Emotional fluctuations are anticipated and normal within the human lifespan. Depression, however, is different; it is a persistent feeling of sadness, lasting more than two weeks in duration, which is detrimental to one’s behavioural, emotional, mental and physical well-being. Depression is caused by a combination of factors such as biochemical imbalances within the brain, environmental factors, genetic make-up and personal experiences. An article published by the Stanford School of Medicine utilized twin studies to highlight the role of genes in depression, demonstrating heritability as a major risk factor for depression. While another article published by Harvard Health asserts that depression is caused by imbalances within chemical receptors which are responsible for perception and temperament. Putting aside medical explanations of depression, environmental and personal experiences are also strong triggers for depressive illnesses. Distressing events such as the death of loved one, loss of a job and termination of a relationship increase an individual’s vulnerability to depression. However, the societal stigma associated with depression prevents individuals from acknowledging and accepting their illness, in turn affecting a practitioner’s ability to correctly diagnose and treat the symptomologies of depression. This stigmatization forces sufferers to isolate themselves from social support which is an important protective and preventative factor against depression. In turn, possibly increasing the risk of suicidal behaviour and ideation.
A week ago television personality Charlotte Dawson lost her fight to depression, committing suicide in her apartment. Upon hearing of her death I was overcome with grief that she felt that the only escape from her depression was to take her own life, that in order to cope she had to result to such an extreme and permanent measure. Her death had become a social media frenzy with people updating their statuses sending their condolences to her family and friends, yet, very a few people wanted to address the cause of her death, depression. As a society we tip toe around an illness that affects 350 million people worldwide, that is one in four women and one in five men. However, as a society we need to open the conversation about depression, to lessen the judgement, the stigma and to make it easier for people to say “I am sad and my sadness is unendurable”.
I am one of those one in four women that have experienced depression. There is no sugar-coating how it made me feel: SIMPLY SHIT. You wake up and you do not want to get out of bed, nothing seems worse than the idea of having to engage with people, little things irritate you and you find yourself lacking patience at the simplest things, a good night’s sleep does not fix the tiredness and emotional lows become so frequent that you cry at the drop of a hat. Depression overrides clarity, hope and optimism, leaving you feeling burdened and heavy. The lack of control you have over yourself, your emotions and your life during depression is incredibly difficult to deal with. From every angle of your life your feelings of sorrow are exacerbated, emotionally debilitating and exhausting you. The experience is further intensified when you feel like you cannot share your emotions and thoughts with anyone as you do not wish to burden others and when you realise that majority of people do not have the patience to deal with your sadness. It is essentially a solitary experience which slowly erodes the self, which is not surprising considering it is metaphorically referred to as the black dog.
My knowledge of depression was not enough to assist me in apprehending what was happening to me psychologically. As a friend of mine said “I consider myself to be very privileged in the life that I have. That’s one of the main reasons I don’t talk about my depression, I don’t believe I have the right to feel the way I do.” Openly discussing my experience in the privacy of my GP’s room was stressful in itself. I sensed her judgement peering over my answers to questions like “On a scale of one to ten how anxious are you?”, as if it were absurd that someone as fortunate as myself would feel anything but gladness and gratefulness. It was not until I sat across from a trained therapist, pouring out my heart and soul, that I started putting the pieces of the puzzles together. What I realised in those sessions was that when you deny yourself the right to deal with your problems by repressing them; you also deny yourself the ability to recover.
An essential part in recovering was communicating. Communication does not have to entail talking, it can be a written email, letter or text, as long as it verbalises your emotional experiences. People can and will help you, however, you must search for them and be open and receptive to the support and strength they have to offer. Reaching out, verbalising that you need help and being honest with yourself is the beginning of a better day, a better week, a better month, a better year and a better life.
When your body becomes sick, your immune system fights for its right to function; when you hold your breath, your body fights for its right to breathe; and when you break a bone, your body fights for the right to heal. It’s the same with when you feel distressed, disheartened or depressed: you must fight to get your groove back, to live a life that is a little happier, and to find the ability to laugh and smile again.
If the most minuscule cells and parts within you haven’t given up yet, why should you?
You’re meant to fight.
