I try to write something for ruok day every year, because I believe that mental health is still really not understood by our society, or accepted as a valid concern. This is slowly changing, but I think most of us still grow up with the feeling that we should put on a brave face and keep our feelings to ourselves.
For me, depression is a kind of baseline sadness, that has been with me all my life, underneath everything else I’ve felt or experienced. It hasn’t prevented me from having very happy times, or enjoying my life, or appreciating the positive things. It’s just been there, as a background, an undercurrent, something I can never quiet forget, something that is always waiting for me to slip back, fall down into its embrace.
Everyone’s experience is different, so I don’t pretend to speak for anybody else. My own experience of depression is a feeling of futility, of tiredness, hopelessness, and a sense of sadness. Sadness has always felt the truest emotion, to me. Some people might be energised by mental issues, but for me it’s always come with a sense of tiredness, of weariness.
When I look back, I recognise that a lot of the baseline assumptions or groundings that my thoughts and feelings emerged from, growing up, were symptomatic of depression. I was always oversensitive, prone to being hurt by the actions of other people, and being upset by any kind of conflict. I think at least a part of this was the result of depression, in particular a sense of negativity and hopelessness that meant I had a low tolerance for the difficulties that beset anyone. Where other people might get upset for a day and then move on, I would fall into a depression that would last weeks. Where other people would push on through difficulties, I would quit, withdraw and not try anymore. I didn’t attribute that to depression; at the time I thought I was reacting in a reasonable manner. I thought I was discerning patterns that other people couldn’t. I thought I recognised an essential, almost mystical flaw in my own design. Even though I’ve always been pretty cynical and not drawn to magical or supernatural explanations of the world, looking back now I realise that I always grew up with a very superstitious sense of my own failings, a sense that no matter what I said or did, I wasn’t meant for success or love the way that other people were. Like a lot of teenagers, I thought there was something intrinsically wrong with me. That in itself isn’t depression, but depression makes it seem like a natural law, and saps your confidence to change it.
Even when I recognised the depression and started to work to overcome it, a lot of those patterns remained, and to an extent still remain. I am happy most of the time these days, after a lot of work at it. But it’s still easy for me to slip backward, into mystical thinking, when things start to go wrong. I give up on things way too easily, because I still can’t picture myself successful at anything. When people leave my life, there’s still a part of me that thinks “I knew it, it was inevitable”, although I try not to listen to it. When I’m faced with the kind of organisational administrative tasks that other people do as a matter of course, I sometimes feel like I’m crushed under a mountain, and I can’t move.
But awareness is the greatest weapon against depression; awareness and familiarity. The inevitable result of being alive means you can’t help but go through the same feelings, the same experiences, over and over, and eventually, if we’re lucky, we learn from them. It doesn’t work every time; sometimes I’m still caught off guard and carried away by the current. But sometimes, more and more, I feel the tide turning, and I am aware enough to start paddling against it, while it’s weak, or to pull my legs out of the water.
Part of overcoming depression, for me, is about recognising that what we think of as a “natural” state isn’t, in fact, natural. It’s a lens we place over the camera. Our natural reactions are the repeated patterns we’ve learned, over time.
Depression wants us to believe that when we’re looking through a depressive lens, we’re seeing “reality”, unadorned and inarguable.
Experience teaches that there’s no such thing as a simple objective reality. We all see the world differently, and our view is always coloured by our own baseline. I still have days where I feel everything is hopeless, but I have other days when those thoughts arise, when I’m conscious and quick enough to recognise them, to think “oh here comes negativity again, my old friend.” I don’t ignore them, I just don’t take them quite so seriously.
There are things I can do to help stave off the depression; get enough sleep, make sure I take time out, to be still and quiet, watch my caffeine and alcohol intake. Meditation helps. Changing the way I look at the world has helped. But the undercurrent is still there, and probably always will be.
I don’t think it’s a struggle that can ever be won, but we can grow better at loosening our grip, at relaxing with it. We can accept the down-times and give ourselves comfort, love and compassion. We can share that love with other people when they are going through similar experiences.
I am still prone to depression, I am still overcome, some days, by despair or hopelessness. But I’m stronger, I’m happier than I’ve ever been before. And that counts for a lot, on a day to day experiential level. I don’t look for “victory” over depression anymore. It would be nice, but it’s unlikely. What I hope for, what I aim for, is an increase in my openness to small, happy moments. A greater availability to joy and to love. And that’s something.