Just be yourself! How hard can that be??
There are a million reasons why people all over the world struggle with what seems, on the surface, to be a simple enough concept. Some are self-conscious to such a degree that they are afraid to express their true feelings and opinions. They feel like their social circle wouldn’t approve or accept them if their honest thoughts conflicted with that of the group as a whole. Others seek personal gain while climbing the proverbial “ladder” and know that there is no room for individuality on this assembly line to success. In quiet moments of reflection a veiled battle rages within, measuring this “success” against the reality of losing oneself in the shuffle. Some fear literal harm, whether physical or emotional, if their true self were exposed to the masses. Members of the LGBTQ community who live their lives courageously every day, who have not yet graced the public with their purest of self. Normal, everyday interactions or expressions of love are often tainted by the swirling thoughts of who might see this expression and react in a negative way. Thus sparking the intrinsic debate of whether or not expressing their love is actually worth the risk. The children whose hearts nearly beat out of their chest as their anxiety grows, moment to moment, waiting for that terrifying event of simply stepping onto the school bus. While everyone else is strolling down the halls, finding their seat in the classroom, laughing with their friends; these kids are scanning every inch of their surroundings hoping they can just make it 15 more feet without someone tripping them, shoving them or demeaning them in front of their classmates. Unfortunately, the list goes on….
Though there are many individual reasons why people find it difficult to just be themselves, there is one trait that often ties many members of these groups together, and it’s something that the majority of people don’t like to even utter out loud; depression.
I still feel a bit of anxiety even typing it.
As I contemplated writing this, I started to feel anxious about how people might react to this conversation. Notice I said “conversation” as opposed to topic or blog post. That’s because my hope is that all of you reading this will join me in a conversation, using the comment section below, to share your thoughts, opinions and ideas on this somewhat taboo subject.
I have had numerous interactions with depression in my lifetime, many of which did not end the way I would have wanted. I’ve known several people who have had their life impacted in a major way by the workings of that dark cloud that hovers over their own head or the head of a loved one. I’ve known far too many beautiful souls who have ultimately made the choice to “take control” of the one thing they felt they could still control; their existence in this world. While these moments are filled with sadness, mourning and a wide array of emotions to sort through and untangle, I do my best to stay away from judgement. Truthfully, I do my best to steer clear of judgement on a regular basis because, for starters, who am I? Another reason I strive for empathy is because I have firsthand experience with this unseen monster lurking in the shadows.
Like a lot of people, I cannot pinpoint when it actually started. There is no moment in my mind where I see the darkness suddenly encapsulate me. There are many instances I could point to over the years as suspects; my first marriage failing due to infidelity, losing my mother to ovarian cancer, fighting to pull my best friend back from the brink of suicide only to lose him to leukemia instead. My life is no different than others, I don’t point out these moments to differentiate myself from the rest of you. I point them out to show that we all have struggles, big and “less big” (I won’t diminish them by calling them small), many unseen by the larger population. Some people are able to navigate these challenging moments in their lives and still bask in the sunlight. Others of us search for the suns rays only to find that the beams have diminished to an intensity no longer able to warm our souls.
Being the rational minded person that I am, I wanted to find the culprit, to identify the catalyst to this dark cloud I could not seem to escape. I really wanted to find that defining moment, I NEEDED it! Why? I needed someone or something to blame. If I could just find that one event, that one person, that one thing that happened TO me, I wouldn’t have to admit that this just WAS me. I mean, who wants to admit that?? Now, I don’t say that to imply that a person should give in to the realization that this is just how things are going to be. I say that in the context of, you can’t expect to win a battle if you don’t even know who or what you are up against. I needed this realization to take the next step, I needed to OWN it. This wasn’t an easy task and it took a lot of time and grueling self-reflection, but once I was able to own it, I was finally able to make changes in my life to deal with it. I am happy to say that I am now in a much sunnier place and have been for quite some time. Now that the world around me has been illuminated I am able to see things I could not see before. I am also able to look at my struggle from a much healthier perspective. This has allowed me the opportunity to ponder not just the negative side effects of depression but to also look deeper and find the positive effects of my journey through this barren wasteland. I thought I would share just a few of the rewards of my depression….
