Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the different ways we can experience a depression and the different forms it can take. How difficult it can be to recognize a depression for what it is, even when you’re the one experiencing it. There are different ways to heal, different lessons to learn. For myself, I have had three, perhaps four, distinct bouts with depression, and they have taken on different forms. These are some of the things I’ve learned from my various depressions.
The first one was the worst. It came when I was 15, a fairly common time for mental health disorders to show up, but I wouldn’t say that it was purely genetic. There was a boy that I blamed my depression on because he began to bully and torment me when I was about 14. At first, I was angry at him and I told other people how much I hated him and how mean he was. But no one believed me. They told me I was the mean one. It took me years to understand how this happened, but he was saying things about me too, and they believed him over me.
After a while, I learned to keep my mouth shut. Trying to talk to people about it only got me in more trouble. They told me I was too sensitive, I needed to let it go. I was too naive, if I knew more about boys, I would understand. I was too selfish, I needed to think about things from his side and stop trying to pull him down. I started to believe them. I blamed myself for everything and I was stupid, worthless, and horrible.
By the time I was 15, I had bizarre physical pains in my stomach that did not have any diagnosable source that the multiple doctors I went to could find. But I was also severely depressed. I was sleeping all the time, refusing to leave the house, watching TV for hours, unable to read, but also obsessed with solving puzzles. I would also fantasize about dying and committing suicide.
To many people, I was still a selfish girl who wanted attention and my illness was not real. I just needed a firmer hand, some believed, a push out the door, and my mother was being too soft. My mother just wanted me happy again. She took me to a counselor and a psychologist and kept trying to help me. My medications and the counseling started to work. I did start feeling better and oddly enough, all of the pain and hatred I had for myself started to turn outward again. I blamed that boy and all the people that believed him instead of me.
From this depression, I learned several things. One, emotional pain will sometimes manifest itself physically because the body does not know how to interpret it or fix it. There is a connection between the physical and the emotional that cannot be denied though it’s also not entirely understood. Two, my mind and body shut down as much as possible when depressed. I need to be vigilant in noticing the warning signs of when I feel the desire to turn-off. Three, anger is felt on the way into and on the way out of a depression but is often not present during the darkest part of the depression. Because depression is often a desire to shut down, it is characterized by very low energy emotions—apathy, lack of focus, disconnection, despair—and anger is a high energy emotion which can be a good sign though it’s also important to not stay in anger for too long.
Unfortunately, the bullying and abuse that centered in this depression occurred largely at church. One of the best things I did when my depression was bad was to stop going to church, and one of the best things I did to complete my healing was to go back to church. When I was doing better, getting back to my angry self, my mother told me that if I thought there were bullies at church then there would be others that felt the same way. “Go look for them,” she said, “be with them, believe them, and they will be your friends.” She was right. The others I found that were being marginalized and bullied became some of my best friends. I also remembered the spiritual feelings I had when depressed (see “A promise of light” for one example) and realized that if I liked praying, reading scriptures, and going to church because they brought me the Spirit, I shouldn’t let someone else keep me from being where I wanted to be. If God wanted me at church, who were they to kick me out?
Anger carried me for quite a while, but it couldn’t fix everything. I went with a desire to be there and a fear that someone would notice I was an imposter. I tried to sit in some unnoticed corner, I had panic attacks, I spoke very little. I realized that I loved the Church, but I didn’t much care for other Mormons. It took a long time (not until the end of my mission truthfully) before I felt comfortable with other Mormons without fearing them.
My second depression came after my mother’s diagnosis with cancer. My fear of losing her and being alone was profound and I again started sleeping a great deal and wanting to watch TV. I went to counseling sooner and found a psychiatrist. I was able to keep up with my studies at school, but I didn’t attend church as much. Those at church that knew about my mother’s diagnosis were very nice and supportive, but I didn’t really let them help me much. I did have fabulous friends at school that helped me a lot. Lessons from this depression: don’t be afraid of medication and counseling, take it, the sooner you do the better it goes and let people help you, you are not a burden to your friends, they care enough to sit with you even when you’re sad.
I struggle to call this next one a third depression because it did not go to the extent that I needed counseling and medication, but it was difficult. I was with a companion as a missionary that I could not leave, we needed to be together all the time, and she had very exacting standards. I started to feel that I did everything wrong, that I was not good enough to be a missionary, I cried a lot, felt tired all the time, and wanted to go home. Being mostly isolated as we were, there were few options for finding support.
