The phrase “mental illness” brings up all manner of images, emotions and opinions. It also comes with a fair amount of social stigma even in this day of pill-pushing advertisements. Perhaps the ubiquity of medications leads to questioning personal struggles, supporting the judgment of just taking a pill and moving on. There exists then a social pressure with so-called “solutions” being readily available, that to honestly admit of a continued struggle is a weakness or personal failing. Further, the heavy presence of advertising can give a false impression that we as a society are indeed talking openly and honestly about such matters. A similar impression could be made given the prevalence of sexuality in our media. Both are unequivocally false.
Being honest about such matters is what leads me here. I walk with depression and have been for almost twenty years. I use the phrase “walk with” because it’s a helpful metaphor for my experience. I enjoy going for walks and while there is a level of similarity each time, placing one foot in front of the other, there is also a great deal of variation. The terrain changes depending on where I’m at, leading to changes in what is noticed and how often I stare at my feet so as not to trip. The length of time will change depending on what I’m up for, varying through the years and the level of personal fitness. I can still talk about going for walks, but without taking into consideration all these variables, it becomes just something a lot of people do.
Depression is similar, shared by millions yet unique to each person. The mental tapes of self-castigation, concern over potential loss, being unloved, and the inevitable underlying thread of being a failure and unworthy of life provide a description for what depression has been for me. Some of those aspects may resonate with others, but they are not the whole story.
Medication, counseling, diet changes, various books on mental life have all been part of the journey. All of these attempts at intervention have been helpful in their own way, even the unhelpful medication, having provided building blocks to where I’m at today.
Personal lessons found along the journey:
1. I stopped using the term “illness.” I’m not sick and the term has far too much negativity connected to it, particularly as it alludes to there being something wrong or in need of curing. There isn’t. On the spectrum of emotional expression I simply fall more on one side than another.
2. Not every intervention works the same for everyone. Whether it’s medication, prayer/meditation, physical activity, etc., each will work differently because we are all composed of a unique combination of personal narratives, histories and social supports.
3. Not every intervention works the same way each time. This one can be particularly frustrating, though it leads to the building up of several means of self-care. Relying on any single one over and over again runs on the law of diminishing returns. Just as depression is complex, so then the self-care involved to meet it must be.
4. Self-care doesn’t mean an absence of social-care. Certainly there are times when a quiet room has been the only healthy way to go, but avoiding social contact entirely is more than likely counter-productive. The last thing the incessantly running tapes of self-recrimination need is to have the echo-chamber of the mind reflect the echo-chamber of an absence of social connection. Besides, loved ones do care and it’s helpful to be reminded of that.
5. Be careful of making causal connections. Just as interventions will shift in how helpful they are, so also do triggering events shift in their ability to lead to depression. Focusing too much on one can give it a power that it otherwise wouldn’t or perhaps even shouldn’t have. This isn’t to mean ignoring the personal context, only to see that connections can and often do change through time.
6. Fighting doesn’t lead anywhere except to a bruised self. Setting up depression as a monolithic Goliath may be a particular salve to the ego, but eventually one begins looking too much like the other. As in physics where every action has an equal reaction so then in the realm of the mind. The more attention is paid, the more that becomes due.
7. I and you are more than this. Depression cannot characterize the whole of who you are. No single action or thought or emotion ever can.
None of these statements are intended as universal. They’re lessons, as much a part of the journey as the depression itself has been. Each of our stories is a reflection of who we are, what we see and what we are striving to uncover. Whatever parable of the mind is being written, with its shades of light and dark, the result is always worthy of the life it is living in.