When I was 14, I started my struggle with depression. It was ugly and dark and constantly felt like a weight I couldn’t get out from underneath. I hated myself and the world at the same time. I lashed out at the people around me, while simultaneously smothering them with neediness. I knew things weren’t always like this – I had had a pretty happy childhood. I used to put on plays in the backyard and ride my bike around the block singing at the top of my lungs. I REMEMBERED what it was like to be happy, and yet I couldn’t feel it. Somehow that made it worse. My illness told me I was worthless and I believed it. It told me it would never get better, and I believed it. Until one day, I didn’t want to feel like that any more and attempted suicide. Over the next ten years of my life, I slipped in and out of depression. Inpatient and outpatient programs, medication, therapists, psychiatrists, counselors – you name it, I’ve been there. For the most part, I am healthy now and have been for the last seven years. But I manage my stress levels carefully and still see a therapist to check in (and so someone knows my “normal” so if I start getting sick again, I have a support system in place).
I’m telling you this because I think context is important, and sometimes I think people hear positive people and want to shout, “But you don’t know what it’s like! You don’t know what I’m going through!” I might not know it exactly, but I can definitely empathize. And I choose to look at these really hard experiences as a teaching tool. Here are some of the tricks I use:
- Positive Thinking. Positive thoughts have been known to help heal physical ailments, and are a big piece of how you experience life. But positivity takes practice, especially if you are used to telling yourself negative messages. During my depressive episodes, I would often have to constantly “train my brain” to “stop telling lies” – for instance, if I told myself that “no one loves me,” I would have to instantly tell myself “that’s not true – this person, this person, this person does.” Honestly, it was exhausting, but eventually this became a habit.*
- Try to be a Role Model. How you respond to your life and how you think about your life impacts how you experience it. And when you have kids, they are watching and learning from you. If we can model good mental health and coping skills, this also prepares them for life. It is a huge gift for them, and also holds me accountable for my choices. Basically it keeps me from going too far into my illness because in theory I catch myself sooner and get help sooner BECAUSE I want to be better for my kids.
- Appreciate the Small Things. When you have hit rock bottom, it helps you appreciate the small things in a way I don’t think I could’ve before. The sweet smell of a flower or the simple joy of blowing bubbles on a nice day – these are all happy things I couldn’t find joy in before. It’s also why I love being around children – the way they view the world is so magical because it is literally the first time they have seen it. Which means it really creates wonder when they see snow falling for the first time. It’s truly fascinating to watch a bug move, trees sway, the ocean roar etc.
- Practicing Mindfulness. I could write for hours on this topic, but basically I try to check in with my five senses and be present. For instance, right now I am sitting in the library so I can hear soft whispers and my fingers typing, feel the hard chair on my back, smell the recently replaced carpet, see the even lines of the book shelves that seem to go on forever. Whenever I do this, I feel completely present in my experience and the moment is a little sweeter.
- Gratitude. Studies show that an “attitude of gratitude” leads to contentment. It forces you to slow down and find the good in something, even when you could easily argue the opposite. I have found that if you LOOK for the good, you can always find it. Sometimes it just takes longer.
- Giving Myself (and others) Grace. I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain how I use this word. I think it stems from the idea of God’s grace and forgiveness, even though I’m not really religious. When I looked at the dictionary, it says things like “mercy, pardon; a special favor; disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency; or a temporary exemption – reprieve.” I think that’s more what I mean – when things aren’t going well and you feel like a failure, that’s when you need to show yourself some kindness and grace and patience. Basically it’s reminding myself to not be so hard on myself. Life is hard enough already without me beating myself up.
- Put in the Work. Happiness and joy are fleeting. They are feelings, which means they don’t (and shouldn’t) last forever. They are the mountaintops we experience that teach us perspective, and if we want to get to them, we have to climb the mountain. We have to DO THE WORK. That means being kind to yourself and others. Stop listening to the negative messages in your head and talk to yourself the way you’d talk to your best friend. Don’t let yourself sit in the bad feelings longer than you have to – experience them fully, acknowledge them and let them pass by so you can keep climbing.
I feel like I am constantly learning and constantly failing at all of these. I still have the occasional bad periods and have to fight to stay mentally healthy, but it doesn’t feel as much like a daily struggle anymore. And life is so worth it. I wish I could tell my 14-year-old self to just hang in there – it does gets better.
*While positive thinking is a helpful TOOL in dealing with depression, it is often not the only treatment needed. I was doing this mental training in addition to seeing a therapist and taking medications to get myself through.
If you are feeling hopeless, there is always hope. Don’t give up and always keep reaching out for help. It will get better. For the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-8255 or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.