One in four of you will experience a period of clinical depression at some point in your life. You are highly unlikely to have to deal with it for a whole lifetime like I do, but you have a one in four chance of experiencing real depression. The good news is that many people who have one depressive episode never experience another. But if you happen to be one of the one in four who does have this experience, I want to share something important with you- something I’ve learned the hard way. If you’re not one of the one in four, you know someone who is. I think this is important for you to know, too. Let me start with a little bit of my story- I want you to know that I know what I’m talking about.
When I was in middle school and high school dealing with my depression (I have Major Depressive Disorder, MDD, or depression), I had no idea what was going on; I just knew that my life was falling apart and I absolutely couldn’t deal with it. I hung on by the skin of my teeth. With therapy, I made it through each episode. See, depression for me has always come in waves. I always have it, but it is usually mostly under control. Sometimes, though, it’s not. When I started college, the first time a major episode hit, it knocked me down hard. I wasn’t sure it would end. When it finally did, I picked myself up and tried again. And then the next one hit. And it got better. And then another one hit. And it got better. Each time, I lost months and even years to the disease. I just hunkered down and gritted my teeth and waited for it to be over and then tried to get back to living my life. I continuously worked with doctors and medications and therapists and therapy groups and figured out how to make each episode as bearable as possible. In total, I’ve spent around five years nearly incapacitated by my depression, and I’ve lived with the disease for over half my life. That’s how you know I know what I’m talking about. But why does my experience matter to you?
Well, throughout the course of this last major episode (I’m just starting to pull out of it now), I’ve learned something really important. You see, I used to just hunker down and wait till it was over. I worked hard in therapy and with my doctors to find the right medications and address problematic thought patterns, but I still felt like I was waiting out a storm and when it passed, I’d come back out from under the depression. I felt like the depressed person couldn’t possibly be me- like I was waiting for me to come back. In a way, that’s useful. It helped me to visualize my healthy self coming back to take control of my life again. But in another way, it held me back.
As long as I thought of my depressed self as me+depression, I couldn’t really love my depressed self. And anyone else who has thought of me this way- who has waited for me to come back from wherever I go when I’m depressed- hasn’t really been loving my true self either. You (and I) shouldn’t love me despite my depression. We shouldn’t love me “even when” I’m depressed. What we have to realize is that I’m always me. And we need to love me. The depressed me. The depressed me isn’t just to be tolerated, pitied, or suffered through. The depressed me IS me. I am me, no matter where I go or what I go through. It’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one.
During the worst of this most recent episode, I so often found myself waiting for “me” to come back so that I could do the things I meant to do and move forward in my life. But one day I realized that “me” was never coming back. I was never going to be the person I was before this episode. I never have returned to being the person I was before any given episode. That’s the point. I grow and change in really important ways every time this happens to me. And I’m me while I’m going through these tough times. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s made a big difference to me.
So if you’re going through a tough time, realize this: you’re not just “in there somewhere”. You’re right there on the surface. You are you. You don’t have to apologize for what you’re going through or promise to make it up to people when “you” come back. You just have to love you. And you have to have people in your life who will love you. Not love you despite your sickness. Not love you “even when” you’re sick. But love the sick you, because that is you.
And to all of you who know and love someone with depression (or bipolar disorder or anxiety or anything else), remember this. I know it’s repetitive, but it’s important: Don’t love a person despite their illness. Don’t love them “even when” they’re ill. Love the ill them. Because that is them. It will set them free.