Our Mission President had given everyone a talk from President Benson entitled Beware of Pride, and in this talk I found my coping mechanism. I thanked and praised my companion for something every day. When I did this, she was nicer to me. I don’t recall her thanking me or praising me in return, but she was less critical, and doing this for her made it easier to do it for myself. I will not lie and say this was wonderful—it was hard. I don’t think I could have done it if I had not known that we would only be companions for a few more weeks, but it did work.
I learned from this experience that I need to be nicer to myself. One of the reasons her criticisms were so hard to combat was because she did not say anything to me that I did not already say to myself. To have it confirmed by another person made it ten time worse, but I began to ask, why was I so critical in the first place? She and I were similar in one regard—we were both perfectionists. She is what I now call a high energy perfectionist, someone who can pay attention to the details and follow through with her grand ideas because she has enough energy for it. I am what I call a low energy perfectionist. I see the details, I have grand visions of what I want to do, but I don’t always have the energy to do it all which is why I always fall short of what I want and always feel like a failure. I used to wish I had more energy to go with my perfectionism, but my experience with her has taught me that moving that fast often leaves you blind to the things around you. I prefer my slower pace now; I see that I can do more than what I’d originally envisioned because my vision is broader. It is now my goal to fight off my perfectionism and be kind to myself.
My last depression was when we lived in Michigan, far away from friends and family. I was going through several intense struggles (see Problem 1, Problem 2, and Problem 3 for more details) and began to hate myself, God, and the people around me. Looking back on it, I’m surprised I did not recognize it for what it was. I was tired all the time, but I blamed that on my new baby. I started off with anger and it wasn’t until my anger started to turn to despair and I began to fantasize about leaving, shutting down, that I realized I had a problem. I went to God and took my healing seriously, but I didn’t seek counseling and medication. I can’t say why, this was a poor decision, and I do not recommend it. Perhaps it was because I kept blaming other things and thought I just needed to fix this or fix that and then I’d be fine. It’s possible I didn’t trust that anyone else would understand. Maybe I was afraid that people would blame me again or be dismissive about my pain. For whatever reason, I didn’t think of this as a depression until years later when I was finally out of it enough to see clearly.
One thing I learned from this one was the need to talk to other people. I think my husband knew I was depressed before I did, but because I saw him as one of the problems that I needed to fix, I wasn’t listening very well. I got mad at the people at church because they were more concerned about my husband than they were about me. They wanted to answer his questions and help him feel welcomed at church, all very good. But there is no magic answer or silver bullet for someone like him and friendship does not equal belief. Meanwhile, as I was feeling very lonely and questioning my future, no one asked me if I had any questions or whether I needed more fellowship. Neither my Home Teachers (male ministers) nor Visiting Teachers (female ministers) ever came.
I began to get a bit resentful. I felt invisible, taken for granted, and far less important than my husband. I remember trying to make a friend by going to a Relief Society dinner and then crying the whole way home. I started to think of them as shallow, stupid people. And my panic attacks came back in full force. Just like when I tried to go back to church after my depression as a teenager, I would panic in Relief Society, sit by myself in Sacrament Meeting, and say nothing in Sunday School. I loved the Church, but I hated Mormons.
When I look back on this depression, I think my biggest lesson was that forgiveness is the final healing. I needed help desperately but because I hadn’t really forgiven those first Mormons who had hurt me as a teenager, I didn’t allow the ward members in my college ward to help me, and then I didn’t trust the people in my Michigan ward.
I can’t say that I was wrong to avoid church until I was firmly on the road to health. I needed separation from the ones that were hurting me. But holding on to anger also held me back from finding new allies. I’ve been working more on forgiving those that didn’t understand and didn’t see what was really going on. I think I understand them better now and it’s helped me find new allies but also to be a better ally for someone else.
I learned these lessons from battles with depression, but I think they’re useful for everyone. Our bodies and spirits are connected, let them strengthen each other and don’t ever build one at the expense of the other or they will both fall apart. Deal with your anger, it can be very useful, but don’t use it for too long and don’t hide it away or it will destroy you. When you feel yourself turning off find ways to connect and engage. Slow down and be kind to yourself. Find those people that will support you and forgive those who don’t know how.
I’ve met a lot of people who don’t understand what the big deal is. Everyone needs to have good friends, so why is that so hard for depressed people? I had a lot of friends before I was depressed, afterward I had one. Friendship is not easy for me, it’s frightening. But because I’ve struggled with it and worked at it, I think I know more now about how to be and find good friends than those for whom friendship is easy. Because forgiveness was hard, I know more about it. Because my mind and my heart are sensitive, I’ve studied how to take care of them. People who think these things are easy may mistakenly believe they’re stronger or smarter. But I warn you, we who have struggled are wiser and stronger than you realize.
Don’t stop fighting, it’s worth it.