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In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to focus on depression.

For anyone who hasn’t experienced depression, it can difficult to understand how devastating it is. They say, “Try to be positive,” or “There’s nothing to be sad about, so what’s the problem?”

As someone who experiences depression, I can tell you that it’s not something you can treat with “mind over matter” approaches. When I get depressed, it’s like being in a dark pit that I can’t climb out of. One part of my mind tells me over and over, “You’re worthless,” or “Everything is hopeless.” And even though another part of my mind tells me I should call someone, the part of me that wallows in depression says, “You’re too needy. No one wants to hear how miserable you are.”

There were even times when I was in my 30’s that I had suicidal thoughts. I had to tell myself it wouldn’t be fair to my cats to kill myself. Fortunately for me, I’m what I call a “functional depressive.” With the exception of one horrible time in my life, I could always continue to function in the outside world when I needed to (go to school, go to work, etc.), but would fall to pieces as soon as I got home. Even when I wasn’t depressed, the slightest criticism would leave me on the verge of tears after which I would obsessively belittle and malign myself completely out of proportion to whatever was said to me.

It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I finally gave in and tried anti-depressants. I never realized before that, that I could actually go through life with a protective layer of skin. My sense of self-worth wasn’t at the whim of any negative comment or interaction. It left me wondering what more I could have accomplished in life had I been medicated earlier. Not all people who experience depression need anti-depressants but for many of us who experience severe depression, they can be a life-saver.

People often confuse sadness and depression. After I started taking anti-depressants, I could see how different they are. Sadness is an almost sweet sensation in which I can allow myself to feel and accept a loss of some kind. Allowing myself to be in the feelings of sadness is healing. With depression, on the other hand, my emotions become debilitating; I feel completely and utterly worthless, hopeless, and empty.

I saw a wonderful depiction of depression that I think can help individuals who have never experienced it better understand those who do. It was in Season 2, Episode 9, of the Netflix Series, One Day at a Time. This show (an adaptation of a series from the mid-70’s to mid-80s), is about a Cuban-American family with three generations living in the same house. In this episode, the divorced mother, Penelope, decides to stop taking her anti-depressants; she feels her life is totally together and is ashamed to tell her new boyfriend that she takes them.

This episode shows Penelope degenerate from feeling on top of the world, to obsessing over whether she hurt someone’s feelings, to becoming bedridden to the point that she fails to show up for dinner with her boyfriend’s parents.

I so wish this show had been around years ago. I can’t count how many times I tried, unsuccessfully, to get off anti-depressants because I was embarrassed. I tried everything from exercise to meditation, etc. to no avail. I felt I was “weak” to depend on medication. Finally, a dear friend of mine asked me, “Isn’t it worth it to have a good quality of life?” And I realized it was.

I now believe that my early experience of childhood trauma, along with a family history of depression and decades of untreated severe depression permanently impacted my brain chemistry.

If you experience depression, you have no reason to be ashamed. Speak your truth, know that your depression is not who you are, and seek help.

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