English: Human Experiences, depression/loss of...

One of my most popular blog posts is about the illness of depression. A well-meaning friend just posted something on Facebook basically with the following sentiment, I will paraphrase for length

Don’t be negative or sad, we have all had tough times.  And I have had a lot of tragedy in my life but I refuse to go down that negative path. I will keep it positive.

A nice straight forward message really but it just struck me as overly simplistic and naive.  I know someone else who commonly expounds a familiar message yet is usually sedated with alcohol or marijuana for most of his waking hours.  So I don’t know how well the philosophy is working out for him if he is always drunk or stoned in order to “keep it positive” especially since both of his drugs of choice have a sedative effect.  What really stuck in my craw though in the statement was the assumption that somehow since he had also had tragedy, his pain and life experience was somehow the equivalent of another person’s experience and that his “power of positive thinking” was keeping him from going down a spiral.  For the most part I would agree with him completely, except in the example of the mental illness of depression.

As a person who struggled with a massive reactive depression (due to my divorce) a sentiment like that just rings hallow. I wish it were that easy, and all it would take was to “keep it positive” and that every person out there could be helped with nothing more than a pep talk.  But human beings are like snowflakes in that no two of us are alike. We might be similar in that we all desire food, comfort, companionship and safety and we would all react similarly to basic stimulus or dangers. But even in my immediate family each of my siblings, with similar DNA, raised in the same home by the same parents do not respond to crisis or stress in the same way. We see the world through the prism that our life experience has created for us.

For instance if you had two identical twins, one who grows up as an abused child in a poverty-stricken family and another brought up as a privileged child with a healthy and supportive family.  Neither experience guarantees that one person will necessarily be more positive or negative than the other, but since their formative years were so vastly different they will evolve into two very different adults.  We are all made up of a patchwork of pain, scars, joys and accomplishments with different traumas and experiences so of course issuing a blanket statement such as

I have had it rough too, so I can relate to your pain…

Well maybe, but you aren’t me and I am not you so you don’t really know what I am going through.  We can try to understand each other but no one really can see inside another person’s head.   And that is without even mentioning the mental illness of depression.  The words depression and depressed are thrown around so often in our culture, that the real disease of depression is mitigated to every day blues.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Getting some bad news and mulling over it for a few days is not depression.  Clinical depression is a biological disorder that impedes every bodily function from eating and sleeping to getting basic every day tasks accomplished.  It is why people are sometimes hospitalized for it, and why some even receive successful Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depression. ECT is actually quite effective for patients with extreme cases of depression.  So if positive thinking could over come it, why does it take electrical currents inducing a seizure to help cure the patient?   Depression is a type of brain sickness that is not cured by simply snapping out of it or thinking positively.   It is also why so many people commit suicide while struggling with the disease, as it completely takes over them and they can’t see logically, they can’t see hope.

As the brilliant Dr. Sapolsky says in his lecture on Depression

Depression is the inability to feel pleasure

And that is pleasure in anything, food, comfort, a pet, music, any activity that used to be enjoyable ceases to bring joy.  Now that I am two years out of my personal hell I know exactly what he is talking about.  I still struggle with anxiety and mood swings but I am able to feel real joy now in any number of things.  I didn’t know how bad off I was until I was completely healed from it.

We can have empathy for each others struggles and we can relate to another’s pain but the only person who really understand their suffering is the person going through it.   I am not one to argue that no one has any control over their moods and emotions, or that clinical depression is a hopeless malady.  And I would agree that run of the mill pessimism and negative thinking is counter productive to leading a happy life.  However it is foolish to assume someone struggling from a major depression simply has a case of the blues or is just feeling sorry for themselves.  The fine line between the two does exist, and there are many that wallow in their own misery committing acts of self-destructive behavior rather than get help.  But after I went through a major depressive episode I will never be so blithe as to accept that a person is choosing their illness or emotionally weak as a result.

And here again is the lecture that I believed put me on the path to recovery.  For the first time I realized what was happening to my brain was medical and not something I could just snap out of.  Just as it would be insensitive to go to a person with schizophrenia and tell them to “Stop hearing those voices” it is just as cruel to tell a depressed person to simply “Get Happy“.