The "Right" Way to Be Depressed


CNN did a great thing today. They published a first-person account by one of their editors, Stephanie Gallman, about her experience of being diagnosed with depression, and of telling her friends and family about it.

Initially when I saw this article, I was overjoyed. It’s good to see mainstream media outlets publishing articles about depression that are personal rather than scientific in nature, and I’m relieved that more people are willing to publicly state the fact that they have depression.

But then I actually started reading it:

In August, after several months of seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with depression.

The news came as a shock.

“I’m not depressed,” I said defiantly, shaking my head when the doctor deducted that must be what was ailing me.

“I hate depressed people.”

She laughed at my strange reaction, but I was serious. I don’t want to be in that category of people. Everything they take in and spew out just breathes negativity, and they are difficult to be around. I despise these people.

Gee, thanks, Stephanie. We despise you too.

She goes on to describe how, at her doctor’s urging, she finally realized that the symptoms of depression really did describe her experience. When her doctor suggests antidepressants, she’s not too excited about the idea but seems to at least consider it.

Then she discusses dropping the “D-bomb” to friends and family. Her favorite response from them, apparently, is surprise:

A lot of the people reacted to the D-bomb the same way I did — “You’re depressed?! You?  Stephanie Gallman? But you’re one of the happiest people that I know! You Hula-Hoop in Walmart!” (I really do Hula-Hoop in Walmart — every time I go.)

These are the people I wanted to reach out and hug; they made me feel like I hadn’t turned into Debbie Downer.

It’s true, to the outside world, I do appear happy. And I realize this is hard to grasp, even for me, but I am happy most of the time. I am fully aware of how blessed my life is and express gratitude for it daily. I have worked hard not to let what’s going on with me on the inside affect the way I present myself on the outside.

It’s hard not to notice how much this smacks of a certain self-congratulatory relief, of “doing” depression the right way. This woman is clearly such a considerate person, for not letting her depression affect how she presents herself!

Gallman’s gratitude for her blessed life strikes a chord with me, as it will with many other people with depression, because of how damn often we’re told to “count our blessings” and “be grateful for what we have.” There’s nothing worse, apparently, then being ungrateful.

That said, there are definitely some great things about the article. Gallman talks about her anger at being told to “do more of the things that you enjoy” rather than taking antidepressants. “Bite me,” she writes. “These patronizing (“The Secret”? Are you serious?) prescriptions infuriated me, as if the reason I wasn’t happy is because I hadn’t tried hard enough.”

She also makes a great point about the need for more openness surrounding mental illness. One of the responses she often received when she dropped the “D-bomb” was stories about friends and family members who had also suffered from depression:

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to scream like Adam Sandler in “The Wedding Singer”: “Gee, you know that information … really would’ve been more useful to me yesterday!” Why isn’t anyone talking about these illnesses that affect our most important body part — our brain?

Indeed, why aren’t more people taking about these common, devastating illnesses?

Unfortunately for Gallman, one answer is that it’s because of people like her.

Specifically, it’s because of the people who call us “Debbie Downers,” who tell us that we’re “spewing negativity,” who blame us for our own illness just like Gallman (tragically) blamed herself.

The problem with Gallman’s narrative is that we’re not all as “blessed” as she is. Her theory that she may be to blame for her own depression because she withdrew from friends may be applicable to her own life (though I doubt it), but it’s not very applicable to those depression sufferers who may not have a strong support network like she does. She writes, “No surprise, the wonderful people in my life have all been very kind and sympathetic, offering words of comfort and support.” Well…good for her. Not everybody has that.

Furthermore, not everybody is an accomplished adult who has a dream job as an editor at CNN. Gallman’s habits of eating well and exercising healthfully, which she is proud enough of to mention in this article, are not available as options to everybody. It’s clear that she has a full enough life that she’s able to throw herself into other things and avoid that terrible label of “unhappy.” Her optimistic personality, another trait of which she is very proud, is something that psychologists generally agree is inborn and possibly genetic–not something that all of us are so lucky to have.

After reading this article, I was struck by the pervasiveness of the message hidden between its lines–that there is a “right” way to be depressed. Gallman plays this role well. She does not embrace her diagnosis, nor her doctor’s suggested treatment; after all, doing so would imply that she “wants” to be a victim. She steadfastedly counts her blessings every day and reaches out to her supportive friends and family. She eats well and exercises. She is absolutely not to blame for her depression because she does everything “right.”

And most of all, she sees her depressive side as something shameful and ugly, just a foil to her sunny personality.

What about those of us who don’t have a sunny personality?

I feel for Gallman, not just because of her struggle with depression, but because of how indelibly she has internalized the idea of depression and unhappiness in general as something Wrong and Bad. There’s no room in this article for the scandalous idea that depression, while being difficult and unpleasant, is something that a person can make peace with–the way they might make peace with having asthma or diabetes.

There’s also no room in this article for sympathy for those who don’t play the role of Optimistic Depression Sufferer as well as Gallman does. No sympathy for those who don’t identify themselves as happy people at all.

I’m glad that Gallman has shared her story, and I wish more people would do the same–with their real name attached. But I hope that readers who don’t have experience with depression do not assume that Gallman speaks for all of us.

Edit 4/2/12: If you want to see a brilliant, prominent person discuss her experiences with depression without being judgmental and promoting stigma like Gallman does, read this.

Comments

  1. says

    Oh, she hula hoops in Wal-Mart? How could she possibly be depressed? She’s so quirky!

    On a serious note, though, I like the point you make about her doing depression “right.” I find it slightly reminiscent of the notion of a “perfect” sexual assault victim, who is attacked in the evening, wearing baggy pants and a sweatshirt, by a stranger. (not to suggest an an equivalency between being raped and having depression).

