Understanding Depression

Noonday DemonIf you or anyone close to you has ever suffered from depression – real, total shut-down depression not the “blues” – then you know how devastating it can be for the individual and their loved ones. It diminishes productivity, ruins relationships, sucks the life out of life, brings careers to a halt – it can be, in essence, a living death.

“In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance. Life”

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression is an excellent memoir in which Andrew Solomon discusses the depths of his experience with depression and all he has learned about it through his recovery. In many ways, he speaks to the heart of anyone who has experienced depression, in any capacity – he doesn’t just tell his story – he is telling THE story of a depressed person. The events and circumstances differ – but the feelings, the pain, the misery, confusion and struggle are universal.

“There is so much pain in the world, and most of these people keep theirs secret, rolling through agonizing lives in invisible wheelchairs, dressed in invisible body casts.”

Mental illness – in American culture – is the loony uncle we keep locked in the basement – unwilling to acknowledge for fear of what the neighbors will think. It cannot be discussed; it scares people because it is, in so many ways, wrapped up in people’s own preconceived notions and the subjective nature of its diagnosis and treatment. We can all rally around the guy who was diagnosed with Leukemia – we can sympathize and categorize the illness so we do not feel discomfort personally. Not so much with mental illness.

Of course, there is an additional wrinkle with mental illness – a lot of it is self-imposed, a result of beliefs, habits and circumstances and is not medical. That being the case, it is easy for us to dismiss a diagnosis of depression as a sign of individual weakness – and sometimes it is – rather than an actual disability. A medical establishment that is ready and willing to provide a label, hand you a prescription and send you on your way compounds the problem. Mental health professionals are often focused on managing behavior, not identifying its root cause or changing the behavior (because it is REALLY hard!). This is made even more difficult by the critical importance of individual desire and effort in their own health. Mental illness is not a tumor; it cannot be diagnosed and extracted by a third party. No one can do it but the individual himself or herself (with a lot of help and support) – the individual who is depressed (or anxious, or self-injures, etc.) – who are not the best decision makers.

“The worst of depression lies in a present moment that cannot escape the past it idealizes or deplores.”

I appreciated the transparency and depth with which Andrew Solomon shared his story. If I have a disagreement with the book, it is with his total and complete surrender to his “disease.” I am still suspect about mental illness in many ways and believe that much of its impact on an individual can be mitigated through cognitive and behavioral modifications. I believe mental illness is real and is devastating for many families and individuals. However, I also believe that a small percentage are truly biologically or physiologically so. I think, a great percentage are a result of thoughts and behaviors, and that they can be helped through love, support, encouragement, treatment and personal effort.

“The people who succeed despite depression do three things. First, they seek an understanding of what’s happening. They they accept that this is a permanent situation. And then they have to transcend their experience and grow from it and put themselves out into the world of real people.”

This does not necessarily mean that all can be “cured”, but they can retain control of their lives and thrive. Labels often become shackles, the very thing that limits our ability to thrive. There are many people who profit from these shackles, so buyer beware. Labels become our identifiers, which have a huge impact on our overall opinion of ourselves, so if we call ourselves “depressed” or “anxious” we will be. You can feel depressed, or anxious – it is a feeling that can come AND go – it is an emotion, impermanent by nature.

Of course, the real challenge is in figuring out, honestly, which is the case for you or the one you love. Is your brain wired this way, permanently, or can you get better. This cannot be accomplished alone – this is critical! This determination can come only after working closely with professionals, undergoing therapeutic treatments and working really hard – little by little your reality will reveal itself. What is really important, once you know, is to accept that as your reality – reject any stigma or feelings of inferiority you may hold – commit yourself to thriving with the diagnosis – adapt and move forward.

My recommendation is to read this book for an excellent investigation of the emergence, diagnosis and treatment of depression.  Also read Awaken the Giant Within, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Maximum Achievement, Lost Connections and The Myth of Mental Illness. These books are excellent resources that deal with mental habits and how they affect our behaviors and impact personal success. This is tremendous information that can be used to battle depression (and anxiety) and restore normalcy for many.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.