Depression can be a life sentence, but it doesn't have to be a death sentence
Article originally posted on October 9, 2019 at Medium.
On Wednesday, April 10th, 2019, my dad chose to end his life by walking in front of a train. I’ve spent the last five months replaying in my head the conversations and events that led up to that day in hopes of understanding why; why an intelligent man with an incredibly loving family, a stable, well-paying job, and decades of life ahead of him, felt this was his only option.
The thing is, I don’t believe depression is what killed my dad anymore. Sure, him dealing with depression put him at a significant disadvantage when it came to navigating his life, but his depression was not a terminal illness. He lived with his depression for over fifteen years; he went to work, he spent time with his family, he smiled, he laughed, he had good days, and he had bad ones. His death was not inevitable — it was the result of an uninterrupted series of events.
His death isn’t anyone’s fault. I don’t blame myself, however I do take responsibility for it. Blame is when you dwell on what you could have done in the past. Responsibility on the other hand, is focusing on what you can do right now, in this moment and the next. For me, part of that responsibility is sharing what I’ve learned from losing my dad, because although he’s gone, there are people in your life with depression who still have hope that their lives will one day be much brighter.
It’s not that they don’t want to talk about it, it’s that we’ve convinced them we don’t want to hear it
If you had known my dad, you’d have never guessed he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He always kept his composure, worked hard to provide for his family, and gave you this overwhelming sense that he could withstand anything life threw at him. To me, he was unbreakable; he was the kind of man I’ve spent my whole life aspiring to be. Though he was in my life for 26 years, I don’t ever recall seeing him shed so much as a single tear. Until his death I believed that this absence of emotion was the truest measure of someone’s strength.
It is through this experience that I’ve come to realize we care more about proving to others that we are happy, than we do about actually being happy. Our response to the question “how are you?” has become nothing more than a well-trained reflex. We would rather look like we’ve got our sh*t together, than be authentic about the fact that we don’t. We’ve created technology to connect us, that has only left us comparing ourselves with one another, and feeling more disconnected than ever. Social media has become our canvas; a place where we paint a picture of the life we want the rest of the world to see, not the one we’re actually living.
The further we push this idea that we must always be happy, the more we isolate the people who have admitted to the world that they are not. When we share the parts of ourselves that others cannot see, it inspires them to do the same. Having strength in life isn’t about being perfect, it’s about owning the fact that you’re not.
They don’t complain because they want to be miserable, they complain because they want to be heard
We’ve all got that friend or loved one who we would describe to everyone else as “toxic” or “negative.” They are the person who will seize any opportunity to complain about their life to those willing to grant them an audience. I thought my dad was a negative person; always complaining about his life, wanting things to be different without taking the action to change anything.
When we hear someone we love speak ill of themselves, it’s natural for us to jump in and disagree with what they’re saying. We say things like “that’s not true, things will get better” or “if you want things to change then you have to do something about it.” We see this as simply disagreeing with their statements, but we’re often invalidating their experience of life as well. What we call "just being negative" may very well be the only self expression they can muster up in that moment. When we shut them down for being negative, we reinforce the idea they already have that they can’t express to us how they’re feeling.
They don’t need us to prove them wrong, they need us to understand why it feels like they are right. Someone voicing the same complaints everyday is as much about us not listening to them, as it is about them not listening to us.
It’s not about what they want to do in life, it’s about who they want to be
For as long as I can remember, anytime in my life when I accomplished something I was proud of, or figured something out that I viewed as a challenge, the first person I’d call was my dad. I’d get so excited to share my life with him, but that excitement never lasted. Everytime I shared something with him, he’d always have some form of feedback for me. About a year ago during one of our conversations, I told him I didn’t want him to give me feedback anymore unless I asked for it. I did this because I felt like if what I was sharing was good enough for him, he wouldn’t have to add anything to it. I never got the chance to tell my dad that the only thing I ever wanted in those conversations was for him to tell me he was proud of me. I now know how proud he really was, and that he was just showing it the best way he knew how; through contributing to me.
In the note my dad left behind, he wrote “don’t cry for me, I’ve had a great life, and I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do.” The first thought in my head after reading that sentence was “bullsh*t, you had so much more you wanted to do.” But as the anger subsided, my skepticism soon turned into curiosity. Maybe he meant what he had written, and I just wasn’t seeing it the way he did. What if my dad was at peace when he took his own life, not because he had done everything he wanted to do, but rather, because he had been everything he wanted to be; a husband, a father, a friend, and a wealth of knowledge for anyone he met. I believe that in the end, he wanted to be remembered as those things, not as the burden he felt himself becoming.
Asking your dad to show you how to solve a math problem isn’t always about figuring out the answer — sometimes it’s just about letting him be your dad. It is through us, and only us, that they get to experience who they are; don’t ever stop reminding them.
Their contribution is as much for them as it is for us. The feeling we experience when we contribute to someone we love is the very thing that gives us a sense of purpose in life.
If we want to change the lives of people dealing with depression, we first must change the way we respond to it
When someone in our life is diagnosed with a physical illness like cancer, we don’t hesitate to rally around them. They become the centre of our universe, and nothing is more important to us in those moments than fighting their battle alongside them. Their fight is our fight, and even when they’re having the worst day of their life, saying all of the things we don’t want to hear, our love for them is endless. We don’t ever leave their side until we know they’ve won.
Why is it that we don’t treat mental illness with that same level of urgency?
Why is it that when someone is diagnosed with depression, we don’t operate as if their life is on the line?
Where is that same love, compassion, and level of understanding we know we’re capable of showing another human being?