    • says

      I was actually thinking about that the entire time I was writing this. I opted not to mention it in the post itself because I didn’t want to get too far off-topic, but there are definitely some parallels to be drawn there.

      While being raped and having depression otherwise have very little in common, there’s a striking similarity in the way others respond to them. I think that people really want to believe that people who get raped or who have depression must’ve done something to deserve it because it’s very unsettling and distressing to believe that sometimes SHIT JUST HAPPENS. Hence, victim-blaming–both for rape survivors and for depression sufferers.

  2. says

    Hmm. Having had depression myself, I’m confused that her article starts in the doctor’s office with her diagnosis. I was diagnosed by my GP too, but I was there because I suspected something was wrong with me. If the news really came was a ‘shock’, why on earth was she there? It does sound as if she is trying to play up the ‘blameless’ depression sufferer, doing things the ‘right’ way. But gah, having depression sucks so I certainly can’t blame her for hoping she didn’t have it.

    • says

      Good point. Clearly she had the symptoms, and they were bad enough that she wanted to see a therapist.

      I’m aware that many people want to avoid the “depression” label, but honestly, I never understood why. I wrote in an earlier post about psychiatric labels that before I was diagnosed with depression, people used other labels for me, such as crazy, overdramatic, bitchy, whiny, etc.

      When I was diagnosed with depression, I was RELIEVED…I finally had a non-derogatory way to refer to myself.

      • says

        For me, I realised something was wrong, but I didn’t think things were that bad. I thought I had mild depression, and it turned out to be severe. Whoops! For me, I didn’t want to admit that I was ‘mental’, I think, but like you found, in the end I was quite relieved to understand why I felt like I did. And that it could be treated!

  3. says

    “Anyone who would judge me for this weakness that I’ve identified and am treating probably isn’t someone I would want to work for or date anyway.”

    Weakness? Depression isn’t a weakness. At least, I don’t think so. Believing that depression is a “weakness” is part of the reason why it can be so hard to accept. I can’t exactly explain why, but I feel like she used the wrong words throughout this article. Words like “happiness”, “Debbie Downer” and “weakness”–I don’t think a lack of happiness or a lack of personal strength define depression. And “Debbie Downer” is definitely an oversimplification. But you were right when you mentioned that it’s good that she’s getting the word out. It would just be better if the word wasn’t full of the typical judgments made about people with depression.

    • says

      You’re exactly right; I had that same feeling as I was reading this. I kept hoping that she would come to the realization that she’d been looking at it the wrong way–that she’d been contributing to the stigma placed on mental illness–but she never really does.

  4. says

    I loved the Rachel Maddow interview. My husband, who has to deal with depression, listened it first, and said it was comforting and reassuring to hear her. I thank Rachel for that.

    • says

      I’m glad you liked it. Rachel Maddow is incredibly wise and I take a lot of comfort from the fact that she’s managed to live a full and successful life despite not being magically “cured” of depression like I used to expect to be.

  5. Emily says

    After reading Ms. Gallman’s article online, as a person with bipolar II disorder and intensley severe lows, my first reaction was anger. However, in the interest of being objective she makes several good points as well. (Still, I think if I met her I would have to bite my tongue to not meet every word from her mouth with a scathingly sarcastic reply!) There were so many conflicting comments on the thread that I went in search of a coherent and lengthy critique on the article, which is how I found this. I’m not one to openly attack someone on a first impression, knowing that if I step back and try to look beyond my first emotional reaction I’ll gain a more clearheaded understanding of the actual information presented. Basically, I just wanted to say I couldn’t have dissected the article better myself. You hit every nail on the head! Thank you!

    • says

      I was definitely pretty angry when I first read this, too. I still am. Except the more I thought about it, the less my anger was directed at Gallman, and the more it became directed at society at large, especially to the extent that our culture is the reason she has these views of mental illness.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Steffn says

    I’m puzzled by the ire you direct at Ms. Gallman for describing depression as it afflicts her. Surely you do not expect her to represent how it is for anyone else. Your flippant (not funny) comment, “Gee, thanks, Stephanie. We despise you too,” suggests that you’ve taken her words personally, as if this is (or should have been) all about you (or anyone else but her).

    And describing how not everyone else has such a great support group suggests you really do think she is unworthy to make any complaints, let alone share any shock for her diagnosis. Since I, like Ms. Gallman, do not understand how to reconcile depression with my many blessings, I find your misguided criticisms of situations like mine petty and self-serving. Good luck on your psych degree…

    • Thomas says

      I agree, steffin. I read this blog quite often and generally find it very logical in its reasoning, but this post seems quite different. Who cares if she shares post her own experience this way? It’s her own. She is writing a first hand account for a reason – to talk about how SHE dealth with depression, how SHE reacted to depression, how it affects HER life. But by posting this way, with the anger and discontent that you express with her account, you are discouraging others with depression to share their accounts. What if their accounts are different from yours – will you write another squarely criticizing them as you have here?

      • says

        I appreciate your comment. It’s not about the fact that her account differs from mine, it’s the fact that she writes so extensively about her negative attitudes towards those who suffer from mental illness without ever clarifying whether or not those attitudes have changed, and without expressing any regret for them. For instance, she never notes how ironic it is that if everyone “hated” depressed people like she did, she wouldn’t have had the wonderful network of support that she does…

        I did say numerous times that I think it’s great that she talked about her personal experience and that people should do that. But I do believe that even those who are writing personal accounts should be mindful of their privilege in life, and acknowledge it in their writing. I suppose we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that.

        • Thomas says

          Yes, I do agree with you. Thanks for your clarification. Mostly, I was confused by what seemed to me to be an incendiary tone (for reasons you just clarified). Thank you and keep up the good work.