Depressed, But Not Broken

During my 4th and final psychiatric hospitalization, I remember lying in my hospital room crying uncontrollably.  The blood-stained bandage over my left forearm hid a self-inflicted wound; a message carved with a blade reading “LIFE SUCKS.”

I was 17 years old and struggling with Major Depression, anxiety, and passive suicidal ideations.  By then I had dropped out of school because I did not have the energy to deal with people.  There was a history of debilitating mental illness in my family and it was predicted I would follow the same path.  I would not be able to work or lead a normal life.  I would spend my days in a treatment facility with other people who were told their brains were broken and could not be fixed.

Broken.

I felt like a broken person physically, mentally, and emotionally.

In the hospital room that night, I remember begging God to take the pain away.  If you suffer from depression, you know what pain I’m talking about.  It squeezes your chest.  It physically hurts.  I prayed and prayed, but the pain only intensified.  Eventually I gave up on this idea that some spirit of divine comfort would save me from my despair, and decided God either didn’t exist, or didn’t care for me.

I’ve felt like this many times in my life.  I’ve screamed and raged, out loud and also in silence.  I’ve cried in public spaces, hoping someone would extend a loving touch on my shoulder and let me know everything would be okay, only to be disappointed.  I’ve laid in bed for days, unable to move or face the day.  I’ve sat on therapists’ couches, retelling the same tired stories about how I was abused, angry at myself for still not having recovered from it.

Yes, I’ve felt broken.  And while those moments are very rare nowadays, I still experience blips of despair.  These moments are short-lived now thanks to my healing journey, but they still happen.

Many of us face moments of anguish, helplessness, and even hopelessness.  During these moments of distress we may turn to a higher power or source for answers which don’t seem to come.  We turn to friends who are unavailable or say things which make us feel worse.  We feel alone and hopeless, sometimes to the extent that we wonder if it’d be easier if we could just fall asleep and not wake up…

Have you ever felt as if you were dying inside?  If so, you’re not alone.  The more I learn about mental health, the more I realize depression is an existential crisis more so than a disorder.  In other words, depression is not a sign that something is wrong with you, or that you’re broken.  Many people, if not most, will experience depression at some point in their lives.  Even if depression is a chronic experience in your day to day life, there’s nothing wrong with you.  You are not alone.

I go out of my way to say that nothing is wrong with you because my experience has been that belief only worsens the experience.  It magnifies that sense of alienation and hopelessness which overwhelms us as a result of depression.  Many people take measures to numb themselves to that sense of despair and I don’t blame them.  I think it takes tremendous courage to admit to ourselves and others that we’re suffering, and to allow ourselves the space and grace to feel those feelings.  But if you’re depressed, you’re not broken.  Depression is a human condition.  It’s a universal experience transcending race, culture, language, and socio-economic background.  There are others in the thick of it just like you, and while you feel so alone, you’re not alone.

There’s this misguided belief that people who suffer from depression don’t want to get better, but the truth is, many don’t believe it’s possible to get better.  And while that feels so true, the depression itself is a lie.

When I say it’s a lie, I am not saying the feelings aren’t real.  I am saying that the beliefs it feeds us are not true–that something is wrong with us, or we’re worthless, or that nothing matters, or that we will never be happy again.

If you’re reading and this is triggering you, stop for a moment and take a deep breath.  Take as many deep breaths as you need until you can come back to the moment.

Let’s stop for a second and talk about where depression occurs.  It’s not a bacteria we can treat, or a tumor we can remove.

Depression is like an internal rumor turning the mind on itself.

Now, if depression exists in the mind, then we can’t fight it with our minds.  (Please re-read that.)

That’s the mistake some well-meaning people make when trying to assist their depressed friends.  Don’t you think that if a person could think their way out of depression, they would?  Trust me, they absolutely would.  But you can’t use reasoning and logic to “correct” maladaptive thought patterns.  Neural pathways in the brain make it almost impossible to do so.  It’s an inherently flawed and useless technique (so please stop it).

These pathways are sometimes hardwired to follow a specific pattern of thought.  This is also known as a schema.  Schemas predispose certain people to becoming depressed, anxious, or paranoid.  But here’s the good news: those pathways can be re-routed and re-adapted.  We can reprogram our minds so that schemas don’t hijack our perception of reality.  We can do this using various mindfulness and therapeutic techniques.

