One time, I had a big international trip planned. I booked the flights through a well-known travel company and spent more money than I should have on the airfare, but I saw no issue in doing so since I could afford it at the time and I knew the trip would be worth it.
Fast forward a month-ish and I called that well-known travel company to cancel my flight because I could no longer go on this trip. Sure, on paper everything was fine. I was fine. So why couldn’t I go anymore?
Plain and simple: depression. It’s hovered and lingered above and within me off-and-on since my early adolescence, and if I’ve learned anything about this nasty thing it’s that it works in cycles and waves, so it never disappears completely. Plus, depression has this ugly little friend named anxiety, and anxiety said, “hell no, you can’t go on this trip.”
(The internal dialogue was obviously more involved, but I’ll spare you the intensity.)
So I tried to explain to the agent on the phone that, as per the literature regarding the travel insurance I’d purchased, I should get at least some sort of refund given the nature of my cancellation. It was medical. I had been treated for it in the recent past (we’re talking just weeks prior), though I had to briefly pause with my treatment (for other reasons), so I had no current proof of the situation…but it was in fact real.
“It’s because of issues involving depression and anxiety,” I told her. I dare you to guess how she responded.
She laughed. Laughed.
In her defense, I’m sure those words—those foggy, unsure words that no one talks about unless plastered with motivational quotes and stories of glamorous success—made her severely uncomfortable. It’s not her fault; we’ve created a society and countless industries that not only perpetuate such issues of mental health, but shudder at their mentioning. Those words are meant only to be whispered, if spoken at all.
I also understand that if we could all cry “depression” without current proof of such conditions (like medication, which not everyone opts to take in the first place) and get refunds for it at our leisure, we would. (Not that I condone making false claims so as to mock the seriousness of these issues…it’s just I wouldn’t put it past most people.)
But I do not understand why she had to laugh.
I never got my money back. I was out thousands of dollars for a trip I never took, but I stopped inquiring out of sheer embarrassment for having thought to do so in the first place; what’s more is that I felt ashamed for my reasoning, unworthy of being heard and understood. I doubted myself: “Maybe I made this all up in my head. Maybe I should have and could have gone. Maybe depression is something I decidedly took on.”
But I knew all too well that this couldn’t be true, that getting on that plane would have been the absolute worst decision. I was in no state to experience new things and my body and brain were persistent in relaying that urgent message.
No one else knew my internal state. I kept it to myself and on the surface I remained “normal.” Healthy. Just fine.
That’s what makes mental health such a daunting entity: no one can see it.
But that experience, this agent’s likely innocent laugh, taught me an important lesson—that maybe it’s time we (those who have experienced it) let it be seen in a light that has nothing to do with overcoming or conquering the illness, but has everything to do with the experience of it—the day-to-day reality of inexplicable pain and shattering emptiness.
So, while the experience of depression is relatively unique to each individual who suffers from it, there are certain characteristics that ring true for all of us who’ve been there—namely (and perhaps most importantly in many cases) what depression is not:
Everyone reacts differently to feelings of discomfort, especially in situations they do not entirely understand. Some remain silent as they try to process information. Some blurt out their initial reactions. Some blush. Some let out a confused giggle. To be perfectly blunt about this, it is never okay to laugh at depression.
If someone told you they’d been diagnosed with cancer or any other illness deemed a serious condition, you would not laugh or giggle no matter how uncomfortable you felt; you’d be more concerned with their wellbeing, their treatment plan, what you could do to help in such a difficult time.
Mental illness is just as serious. It’s not an exaggeration. It’s not a melodramatic statement. It’s just the truth.
Depression is not funny. It’s never funny. Don’t invalidate people’s feelings and experiences by laughing at it.
As I said before, we as a society are pretty familiar with the success stories of moving beyond and overcoming depressive states to “live a more brilliant life” and whatnot (that is, we love “self-help”). Let me be clear: this is wonderful. It’s a beautiful thing to hear the stories of those who’ve been low but managed to rise above those circumstances.
By the same token, this is also something that’s often glamorized to make depression seem like a cool and sexy thing to experience. It’s not.
Yes, it’s amazing to witness the transformations that take place to bring those who’ve struggled into the light of a hopeful future. It’s inspiring and empowering and their voices are deeply impactful for so many. However, when those voices place a rose-colored lens over their darkness so that it might sell better, it not only appears less authentic, but almost insulting.
No, depression is not a beautiful road to self-discovery. It’s not a blissful adventure taken separately from everyday life in order to inspire a rebirth-turned-bestselling memoir.
