Accepting the Sadness

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Another insightful (and anonymous) post on dealing with depression along with some ideas for those dealing with depression or any sort of mental illness, as well as for those trying to support someone going through a difficult time. 

I have dealt with deep sadness since I went through treatment for an illness as a teenager. I grew up very fast, and started to ask big questions at a young age like, "Is life meaningless? Do I matter at all?" The illness I had is a story in and of itself, but was the kickstart to a much harder journey, that of my depression and anxiety. It's weird how I often look back and think that the time during treatment was not as hard as afterwards. After I left the hospital, I was dropped back into school after missing an entire year amongst my peers. I didn't know the latest gossip, didn't realize who had changed over the year, and most of all didn't know how to interact like a girl my age. I didn't know how to chit-chat. The doctors and nurses were my friends, the hospital my home. And so, after constantly being brushed off in the hall after saying hi to my friends, after consistently being excluded to gatherings and parties, and after realizing that my friends had counted their hours visiting me as community service, I sunk into a deep sadness. I didn't think it was depression. I didn't know what it was. I had suicidal thoughts. I wanted to end my life after a year of doing everything to save my life. I didn't know who I was anymore.

Luckily, I got through high school and the rest of my teenage years because I had gone to a camp specifically for kids with my illness and reconnected with myself and kids my age at just the right time. I thought maybe this sadness was behind me. But something started to happen again in second year university. I had two groups of friends leave my life, one after the other, pretty much overnight, and not really with any rhyme or reason. The fear of people leaving me, the fear of being hated and talked about and excluded started to consume me. I cried uncontrollably to sleep every night. I was in physical pain from being so sad and not leaving my bed. I became irritable and angry at everyone and everything. This would subside and come back throughout the year. If I kept myself busier things were better, but this deep feeling of being hated and alone was always there. By third year university I had to go home for the summer because my suicidal thoughts and sadness was at an all time high. I kept a lot of how severe it was from my parents because I felt they had endured enough during my time in the hospital. But I did confide in my mom that something is wrong because I even think that people on the street are staring at me and laughing at me. That I knew it made no sense, but it consumes my thoughts and often makes it impossible to go out. I think my parents may have taken it in...I'm not sure. I think they may have been in a bit of denial that I was going through depression and anxiety.

I was formally diagnosed with depression and social anxiety in 2010. I refused to go on antidepressants for a long time, partly because I felt weak if I did go on them, that maybe I could muscle through or look on the "bright side of things" more, and partly because I knew my parents would disapprove. My parents and I fought a lot during this time. I felt like they didn't understand me, they were fed up with my sadness and irritability and inability to see beyond my emotions, and they didn't want me to go on medication. Now when I look back, I think they were just coming to terms with the idea that after everything, their daughter was not healthy - after all the treatment, I was still struggling and going to struggle with my health and they couldn't fix it as much as they wanted to.

My first suicide attempt forced me to go on medication. I have been through three types, all with varying degrees of side effects and success. The first was good at first and stopped working, the second didn't work at all and my depression and anxiety was the worst it had ever been and was accompanied with constant suicidal thoughts, cutting, and many suicide attempts. I would stand in the subway station and think that jumping in front would be easy and best for everyone. That no one would show up to my funeral anyway and life would go on as if nothing happened. On my commute home from work I would press my head against the window and cry uncontrollably in public - for no reason but that I felt I was meaningless and a waste of space. Often strangers stopped me on the street concerned and wondering if I was ok - I would usually force a smile and say yes when I desperately wasn't.

Finally, in the spring of 2012, my best friend at the time up and left me in an email. Out of the blue. And blocked all communication with me. I still don't really know why. All I know is that this person promised he would be there and that he wouldn't leave like others had did and now he had done it in the most heartless and cruel way. This was the worst of my depression. I spent some time in the hospital as an outpatient, was put on a new medication, found a therapist (after many failed ones before), and had to take a sick leave work. I couldn't leave my bed. I couldn't clean my apartment. Any flowers or plants my friends brought died (if they were even put into a vase at all). I couldn't move or eat and sometimes felt that I was going to die from feeling so sad. I would sit on my bed and cry until I hyperventilated or felt nauseous or pass out. I had a group of friends who were helping me, but I still felt completely alone. The thought of even having a shower was an incredibly daunting task. Every minute was a painful struggle.

I could go through the entire healing process - but the fact is, I'm writing this right now, in a much better place. I turned down the offer to write for this blog last year because I felt I was still going through it. And not to say I have beaten depression and anxiety now - I haven't. I will always struggle with it. But it doesn't control my life anymore. And very often I actually feel that elusive emotion I never thought I would feel - happy. 2013 was a great year for me - I had some huge successes in my career, moved to a new apartment that I love, met some amazing people, started getting back into shape, and met my wonderful and loving boyfriend who treats me so well and is a constant source of joy and support. 

