When Robin Williams died, I heard people say tons of ignorant things about depression.
“How could someone do all those happy movies and be so sad?” takes the cake.
Depression is more than sadness. It is a change in your brain that causes a wide spectrum of symptoms — everything from the common ones such as trouble getting out of bed to rare occurrences including memory lapses.
To offer you an idea of how depression varies and defies incomplete or incorrect ideas the public has, I decided to tell my story.
When I was 12-years-old, I began an eight-year march towards a depressive-anxiety disorder that almost killed me. It started with symptoms doctors were unable to diagnose. I couldn’t relieve myself in the bathroom and felt like I was constantly on the verge of exploding my insides. They said nothing was wrong, so I treated myself with meditation, lifestyle changes and stretches.
As I grew up, more symptoms arose without any traditional medical explanation. My muscles began contracting to the point where it limited my stamina, especially in my right arm. Playing the piano and doing my homework became a physically arduous task where I had to rest my arm for hours both during and after. I signed up for many expensive tests where doctors pricked me, poked me and hooked me up to monitors only to tell me there was nothing wrong.
To stifle the sadness of dealing with this stress on my own and people telling me there was nothing they could do to help me, I subconsciously constructed a belief system:
- I should not expect anything of others because it will only lead to sadness when they disappoint me.
- It is better to only rely on myself.
- These symptoms are my fault. I could’ve been more careful or done something to prevent new ones from coming up.
- Crying is useless. If I want to cry, I shouldn’t because it won’t help me.
People tend to overlook that depression can be more about belief than behavior. During high school and college, no one suspected I was dealing with this kind of pain and sadness. My peers gave me a “class clown” award and I was kind of popular in a weird way.
This wasn’t an act, though. Happiness and depression are not mutually exclusive, and I think many people have trouble understanding that. I appeared positive, energetic and happy because, well, I was. Depression doesn’t necessarily negate all of the pleasure or joy you feel in life.
Still, these beliefs were bound to catch up to me. When sophomore year came around, another new batch of symptoms arose. My sleep became very disrupted, I gradually lost weight despite maintaining my monstrous appetite (think of Shaggy from Scooby Doo but without all the weed) and I stopped dreaming for a year. There were even some cliche ones you only see in movies such as food losing much of its taste. It also exacerbated my muscle condition, making the aches, pains and limitations more intense.
Right before I started junior year, I was unable to sleep for four days. I couldn’t get a minute and sleep medications did nothing. My body was shutting down and I felt like I was doing to die.
The therapist my parents had urged me to see recommended I take antidepressants immediately, so we hustled for a prescription. I took them on the fifth day and they worked. My sleep was still awful by any standard, but it existed.
As I became more serious about therapy and committed to a psychiatrist and medication plan, I realized the beliefs I had built to protect myself from sadness and disappointment had actually been poisoning me for years. Whenever I challenged one of them during therapy, my body reacted and I felt relief from my symptoms. My sleep gradually improved, my body was no longer shriveled up and it became easier for me to treat my muscle limitations with alternative medicine.
Like any poison that festers in your body while you forego treatment, depression can make you physically sick. Your beliefs have consequences that penetrate deeper than behavior, piercing your bones and numbing your nerves.
This is why I refer people who want to better understand depression to the diathesis-stress model: a model stating — in the context of mental illness — people can become mentally ill through the combination of a vulnerability [diathesis] and stress over time. Think of it as a glass of poison. You might start with a few drops or half a glass, but repressing frustration, forming negative beliefs and accruing stress will fill it to the brim. Once it overflows, you will be mentally ill and your mind or body will react, causing behavioral or physical changes.
If you ask someone who suffers from depression what it is like for them, he or she might list common symptoms, the kind you hear in those annoying antidepressant ads where the soothing, Siri-like voice casually reads a sheet of horrible side effects. There is a chance, however, you will hear one like mine or maybe something more atypical.
It’s best not to make assumptions about depression or those who struggle with it. I am happy, I am depressed and I am tired of hearing ignorant statements about it.