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What if We Treated Depression like the Common Cold?

The best thing that happened over the worst year of my life was when I stopped trying to figure out what was “really wrong,” what was missing, or what was “making me depressed.” But more importantly, I stopped trying to hide it all while I “fixed” it.

Picture of the Cold Virus Under a Microscope
Photo Credit: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/understanding-common-cold-virus

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s also my birthday month and the second year anniversary of my father’s passing. So I thought this was as good of a time as any to divulge a secret:

I suffer from clinical depression.

I have battled depression for as long as I can remember. In college, I would fall so deep into a depression pit that I couldn’t get out of bed for over 12 hours. My roommates chalked it up to a hangover or just angst, but really, I was just sleeping, hiding from the world. After I dug myself out, I would spend more time trying to figure out what was “really wrong” than I did treating the illness of depression — or even recognizing that I had one.

No, I am not depressed. I just need to finish my degree, and then I’ll be fine. I just need to find a better-paying job, and then I’ll be fine. No, I just need to find a boyfriend, and THEN I’ll be fine…

This tape and these battles didn’t stop as I grew older, and I fell into one of my deepest pits a few years ago. By my early 40s, I had accomplished a dynamic life I was proud of: I had traveled the world. I lived on a houseboat with awesome neighbors. I had my dream job, and I was making more money than ever. I had great, wonderful friends and family. I had a really cute dog. I did cool things like go to concerts and parties, and I hiked, and I ran mud races. I made homemade whiskey and tried to learn French again.

But these activities masked that tape and something more serious: I was terrified of being depressed again, and I was even more terrified of people knowing it. After all, most people liked me. I made people laugh and do fun things, and they thought I was interesting. And that made me worry that if they thought I was depressed, they wouldn’t understand. When I did try to confide in someone I got, “but why…?” They’d be shocked, and I would hear, “But you have such a great life! What could you possibly be depressed about?”

And I would agree, and then I would feel guilty for being depressed, as though I wasn’t allowed, and I would start that tape again…

No, I am not depressed. I just need to … do something else and then I’ll be fine…

Then I found myself standing at my sink one night, sobbing over my empty, busy life, longing at the handful of pills I was holding, thinking about how much easier it would be if I took them all and just went to sleep forever and never had to figure out what was “really wrong” again.

Thankfully I threw the pills away, and I wish I could tell you that that incident was what finally propelled me to get help. It was something much more tragic: my father was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer, and he was terminal. I used that as an excuse to start talking. I could tell people, “Oh well, I am ‘depressed’ because, you know, my dad is dying, and it’s really hard to deal with,” and well, who could question or blame me then? And it wasn’t a lie — that was the worst year of my life. But it took two great therapists to formally recognize what I was going through, allowing me to admit the secret I should have admitted long before my father’s illness stormed into our lives:

My name is Amie, and I suffer from clinical depression.

The best thing that happened over the worst year of my life was when I stopped trying to figure out what was “really wrong,” what was missing, or what was “making me depressed.” But more importantly, I stopped trying to hide it all while I “fixed” it.

What I learned was that I was just keeping myself busy out of fear of getting depressed again because I thought my depression was a result of a failure on my part. I was terrified of getting bored, running out of things to make myself happy, and inevitably falling back into that depression pit again. But when I had to be honest with my therapists and myself, I admitted that what really brought me to that sink that horrible, terrible evening was the prospect of having to stay that busy my whole life. I was already exhausted, and I had no idea how I was going to keep up with that momentum for another 10, 20, 40 years. What if I did run out of things to do, and I did get depressed again? What would happen next time?

Then one week, I got the common cold. I called in sick, and then I doused myself in meds and chicken noodle soup. I put on my go-to TV shows, curled up on the couch with my dog, and rested for two days until I was better again.

No one asked me where or how or why I got the cold. Even though I was so healthy! Everyone instead sympathized because they had gotten a cold too and knew what it felt like. This also wasn’t the first time I had gotten a cold, and I definitely knew it wouldn’t be the last, no matter how many vitamins I took. And I stayed home because I felt and looked like garbage, and there was no way I could hide that I had a cold. Most importantly, I didn’t blame myself for being sick because, well, it was not my fault. It was the virus’.

What I wondered then was how much better it would be if I treated my depression like the common cold. What if everyone did? We have been taught to wash our hands and take precautionary measures to protect ourselves from the virus, and I have learned that I need to eat well, stay active, and try to put a stop to that tape when it tries to take over. But even using our best efforts doesn’t keep a cold away all the time, and sometimes absolutely nothing can keep me from succumbing to the pit.

But that’s exactly when I need to show myself the same compassion I would to a sneezing and coughing coworker, and that’s what we all should do. Tell them to stay home in bed and get better. Ask them if they need anything. And remember and take solace in the fact that with the right tools (and sometimes when needed, medicines) they can get healthy again — from both a common cold and a wave of depression.

No one likes getting sick, and I don’t ever want to be depressed again. But it’s unrealistic to believe neither will happen again in the future. It’s easy to get over-vigilant guarding against a cold and work oneself into a germaphobe frenzy. I know now that I also have to be careful of doing the same in efforts to avoid falling into another depression pit.

Now though when I feel a depression coming on the same way I feel a tickle in my throat before the inevitable cough starts, I don’t beat myself up, but instead, accept that this is just part of living.

Then I grab a blanket and my couch, put The Office on repeat, and administer the tools I learned from my therapists with the same diligence as I took Tylenol every eight hours the last time I was sick… and hope I have some chicken noodle soup to reheat for later after it passes.

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