I was first diagnosed with depression in 2002. The reality is I’ve probably lived with depression my entire life. Yet, as a child of the 70s and 80s, depression diagnoses in children was relatively unheard of. Over the last 13 years since my ‘official’ diagnosis, I’ve struggled on and off with bouts of depression of various intensities.
Sometimes the depression was minor, like a sad memory passing through, while other times it was nearly debilitating, where it took everything I had in order to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve also been on and off anti-depressants at least 4 times in the last decade, with my most recent course finishing just last year.
Living with depression leaves people with two choices. The first choice is to let it overwhelm you and control your entire life. The second is to learn to live with depression and use it to make you a better person.
I’ve chosen the second option. I’ve learned to use my living with depression to make me a better and stronger person.
Here are 7 things I have learned to build a better me through living with depression.
1. I’m in control of my emotions
Growing up, I was always known as the “emotional one.” Shoot, even at my brother’s wedding, in my 30’s, upon hearing a family secret, my sister said, “we didn’t tell you because we thought you’d freak out!”
Being the emotional one was a badge of shame for many, many years. I would bury my emotions deep inside, never revealing how I truly felt. This only led to feelings of greater despair and loneliness.
Once I began learning how to live with depression, how to manage my emotions, how to recognize my emotional state, I began to fully embrace my emotions. I learned that men can cry, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I learned it’s okay to feel sad from time to time. I also learned how to embrace these emotions, feel them, and then let them go. Although I am not perfect at this, I no longer live in the depressive emotional states like I used to.
I now control my emotions. They no longer control me.
2. I take better care of myself
Self-care is something I never did prior to about 2010. Being a people-pleaser by nature, I would put myself and my feelings aside whenever someone needed my help. I learned how to “be the bigger man,” and just soldier on, despite my mental and emotional state. Then a mentor of mine taught me that I’m no good to anyone else if I don’t take care of myself first and foremost. This goes for friends, family, personal and working relationships, all are much improved if I’m taking care of me first.
Self-care isn’t selfish, it’s necessary. If you’re not taking care of yourself, getting enough rest, enough sleep, enough ‘mental hygiene’ time, how can you effectively care for others?
3. I learned to enjoy exercise
Doctors and psychologists will say that there is a direct connection between your physical well being and your emotional well being. The challenge is that when I was feeling depressed, the level of my physical activity was non-existent. Depression saps all the motivation right out of you, leaving you wanting to do nothing but lie in bed and hide under the covers.
The same mentor who taught me about taking care of myself taught me the connection between your physical state and your mental state. In the beginning, when I would start feeling down, I would simply shift my physical state by sitting up straight or standing up or taking a quick walk around the room. I’m now a half marathon runner and I work out 3-4 times a week.
Even when I’m feeling down, I still push myself to go for a run or hit the gym. The endorphin release from exercising improves my emotional state, and focusing on my workout allows my subconscious to work through whatever challenge I’m facing. More often than not, I come up with at least the next step or two in overcoming a challenge. This allows me to keep moving forward and avoid the stagnation – depression – shame downward cycle.
4. I’m more confident
There’s a personal development saying that “your mess is your message.” I’ve realized that going through all I have gone through: divorce, being a single parent, loss, that my story isn’t all that unique. My story and my struggles have made me stronger. When I look back at everything I’ve overcome, I realize that whatever challenge I am facing isn’t as big as I initially believe it is. I know I can make it through any challenge, and I know I will come out stronger on the other side.
This confidence has also allowed me to share my story, both through writing and pod-casting. My emotional scars tell a story, my story, and it’s a story I should be proud to tell.
5. My social circle is more awesome
I do not allow chronic negativity in my life. Negativity solves nothing, creates more drama, and saps your energy. Over the years I’ve cut the chronically negative out of my life and, in some cases, those that have been cut out have been family. It’s easy to surround yourself with people as miserable as you are simply because misery truly loves company.
Being around miserable people reinforces all those miserable things we believe about ourselves, and the one thing most people want most in life is to know they’re right.
They say you are a composite of the 5 people you spend the most time with. So why not surround yourself with positive people, people who believe in you, people who encourage and uplift you? You may not believe in yourself. . . but believe in others who believe in you and see how much your life improves.
6. I am more grateful
Having been in the lowest of the lows, wondering if life was worth it at all, I now appreciate every single day. I’m grateful for all the things in my life . . . the good, the bad, and the ugly. Each of these things lets me know that I’m alive, that I’ve woken up on the right side of the dirt, and that I have yet another day to live.
7. I’m not alone
A few years ago, I attended a Rob Bell event and at one point during the evening, he had us all write down “I know how you feel” on an index card. He then went through a number of different life events, asking those who had experienced them to stand up and trade their card with another person who had gone through the same experience.
When we’re in our depressive modes, the loneliness is almost unbearable. We feel that we’re the only person out of over 7,000,000,000 in the entire world who knows what we’re going through. The one thing that the Bell exercise taught me is that we’re not alone. It also taught me that you could take two people that are complete opposites, yet have gone through the same challenge, and put them in the same room and they’d have a connection.
Featured photo credit: Darnok via morguefile.com