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Apr 27 2013

Living With Depression: Strength

[Content note: depression]

Half a year ago I started a series of posts about living with depression in order to help people understand what it’s like to have it beyond just the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. Then I moved to FtB and got super intimidated and didn’t want to write it anymore. But now I have writer’s block and I’m feeling too overwhelmed by everything going on in the world so I’m going to write about myself.

It’s not meant to reflect anyone’s experience but my own, although I’m sure plenty of people will identify with it. If things were completely different for you and you feel comfortable sharing, the comments section’s all yours.

The two previous posts, if you’re curious, were about trust and openness.

For many people, both sufferers and non-, depression is primarily a lack of strength.

Emotional strength, that is. When you hear people call depression a “weakness,” consider the fact that the opposite of “weakness” is “strength,” and you’ll see exactly what they think is lacking in those who suffer from it. Of course, enlightened as depression sufferers supposedly are about their own illness, most of us fall into the same trap at some point.

Because on the surface, depression really can look like a lack of strength. For many years, at the slightest sign of misfortune or difficulty–a bad grade, a rude remark from someone–my entire mental composure would crumple like a dry leaf you crush in your hand. Imagine going to the gym and trying to lift one of the lightest weights they have, but you drop it and collapse in a heap on the floor. That’s approximately the physical equivalent of how it feels, with all the humiliation and self-blame involved.

In reality, of course, it has nothing to do with weakness or strength. It’s an illness. It’s not your fault. (It’s not a “chemical imbalance,” by the way, as someone would usually say right about now, but it’s not a weakness either.)

But, honestly, most days I can’t internalize that knowledge, no matter how many courses I take and articles I read. I feel weak.

Anyway, my solution to this for a while was to try to present a false persona that is strong, competent, and detached. I spent a lot of time furiously pretending not to care about things, because that’s what I thought strength was. It never worked. I’m sure people saw through it, and besides, the thing with depression is that often you can’t fake your way out of it. The pain and emotions it causes are too powerful to hide. It’s like the difference between not letting it show on your face when you’ve stubbed your toe, and not letting it show on your face when you’ve fractured your leg in three places. People are gonna be able to tell. No matter what.

And that inability to hide what I felt was private, shameful, and weak was probably the worst way I’d ever felt like I failed myself. Worse than not liking college, worse than having to drop journalism, worse than not getting (or having to decline) a slew of coveted internships and other opportunities. In the endless parade of personal failures to which I am a constant, unwilling spectator, failing to be “mentally strong” is the absolute worst.

So what about physical strength, then?

It’ll probably come as no surprise (as I’m sure I’m far from the only person who does this) that I use physical strength and competence as a way to distract from and make up for the emotional strength that, despite everything I know about depression, I still feel I do not have.

I’ve been doing that for as long as I can remember. I used ballet that way when I used to dance, from when I was 6 years old until I was 15. Then I switched to marching band, which you may think isn’t hard until you’ve done it. During the off-season I’d bike or walk pretty long distances or go to the gym or exercise at home. Of course, all that was irrevocably tainted by the fact that I had massive body image issues and eating habits that at times were very unhealthy, but I do remember the difference between wanting to lose weight and wanting to be strong. I haven’t always wanted to lose weight, but I’ve always, always wanted to be strong.

(Of course, physical strength is a gendered trait, and the gender that we usually associate it with is male. That means that we think of physical strength as being able to lift a whole lot of pounds–with your arms, that is–and it means that my male friends scoff at how pathetically I compare to them in that department. Of course, I just smile and roll my eyes, because I’d love to see them sit calmly in the splits for 15 minutes while reading a book, or twirl on the toes of one foot. Whatever.)

Partially, I like being strong for the same reasons anyone else does–it feels good, it’s useful, it keeps you healthier. But also, it allows me to shape my body in the way I’ve never managed to shape my mind. Getting physically strong requires a lot of effort, sure, but everyone knows exactly how it’s done. I don’t know how to stop being so emotionally nonresilient. I only know that sometimes I go months without any problems, and then suddenly, for no reason, I start crumpling again.

Muscles don’t work that way. You work them out, and they get stronger. You don’t work them out, and they eventually get weaker. You know which exercises work out which muscles. You know that if muscles are sore, you gave them a good workout. (I say this as I can barely walk for the third day in a row because of this thing I did with my calves, so there ya go).

If I were able to afford a therapist who could actually help (as opposed to the ones that I’ve had, who did not), maybe I’d eventually become emotionally strong. But for now I’ve mostly given up. The only thing that works when I feel weak is simple distraction, but the more tired and overwhelmed I am and the more mental effort I’ve already exerted on other things, the harder distraction gets.

But when I feel strong physically, it makes up for not feeling strong emotionally. Just a little bit.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    The best I have figured out for myself is to judge myself on a sliding scale based on how terrible I feel. So as long as I do a little better than my current mood, it counts as a win. If I’m doing really badly, brushing my teeth and eating 2 meals, and not writing a bad check for a toy to make me feel better… it is good enough. Not good enough to make me not depressed obviously, but enough to keep me from heaping self-loathing on top of the more general depression.

  2. 2
    sage0fwisd0m

    Miri,

    I’ve been reading your blog since you joined FTB. A few months ago, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Before the diagnosis, I found myself identifying with your posts and finding strength and comfort in them; how encouraging to know that I am not alone!

    This post hit home so much (especially the part about crumbling and feeling weak), that I’m delurking after 5+ years of only reading FTB. Please don’t stop doing what you’re doing! :)

  3. 3
    smrnda

    Please keep writing! As a person who has had a lot of mental health issues, I love your take on the experience

    I think physical strength is a good analogy since even though you *can* build physical strength, there are medical conditions and such that will leave you physically weak and that no amount of willpower will overcome.

  4. 4
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    This is excellent, and tracks well with my own ongoing experience with the same issue.

    Oh, right. *opens drapes*

    Like that.

    I’ve always known that playing soccer, or any active team sport, makes me feel better, not just when I’m doing it, but all day and for days afterward. Alone-sport doesn’t do it, and exercise doesn’t do it. But feeling strong is a big piece of it.

    Thanks for writing about this. It helps. I might actually remember to go back to LJ and post today. Been a long time.

    Also, good luck with yours, and the rest of us in this thread. Nice to not be alone about it. I’d start a support group, but y’know, that’d take, like, effort, and that would be hard, and then I’d have to go to it every week, and I’d feel guilty when i didn’t or couldn’t, and I’d feel more crappy, so…yeah.

  5. 5
    cheesynougats

    Excellent post, but one important thing I feel you are dismissing too arbitrarily: that depression is not a chemical imbalance. It’s obvious to me that depression can’t be entirely chemical because I still have errors in emotional and social judgement, even with the meds. However, when I was off the meds but still had the tools I had learned through therapy, I still had a suicide attempt and a few self-harm episodes. All the stress-reducing methods and interpersonal skills meant nothing because I still felt like dying most of the time. I think the best results for chronic depression come from a combined approach: meds and therapy.

    1. 5.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      No no, I’m not saying there are no biological factors involved in depression. I’m an advocate for psychotropic medication. Read the article I linked to there. The point is that the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression has been largely abandoned by researchers but continues to be promoted by pop culture and advertising, thus spreading misconceptions about depression and hiding the actual complexity of the illness’s origins.

      1. 5.1.1
        cheesynougats

        My apologies; this is what I get for skimming the article. Like your stuff, BTW; the network is lucky to have you. :)

        1. 5.1.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          Thank you! :)

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