On depression, and empathy.

Matthew: What are you working on?

Cory: Actually, I’m working on a book about the depression.

Matthew: So, you have an interest in historical material?

Cory: My depression. I’m writing a book about my depression.

Matthew: I see.

Cory: It’s an epic.

From the play, Private Eyes, by Steven Dietz

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I have an embarrassing admission to make. For most of my life, I didn’t believe that depression was a real, legitimate thing. Don’t get me wrong, I have always known that it exists, but as someone, who, for the most part, always found it pretty easy to be happy, I took it for granted that other people could do the same. I dismissed those who were frequently sad – including my own mother – as negative, or simply not trying hard enough. Like most people, I would get an occasional case of the blues – the result of a tough day or receiving some bad news – but I found that if I just went for a run, or watched a funny movie, or played some upbeat music, I could chase away the doldrums pretty easily. This too shall pass.  Because it always did.

And then, in an instant, everything changed. My dad got sick. My mom went crazy. They both died. On the heels of my mother’s death, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Suddenly, she too, was gone. And in the midst of it all, a close friend from college dropped dead in the gym of his apartment building, less than two weeks after his 31st birthday. A life full of promise cut abruptly short. Just like that.

All of this happened in the space of less than a year. For a while, I was in shock, moving from one tragedy to the next. But eventually, I was forced to confront the person left standing: me. A series of impossible events held a mirror up to my own life and what it reflected back was soul-searing. I was lost, unfulfilled, unhappy, but it was worse than that: I had given up. Given up on my dreams, given up on the idea that I deserved to be happy, given up on the person I had always wanted to be. I didn’t recognize myself anymore, and it was terrifying. Confronted with the choice of change or die, I chose to change. And that’s when things got really scary.

I suddenly found myself alone, trying to build a new life from scratch, with no idea what to do or how to start. I was 33, feeling utterly adrift while everyone around me seemed to have their lives figured out – relationships, kids, fulfilling careers.

And that’s when the sadness shifted into something more: the big D. Depression. For the first time in my life, it was no longer easy to get out of bed. I found social events with even the closest of friends exhausting, and anything that involved meeting strangers nearly unthinkable. My everyday worries and anxieties became worse; an above average fear of heights turned crippling. My motivation to tackle even the most basic of tasks was utterly nonexistent. I (once again) took up smoking, and continued to smoke even though it made me feel sick, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in how destructive it was. I hated myself.

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But I also found something else in my spiral into sadness, something that I didn’t expect: empathy. As a former ‘ happy girl,’ I never understood the monumental effort it could take someone with depression just to get dressed, to leave the house, to plaster on a smile, to make the requisite small talk that fills life’s daily interactions. But now I did. I understood all too well.

I’m pretty sure that depressed people – or at least this depressed person – don’t want to be depressed. If given the chance, they’d prefer to be joyful rather than sorrowful, prefer to find it easy to be with people rather than difficult, prefer to be up, rather than down. Who wouldn’t?

But the thing I never understood until I started wrestling with my own depression was that in the face of all of my friends’ well-meaning advice about focusing on the positive, about choosing to be happy, about the fact that our thoughts make our worlds, for some people, the pursuit of happiness is a constant, ongoing battle. I am tough, and relentlessly stubborn. I don’t give up easily, and throughout this dark period I’ve fought. I’ve worked really damn hard: forcing myself to be social when I didn’t feel like it, exercising regularly, practicing gratitude, joining organizations, going on trips, getting involved in my community, and doing all the things you’re supposed to do to shift your outlook. But the key words here are hard and work. I never could have imagined that a simple quest to feel lighter could be so damn heavy. That the most basic tasks could spend me as though I’d just run miles through beach sand. That sometimes in spite of my best efforts, there wouldn’t be one single solitary thing that would make any of it better.