If you know anyone experiencing depression please reach out to them and offer them a helping hand, in the words of Stephen Fry: “Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
If you are experiencing depression please seek help through these avenues:
In an attempt to keep fit I dragged myself to kick-boxing and partnered up with a new girl in the class. She was thin like myself and was in great physical shape. At the end of the class her and I were chatting to one of the other ladies when she started discussing her work out regime and how hard she trains to keep her body in shape. She then turns to me and she says “I am not going to stop until I have a body like yours”. I stood there not knowing what to say because she was already thin, I replied with “That’s my natural build, I am petite by nature”.
What I realised in that moment was how critical women are of their own bodies, even if their bodies from an outsiders point of view looks great and most importantly healthy. While I am not naive to the fact that there is an increasing societal pressure for women to look a particular way, I think it is horrific that women who are already healthy or slim feel the need to continue to lose weight, that they are unable to recognise how fantastic their bodies are.
It took me a long time to appreciate my body. I struggled with accepting that I had more hair then other women I knew, the fact that I had stretch marks all over my bottom and the back of my thighs, scars on my legs and acne markings all over my back. When I looked at women around me, women in magazines, women on TV and women in social media I felt inadequate and flawed. That showed in the way I dressed, the way I carried myself and the way I interacted with men on an intimate level.
After getting a job in a retail store specialising in fashion, I was slowly able to break the mould and started wearing things that showed my back, with scars and all. What I found was that nobody noticed it and nobody made me feel any less beautiful because of those markings, it was a fragment of my own insecurities.
Now getting older, a month away from being 25, I am feeling a little bit more confident in skin. Is my body perfect? No, most certainly not. But, it is the only body I have, the only thing I can do is love it.
My body isn’t a project that needs to be worked on so it can be perfected, rather it is something I need to embrace and enjoy, something I need to look after because it is the only one I have.
“apologize to your body.
that’s where the healing begins.”
- Kids in third world countries don’t have the opportunity to live as long as you because they have no access to food, clothing, shelter or water. Have gratitude for the life you are capable of living.
- Challenge yourself. Run on the treadmill a little longer. Give up a bad habit. Strive to do good every day. Whatever it is, set a goal, stick to it & achieve it or at least try to. Even if you are unsuccessful, just remember that success is built on failure.
- Let go of anger. If you stay in that inferno too long you will be left with third degree burns.
- Don’t mock pain you haven’t endured.
- Stop being so fucking pessimistic. It’s draining. Your shitty attitude does not encourage anyone, especially yourself.
- You’re not a doormat so don’t let anyone treat you like you are. It is self-destructive.
- Wear red. Because you’re a pioneering spirit who is powerful & strong.
- Stop being so afraid. Negative life events are unavoidable but don’t let that keep you from life experiences. Don’t let your past taint who you are, and who you could be.
- Stop carrying your emotional baggage. Off-load and travel lighter.
- Live out your fantasies every day.
While I was doing my counselling placement, majority of my clients were males, a clientèle I was scared to work with because I was not sure if I could empathise or relate to them as much as I did females.
Now, after having worked with them on a consistent basis I have realised that the emotional disparity between men and women is very little, that men experience similar emotional reactions and thoughts as women.
The major difference concerning mental health between the sexes is the stigma men experience about seeking help for their emotional and mental needs and the lacking of a critical social support system where they can speak openly and honestly about their emotional concerns.
It’s so easy to dehumanise people because of our own experiences or because of what we perceive them to be like. However, the struggle of anxiety and depression is real for men and it’s one that needs to be addressed and overcome by society.
When you’re younger you have an idea of what a happy life looks like. For me it was a white picket fence, flowers and a fireplace surrounded by the love of my life, my kids and a cute dog you could fit into your handbag by the age of 25. Yes, I was a romance novel visionary. But unlike Jane Austin I didn’t quite have a hit on my hands and there was no Mr Darcy to have a spirited courtship with. Evidently, that idea of happiness stayed just that, a notion.
Three months ago I made a friend through Tumblr who uses his blog to bring happiness to strangers. After sometime he asked me write an article about happiness, I was flattered by the request and agreed to write the piece. Two months later and I am still sitting at my laptop fumbling over the right words to encapsulate this idea of happiness. The truth is growing up I was never a happy kid. I remember a lot of anger and sadness because I couldn’t get my head out of thoughts of how life had dealt me cards that I didn’t want, instead of getting the King or Queen I got the Joker repetitively. And maybe I am still growing up because some days I still feel angrier and sadder than ever. Only now those emotions aren’t internalised and selfish. Instead those emotions relate more to how the world is rather than how MY world is. And those emotions no longer override my happiness.
