Observations, Self, Writing

dear Mel: on depression.

Dear Mel,

I recently lost a bunch of weight, and am trying to lose more. But I’ve been losing momentum. I haven’t gone to the gym in a week. I also hate my job. I woke up yesterday and realized that I dreaded going in to work. My coworkers are entitled and rude. Plus they comment on my weight constantly (mostly it’s nice– well, now it is. It wasn’t before); but quitting my job is not a financially viable option right now. I’m stressed out, and it’s making me super depressed. Last night I ate an entire pizza, which is contributing to a spiral. What should I do?

Yours truly,

Pretty Sure I’m Depressed AF.

Dear Depressed Af,

So, a new report by the New York City Department of Health and the Mayor’s Office says, “Major depressive disorder is the single greatest source of disability in NYC. At any given time over half a million adult New Yorkers are estimated to have depression.”

While I could have told you that myself just by noting how many people I’ve seen crying on subways or drinking themselves into oblivion on a weeknight, a more insightful point the report makes is that some of the most affected (and poorly treated) groups are people with low income, Latinas, and African Americans (you, part of which may be that they’re treated like freeloading scum by half the country). A choice quote:

In the United States, African Americans are less likely than whites to be diagnosed with common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. But when they are diagnosed with a mental illness, African Americans are more likely than whites to experience a persistent and severe illness. This may in part be due to biases in diagnosis. For example, African Americans are more likely to be given a diagnosis of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, and that is true even when they have the same symptoms as white people.

On the flip side, there are soooooooooooooo many people I know who go around calling themselves depressed but are really in a bout of feeling sad or lonely (keep reading– bouts of sadness are still horrible to experience and are still legit!) As a feminist, I understand why what we call things matters. Words carry power. Gloria Steinem recently said in an interview that she no longer calls people who have sex for money “sex workers,” even though many people believe that that title gives dignity to a profession that’s often considered shameful. Why? Because calling them sex workers allowed other people to say, “Hey! Stop complaining about the government not helping you! You can always get a job doing sex work!”– exploiting that term to try to push people into prostitution to get off welfare. That, ya know, is pretty shitastic.

Still, I often wonder if people resort to semantic arguments about terminology in order to avoid facing the humanity of the person in front of them: to avoid having to take into account that person’s experience, their probable intentions. Lambasting someone for using the wrong word lets you ignore what they really meant by it, which you could only know by developing a relationship with them, at least for the duration of a conversation. It’s much easier to be right when you don’t have to give the benefit of the doubt.

STILL AGAIN, I do feel irked when I hear people are just having a hard time call themselves depressed. I was diagnosed with depression my freshman year of college, though I had experienced symptoms of it earlier. My junior year of high school, I remember feeling for months that life was just not worth the effort of getting out of bed. I wasn’t getting joy from the things that used to excite me. In fact, I couldn’t feel much of anything. But when I got to college, things went into overdrive. I was cutting, obsessing about food intake, crying at all hours of the day for no reason, even seeing ghosts of myself walking around doing things, as I lay in bed wishing I had the courage to kill myself. When I was feeling better by junior year, I went off my meds. I developed bulimia as a coping mechanism. I stopped going to class, instead lying in bed and crying for hours. I had to take several incompletes. Then I got back on meds and felt better. So I went off them again. And went crazy again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Tl;dr: It was fucked up.

Not everyone’s depression looks like that. I realize it’s a trap to hold my experience as some kind of standard. Depression is real for many and looks different for many. But people who are unhappy in their jobs; who are stuck in a bad relationship; who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands they don’t know how to use; who have lost a loved one are probably not depressed in the clinical sense. Rather, they’re grieving, or frustrated, or overwhelmed.

As to why I am bothered by your suggestion that you are depressed: it’s not AT ALL that I feel like my experience of depression is invalidated by someone who’s struggling “less”/differently than I did calling themselves depressed. Some people have said that “depression” as a term can be cheapened/ weakened by overuse, and maybe that’s true. But I also don’t care what the popular definition of depression is, as long as me and my caretaking team are agreed on it.

My issue is more with the way we tend to pathologize normal human emotion. Depressed AF, you don’t need to claim you’re sick for your emotions to be validated as real.

Let me say that again: You don’t need to pathologize your feelings for them to count as painful, important, or legitimate.

I like to think of our feelings as little sweet furry animals in our tummies (no, we didn’t eat them; stop reading too far into my analogy) who call out to get our attention when they see we need something. Anger tells us we need something. Fear tells us we need something. Those feelings are unpleasant, but if your Fear is a (talking) puppy, would you tell a frightened puppy to shut up and stuff a muzzle in its mouth? I hope not! Instead, you might pat your puppy Fear and let it tell you what’s wrong, and by the comfort of being heard, it might not need to cry anymore.

Are you nervous about some big changes in your life? You likely don’t have “social anxiety.” You are uncertain about your future and current place in the world. Do you find yourself overwhelmed with disproportionate rage every time you lose your keys? (Anyone? Or is that just me?…) You don’t have anger issues. Your anger may be telling you that you feel out of control.

Basically, I think feelings are not diseases.They tell you something true about yourself and your needs, and about how best to care for yourself. Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with you. Your body and brain are just trying to get you to listen to what’s real!

That all being said, please: if you do believe that you are depressed, GET HELP. If you suspect you are experiencing healthy but uncomfortable feelings, try simply caring for yourself. Do some research on free/ cheap therapists in your area, go back to the gym and exercise just for 10 minutes just to remind yourself you are still on the right track, take a hot bath, snuggle with a body pillow, get a massage, pray, and most importantly, sit with your feelings and tell them you hear them. Out loud, if you like. Know that you don’t have to claim a disease for your feelings to be valid. Feelings are ALWAYS valid (note: not all ways of dealing with them are!). Take the time to evaluate your feelings and care for yourself whenever you feel like shit.

I really, truly think that if you care for and love on yourself, you’ll feel better. Hopefully better enough that you can motivate yourself to look for a new job. Cause that sounds like an unhealthy work environment that no amount of self-care could completely seal out.

I sincerely hope you feel better soon.

xoxo,

Mel

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