There are a number of therapeutic processes that can restore balance in the mind, but the most significant practice is mindfulness because it actually encourages us to get out of our heads, to be less cerebral.  Again, we can’t think our way out of depression.  Mindfulness is a path guiding us away from our thoughts and into a higher state of conscious awareness (or “higher mind”).  This broader state of awareness is one that isn’t consumed with the story our brain is telling us.  Mindfulness provides detachment from the thought-forms that have us in a stranglehold.

If chronic depression is something you experience, I suggest seeking therapy.  Sometimes just speaking your thoughts out loud to an objective ear provides immediate relief.  A skilled therapist is there to guide you through your healing process and hold space for even the most painful thoughts, memories and beliefs you carry inside.  Nothing can replace a good therapist.  But there are some mindfulness & therapeutic practices* I studied and employed on my own which not only helped me manage my depression but free myself of it.  I include some of them below.

*Keep in mind, these practices may not work in the middle of a depressive episode.   Medication (natural or prescription) may be needed.  These practices work as a preventative measure when used during times when you’re feeling more like your usual self.  I find the best way to cope with depression is to do my best to get ahead of it by practicing self-care radically.

Mindfulness Practices/Therapeutic Processes:

  • Meditation: the practice of quietly observing our thoughts peripherally, while focusing on some sound, mantra, or physical sensation such as the breath.  Meditation’s effects on the brain have been studied extensively.  Meditation is proven to correct maladaptive neural pathways and restore people struggling with schemas to mental health.
  • Orienting: the practice of finding colors or objects in our present surroundings in order to ground ourselves in the present moment.
  • Deep breathing: the practice of consciously taking deep breaths in order to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which counteracts our fight/flight/freeze responses.
  • Journaling: the practice of diffusing and disentangling our thoughts on paper, in order to increase our self-awareness and decrease our tendency to act on impulse
  • Gratitude: the practice of retraining and reorienting our focus on the good rather than the bad
  • Affirmations/Autosuggestion: the practice of restating positive thoughts and beliefs consciously so that over time our subconscious minds start to take on those beliefs (personal note…this is an incredible practice.  I can actually hear my subconscious mind repeating positive affirmations while I’m sleeping and getting ready to wake up in the morning!)
  • EFT Tapping: the practice of tapping various pressure points in the body to alleviate stress/pain, while reprogramming new beliefs
  • Physical Touch: the practice of specifically applying loving touches to points of tension and pain in the body (personal note…when my heart is racing, I place my hand over my chest, close my eyes and take deep breaths)
  • Grounding: the practice of grounding yourself in the present moment and within your body.  This is done a number of ways.  One great way is to place your bare feet on the ground and feel a sense of oneness with your surroundings through your feet.
  • Movement through Exercise/Yoga/Dance/Stretching/Walking: movement is another way to get grounded and connected to your body and feel the present moment.
  • Coloring/Doodling: coloring easily puts us in a state of peripheral awareness, where our thoughts arise in the background our minds while we focus on the task at hand.  Any hobby that can influence a flow state like gardening or exercising our creativity can induce this state.
  • Reframing: the practice of reframing traumatic memories to reduce symptoms of PTSD.

There are countless mindfulness and therapeutic practices not listed here that can help not only during periods of distress, but can also be used to minimize and eventually prevent chronic episodes of depression.  These and many other tools, with consistent practice, freed me from the idea that I was inherently broken.

Depression, like many other states of dis-ease which manifest in the body/mind, is only a signal letting us know that something is off balance.  There are a number of factors contributing to the imbalances we experience in the mind and body.  It’s important not to blame ourselves or beat ourselves up for what we’re experiencing, but to take a proactive approach to our healing process in whatever way we can.  Sometimes that looks like giving yourself the space to lay in bed and cry.  Wherever you are is where you are and that’s OK.

Note: If you don’t really suffer from depression, please don’t send this to your friends/family members who are depressed as a way of “pushing” them to get better, even if you mean well.  I beg you not to use my work or my story to shame people who are in the midst of emotional crisis, or to diminish/dismiss/trivialize their experience.  There is no singular path to wellness.  Every journey is sacred and personal.  I share my journey, not to tell people how to heal, but to inspire them into believing healing is possible.  If my story can serve as a beacon of light to those who are suffering, I will happily share it from a place of compassion, kindness, and love.

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