The reality of depression is that it is a state in which your brain regularly lies to you. OK, let me qualify that, because the healthy human brain also regularly lies to us; it is, in fact, designed to do so, and the fact that it does so with such skill and efficiency may be one of the secrets to the success of the human race (google “optimism bias” if you’re interested in this).
The depressed brain lies to us in some very distinctive ways (leaving aside the hairy philosophical question of whether there is a “me” that my brain can lie “to”: short answer; there isn’t). It tells us that life isn’t worth living, that others hate us or look down on us, that we are worthless (or worse, burdens). It gives us certainty that we cannot succeed in our endeavors, that doing so would be pointless even if we could, and that there is no brighter tomorrow to which we can look forward, and it tells us these things with deep conviction.
These thoughts have no rational or logical basis, and as such, they are often relatively immune to logic. These are “gut” feelings, often of the same intensity as our other beliefs and our certainties about our own memories (which are, yet again, far from factually correct even in mentally healthy humans and possibly even more distorted in those experiencing clinical depression). These damaging thoughts repeat over and over, wearing deep grooves into our minds, getting us stuck in mental ruts so deep we cannot even see that we are in them. Attempts to argue our way out of them often turn into vicious cycles that spiral back down into the depths no matter which way we turn, and sometimes, the only way to get our negative thoughts off their track is to hit them broadside with the mental equivalent of a football tackle. I have been known to treat the words “my brain is lying to me” as very nearly a mantra on occasion. If I can focus on nothing beyond that one fact, I stand a chance against all the other terrible things I am so terribly sure of at that moment.
Many people who have read up on depression in order to better understand or help a suffering loved one have run across descriptions of this. But there’s something those articles often fail to mention, which is that talking yourself out of these self-destructive beliefs is a constant in the life of someone with depression. It’s not just once or twice or when we’re at our worst. It’s something we live with permanently.
Medication can help, and it can help a lot. Being in a better situation in our lives can help, but doesn’t always. Maintaining healthy habits of eating, sleeping, exercise, and self-care can help, but these are hard to maintain and even harder to start in the first place, and for those of us whose brains tend towards depression, a small slip in our daily routine can be the tiny chance our neurology was waiting for– we may teeter, overbalance, and plummet back to the depths. Most importantly, we can develop good mental habits. We can force our brains again and again into healthier patterns of thinking that make it easier to counter the negativity welling up within us. We can get better at recognizing the lies our brain tells us and refusing to believe them. We can build up reserves of good memories, good relationships, and other sources of strength to draw on in our darker hours.
But the struggle is always there. I am, currently, fairly stable on two medications, in a good place in my life (college degree– in psychology, no less!–, sufficient financial means, a solid romantic relationship), and a many-year veteran of mental illness with a good deal of practice managing my own disorderly mind. And yet, depression is never far away. It sneaks up on me in odd moments, at night in my dreams, in the mornings before I get up, when I make little mistakes, when I feel the least bit physically ill, when I skip a meal or don’t get enough sleep, when I worry, when I make the mistake of comparing myself to others, when I think about my future…
I have been depressed for many years. I have only very rarely been close to suicidal. The lies my brain tells me are not the enormous ones. I am grateful that I almost never consider life something that is not worth living. But I struggle. A little voice in my head says over and over, “why bother?” It says “You can’t succeed, so don’t even try.” It says “it’s not worth the effort.” Sometimes it’s not a voice and words, but an emotional weight that feels physical, that makes me hesitate for an instant before taking my next breath. That makes me turn off the alarm before I’m even awake because a little part of me is awake and doesn’t feel up to facing the day yet. That makes me want to lie down and rest, again and again, instead of doing something more productive.
I talk back to the lies. I convince myself to do things, to try, to socialize. I tell myself, “Do it! It will be fun!” and “You can make a difference,” and “It’s worth the effort to… eat, read, answer an email, call a friend, wash the dishes, get dressed on days when I don’t have to be anywhere, tell a joke, go for a walk, cook a meal instead of eating fast food, apply to that job, repaint the room…” any of the myriad projects, large and small, one-time or every-day, that so many people do without a second thought. I have to talk myself into them, again and again. I am my own coach, counselor, cheerleader, comforter, and conscience.
I can do it. And I do. But it’s a never-ending task, and an exhausting one. I have to answer the question “why should I bother?” sometimes multiple times per day. It is frustrating, sometimes infuriating. It takes my energy and it takes my time and it leaves less of those things for all the other activities listed above. Depression is a weight I carry with me nearly every day– not a huge one, not usually, but enough to cause a little extra drag, to slow me down, to cripple me just a bit (and as someone who works in the field of disabilities, I use the term “cripple” very deliberately here). Not even so much that most people would notice. Sometimes even I don’t notice, until those oh-so-rare moments when the weight lifts entirely, and for just a few days, or even hours, every action comes to me so easily that I cry at the difference between this feeling and my normal life.
This entry turned into something longer and more complex and far more unwieldy than I originally intended. I can only hope I have given some insight– both to others struggling with depression and to those lucky enough to be free of it– into the fact that surviving depression is a process rather than an endpoint. It is, I hasten to reassure anyone in doubt, completely and entirely worth it. My life may be an uphill struggle, but it is also rich with worthwhile goals, pride in my accomplishments of every size, great joys and tiny fleeting beauties. Every good story I read, every tasty meal I eat, every sunset I watch, every joke I laugh at, every moment spent with friends, every time I make someone else smile, every tiny thing I teach or even make someone else think about– these are the things I live for.
I have faith that these things will endure, and that I will encounter more of them in the days to come. And as an atheist and skeptic, I believe that I have only this one life, one single chance to experience what I can, to learn and grow and share and love and most of all to leave this complex, incredible, amazingly beautiful and baffling world, in some tiny way, a better place than I found it– and if there is such a thing as a sin, the only one I can imagine is to give up on that glorious opportunity. And so I will, in the words of Joseph Heller, “live forever or die in the attempt,” and no matter how difficult life is, I will cherish it, and never stop looking for ways to make it better.