I Know You're Depressed, But What Am I?
This is about depression. I wrote, re-wrote and re-re-wrote this opening paragraph trying to get it right. Past versions used cryptic metaphors, personification and starting mid-story to initially mask my topic and maximize the impact when depression is revealed to be the theme. Having recently gone through a substantial depressive episode, I can truthfully say that the right way for this to be discussed is with straightforward honesty. This is about depression.
During the summer of 2014, I began to entertain the idea that I was clinically depressed. The idea occurred to me while waiting with my pregnant wife at the obstetrician's office. This was our second time through childbirth so I didn’t pay close attention to the reams of parenting how-to paperwork given out at every visit. One piece of paperwork we were required to fill out, though, was a questionnaire about the early symptoms of postpartum depression. I read the questions to my wife and marked her answers. She aced it, but something grabbed me. All of the questions, except for those directly related to having a baby inside you, eerily described my life at that moment.
I had lost my appetite and had been losing weight. I had trouble sleeping despite being constantly exhausted. Was I stressed? Oh yes. I was raising a 3-year-old child, starting my own business, finishing a book and awaiting a, hopefully healthy, second child. I would get angry easily. I felt disconnected from my closest friends (we would hang out and after an hour I'd wonder when I could leave without making anyone angry). I would drive to work and, for 30 minutes there and 30 minutes back, there was never any good music on the radio; day after day, across all of my presets, there was never a song that I liked. The improbability of that caught my attention.
I met with a therapist and eventually a psychiatrist. There is no blood test for depression so to gauge the severity I was asked a series of yes-or-no questions. The questions touched the obvious basses (feeling sad and withdrawn and worthless) but quickly moved to physical symptoms like sleeping and eating habits. These things that had come up in the postpartum depression pamphlet and I was surprised. Depression, I learned, wasn’t simply a state of mind but tangible, physical condition. I was officially scored as “on the high end of moderately depressed.” Which I guess is the B+ to the A- of “slightly severely depressed.” I felt validated and that was nice.
I had never seen a therapist before. My expectation, when I talked about some of my darker thoughts and feeling, was to be asked, “What do you think it all means?” and “What unfinished business from your past is reflected here?” What I actually got was, “Wow, that really stinks. It must be hard to carry that around.”
The overarching message I got from therapy was this: It’s not your fault. You can’t fix it so don’t try, instead learn to live with it. Some people are born short, some are born tall. Some are great at math and some aren’t. Some people, like yourself, are prone to anxiety and depression, some are not. This detached attitude hit me deeply. It was a relief to learn that this is how I was made and not that somewhere in my past a mistake was made; a mistake that could have been avoided and up until now, I haven’t been able to correct. It allowed me to accept myself.
Why was my perception of therapy so wrong? My guess is that there are many well-meaning people, bless their hearts, that like to play junior psychologists. They assume that, like any disease, there must be a root cause to discover and hopefully fix. They were the ones that would ask the what does it all mean questions. If my mind was ruminating about a certain past event then there must be a logical reason why (right?) and maybe with enough reflection/meditation/prayer/detoxing I can solve the mystery (right?). But what if I can’t figure it out, much less fix it? I now have another reason to feel like a failure. Failure begets failure begets more failure and it’s all my fault.
No. This depression is not the cryptic voice of a mountain shaman, filled with deep truths waiting to be deciphered. It is apart from me. It’s goal is only pain, not enlightenment. It is the voice of a playground bully, intentionally finding old wounds to pick at, cruelly leveraging insecurities and cherry-picking past events to spin as negative. Nothing more.
This notion of thinking of depression as a bully got me looking for advice on dealing with actual, corporeal bullies (this may seem like a bit of a leap but don’t forget that I was a man with pre-postpartum depression; up was already down). What I found, and if you’ve ever been anxious or depressed you’ll agree, was fascinating. Here are some descriptions of bullying behavior from the website Bullies Be Gone:
– They’re experts in personal criticism and negativity.
– They push sensitive places in order to make other people feel bad.
– Their reasons make sense; yours don't.
– They’re relentlessly negative, critical, naysayers who are impossible to please.
– They’re great debaters who never let you win.
This perfectly described the negative voice that I couldn’t shake. So now that I know I’m dealing with a bully, how does one deal with a bully? From Psychology Today, I found some tips for dealing with bullies:
– Be confident. Bullies lose their power if you don’t cower.
– Stay connected. Bullies operate by making their victims feel alone and powerless. Reclaim power by maintaining connections with faithful friends.
– Use simple, unemotional language. An assertive, but unemotional response lets a bully know that the victim does not intend to be victimized.
– Set limits. Don't let the bully get under your skin. Practice your response so you're prepared the next time something happens and you can respond swiftly without getting emotional.
– Act quickly and consistently. After the bully has tested the waters and confirmed that a victim is not going to stand up for their rights, the aggression worsens.
– Strike while the iron is cold. Cool heads find solutions more easily than hot ones.
Detaching the negative voice and removing any notion that it was a piece of my subconscious trying to tell me something of value helped me push back. At the risk of sounding like one of the armchair therapists I vilified earlier, I need to say that this was very helpful for me and, perhaps, might work for you. What I believe to be true for everyone is that straightforward honesty is step one. Please seek out help if you think you need it.