I am not clinically depressed, and to my knowledge, I am not prone to clinical depression.
However, I have battled severe situational depression, and it was the hardest thing I have ever had to face.
I took a job as an Au Pair in a cold country. The thing is, I hate the cold, and lack of sunshine affects me so strongly that this alone is enough to cause depression-like symptoms. And as it turns out, childcare is not for me, and I could never have imagined what I was getting myself into. Without going into detail, the children were difficult, the mother was a perfectionist, and the city was freezing and gray. All in all, it remains my biggest regret and is something I will not be doing again.
I was there for six months, during winter and spring, and the longer I was there the further into depression I went. I have never been the type of person who cries easily, yet I cried myself to sleep more often than not for those whole six months (about every other night the first six weeks, only about once a week after that). The joy seemed to slowly seep out of me, until finally, for those last couple months, I felt like a walking empty shell of a person, just an echo of the happy goofball I once was. I had to force myself to smile when I went about my days, force myself to muster up the energy to complete my job each day, and try to hide my misery as much as I could since I lived with the family I worked for, and I especially didn’t want the children to see their caretaker that unhappy.
I’ve had countless people tell me how strong I am for getting through that. But I don’t feel strong, I didn’t then and I don’t now. I felt defeated and weak as if I had nothing left to fight with. All I could do was to focus on just making it through the day, concentrate my whole mind and body on the day-to-day activities, and try not to think too much about my pain and sadness. To me, I had been beaten down, my circumstances had defeated me and I didn’t have the strength to fight anymore. So I spiraled deeper and deeper into sadness, pain, and grief (yes grief – I was grieving for my lost happiness, my lost energy, and there at the end I was grieving for the loss of my own self, for shadow is not a real person, merely an illusion of what there once was).
I could not understand how anyone could call me “strong” or applaud me for that, it almost pained me just to hear people talk about me that way. All I could think was, “How could I have ever been so stupid as to voluntarily do this to myself?” which of course only made the depression worse.
It’s scary how depression and despair can wrap their hands around your throat so easily until you can’t breathe at all, and nothing makes any sense. There are only those fingers squeezing tighter and tighter, never releasing, so that every second of the day your mind is focused on the simple act of breathing, of surviving.
I was fortunate enough to have several friends back home who helped me through that dark time in my life. I dare not think about what would have become of me if they had not been there.
When I left, it took me a very long time to recover from the trauma of those 6 months. I never thought I would struggle with depression, hopelessness, despair, or suicidal thoughts. The scary thing is, while it started strong and instant due to the job and move required by the job, the depression slowly grew, slowly overtook me, until there was nothing but that time and those thoughts and those emotions. There was no happy childhood, there were no adventures in Italy, only this crippling depression that consumed me from the inside out, with no end in sight.
That was some time ago, and I no longer struggle with the depression I once had. And looking back, I see now why so many said I was strong. I always assumed that strength was succeeding, that it meant you were able to conquer and be confident, that you knew when you were strong.
But that’s not always the case.
Sometimes being strong is just being able to get up in the morning and do your daily chores.
Sometimes it’s getting out of bed when you’d rather hide away from the world.
Sometimes strength is putting your responsibilities above yourself.
So, would I consider myself a strong person? I’d say the evidence points to it, but I still do not “feel” strong so I’m not sure I’d flat out say it. However, I was not beaten by my depression, and I did not let it control my life (though it sure felt like it did). I had a job to do, and my job was to care for kids, so wallowing in my depression was something only allowed during private time. I cried a lot, there were times I had to back out of personal or social plans because I was just overwhelmed with sadness and grief. But I never let those kids down, never failed to complete my work, and I kept everybody safe and clean and fed. And now I can say that that was quite an accomplishment.
Strength comes in a variety of forms. And in this case, it came in the form of just putting one foot in front of the other. I think that version of strength is often overlooked, and it’s, of course, easier for others to see than for us to see it ourselves. But it is still strength, even if it’s the most underrated form.
I, like so many others, used to believe in the idea of “well I had no other option, of course, I made it” until I heard a brilliant analogy. If you don’t know how to swim and are thrown into a pool, you will drown; it doesn’t matter if your life depends upon it, you still can’t swim, and you do not have the skills or tools or ability to save yourself, and you will drown. If you do know how to swim, you have the choice to either fight the water, or give up and drown. That’s how strength is, either you have the means to beat it, or you don’t. It should never be shrugged off in the “I had no other choice” way because there is always a choice: fight or die. I could have given up, I could have left the job and gone home. But I didn’t, I pressed onward and finished the term, despite the increasing depression. I chose to fight, I chose to continue, and that is strength. They say courage is not the absence of fear, but doing something despite the fear. Well, I think the strength works on the same principle: it’s not knowing you will win, it’s fighting until you do win.
Sometimes it’s the people who seem the “weakest” that prove to be the strongest.
The challenge is to not be blind to your own strength but to recognize it and use it to spur you on. If you can do that, then you can do pretty much anything.