Erin Stewart
September 22, 2016 1:18 pm

I experienced recurring bouts of depression as part of my then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder for years. And I dealt with them by not dealing with them. For months, a toxic cloud would seal me into this gray, breathless world, and I’d insist on going about life as usual — never acknowledging that it was impossible to go about life as usual.

My social life suffered. I tried to be present at parties and participate in casual chats, but I didn’t have the energy to follow conversations. I got cranky. Sometimes I’d lie to people and decline a conspicuous number of social invitations, claiming that I had the flu or a stomach bug.

My mind suffered, too. My brain felt frozen and leaden. I couldn’t help but spend entire days barely moving, mostly napping. I called myself lazy and felt worthless.

There were many reasons for why I ignored my feelings. I noticed the stigma around me, the way people laughed at those “too weak” to be happy. I also didn’t take myself seriously. I didn’t think I was going through anything “that bad” — even while my mind constantly filled with thoughts about death. Plus, I lacked awareness about what mental illness even was.

After multiple attempts to find help, and with the support of friends, I eventually received a diagnosis and got professional help. I gradually realized that when I stopped denying my reality, I could actually figure out how to deal with my reality.

And while I was right that it’s painful to hold depression up to the light, it is dangerous to ignore it. That was a major disservice to myself. When depression is forcibly obscured in the shadows of your mind, it tends to seem even worse than it actually is.

Accepting my depression involved actually identifying that I even was depressed. There are many different methods for identifying emotions — things like meditation or keeping a diary. Depression can have physical elements like muscle tightness, feelings of heaviness, and fatigue, so I’ve found yin yoga (a type of slow stretching) to be very helpful. It lets me reflect on how I’m feeling physically, which can lend insights into how I’m doing emotionally. And I can’t acknowledge how I’m feeling until I realize what I’m feeling.

Acknowledging depression doesn’t mean that depression wins. It doesn’t mean that I submerge myself in blankets and pillows, completely withdrawing from life.

I take it easy. I scale back on commitments, I comfort myself with baths and cups of tea. The hardest part is when I need to ask other people to look out for me and assist with some of my responsibilities, but I’ve become increasingly able to say the words, “I need help.” And I’ve learned that if you choose the right person to say them to, they are magic.

“The world sucks, I suck,” and “I wish I was dead” aren’t really thoughts I have that often any more. My thoughts are gentler. Realizing that I’m depressed — and not a terrible person with bad feelings — has let my thoughts shift to “I don’t feel great right now.” I know from experience that things will get better, that there will be a time when I feel more energetic and more like myself. So, until then, I can figure out if there’s something I can do to make life a little nicer. And even when I can’t figure that out because I’m too severely depressed, it’s no longer impossible to imagine a better life or hold on to happy memories.

It’s natural to not want to see the intricate details of your pain and vulnerability, but the truth is less shocking than you may think. For me, it holds the key to feeling better. Working with yourself and your limitations, instead of resisting them, is the ironic path to fighting back.

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