that it’s their fault.
No one with depression chooses it. Why would we choose something that makes us feel the way depression does?
So if you can’t fix it by choosing to be happy, how do you manage your depression?
First, if you need medication to help manage it, then take medication. There’s no shame in it and again, you’d never tell someone with a medical illness not to take the meds they need. Depression is an illness. Take the meds. I did. For quite a while. Same with therapy. If you need to go, then go. I did. I hated my therapist so I didn’t find that it did much for me but don’t let that sway you. There are plenty of qualified, good, helpful therapists around.
For me, now that I don’t go to therapy or take meds, I manage it the best I can with exercise and knowing my triggers. I also take Vitamin D, which apparently has a direct link to depression. I found out last year I have a severe Vitamin D deficiency and even if it doesn’t help the depression, it helps other things. Which is nice.
Do you still have episodes?
You bet your ass I do. I still have down cycles where I can barely bring myself to get dressed or take a shower and it takes all the strength I have to get out of bed in the morning. During those times it’s hard to focus on work or writing or even caring about anything I usually enjoy. And forget taking care of my house. I mean, we never get to the point of living in a garbage pit but it definitely doesn’t look like it should. My self-esteem, which is already pretty low, takes an even bigger hit, and that makes it even more difficult to accomplish anything. Which leads to me thinking I’ll never be successful at anything and then the depression gets worse and it’s a terrible, never ending cycle.
But I know when I’m spiraling down and while I can’t necessarily stop it from happening, I can tell the people who need to know that it’s coming on and we figure out how to manage it. It’s how I can appear as a “high functioning” depressive.
How can someone without depression support someone who has it?
First and foremost, take some time to learn about the disease, both from a medical standpoint and from the depressive’s standpoint. Depression doesn’t look the same for everyone (despite what those medication commercials have you believe. We don’t all sit on the couch for hours on end, looking completely unkempt in oversized clothes, crying uncontrollably or staring into space) and trying to understand what it looks like on the person you care about makes you better able to know when it’s happening.
Second, don’t get angry at the person. We know this a frustrating disease, in part because we can’t always explain what’s wrong (sometimes it’s not even anything. It’s just unexplained sadness) and in part because we don’t know how to ask or tell you to help us. We wish we could.
And third, don’t dismiss it. If someone you love thinks they’re depressed, encourage them to get help. Take it seriously. Don’t tell them things like “oh, it’ll pass. You’re just in a bad mood” or something similar. Instead, tell them that you’re there for them when they need you and that you love them and offer to do things like drive them to an appointment.
You can also visit this list for more ideas for helping someone with depression: http://psychcentral.com/lib/10-ways-to-help-someone-whos-depressed/
One last question. Why is important to talk about mental illness like depression?
Well, for me, it’s important to talk about it for a few reasons. One, to let those who are suffering know they’re not alone. No one needs to deal with this in isolation and sometimes just hearing or reading about someone else going through it is enough to keep you going another day. Two, to break the stigma. Mental illness is completely misunderstood and stigmatized. I want people to know that having depression isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s part of who you are; it’s not the entirety of who you are. And three, to disseminate information. By talking about it, I’m educating those who don’t understand it. Fostering an understanding through information is essential in destigmatizing the disease.
Which is why I don’t mind when celebrities talk about their battles. While it might not look like what I go through, when they share their experiences, they do what I’m trying to do but on a much bigger platform.
Thanks so much for joining me today!
You’re welcome! And if you want more information on Mental Health Awareness Month or some resources, visit their website: https://www.nami.org/mentalhealthmonth