This may seem obvious, but my journey would have never even began without a healthy dose of self-confrontation. It is so much easier to operate under the assumption that I am perfect and the world around me is terrifyingly awful and needs to change. Now, there are plenty of things about the world today that are terrifyingly awful and need to change, but that is another conversation for another day. Like any journey, before you begin your self-confrontation I would suggest you pack a bag. Some items I recommend are an umbrella because it’s likely to rain, a compass because it’s easy to get lost and chocolate….lots and lots and lots of chocolate (no explanation needed).
Writing one blog post can only begin to paint the picture of how long and arduous a task it was to finally see me for me. Reflecting on my emotions and my reactions to any and all situations is a never-ending process for me. I like to analyze EVERYTHING, just ask my wife, it’s one of her favorite things about me. I’ll let you decide if that was sarcasm or not. The thing about over-analyzing is that every time you think you are on to something, another variable enters the equation. With too many variables involved a problem becomes nearly impossible to solve. This could be why I am so terrible at making decisions, which is my wife’s second favorite thing about me. With regard to my mood, my demeanor, my motivation (or lack of), my social interactions, my communication, etc., not being what I wanted them to be, there was always an unlimited amount of variables to grab my attention and lead me into the “well, maybe….” train of thought. Believe me, when you are searching for a third party to blame, there are a million “shiny objects” to attach that blame to.
After unsuccessfully searching for the guilty party for far too long, I finally started looking at things from a different angle. I started to wonder, what if it doesn’t matter where it all began? Do I really need to have someone to blame to make a change? Do I like the way I feel or do I want something better? Which is more important, the source of the problem or the source of the solution? Questions like these led me to the decision to shift my thinking toward finding a solution. I can only control what I can control. Even if I found the one true moment to blame for everything, would my life be forever changed, or would changing my life require more? I realized that the reason my mood, my motivation, my social interactions and all the things listed above weren’t what I wanted them to be wasn’t because of someone or something else, it was because of me. That was just who I was at that point, so that was what other people were going to get. I couldn’t give more because I didn’t have more to give. Why did I feel so empty? Why couldn’t I just DECIDE to do more, to give more, to be more? Surely I don’t….do I….no….I have depression.
Clearly, this is not the only time I have utilized self-confrontation. This journey just helped me to understand and appreciate the process on a deeper level. I am thankful for the knowledge and experience I have gained by looking inward as opposed to outward. Like I stated earlier, the process is never-ending, the journey is never complete. Self-confrontation has led me to major realizations regarding my social, parental and relationship interactions and my hope is that I can continue to grow and refine myself as an individual each and every day.
I honestly believe that if we want to change the world we live in, if we want to begin solving the problems that have plagued multiple generations, empathy MUST be the foundation. There are many other tangible factors such as education and resources, yet if the world feels no empathy we will continue to fall short.
Experiencing the many challenges in my life and utilizing the self-confrontation I just spoke of, has helped me develop a more genuine sense of what empathy really means. As I wrote in Sometimes when you lose, you actually….lose I believe that we often confuse empathy with sympathy. We all have those moments when we see something in the news, maybe a report on a racially motivated crime, a social injustice or even the hurricane victims in Houston. We feel terrible at the sight of these things and maybe even a little guilty. Some might even be compelled to change the channel because they just can’t deal with all the “negativity”. The next day they may post about it on Facebook, while sitting in the drive-thru at Starbucks, with an encouraging caption about how things will get better. They do feel honest emotion toward the situation, they feel sorry for the people involved, they even acknowledge it as a real problem, it’s just not their problem. This is sympathy.
Others will see the same reports, then immediately go online to seek out additional information. They will look for more details on the people affected or for ways to volunteer. They will pull out and study their budget to see where they could make a sacrifice this month because someone has to do something. They will find themselves at a shelter handing out supplies and hugging strangers. They will show up at a rally even if they feel slightly uncomfortable being there. They will picture their own friends and family in these dire situations and just the hypothetical may bring them to tears. They don’t see strangers who live far away and they don’t see a problem way off in the distance. They see unrealized friendships and a shared problem in need of a shared solution. They realize that regardless of our physical or socioeconomic distances, we are all individual pieces of the same puzzle. We are in this together; when you hurt, “we” hurt. This is empathy.
