Why I hate it when you say, “That’s just the depression talking.”

When you are depressed, your entire life can feel like this.
When you are depressed, your life can feel like this. No, spring is never coming. Really, it never is. Never ever ever.

“That’s just the depression talking.”

If I had a dime for every time someone has said that to me this year, I might be able to pay my out-of-pocket hospital bills off by next week.

Blog readers know that the last several months have been a little rough. A back injury keeps putting my opioid-intolerant, claustrophobic ass in the MRI tube. I did a month of physical therapy and then ended up in the ER, and then a surgical center. I’ve been knocked out twice with propofol, and treated with steroids, fentanyl, liver-sizzling doses of ibuprofen, diazepam, ketamine, gabapentin, and who knows what else the nurses shot into my IV’s when I was groggy and/or out of my mind with pain. I also tried a chiropractor and massage, and politely declined offers of marijuana, acupuncture, Reiki, and homeopathy. Just as I was realizing that my back was still in serious trouble, all the hospital bills started to arrive.

“Just hang in there.”

I’ve been depressed as long as I can remember. So, especially since my intrepid pain specialist reduced my treatment to a bottle of Valium and the statement, “you just have to hang in there,” an agonizing, expensive, months-long medical ordeal doesn’t seem like a temporary annoyance. It seems like the latest good reason to die.

According to the website of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention‘s (AFSP) Out of Darkness Overnight campaign, over 38,000 people die by suicide every year — the fourth leading cause of death for people ages 18 – 65 in the US. Over 100 people kill themselves every day, though the number of people attempting suicide is much higher.  More men die by suicide, but more women attempt it. Over 60 percent of people who succeed in killing themselves have major depression, AFSP goes on. Depression is more common than cancer and coronary heart disease: about 15 percent of the population will suffer clinical depression at some point in their lives.

Though AFSP says depression is an extremely treatable psychiatric illness, with up to 90 percent of people who get treatment feeling better, the really scary thing is that, by AFSP’s count, 30 percent of depressed people attempt suicide, and half of those die.

That’s part of why I hate it when people say, “that’s just the depression talking.” To me, this common phrase, probably intended to help depressed people halt their pathological thought patterns, trivializes the seriousness of clinical depression.

Image via Wikimedia Commons
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Depression is an illness

Take meningococcal disease. It’s much less common than depression, with about 800-1200 Americans getting it every year, according to the National Meningococcal Association, but it can be dangerous, with a mortality rate of 10-15 percent. When a person with meningitis says his neck hurts, would you tell him, “That’s just the meningitis talking”? No? Well, the AFSP estimates that depression is fatal in 15 percent of cases, and if those patients are anything like me, they often hear, “that’s just the depression talking.”

A lot of people know what depression is really like, and a lot of people don’t. Clinical depression can make your eyeballs feel like the Hoover Dam, as you fight back tears all day. It’s a long, black, consuming, sour-molasses conviction that you’re worthless, no-one can help you with anything that matters, and that things will never change. It’s the certain knowledge that people love you because they’re deluded. The simplest choices swamp you with confusion or indifference. It’s dull headaches and a silent static roar that, if you forget to concentrate, can block out what other people are saying.

Depression is a different experience for different people. Some people lash out, some people seem sunny and social but sob every time they’re alone, some people have physical pain, and some people are immobilized by the misery. For me, depression manifests with an obsessive achievement drive, and that’s probably why no-one, not even me, had a clue anything was wrong until I was almost done high school. Who would be concerned about the straight-A student buried in extracurriculars? Today, my depression still doesn’t fit the stereotype of the person who can’t bathe or go to work. Rather, it drives me to keep working at all costs, and in that sense, it might fuel my career rather than hinder it.

Being depression’s dummy

Despite its treatability, depression is one of the most insidious conditions there is. If you have plantar fasciitis, you don’t mistake the pain in your feet for your personality. But depression affects how you feel, think, and speak. When you’re depressed, others can be annoyed or alarmed by the sad or hopeless things you say, or your apparent refusal to take their advice or turn your thinking around. They try to bust you out of your mental funk by saying, “That’s the depression talking,” as if the illness has turned you into its own ventriloquist dummy, and you can shake off that nasty puppeteer just by recognizing the problem.

Congratulations if you can face this image of depression without being immediately scared to death. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Congratulations if you can face this image of depression without being immediately scared to death. Picture via Wikimedia Commons.

But in my experience, telling someone, “that’s just the depression talking” doesn’t work any better than saying, “that’s just the appendicitis talking” when your friend has a really, really bad stomachache. This phrase implies that the sufferer can control her symptoms, or, in other words, that she’s choosing to be sick, or choosing to let her illness “speak” when she could and should be silencing and overcoming it.

Choosing depression?

“I think you are just used to the depression and want to hold on to it,” a friend concluded recently. “Do you really want to stay depressed? Why?”

It’s hard enough to cope with depression, but when others suggest that you brought it on yourself, or chose a bad mindset, it’s devastating, and can prevent people from seeking help, for fear of being judged.

