A friend and professional colleague contacted me by email yesterday to express support and share a similar lived experience. Reading the message, what most struck me was the common refrain it seems that we have both heard in our individual journeys with depression.
Often, when I tell people that I am living through a major depressive episode, their immediate reaction is to point to my husband and daughters. How, they ask, can I possibly be depressed—let alone entertain thoughts of suicide—when I have a wonderful family, so much to live for? The answer is both deceptively simple and remarkably complex: my depression is about my #jerkbrain, not my partner, my children, my dog, my professional success, or any one of the myriad people or things which I am fortunate to have in my life. My depression doesn’t care about anyone or anything. It is a black hole that sucks light energy in and never lets it out. For me, depression has nothing to do with being happy and everything to do with my (jerk) brain’s incapacity to assimilate any emotions other than apathy and disinterest. I’ve found this aspect of depression to be one of the hardest to explain to those who either have not lived it themselves or borne first-hand witness to those who have.
As human beings, we are unique among all other animals on the planet in the way in which we interface with each other and our environment. We have a highly developed sense of self and a fundamental need to engage socially with others in order to thrive.** We come to have self-knowledge through learning about the image and understanding that we have developed in our minds of who we are (i.e., self-awareness). Self-awareness turns our attention inward, to the source of our being, the picture we have in our mind of ourselves.*** This is an exceptionally academic and theoretical way of saying that we make everything about us.
Romantic partners, dear friends, loyal colleagues, and beloved family members asking why they are seemingly not enough to prevent or eliminate someone’s suicide or depression, in truth, has nothing to do with the person who is depressed and everything to do with the person posing the question. One of the most difficult things to explain, I find, is that my depression doesn’t care about anyone else. Jerk brain is only concerned with itself. It’s one of the things that makes depression so insidious. Depression doesn’t care about my beautiful family, my amazing friends, my fantastic professional career, or anything else other than itself. As humans, it is hard to hear that something not only isn’t about us, but that we aren’t even relevant to it in the first place.
No person, place, or thing is relevant to my depression. The psychologists Greenberg and Pyszczynski (1986) articulated this concept profoundly when they wrote that depression can be understood as a state in which an individual is mired in deeply unpleasant self-awareness. This isn’t self-centeredness or selfishness but, rather, a place where the walls of the brain are closing in on the mind, pulverizing its sense of self. There is no room for the consideration of the good things in one’s life at that point. There is only intense pressure and, in my experience, what feels like mental suffocation.
So, no. The answer to my depression isn’t my husband, or my little girls, or my dog, or any of the other exceptional tangible objects in my life. However, there is the potential to wrestle myself away from my brain’s lies. A big part of my therapy over the years has been learning how to get out of the downward spiral of negative self-talk that comes with depression. For those, including myself, who seem to have a biological predisposition to chemical imbalances in the brain, medication can also be part of the treatment, enabling us to apply the breaks and arrest the runaway train in our heads.
Depression is all about itself, making those of us who experience it feel as if we are our depression. One of the best things that anyone who is supporting someone going through depression can do is practice rigorous awareness of when they are centering themselves in the other person’s experience. It’s not about you. And, because we’re human, that’s one of the hardest, and truest, things we can ever hear.
*Credit for this post’s title goes to my sister who has spent the last 36+ years of our association sarcastically reminding me that everything is about me.
**This is not to say that all human beings are extroverts or highly social creatures. The point is that, although other animals have their needs met by the environment, human beings require an evolved social system to meet ours fully. For more on this topic, take a look at the work of R. F. Baumeister. A great place to start is with one of his earliest articles that reviews, from a social psychologist’s perspective, the literature and legacy of the research on selfhood.