Depression is a dark, lonely, empty cave through which one must travel while trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy. It’s unforgiving and unwilling to back down. It’s difficult to survive (it seems being dead wouldn’t feel much different sometimes), and more often than not, it makes everyday functions and tasks impossible.
3. A decision.
That brings us to another thing depression is not: a decision, a choice, a conscious submission to such wrenching and largely inexplicable pain. It’s not a tool one would willingly employ to acquire some sort of attention or concern.
I mentioned before the doubts I felt after being laughed at over the phone—that perhaps I’d made this all up in my head, that I decidedly took on depression and it was “all my fault” for being this way.
That simply couldn’t be true. I would never wish this struggle on myself or anyone for that matter; how could I have willingly put myself through it?
I didn’t. This was not a choice. It was never a choice. Of all the factors that go into a person’s predisposition for depression, conscious reasoning is not one of them, of this I am sure. But I am also sure that many of those who suffer from it are made to feel so ashamed and frowned upon that they come to believe that they have in fact brought it on themselves—and the inauthentic voices I mentioned in the previous point promoting “motivational” ideas like “you are in control of your happiness” and “it’s up to you to change your attitude and so your life” only exacerbate this sense of guilt.
I’m all about inspiring and motivating others, but make no mistake: when suffering from depression, happiness is not something one can control. Depression is not a decision; if it were merely a matter of “changing our attitudes,” then believe me, we would.
Any conversation I have about depression (which there are few, to be clear) ends with some variation of this question: “… but you’re fine now, right?”
That question always hurts, mostly because I have no choice but to answer with “yes, sure, everything’s fine.”
I never bother explaining the fact that depression is not a finite entity, that it’s not a one-time storm that blows over and never returns; that it’s more so a lingering disposition that ebbs and flows with life as it happens.
Depression is cyclical. Even when one receives treatment for it, it comes and goes in various forms and degrees of intensity. It’s not guaranteed to go away forever, nor is it guaranteed to return once it subsides for while, and for those who care about its victims, that’s a seemingly difficult concept to grasp. All they want to hear is “yes, everything’s fine now” and be done with it.
While perfectly understandable, that’s unfortunately not how it works. Depression not something to be “done with.” Sure, one day might be great and productive—maybe even weeks or months!—but the next might be a laborious struggle just to get out of bed or a painful relapse into related habits of self-harm. Either way, offering any kind of care or support to someone who has experienced/is experiencing depression involves understanding the cyclical and ever-changing nature of the beast.
5. A reason for shame.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt guilty and ashamed for being depressed, believing that my darkened state made me the absolute worst daughter, sister, friend. I was a toxic presence in my own mind, a harmful being that poisoned whatever environment she inhabited—a notion I’m still trying to shake along with all the habits I’ve adopted in its wake.
As I mentioned before, all our beloved self-help gurus plastering quotes meant to awaken and inspire the beauty in each of us doesn’t necessarily help this feeling of shame. When someone says “just be more grateful, it will make you feel better” or “think positively and you’ll change your life,” I have to believe the intentions are good; however, in my experience, these concepts only worsen the guilt that surrounds depression.
Don’t tell me to be more grateful. Don’t tell me to think happier thoughts. Again, if I could, I would, but depression is an illness involving the chemicals in the brain essentially making it so that I can’t just be more grateful or think happier thoughts. It’s not a matter of flipping a switch. It’s not a matter of manifesting the happiness I seek.
Don’t tell me it’s as simple as that. It’s not. When you say it is, you reinforce the shame that surrounds this hush-hush disease, and so further into that dark place we go.
“The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” ~ Nathaniel Branden
Depression is a difficult cloud to contemplate; it hangs over so many of us, yet most are so uncomfortable by its presence that it’s hard to openly discuss it, especially from an in-the-thick-of-it point of view. No one sees it until the storm becomes violent—that is, until the signs of the illness become visible. (For example, to one extreme, a suicide attempt or physical self-harm.)
But that doesn’t always happen, and perhaps it’s the unseen parts that make for the darkest moments as we struggle to survive.
It’s not funny. It’s not glamorous. It’s not a decision. It’s not finite. And it’s definitely not a reason to be ashamed.
Until the masses become more aware of and sensitive to the needs of those suffering, we must be the ones to reiterate the importance of acceptance, of recognizing that this is a real and serious illness that demands a real and serious response—not a laugh, not a shrug, not a motivational quote demanding “gratitude to fix your attitude.”
We must take care to show what is not easily or comfortably seen. And here and now is always a good place to start.
Author: Sara Rodriguez
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Holly Lay via Flickr.