And if you’re gearing up for the comments section to tell me that getting treatment IS my responsibility, just as it would be with any other illness, you’re right, it is. I am in treatment — the treatment that is best for me right now, after years of experience with many psychologists, psychiatrists, medications, and alternative strategies.

Your voice

My therapist asked me a very perceptive question recently when I mentioned interacting with readers whose opinions are different than mine, or who insult me, or tell me I should keep quiet because they don’t like my arguments.

Deftly looking past an inherent morass of emotions, she simply asked, “How does it feel to have a voice?”

Later, it occurred to me that my writing career might not be the love affair with language that I always assumed it was. It might be something deeper that my early years often denied me: the opportunity to recognize and speak up honestly about the sad, unfair, painful, infuriating, bizarre, and hilarious things in our lives.

However I’m feeling, I have a voice.

So that may be the worst thing about opening up to someone else about how sad or hopeless or worthless I often feel, and having them answer, “That’s just the depression talking.”

Depressive feelings are still feelings

There are feelings under the ice of my heart. Bad, bad feelings. But they are still feelings.
There are feelings under the ice of my heart. Bad, bad feelings.  So bad you’re justified in leaving the room. Or the state. But they are still feelings.

I understand the value of separating your sense of yourself from the symptoms of the illness. When you’ve been depressed for a long, long time, you wonder if being miserable on the inside is simply part of your personality. People who love you want you to realize that it isn’t.

But if all people can do is point out that “the depression is talking,” they’re simultaneously personifying the illness and downplaying the feelings it causes. Just because a feeling is a clear symptom of depression doesn’t mean it isn’t real to the person experiencing it.

Depression do’s?

So how do you cope with a depressed person? After writing all this about depression don’ts, you’d think I’d have a clear answer about what works, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s probably different for everyone. And I’m starting to suspect it’s almost as hard to live with a seriously depressed person as it is to be depressed yourself.

I would say that there is an immense courage in being able to really hear what other people say, even if their state of mind is frightening. Many of my family members are good at this. “Think about how I can help and then let me know. There is no feeling you have that scares me. I can hear it all,” one wrote on a very dark night. That kind of openness, without judging or personifying the illness, is a lifeline.

Others succeed simply by saying they care about me and that they’re concerned, and asking if I have a doctor or psychologist to talk to. They don’t judge. They don’t deflect or minimize. They just tell the truth: I could use help and there’s no shame in getting it.

Anytime I admit my fight with depression in public, I worry it will cost me in a competitive field, but I also think that many others are silently struggling and would benefit from an open conversation (and sometimes I feel like career writers who have never been depressed are few and far between). I appreciate this essay by a journalist who decided to make his journey with mental illness public. He says that if every newsroom had a “mental patient,” maybe the media as a whole could help reduce the stigma of mental illness.

For anyone who has ever been depressed or loved someone who was depressed, Allie Brosh’s “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two,” from her “Hyperbole and a Half” blog (now a book) are a raw, funny, and soul-soothing read.  You can also listen to Brosh’s Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, which helped me with the idea that it’s ok to talk about depression while you’re still in the mess of treating it.

Have you ever been depressed? What are the things that hurt or helped you?

This blog is for depressed and non-depressed readers alike. Hit the bottom of the page to subscribe. 

20 Comments

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  1. Depression is awful – a deep dark place that no one should be stuck in. It does make you think, feel, and maybe say things from a different perspective, so in a way IT has a voice – but it’s not YOU. Family, friends, MDs can help a depressed person. So especially when you hear, “Oh, that’s just your mother talking.” remember THAT is coming from a good place which supports you no matter what you say.

  2. Hi Alaina,

    I’ll keep hoping you can find some answers. Sure sounds like it stinks.

    Keep me posted.

    I care about you.

    Lisa

  3. Saying that depresses me. I tend to be upbeat. Everyday I try to smile and go on. I had a stoke eleven years ago and know the pleasure and value of life. Each day is too valuable to be depressed and yet I know that is just a simpleton answer to a much more complex problem. We all have monsters to fight. I hope you do battle with yours and eventually win.

    • All most of us can do is smile and go on in our own ways, right? I’m glad life is good for you after the trauma of a stroke. Thanks for reading and for your good wishes!

  4. I learned from my depression that I can FEEL ANY WAY I WANT ON ANY GIVEN DAY (some days I feel MANY different things), SOMETIMES THOSE DAYS ARE REGULATED BY THE DEPRESSION BUT THAT WITH TIME, MEDICATION AND NECESSARY SUPPORTIVE THERAPY AND FRIENDS I feel empowered to “manage my depression” instead of it “managing me” (on the days where all my “tools” to manage my depression evaporate into thin air I ALWAYS remind myself to be kind to myself on those days too). Depression is a part of life for many of us and life is a process NOT an event. Depression does NOT have a timetable so as long as I’m “engaged in managing it” or even experiencing days “when it manages me” I’m still in the game of life….depressed or not!!!