The change in my attitude to happiness wasn’t as simple as clicking my fingers and having a bunny magically pop out of a top hat. It was gradual, slow and at times unnoticeable. It started when a 13 year friendship died like a withering plant. While it wasn’t an ideal life experience, it forced me to re-evaluate life, to lose the parts of me that failed as a friend and person and to implement changes for present and future circumstances. I enrolled into a kickboxing gym (I still punch like a ‘girl’), befriended, maybe even stalked, a stranger on Facebook (now one of my closest friends and inspirations), found a new job that has taught me discipline (also that love/hate relationships last) and enrolled myself back into university for another 10038 years of postgraduate study. Initially, each of these things were out of my comfort zone and they required me to work my ass off. That’s when the complaining began. I complained when I couldn’t get a kick right at the gym, I complained when I had to stay back at uni to finish an assignment, I complained that my job was too stressful and I complained that life sucked. It made sense though. I was the girl whose ambition was handicapped by her laziness. Notice how I used the word was. As in past tense.
In training to become a Deakin University ambassador I was asked why I wanted to be a psychologist and my reply was “Much of life is mind over matter”. That answer changed everything. I stopped seeing and thinking of aspects of my life as chores and I began to see them as choices I made for a better life.
Happiness is much like that.
Happiness is a choice, a conscious decision you make every day.
Elizabeth Gilbert quotes “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it and sometimes even travel the world looking for it”. This notion of personal responsibility towards happiness isn’t something that you read in fiction books like Eat, Pray, Love, it is also a notion that has been identified by great philosophers such as Aristotle, Dalai Lama and Immanuel Kant. Our actions, attitude and aspirations are essential ingredients for happiness. But, happiness, like all emotions, is not consistent. Emotions are fluid, they change with life situations and fluctuate over the lifespan. Maybe I speak for myself, but a large part of happiness comes from accepting that happiness coexists with sadness, that a Ying must have a Yang.
Positive psychologist and author of Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, utilizes scientific methodologies in his view of happiness. He compartmentalises happiness into three components, pleasure, engagement and meaning, with the latter two baring more importance. His studies found that the happiest people were those who discovered and mastered their signature strengths such as courage, humanity and persistence. This individualistic approach highlights the importance of nurturing ourselves; emphasising the use of a mental toolbox filled with tools such as forgiveness for the past, gratitude for the present and optimism for future to enable us to create a satisfactory life. For me this year was about mastering my strengths, which was incredibly difficult because I had engaged in self-doubt for so long, becoming comfortable with the idea of being small. Breaking the pattern of low self-confidence and self-worth wasn’t easy, it required me to flush out maladaptive thoughts of myself, to understand the power words had when I spoke to myself negatively (no more I should haves), to repeatedly tell myself “I am the shit” (don’t judge me, it works) and to focus on my strengths rather than dwell on my weaknesses. I am betting all of those tools in my toolbox had something to do with 2013 being one of the happiest years of my life.
Studies have also looked at what aspects of life brought people the greatest happiness, all observing similar results. Altruism, exercise, relationships and spirituality rank highly as habits of happy people. Surprisingly education and money do not increase satisfaction of life, with one research study showing that once basic life needs are met, additional income does not attribute further happiness. From personal experience I am inclined to agree with the research. No amount of materialistic possessions can amount to happiness I feel when I laugh with my closest friends over a shared meal, when I volunteer with the underprivileged or when endorphins are released into my body after an intense boxing session. While tangible things provide temporary happiness, what I am really looking for is long term satisfaction, to be able to extend my personal happiness to others too.
Without getting too sentimental, life doesn’t have be a big black hole filled with the downfalls of the past, the people who betrayed and hurt you, the numerous times you failed at a task or how things used to be. Life has the possibility to be beautiful and you can be the artist that creates a masterpiece by turning a yellow dot into a sun. The blank canvas is your life, you’re the painter holding the brush and you’re in control of the strokes you paint.
What colours are you going to recommit to painting with every day of your life?