Not to generalize and say "this is the way to get better", but looking back, these are the things that helped me get better that may help someone who is struggling or help a friend know how to help someone who is depressed.

1. I started to make sure my day was filled with things and people that made me happy and got rid of the rest. 
It got to a point where I felt I was wasting my life if I was feeling sad in a situation. Not to say that things like folding laundry (I hate folding laundry) need to be cut out of your life. But I'm talking about the bigger picture. I quit my day job that was an enormous source of unhappiness and was with a boss who could not understand my situation. I freelance full-time now. It's more stressful, but I am doing what I love to do. And as for people, I only spend my free time with people who I respect and admire and make me feel good about myself and appreciate me for who I am, the good and bad. A good sign for me is that they still like me if I am crying and are ok with silence. I don't spend time with people who only like me when I'm happy or make me feel like I'm a burden if I am sad.

2. I started standing up for myself.
One horrible feeling that comes with depression that is unfortunately propagated by the stigma of mental illness is that my feelings weren't valid. First I had to believe that my feelings were worth acknowledging and then I started to communicate clearer to people and show that my feelings are always valid. Depression and anxiety at least for me is always caused by a trigger, no matter how small, but it isn't completely irrational. The moment you hear someone say that your sadness isn't valid or you are making things up in your brain, this is a clue that this person should not be in your life. That former best friend of mine used to always say "it's just in your head". No. It wasn't. He was doing things to cause them and I should have left him a lot sooner.

3. I started exercising and eating healthy (or try to) for ME.
I wanted to start feeling good about myself inside and out. Not to impress anyone or to start going on dates. I wanted to feel good for me. It was interesting that even if there was no physical change after a workout, I still felt better about myself and less anxious to go outside. My thoughts also started to slow down and my reaction to things were more logical. It's almost like my body saying "Hey! Thanks for taking care of me! To thank you, I'm going to make you feel ok today!"

4. Music, music, music.
Music is incredibly healing. Playing, listening, was all really helpful and felt like someone out there understood me, even if it wasn't verbalized. And actually, sad music made me feel better.

5. A really awesome therapist. 
I really love my therapist. She is incredibly validating, a good listener, and we have developed a very trusting relationship. I have been through five that didn't work for me and finally hit one that did. Seek the right fit out. It's worth the extra time (and sometimes money). 

6. Breathing
Yup. Something so simple does tremendous work. 

7. Sex and the City (I'm serious.)
Ok - this will be different for everyone. But for me, Sex and the City made me start to see things differently. I think this is different for everyone. But anything can be a source of help - a movie, a tv show, a book, a song, a picture to shift your perspective just a little bit. (Man, that episode with the post-it note break-up. Carrie. I feel you.)

And as for the things people did, this is certainly what works for me.

1. Validation
Saying that whatever I'm feeling must hurt a lot or that they are sorry I feel that way.

2. Listening
Sometimes I don't need advice or to see a silver lining (which comes across as very dismissive to me). I just need a listening ear. A TRUE listener. I need to feel heard and felt and empathized with. If I am going over the same problem over and over with a friend, it's likely that I haven't felt heard yet. Re-evaluate if you are truly being attentive during a moment of need, and if you aren't or can't, simply communicate that.

3. Accepting the sadness
Sadness is a part of life. I think I have realized it is needed to be balanced - sort of like a yin and yang. I think in Western culture we dismiss sadness instead of embrace it. And this can often mean that people who are depressed feel like they must hide this or that they are viewed as a lower class. I think I realized that it's important to embrace my sadness. To see the "empty" holes in my spirit not as a void, but a part of my whole. Sadness can be beautiful. It can fuel creativity. It shouldn't be shunned or labelled as a weakness. If your friend is depressed or sad, don't feel as it is your duty to change them. You are there for a support. But when people started to shun my depression, it felt like they were shunning me or that I had to put on a happy face all the time. I feel a lot better with friends who are fine with my sadness and don't try to change me. One thing that is great about my boyfriend is early on when I told him about my depression, he said he likes me just the way I am. Not that he enjoys seeing me sad, but I don't fear (or at least can talk my brain out of the fear) that he will leave me for it, because he has verbalized he is ok with it. If you have a friend going through it, maybe verbalize that to them.

4. Honour the relationship
Depression can be frustrating for any relationship on both sides. But one thing that sent me over the edge was my best friend leaving me in such an impersonal way. I think it's always important to evaluate how much your friendship has been through and how much you value this person in your life. I know sometimes we do need to part ways as friends or in relationships or if you cannot be a support any longer for whatever reason, but I think it's important to do so in a way that honours the relationship you had. It's important to always remember there is a person behind the mental illness. 

5. Just always tell people you love them
Everyone feels good when you tell them you love them, that you matter, and that they are proud of you. Make sure you do it often to the people you care about in your life. 

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