    Anyone that can access the internet and READ the medical studies on depression will discover that depression IS REAL and not imagined. Doesn’t mean they’ll accept that as fact but it does mean I can choose to ignore their ignorance if they continue to believe depression is a choice. I have the power to “manage their ignorance” by IGNORING it!!

    By all means TALK about depression while in the “midst of it”. Your voice may be met with others that disagree; some will shame, blame and chastise you with “just pick yourself up and get on with your life”. Just remember that although that’s “old news” it is the remaining vestiges of the existing stigma attached to ALL mental illnesses / brain chemistry disorders. Use your voice to ELEVATE the discussion on depression.

    I did something radical when in the depth of a major depressive episode. I focused on “the gifts of my depression”. The gift of NOT FEELING GUILTY when I simply could NOT make my bed each morning. The gift of reminding myself of the struggle little seedlings go through to become beautiful healthy flowers. The gift of knowing and exploring deep solitude not sure I’d want to return to engaging with others again. The gift of knowing I would grow emotionally from the depression; that it would cultivate a deeper compassion for others suffering the same or that I could text myself a message that said “don’t forget to raise your head and look beyond these feelings of depression”. My therapist gave me a great quote when frustrated over many ups/downs of depression even with medication and therapy. The saying is

    “Let the body speak
    Let the body speak without saying a word
    Be like the student following behind a teacher
    Saying “This one knows the way more clearly”….RUMI

    I stuck it to my mirror and read it every day. Just reading it made me feel less alone and reminded me I had a voice in my life. Hang in there and keep on sharing!!

  5. Thanks for this awesome article, cous. I think it’s really valuable for many reasons to put your experience out there.

    I seethed for years after a college friend told me, “It’s all in your head.” No shit, Sherlock.

  6. Hi Alaina,

    You certainly do have a voice, which I am especially glad for, and I am continually moved by your strength and candor. You are you, and you are like no one else.

    – EK

  7. Hi Alaina,

    Your post here really hits the nail on the head! I have never personally experienced clinical depression, and I am so thankful that I haven’t, but I have so many close family members and friends who struggle with it desperately, including four who have attempted suiside, and two who have succeeded.

    Being someone who is on the sidelines, I have learned how painful it is for depressed people to hear things like what you are writing about. The key words I remember comforting people about, are “just snap out of it!” As if they could, or didn’t want to.

    Thanks for bringing more awareness to this problem, and may your happiness increase with time!

    Alan

    • Alaina Mabaso May 9, 2014 — 7:36 pm

      Thanks Alan. I’ve also seen what suicide can do to a community. The thing that can be so hard about dealing with depressed people, I think, being a depressed person myself, is that we’re not looking for answers from loved ones who are mentally healthy — we’re looking for support and a kind ear, within reason. Just like you wouldn’t try to treat a serious physical ailment without a doctor’s expertise, your average family bystander can’t correct or treat clinical depression in a loved one, though they can provide a safe and supportive environment as appropriate treatment proceeds. This is an illness that needs professional help, and while it may be naturally cyclical in some people, you don’t have the ability to “snap out of” a true clinical depression anymore than someone can think themselves out of a bout with cancer. At least that’s my experience. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t take positive measures in your life even if you are depressed — I stay in treatment w/ my therapist even if it’s tough and do things like volunteering for a charity b/c I do get a small boost out of doing something useful. Thanks for reading and adding your experience.

  8. I have been strongly tempted many times over the years to have a t-shirt made: “Depression is not a character flaw, it’s a chemical imbalance”. I’m kind of a blabbermouth about this because I think good things have a better chance of happening if we talk about depression, rather than sweeping it under a rug. I am so sorry for your suffering Alaina, and I appreciate your courage in talking about it.

    • Or maybe the shirt could say “snap out of your own illness, why don’t you?” I agree we should talk about depression more b/c too many people are suffering silently. Thanks for reading and your good wishes.

  9. Alaina, What a wonderful piece. Also loved your post on BSR on being called OCD for taking notes at the doctor’s. If you can believe it, a primary care physician said the same on meeting me, because I arrived with hope and medical records and a clipboard. I left disgusted and humiliated. I, too, looked up OCD and noted the connections between that and the behaviors required for writing well. If revision signals OCD, then any artist who does more than splash paint on a page has got it. Also love your point about gaining a voice through writing. Your voice appears to be stronger than ever. You go, girl! xo

  10. P.S. By “if you can believe it” I meant, Wow! It happened to us both . . . and it makes me feel better to know that. How many intelligent medical consumers (who in my opinion will have to bring and take notes) have been similarly shamed by intimidated doctors? I like doctors who like active participants in care. It’s my second criterion, after good training.

    • Alaina Mabaso May 28, 2014 — 8:29 am

      Oh I believe it. I like doctors who actually care, and don’t try to corral you into one treatment without listening to you. Amazing how rarely you find them.

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