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Living with depression (#1285)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, rambly

Sometime during the past few weeks, a friend wrote to me and asked something like the following.

Sam, if I recall correctly [1], you have depression. I have a friend with a student with depression. Would you be willing to talk to that student?

I responded as follows.

Yes, I suffer from (treated) depression. I can try a mentoring conversation, but I’ll admit that I find that each person encounters depression differently.

Feel free to pass my name on.

Last month was National Mental Health Awareness Month. So, I planned to turn that response into a musing. Or to muse about that response. Or something like that [2]. May was a complicated and busy month, so I never got around to putting down my thoughts in a musing. However, I didn’t want to wait another year. So I’m writing something today. It’s important to destigmatize mental health issues.

Now that I’m putting my thoughts in order, I note that I suffer from depression is probably not the correct phrase. I live with depression is perhaps more accurate. That is, I have clinical depression. These days, significant situational issues are also at play [3].

These days, I’m moderately responsible about following the three primary recommendations for treating clinical depression. I take medicine daily. I see my therapist once in a while. What about exercise? I walk at least thirty minutes a day most days. Does that count?

Talk therapy has been helpful, but I don’t use it consistently. There are times when talk therapy is more helpful than others. I went through reasonably intensive talk therapy during the pandemic, particularly at the time leading up to my heart attack. It’s helped. It may have helped other aspects of my personality more than my depression; the toolbox I built with my therapist has kept my anger in check. I’m not sure how closely the anger and the depression relate.

Hmmm … Perhaps we should take a step backward and restart in a different place.

Hi. My name is Sam. I live with depression. Every day, I find myself challenged to put together enough energy to get things done. Getting out of bed can also be challenging. Sometimes, when I get home, I sit in the car for ten or more minutes, waiting for the energy to get out and go in the house. I feel hopeless. And I’m frustrated that it’s so damn difficult to describe how the fog of depression impacts my ability to get things done.

I don’t think most people know that I’m a person with depression. I present a happy, cheerful demeanor. Or sometimes an angry demeanor. Although I say demeanor, the feelings are usually genuine. When I’m in class, teaching, or in a meeting, arguing, I’m often happy and energized. But when things quiet down and I am alone, which happens quite often, the mood usually shifts. And those quiet times are when I need to get things done at home, at work, or in my life.

For most of my life, my situation has not been one that should lead to depression. I have an awesome wife who I love deeply and who loves me back. I have three exceptional children. I have a rewarding job that allows me to make a positive difference in the world. I’m compensated well for that job.

However, as I said, I have clinical depression. It’s a complicated chemical reaction, not under my control. And it makes it hard to get things done.

Fortunately, I also have a relatively strong sense of obligation. I get out of bed in the morning so that I can get to work and teach my classes. Often (but perhaps not enough), when I just want to curl up and do nothing, I can convince myself that I need to get work done for my students, or my colleagues, or my family [4]. That sense of obligation keeps me going forward. The meds, the therapy, and the occasional exercise just help.

Now that you have some background, we can return to the opening topic of this musing.

I never met with the student. I hope that they found better resources. I’m still not sure what I would have said to them. I might have said one or more of the following.

Depression is a disease. Just as you’d consider it reasonable to ask for help and for accommodations if you had a broken ankle (or something more permanent, like a fused ankle), you should ask for help with and accommodations for your depression.

Unfortunately, not everyone will understand that depression is a disease that needs accommodations. Rely on your allies in the Disability Resources Office for help.

People with depression can have successful (and even happy) lives. I hope that I serve as an example of that [5].

Depression is a disease. It’s a disease that needs treatment. Most people with depression find that the triumvirate of medicine, talk therapy, and exercise helps treat depression.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford talk therapy. Remember that there are often other options for talk therapy. Perhaps a religious leader (priest, rabbi, imam, etc.) can serve that role. Your health services or disability resources office can suggest other options.

Not everyone encounters depression the same way. Don’t assume that what works for one person will work for you. And don’t give up when what works for one person doesn’t work for you. Try something else.

You will encounter far too many people who don’t understand the difference between colloquial depression (I’m depressed because …) and clinical depression (I live with depression). There are resources out there that help explain the difference [6]. Or you can explain it yourself. Depression is a disease. It’s caused by the chemistry of the body, not situations. However, situations can make it worse. Something like that, in your own words.

I don’t know you much, but I’d lay odds that there are people who care deeply about you. As hopeless as things may seem at times, try to remember that succumbing to the worst of your depression will hurt these people. Get help!

And, as I’ve implied before, talk to disability resources.

Postscript: As I was getting ready to post this musing, I discovered that I’d written a musing about depression about four-and-a-half years ago. However, I never posted it. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I just didn’t have the energy for it. Here it is, with slight editing.

I suffer from depression and anxiety. That’s not I am depressed and anxious. I have clinical depression and anxiety, the kinds that give me very high scores on the assessments I get from my physician, spared from the top only in that I am not suicidal. The kinds that make it nearly impossible to get out of bed some days or to complete even simple tasks, like sending an email message.