But here’s the flip side of sitting with this darkness, of living in it, of trying to learn from it: gratitude. I’m grateful for what my struggle has taught me. Being incapable of walking through this phase of my life as anything other than a broken person has stripped away all pretense and artifice. It has attracted people into my life that the old me never would have met, and it has caused me to chase new, different experiences, things the old me never would have done. In my battle to get better, I’ve met some truly beautiful souls – both in person and online through writing this blog – that have known profound pain, pain deeper than anything I’ve experienced. And like me, they too, are doing the best they can.

We all have our particular prejudices, our long-held beliefs, our wealth of experiences that form the framework through which we view the world. Sometimes – as in my case – they can cause us to be too judgmental toward other people, to feel self righteous about their choices. Human beings are naturally curious and though we want to understand each other, sometimes we don’t, we can’t. What the last couple of years have taught me is that there is always more to the story than meets the eye, that no one has it easy, and that, while some of us are better at dealing with hardship, none of us are left unscathed by the joys and sorrows that make up this beautiful, difficult, complicated life.

As a former happy girl currently engaged in the battle to get better, I have learned patience, gained self-awareness, and discovered the true value of gratitude. But empathy, above all, is the gift that my depression has given me.

Until next time, friends.

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19 thoughts on “On depression, and empathy.

  1. What a lovely read. I suffered and battled through depression for seven years and it wasn’t until a year and a half ago that I got on the road to recovery. These days I’m awesome. The hard part of depression isn’t the cloak of it, it’s what’s underneath, the internal work is brutal, but in the end you’ll be grateful that you had the guts to go through the pain of getting whole again. And yes, I learned a lot of the roots causes of my depression and plan to never let myself get that low again. Again, I enjoyed this post. I hope you’re having a wonderful afternoon.

    • Wow, thank you so much for sharing your story! I appreciate you reading my post and your kind words, and I’m really glad to hear that you’re doing so well. Thanks again and take good care. Wishing you all the best.

  2. Wonderful post, Sarah. I see a bit of myself in here. You’ve said it so well. Sometimes personal tragedy helps us understand other people much better.

  3. This is beautiful Sarah. Beautiful in it’s honesty, beautiful in it’s darkness and beautiful in it’s light. I can so relate to everything you wrote. The last two years have knocked me on my ass. I find myself trying to navigate these unfamiliar and sometimes unfriendly waters. It has been challenging, to say the least. I am so glad that you were at Write Doe Bay. I am so glad that I got a chance to connect with you. “Excuse our mess…We are becoming more Beautiful” I love that! ♥♥

  4. Wonderful post and I understand it is hard to share that side of yourself. I commend you on doing so. I wonder if you have tried using Yoga to help in your depression. I know Yoga is not always the answer to everything but it can be very powerful. This is especially true when combined with ayurveda (the sister science to Yoga). Many times bringing balance back to your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self will help with many problems we face in life. Just a little something to think about.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I used to practice yoga much more than I do now and I’ve gotten away from it. I think you’re right that yoga may be very helpful. I have started to adopt a few ayurvedic practices that I’ve read about on blogs like Mind Body Green. For example, I find that the simple act of starting my day with hot water and lemon – before coffee – has really helped calm my stomach down (where I put most of my anxiety) and has made me feel better overall.

      Yoga should be obvious to me but for whatever reason it wasn’t. Thank you for the reminder!

  5. This is a beautiful piece of writing – I think it is wonderful that you share this story – I came across it by chance. This year has been tough for me too – my dear Dad died very suddenly in January – he had cancer but it was pneumonia that ended up being the final straw. Exactly two weeks later one of my best and oldest friends committed suicide leaving three beautiful (9, 11 &14) chidden and a lovely wife – also one of my best, oldest friends. I was there when the police came to tell her and also there to tell the children their Father had died. The pictures of their little faces and how they reacted keep on haunting me and I don’t think it is something I shall ever forget (unless I get terrible alzheimers).
    I have been so lucky that my Mum has been really strong and we have been able to spend some lovely time together which has helped a lot.
    Re my Dad – I miss him so so much, with Christmas coming up I am always thinking of him, his wonderful cookies, his smile, our Father/ Daughter talks always when I came home to visit. I have written 77 memories of him so far – this helps.
    This all is also one of the reasons I have started my blog http://www.funkyforty.com – even though I have really just started blogging, it has had an amazing effect at keeping my mind in a positive frame.
    Keep strong – you are a beautiful person!

