“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.” ~Theodore Rubin
Growing up I was a thoughtful and happy kid—carefree, easy going, not afraid to make mistakes and take on challenges.
Just before I turned 13, my parents moved our family halfway across the world where we knew no one.
I adjusted well, made friends, and felt content and successful in my pursuit of whatever I decided was worth pursuing. I was strong and confident. I worked hard, laughed easily and often, and felt as if I had the good life all figured out.
Then shortly after I turned twenty-five a severe depressive episode hit me like a ton of bricks. Looking back, I can see how it came about, how several traumatic events stacked upon themselves until I finally collapsed under their weight, but at the time I felt annihilated, ploughed over, and destroyed virtually overnight.
I spent the next nine months steeped in profound physical, emotional, and mental anguish.
The shame was the worst part.
Despite years of evidence to the contrary, when I couldn't get myself off the couch for months, when I couldn't enjoy any activity, and when I couldn't smile genuinely at anyone or anything, I truly thought that this was my actual self, my real personality—that I was boring, unmotivated, useless, a loser, an anomaly; that I was weak, and that all of this was my fault.
Essentially, depression lies to you—about everything. And when you are used to trusting your thoughts and being self assured and confident, it takes a long time to realize that the torrent of negativity in your brain may not be an accurate representation of reality.
It's hard not to trust your thoughts and it's hard to sit and mull over what is true and what isn't, but it's an important exercise, even you only do it in small doses at first.
There is a light in you that never goes out.
Even through the worst of it, there was a tiny sliver of me that knew that something was wrong, that I needed to deal with this, that this was unhealthy and that this wasn't me.
And that minuscule grain of clarity is what kept me up researching what I was going through, hatching plans, seeking advice, and gaining traction. I had to nourish that voice bit by bit, and I went days without hearing it, but it was always there.
Controlling my environment was essential to making progress. Below are the five most prominent lessons I have learned thus far:
1. Accept what is happening.
Acceptance is not surrender; it is simply the opposite of refusal. It is true that admitting you have a problem is the first step in making a change. The energy you expend violently opposing the possibility that you are depressed is energy better spent seeking a solution to that possibility.
Acceptance is difficult, especially in a world where depression is still a dirty word. But it is crucial.
2. Disengage from those who make you feel worse.
While no one can fix your struggle for you, those that can't be helpful are likely to be hurtful. When I was in the thick of my rock bottom, I was in a relationship with a person who could not and would not understand me. When that relationship ended, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders—the weight of his anxiety, the weight of his expectations and anticipation.
The break up was painful, but the benefit of having him out of my life could not be denied. I felt lighter; I felt like I could take things at my own pace without someone hovering around, waiting for me to return to my absolutely most awesome self. And having the space to do things on my own timeline has made doing them so much easier.
3. Talk to your people.
For most of my life I took pride in doing things myself, and while I never had a problem offering help, I had trouble asking for it.
When I finally mustered up the courage to start talking about what I was going though, I couldn't stop. And I was surprised at the reception all that talking got.
My friends and family didn't tell me to shut up and get over it; they didn't scold me for burdening them with my problems. They listened patiently, encouraged me to get it all out, and a brave few even shared similar struggles with me.
It was so freeing, so loving. And it made it easier to see that my experience was just another life challenge, not some deeply-seated, irreversible character flaw. I cannot emphasize enough the value of having blisteringly honest conversations with those you trust. They are medicine for the soul.
4. Know when to get professional help and don't be afraid to do it.
My attitude toward therapy used to be “That's nice, but it's not for me.”
It took awhile to realize that this was nothing but fear of the unknown steeped in judgment—judgment that therapy was for the weak, and that being weak was unacceptable; fear of what was out there, what was possible.
Long before I dipped my toes into the professional counselling pool myself, I came to see that speaking to someone about your darkest troubles is courage exemplified.
Many people never get to that point of cognition and spend years going around in the vortex of their own mind, trying to figure out what's “wrong” with them. Sometimes it takes a professional to bust through that wall—so what?
We don't think twice of seeing a family doctor for a sore throat or a physiotherapist for an aching ankle. Don't spend too much time agonizing about the fact that you might need to see a therapist. Just do it, trust me.
5. Treat your body well.
I hated this piece of advice when I came across it on a daily basis in my quest to dig myself out of my mental hellhole. But the reason it's out there so much is because it's a fundamental must.
A malnourished body cannot power your mind well. Will running cure your depression? Doubtful. But exercising and eating well is like proper car maintenance. You can get away with not doing it for a while, but soon enough the consequences of prolonged neglect will catch up with you.
And you don't have to turn into a gym rat overnight. In fact, I encourage you to take the smallest baby steps you can muster.
I went through many rounds of different workouts, different meal plans, different vitamins and I do not count any of that effort as time wasted. They were all building blocks, trials and errors to get me to a place where I can feed myself well and exercise on a consistent enough schedule without much effort.
Time is not running out; take as much of it as you need to get yourself to this point. It's a process.
Lastly, as impossible as it may seem, know that such turbulence in life does eventually lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of things. Money couldn't buy the emotional depth I've gained over the last year, and if I had the option of wiping all I went through from my memory, I wouldn't.
I know what it's like to be in the thick of things. I know it's almost indescribable. It's abstract and painful and heavy, and every other adjective in existence. But you must know that you will get through it. Chipping away, bit-by-bit, inching forward at a pace that's fast enough for you, you'll figure it out.
Photo by YJ Jeon