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Be A Hero With Depression


“A hero is an ordinary person who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles” – Christopher Reeve.

People with depression often think of themselves as less than – less than competent, less than successful — even less than, remarkably, a good person. This inner dialogue can circle the block fifty times a day. Often, such people live very successful professional and personal lives – at least on the outside. Looking out their office windows, they privately fear that others will find out just how incompetent they really are; or, worse yet, that they have clinical depression: then what will they think? They sit on the lid of a boiling pot of depression hoping they can get it under control. But that hasn’t worked. The steam keeps pushing the lid upward.

Most folks with depression, in some fundamental sense, feel broken. This sense is fueled by the depression itself – both biological (poor sleep, appetite, energy levels) and psychological (distorted pessimistic thinking: e.g. “Nobody really cares about me”, “I stink at my job” or “My depression will never end.”). But this burden of brokenness isn’t just an “inside job” – crummy stuff they tell themselves about themselves. Other people or events in suffering peoples’ daily orbits serve up damaging assessments and innuendos about a depressive behavior or personhood.

They may tell a depressed person that they are letting everybody down at the office (e.g. not billing enough hours, not producing what they used to produce) or not contributing enough to family responsibilities. The problem is not that these are not important and legitimate concerns. The problem is that others, in an attempt to snap the depressive back into his or her higher functioning pre-depression state, employ three misguided strategies.

The first is to deny the immensity of the suffering of the depressed by minimizing it: “Don’t worry, things will get better. You’re just in a slump.”

The second, the well-worn American anthem, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and stop whining.”

And the third, the plea to a depressed person to just count his or her blessings.

When I disclosed to one of my law partners years back that I was suffering from major depression, he was stunned . . . and angry. He snapped, “You know, you’ve got a hell of a lot to feel grateful about. You’ve got a beautiful family and a great job. For God sake, go on a damn vacation!” Little did he know that I was depressed, even on vacation.

Even if others don’t say these things, we know on some deep level that they’re thinking it.

Then there is the cultural stigma – a cloud of ignorance, fear and misunderstanding – surrounding depression. American culture tends to see depression as a moral or personal weakness; the “just-get-over-it” rants of a society that likes simplistic answers to complicated problems. Dr. Richard O’Connor, author of the book Undoing Depression, captures some the irony of how our society sees depression as different from – or maybe not as real as – other forms of illness:

Where’s the big national foundation leading the battle against depression? Where is the Jerry Lewis Telethon and the Annual Run for Depression? Little black ribbons for everyone to wear? The obvious answer is the stigma associated with the disease. Too much of the public still views depression as a weakness or character flaw, and thinks we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. And all the hype about new antidepressant medications has only made things worse by suggesting that recovery is simply a matter of taking a pill.

Too many people with depression take the same attitude; we are ashamed of and embarrassed by having depression.

This is the cruelest part of the disease: we blame ourselves for being weak or lacking character instead of accepting that we have an illness, instead of realizing that our self-blame is a symptom of the disease. And feeling that way, we don’t step forward and challenge unthinking people who reinforce those negative stereotypes. So we stay hidden away, feeling miserable and blaming ourselves for our own misery”.

In my view, folks with depression are not so much hapless, as they are heroes.

What’s a hero after all? Someone who has a great challenge to confront? Check. Someone who must confront great adversity? Check. Someone who must get up every day and do battle with a formidable adversary? Check. You see, for those of you who are struggling with depression right now, YOU are that person. You’re the person who has to get up every day and cope with your depression. Others can help and support you, but it’s ultimately your walk to walk. And what a courageous walk it is; every single step of it.

Some of the best people that I’ve been privileged to know struggle with depression. While they don’t have shiny medals pinned on their lapels, there is an unmistakable strength in them – even if they don’t see it. I know it’s real because I see and feel it – just like when I am in a grove of giant and majestic pines during a walk in the forest.

Why can’t we depressives re-imagine our self-image in relationship to our depression in a more positive light? Why can’t we think of our battles with depression as, in fact, heroic? Instead of counting all of times that depression has gotten the better of us and knocked us to our knees, how about embracing and giving ourselves some damn credit for all of the times that we have triumphed over our depression, the times that they have risen to the occasion at work and home, in spite of our melancholy and the moments we’ve looked depression in the eye and said, “No more.” Make no mistake about it that takes gumption – and lots of it!
Here is some food for thought for you heroes:

Remember that a depression doesn’t last forever. You will come out of it, even if you go back into the muck sometimes. Or maybe even a lot. Maybe you fall down 30 times a day, or maybe it’s just a stumble. But keep your balance and get up. As the old Zen saying goes, “Fall down seven times — get up eight.” That, my friends, is heroic.

Remember that depression is only a small part of who you are – you’re not your depression. You have an illness that needs treatment, understanding and respect.

Remember that you have some, to lesser or greater degree, control over your depression. It is heroic to insist on carrying out your day’s responsibilities, to the best of your ability, even when you’re struggling with depression. Dr. O’Connor once said to me, “Dan, depression isn’t our fault. But it is our responsibility to get better.”

Remember that when you’re in a depression and feel like you don’t have some measure of control over it; that you can and will endure it until it passes – and it will pass.

Remember not condemn yourself when you are down, but pick yourself up and remember that you are, truly, remarkable people. Here’s an idea. If and when you talk to someone about your depression, try telling a different story. Often, people with depression describe themselves as “broken” or in some other sort of negative way. What if you spoke of yourself to others like this: “You know, I have been dealing with this depression lately. It gets me down, but I get back up. And when I think about that, I think about how heroic I’ve been to deal with this all the time.” It’s very important for you and others to give you credit and acknowledge, maybe for the first time, the strength it takes to take on and deal with depression.

As writer Andrew Berstein once wrote: “A hero has faced it all: he need not be undefeated, but he must be undaunted.”

Dan Lukasik is looking for law students, lawyers and judges - and/or those who love them - to be interviewed for his book, "A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession". If you are interested in participating, there is a "Contribute to my book" button on his website to do so.

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