Now, before you jump to the conclusion that your Facebook post is being unfairly judged or that frequenting Starbucks is a character flaw, that is not the point I am trying to make. I personally love Starbucks and I don’t have time to be analyzing your Facebook post, these are merely examples. The truth is, only you know your own inner thoughts and feelings and they are yours to keep.
So, how does this tie in with my experience with depression? I learned through my own experiences what it is like to be in that dark place. I learned more personally what the phrase, “everyone is fighting an invisible battle you know nothing about” truly meant. I learned that anything can happen to anyone at any time. In the simplest of terms, I learned to let myself “feel” more, not to run away. When you see that news story that hits you right in the gut, don’t turn the channel, feel it. Let it resonate and let yourself live in that moment if only for a short time. The more we work to put ourselves in each others shoes, the closer we get to making this world a brighter place.
Strive for happiness, not perfection—
As I mentioned previously, I have personally known many people who struggled with depression. In almost every case, I was aware of their depression long before I took ownership of my own. A common question I used to have, and that many of you may have also, is why don’t they just get help? It seems so obvious, if you need help, ask for help. I have always supported the idea of acknowledging and treating depression by whatever means necessary. Whether that is with therapy, medication or a combination of the two. I have encouraged multiple friends and family members to take the leap and use these methods that are available to them. I never felt like I judged a person or thought differently of them for doing so. I couldn’t understand why there were tools at their disposal, yet they chose to find reasons, often what I felt like were just excuses, not to utilize them. It wasn’t until I found myself in the dark depths of a lonely cavern that I finally started to understand where they were coming from.
When you are in the process of slipping further into depression, you often do not even realize it is happening. You know the light is dimming, but because of the stigma attached, depression is the last thing you want to acknowledge. So, you just keep walking, in the direction you feel is further from depression, you try to distance yourself from it. Each step you take leads you further into the looming darkness. You feel like putting distance between yourself and depression is the “right” thing to do, even though you are also putting distance between yourself and the light. Once in a while, you even acknowledge that it’s getting REALLY dark in here, but you don’t look back because you know what’s back there. You begin getting comfortable in the darkness, it’s easier to hide there anyway. You have moments when you peek back over your shoulder and you can see the soft glow of the light and you even long to feel the warmth of the sun.
So, if you see the light, if you are drawn to it, why do you stay in the darkness? It’s so cold in here and the sunlight is practically BEGGING you to step under its rays. Why wouldn’t you just turn around and sprint?! Because you know what is out there. You know the only way to reach the light is to acknowledge what was there all along. You also know WHO is out there. Everyone. You’ve been alone in this dark cave for so long, you didn’t even realize you weren’t wearing any clothes. As you inch toward the light, you see it now. You want the light, you want the sun, you want your friends and family, but how bad do you want it? If you go back out there now, you will be walking out naked in front of EVERYONE while holding hands with your depression. Is it even worth it?? As you inch closer to the light, it is almost blinding. You squint to see who is out there and plan your next move. Will people mock you for what they see? Is it better to be alone in the darkness or be judged in the light? Can you really do this??
It’s a question that not everyone answers the same way. For me it came down to a battle between happiness and perfection. All too often we find ourselves striving for perfection. We want to have the perfect body, the perfect job, the perfect family, the perfect home, the perfect car, the perfect clothes and we strive to portray this perfect life whether we actually have it or not. The truth is, nobody has it. Regardless of how perfect someone’s life appears outwardly or through social media, nobody, and I mean nobody, has a perfect life. Once we realize that, it can be liberating. If you can wrap your head around the fact that perfection is just not a reasonable expectation, then work your way to the next realization, that happiness is a VERY reasonable expectation. We have to stop thinking that appearing perfect will make us feel happy and realize that feeling happy will make us appear perfect! The pursuit of perfection is for others, the pursuit of happiness is for ourselves; and sometimes it is ok to be selfish!
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please reach out for help. You are not alone. Resources available:
- National Hopeline Network: 1-800-784-2433
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
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