Depression: An Unbearable Aloneness
Illustration by Brian Britigan
“Depressive disorder, frequently referred to simply as depression, is more than just feeling sad or going through a rough patch.” –National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2017
We’ve all heard of depression. We see people in our family-of-choice, family, friend groups, communities, and cultures experience this phenomenon. It is so pervasive, we share memes and emojis with each other implicating its presence in our lives and the lives of others.
In spite of it being so commonly referenced, it often gets conflated with a person’s character—its presence implies laziness because a person shouldn’t have it or because they aren’t doing anything to get rid of it. But depression is not a characterological failing, nor is it something that goes away by just smiling. It’s a serious mental health condition that needs love, care, mindfulness, and attention.
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“Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living.” -Mayo Clinic, 2018
Bootstraps Be Damned!
There are numerous treatments for depression—psychotherapy, medication, even brain stimulation therapies. There have been numerous studies tied to supportive relationships, diet, exercise, sunlight exposure, and vitamin D as ways to relieve symptoms of depression. People who find reprieve, relief, or freedom from depression usually turn to several of these options. But despite all the options for treatment, we still see so many people suffer from its awful grip. And with so many options for treatment, it gets incredibly easy to start blaming people living with depression of being lazy, unmotivated, and self-pitying.
When we look at the reality of depression, we know that people living with it experience trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, let alone taking on treating their depression. Depression makes you feel bored with others; it makes a bed and TV much more tempting than leaving the house; it tricks you into weighing the importance you have to others; it makes simply putting together a meal to eat seem like a monumental task. When life feels as though it isn’t worth living, getting on a treadmill will be the last thing on a person’s mind.
The Emotional Failings of a Developmental Environment
When someone living with depression comes into my office and we inevitably talk about their life, I consistently find they have integrated toxic beliefs about their emotions. They feel shame, guilt, and anxiety for having basic human emotions: joy, sadness, desire, anger, disgust, love, and fear. These toxic beliefs are a necessity for my clients—they developed in environments where people taking care of them shut these emotions down. They learned that to feel those things made them intolerable people, and that is unbearable for a child. “You’re being so dramatic”; “toughen up—life’s hard”; “stop making a scene”; “I’ll give you something to really cry about if you don’t stop.”
This sets into motion a life blocked off from essential feelings. They are hidden away, minimized, or ignored. But those feelings don’t go anywhere—they are built in us to be felt. So we get trapped in a cycle of feeling anxious, guilty, ashamed, and then trying to do something to stop feeling those emotions. It is easy to feel unbearably alone and fall into despair—it’s here that depression thrives.
Help comes in so many shapes and forms. Therapy is just one option. However, you may find your depression recedes with a supportive other who truly believes in you, your ability to thrive, and who enjoys being connected to you; a person or people who make room for every tiny emotion that emerges in you, look you in the eye, and says, “Of course you feel that way!” These people may be a friend group, a personal trainer, a hairstylist, a professor, or even someone you only chat with online.
When we feel less alone, validated, and understood, depression slinks away to the shadows, sometimes even vacating the premises. Find and elevate those in your life who believe in you, who validate you, and want to be with you—professional or personal. There is no one way to manage and recover from depression. Your path is yours and, hopefully, it’ll be filled with so many cheerleaders that you’ll find yourself cheering them on in the same way.
Rick Laska, LICSW, CST is the director of clinical services for JustUs Health