    • Thank you for your kind words. Wow! You have certainly been through a great deal. I can’t even imagine the trauma of your friend’s suicide, for you, or for his wife and children. That is absolutely terrible. I salute you for channeling your pain into your blog, into spending time with your mother and into writing memories about your father. These are all really positive ways of helping you process and heal. I think that being able to talk about and write about the difficult things in our life – rather than trying to suppress or hide them or keep them bottled up inside – is what keeps us from going crazy.

      Thank you so much for writing me! I wish you happiness and peace.

      x

  6. Hello New Friend of MINE,

    Oh, you don’t know it but boy do we have a lot in common. I stumbled across your blog today, and I must say I LOVE your style of writing which expresses your feelings so well with painting such a clear picture for me to understand. I have many personal struggles. I wanted so badly to pick up the phone and call you. Talk on the phone for hours. But, you have never met me. I don’t have your phone number. Silly me 🙂 I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    God Bless,
    Honey

  7. That was beautiful! And you are beautiful as well.
    I Love people who think thise wise, and admit that sometimes life drags us real down.
    In those past months, i have been convincing myself that others have it harder and i should be positive about life, and so on. But its real damn hard, and its really hard to interact with people. Im just 18 years and ive givin up on people already. I dont know when i would stop hating this life, i wish i could just have peace inside and live the rest of my time here peacefully. But i guess-because life is a bitch-we wont ever be

  8. In my own therapy I have learned that your mind can only handle so much at one time. So, for a while you put up walls, or take one thing in at a time. I am sorry you had to go through so much, but I am so happy that you are in a place where you are understanding yourself and using it to make your life more beautiful!

  9. your writing is very good. you have an uncanny way of engaging the reader and somehow honouring their own journey.

    i am always curious by how much power people give to their sadness. how reading about what is dark, is somehow more satisfying, more mystifying, than reading some uber-enthusiastic-i-love-life-story. i would say it is because it is more real. more checked in. more attuned to what we truly experience while on this earth.

    i am also shocked and amazed by how people engage in tragedy, their dance with it. how a tragedy involving another, they somehow make their own? how they cuddle up to that incessant need for pity and validation.

    i read your blog about your mom and this thought passed through my brain. the idea that the mother daughter connection can be so life sustaining, and so life crushing. that heavy responsibility. the idea that there are little children battling leukemia, and twenty nine year olds dying of various cancers, somehow does not negate the fact that parents fuck up. and it can fuck us up. and at 34, what they gave, was not enough.

    so how do you find the quiet strength? what you label as desperation and depression to me, is just your soul calling you home. people think that avoiding social functions, or feeling anxiety in your gut it related to depression, or something being wrong. it is just feelings needing acknowledgment. and happy, the same as sad, is so, so important.

    i truly feel that there comes a point in your life when you have to move into authenticity and take authority and account of yourself. there comes a time when avoiding social functions isn’t a symptom of depression, but a need to avoid the incessant chatter and meaninglessness others can have. that being near others who do not fulfill you is no good. as dangerous as a drink. it’s a sign to close down and LISTEN.

    i honor you telling the truth about your feelings toward her, and recognize the anger in your words. I know them well.

    i hope that you find the peace you are looking for. and i think the only way to peace is through words.

    i hope you never pick up a drink again.

    i hope your self love becomes searing, to the very meniscus of your soul as it speaks to you.

    thanks for sharing your humble truths.

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