I’m chronically depressed.
It’s a diagnosis…but it’s not a disease.
Did you know that October is National Depression Education and Awareness Month?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), my diagnosis means that, in the opinion of psychiatrists, I have four or more of the following symptoms that have lasted for more than two weeks:
• Body: Fatigue, body aches, significant change in appetite, sleep disturbance
• Mind: Racing thoughts, negative thinking, negative self-concept, suicidal thoughts
• Mood: Sadness, despair, guilt, lack of self-worth, hopelessness, irritability
• Social: Loss of interest in social interaction, lack of desire in activities, withdrawal from others, loss of sex drive
You may recall times in your life when you’ve experienced symptoms like these. There may be good reasons for them, too. But that doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill or have a disease!
When my Mom died after a long illness, I didn’t grieve right away. After a year or so, when I finally did begin to feel her loss, those grief emotions hung around me for a long time. They are supposed to; that’s how it works! Losing a parent is a life experience that deserves prolonged grief.
When I faced my own suicidal thoughts during a very dramatic and intense period of my life, those feelings stayed with me for many months. They are supposed to! I still make an almost-daily decision to keep breathing. Facing my own desire to kill myself, but deciding not to, is a life experience that demands deep emotions. No other way to handle it.
Sure, I used anti-depressants, and I’m glad I did so with a great psychiatrist and an educated awareness and understanding. I also stopped using them cold turkey after about a year when my feelings of being an experimental lab rat ran counter to my desire to fully experience the emotions and fully process them.
More recently, on the advice of a naturopathic physician, I tried using melatonin. The chemical reaction I had after only a week got me literally screaming into my pillow. I stopped that experiment cold turkey, too.
Perhaps it serves the medical and psychiatric communities to label me with a mental illness. But there’s no scientific test for depression, and no evidence that it is a disease. All that science can do for depression is treat the symptoms, often with drugs that carry a suicide warning as well as highly unpredictable effects folks like me probably don’t want. Getting to the root cause of depression has so far eluded the scientific and medical research community.
So what do I do?
These days when I get depressed, I recognize the symptoms as I would an old friend. I welcome the opportunity to identify the source of what I feel. If it is unprocessed grief, I grieve. If it is “anger turned inwards,” I rage. If it is loss, fear, aimlessness…whatever…I give myself the time and care of fully experiencing the loss, fear or aimlessness. I do this where it’s safe for me and safe for others – raging on the highway isn’t safe! – and I do this until I’ve fully felt the symptoms depression brings to me.
To fully feel the symptoms of depression in safety for myself and with compassion for the safety of others around me is a good practice.
To fully feel those symptoms is not masking them by meditating, praying or doing anything to change them.
Sometimes I cry; sometimes I keen (like when I was screaming into my pillow on melatonin). Sometimes I rage -- but without breaking things and hurting people! Sometimes the symptoms are so intense that it makes my entire body quake – I’ve learned that these kinds of tremors can be very healing.
When I’ve fully experienced the symptoms, they leave me. That process can take minutes or months, depending on the intensity of the life experience that triggered the symptoms.
How do I do this?
Full experience of emotion, for me, happens when I bring those symptomatic emotions to music.
Music lubricates the experience of my depressing emotions. Music allows me to experience the symptoms and the feelings that go with them in a very personal and healthful way.
Whatever the DSM wants to claim about me, I don’t feel that my practice is a sign of mental illness. To me it feels like I’ve found a way to give myself proper care – care that drugs and therapy don’t give me.
If you are experiencing depression, I hope you can use my story. I hope it will inspire you to try a different approach to meeting the symptoms you experience. Without stigma and without fear.
Some experts feel that symptoms of depression open a doorway to the human psyche – the soul. I’ve walked through that “chronically depressed” doorway many times in my life. With all that practice, I’ve gotten better at it. I’d like to think you would join me there.