Some might suggest that I should not make such a public statement. However, depression and anxiety are medical conditions. I’m not afraid to say that I’m obese, that I have sleep apnea, that I suffer from arthritis [7], or that I’m left-handed [8]. So, I should not be afraid to state publicly that I have depression and anxiety.

As I’ve said many times in the past, I clearly have a wonderful life. I have a wonderful family. I get to do meaningful work that I enjoy, and I get compensated well for it. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to stave off these conditions. Perhaps that’s not surprising; I’m pretty sure that the evidence is that depression and anxiety have many factors, and many of the key ones are intrinsic rather than extrinsic. That is, they are caused by the chemicals in our bodies and the wiring of our brains, not by our current situation.

How do my depression and anxiety manifest themselves? In many ways. And, like my arthritis, they vary in intensity. Sometimes, they are just a small annoyance, with little effect on my everyday life. There are others in which they feel nearly paralyzing. Just as there are days when my ankles hurt too much to conceive of walking more than a little, there are also days when I cannot bring myself to do anything productive.

Nonetheless, I have learned that there are ways I can counter them, at least in terms of getting things done. Structure helps. If it’s just a matter of doing the same thing at the same time every day, and I’ve managed to get my day started, things often go okay. One of the central aspects of self-gov also helps; when the thing I have to do affects others, I seem to have more ability to do it.

I do not know if my experience of these conditions is the same as those others have. I do know that I’ve had some wonderful students who have had difficulty living up to their potential because of the conditions. Like them, I find that these conditions can significantly interfere with what should be everyday tasks, whether it’s doing homework [9] or communicating with people. I seem to be a comparatively high-functioning person with depression and anxiety, although I can’t speak to the reasons. Perhaps I have other characteristics that help counteract these conditions. Perhaps I’ve been successful in structuring my work to counteract the conditions. I recall from Carol Dweck’s Mindset that there’s some evidence that those with a growth mindset cope better with depression.

Do I want you to treat me any differently now that you know this about me? No. I am who I am. I hope the way you treat me is shaped by your interactions with me and by how I ask you to treat me. Okay, I’ll admit that I’d like a little bit of understanding when I say, I really can’t get that done right now, but I also hope you would have given me that understanding even if you had not read this musing. I admit that I fear that I might get less responsibility because some might decide that my conditions would interfere with my ability to get things done.

So, why did I muse about my depression and anxiety?

One reason is that my muse insisted that this was the time to do so. I woke up at 5 a.m. today, and all I could do was plan the structure of this musing.

Another reason is to normalize the condition. As I said earlier, depression and anxiety are like other medical states; they are part of who we are, and there should not be a stigma attached to them. Perhaps by making it clear that someone who people respect [10] has these conditions, I’ll make it easier for others to acknowledge their own conditions and to ask for help or accommodations [11].

On a similar note, I guess I hope to give some hope to others who also suffer from depression and anxiety. Despite these conditions, I have a wonderful life and a satisfying career.

Finally, I hope this musing encourages my colleagues to have a bit more sympathy for students who tell them, I just couldn’t get the work done within the required time frame. For some, depression or anxiety may have been the cause, and they don’t want to tell you. For some, it may be personal matters or other issues. However, there are many factors that contribute to a student’s inability to complete work promptly, and we should sympathize [12].

Postscript (to old musing): I thought about waiting until I took Ralph’s course on the Craft of Creative Nonfiction before writing this musing. But it felt like the right time. Perhaps I’ll write a better version after Ralph’s course, assuming he allows me into it. Perhaps he’ll take this musing as a sign that I have enough skills to succeed in his course. Perhaps he’ll take the musing as a sign that I need his course. We shall see.

Postscript (new): Hmmm. Ralph’s course made me a better writer. However, I think the new musing is not as good as the old musing. What else has changed?

Postscript (new): When I wrote the old musing, my arthritis manifested itself in my ankles. These days it manifests in my left hip.

[1] It appears my memory was not precise. They wrote iirc.

[2] Has I planned to do X. Or Y. Or something like that become too much of a common trope in my writing?

[3] At the Reunion Picnic last night, I struggled to talk to people about what’s happening in my life.

[4] Those are in the wrong order. However, I find it easier to say, My job requires me to do X than, My life requires me to do X.

[5] I assume that’s why my friend wanted me to talk to the student.

[6] I’m too lazy to look them up. But your Disability Resources office can help.

[7] I do sometimes phrase that as my knees hurt.

[8] I’m not sure my handed-ness goes with the other things I’ve listed. But I have heard that there’s evidence that left-handed people have shorter life expectancies.

[9] Or grading it, in my case.

[10] At least, I hope I’m respected.

[11] That’s right. I should talk to Autumn about whether I would benefit from any accommodations.

[12] It’s taken me some time to reach this perspective. I apologize to those who may have been adversely affected by my strict policies in the past. —

Version 1.0 of 2024-06-02.