In my introduction I stated that I believe depression didn’t kill my dad, because it didn’t… we did. Not directly, but we are responsible for creating an environment in which mental illness cannot be openly spoken about the same way physical illness can. When someone shares about their battle with cancer, we hail them as a hero for going through what they’re going through and still finding the strength to live their life everyday. But when someone shares about their battle with mental illness, they’re placed in a social quarantine out of fear that their negative outlook on life will somehow impact ours. This is because the foundation of our own happiness is fragile, carefully built on top of all of the emotions we ourselves have pushed down. We don’t believe we have the capacity to emotionally support another person dealing with so much without feeling like we’ll be pulled down with them.
We’ve spent years operating as if depression is the problem. There’s no real cure, we’ve only got temporary solutions. We shell out drugs and recommend therapy, but for now that’s nothing more than a bandaid. If we choose instead that the problem is how we view these people, then at least we have something tangible to work with that’s within our control. We can take responsibility for how we support them outside of their weekly therapy sessions, and for the things those drugs will never be able to do for them.
Depression — the action of lowering something or pressing something down
I believe that herein lies the answer I’ve been searching for since my dad took his life. Through everything I’ve shared about my experience with my dad, there’s been one common theme; we suppress the emotional output and self expression of people who are dealing with depression. Not because we don’t love them, but because we’re conditioned to do the same within ourselves. Emotions are meant to be in motion, yet we spend our lives shutting them in without allowing them to flow naturally. Experiencing those very emotions is what allows us to feel alive.
What I want you to take away from what I’ve written here is this…
There are three layers to understanding another human being, and I strongly believe that this alone can save a lot of lives.
We must first understand the words they’re speaking. These words are neither positive nor negative, they are just words; take them at face value. Most of us will never make it past this layer in our lifetime, because we spend the entire conversation giving these words meaning they were never intended to have. Complaining, negative, ignorant, and righteous; these are just some of the meanings we attach to the words people speak.
This is because we view the people in our life through a filter. Somewhere along the way we decided that our father is righteous, our mother is nosey, and our best friend is negative. Through these filters we stop seeing these people for who they really are — our intellectual father who wants to contribute to us by sharing his knowledge, our loving mother who cares so much about our lives that she’ll ask us a million questions every day, and our best friend who trusts us so much that they’d come to us before anyone else during the lowest times in their life.
Second, we must understand the emotion behind these words. Though the words themselves have no inherent meaning, there is an emotional motivator behind why they’re being expressed at all. Are they frustrated? Angry? Overwhelmed? Upset? Check in with yourself; if you think they are simply being negative, you’re still stuck on the first layer. If we are unwilling to let down our walls and feel what they feel in that moment, we will not leave them feeling heard.
They need to know that we can actually feel the emotions they’re feeling. Think about it; have you ever sat with someone without saying anything at all and cried together, but felt more understood in that moment than you have in most conversations in your life? It’s that connection of feeling exactly what the other person is feeling that leaves us with the experience that they truly get what we’re going through.
Third, and most important, we have to learn to understand their current experience or perspective of life. A perspective isn’t about what’s right or wrong, it is nothing more than a view, formulated by personal thoughts and experiences. So long as we remain unwilling to put our own perspective aside — that they’re complaining, that they’re being irrational, or that they need to be more positive because life isn’t so bad — we will not be able to hear what they actually need us to hear.
Close your eyes, take a deep breath, put your judgements and everything else you think you already know about what they’re dealing with aside. Challenge yourself to see the world through their eyes, and for a moment, experience life as they do; isolated, hopeless, unheard, and believing no one is willing or able to really understand what you’re going through.
When we are standing on their rock bottom with our own two feet, only then will we understand what it’s like to look up at the climb above; only then will they feel like we’re climbing out of the hole that has become their life with them, rather than looking down and telling them the view of life is not that bad from where we’re standing. It is through this that we will develop a new found compassion for that individual, and our past judgements of what they are dealing with will simply fade away. More importantly, we will give them the gift of finally feeling a sense of companionship on their journey through life, because we were willing to experience it with them instead of trying to talk them through it.
Be patient, be compassionate, and most of all, give yourself permission to be self expressed. Recognize the filter you’ve created for the person you’re speaking to, and allow yourself to remember who they really are for you. Knowing kills off any possibility of curiosity, so ask questions, even if you think you know how they’ll respond. This is not the time to prove to them how well you’re doing in life or how much you’ve learned through your own experiences by giving them advice; a new perspective must be discovered, and it’s up to you to echo their thoughts and feelings out loud as they piece that perspective together outside of their own head.
The more freely you can speak about and express your own emotions, the easier it’ll be for them to do the same. If you cannot be with your own emotions, you will have a difficult time being with someone else’s. Begin and end each day in front of the mirror — not just to wash your face or brush your teeth, but to experience your own self expression; sing, dance, laugh, cry, smile, or just start by making eye contact with yourself. Do this until the person staring back at you is a reflection of your authentic self, not the image you’ve created for the rest of the world to see. To become who you are in life, you must first let go of who you want to be. Understand that you only want to be that person because you think it’s who other people are looking for. Trust in who you are, and the world and everyone in it will begin to show up differently.
Shortly after my dad’s death, someone said to me “grief is love with nowhere to go.” Although that statement really stuck with me, I believe they were only half right. In that moment, they didn’t see the bigger picture, and neither did I. Grief is love with nowhere to go, only if you believe that love cannot go towards anything or anyone other than the person you’ve lost. Love with somewhere to go is just love, so when I chose that the love for my dad was going to go towards writing this, it allowed me to stop grieving over him and start loving him.
In life, grief can be infinite, or it can be short lived. At the end of the day, it is you who chooses where that love will go.
“We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much, and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent, and all will be lost.”
Dan Milewski, Personal Trainer, Adelaide Club