Things I’ve Learned from a Lifelong Struggle with Anxiety & Depression

Anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media this past week has noticed the recent outpour of conversations surrounding mental health on Facebook, Twitter, and various news sources and blogs. In the wake of Robin Williams’s tragic suicide, swarms of people have been coming forward to share their own experiences with depression, voice support for anyone they might know struggling with mental health issues, and start conversations aimed at erasing the stigma and misinformation so commonly tied to perceptions of depression, anxiety, and other aspects of mental health.

Seeing these discussions in my various feeds has been incredible. It has also been a bit overwhelming. Depression and anxiety are not easy things to talk about, especially if you have them yourself. With depression and anxiety comes unbelievable pain, constant distress, and moments when you really do wonder just how much more you can take. As someone who has spent a lifetime struggling with depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I felt the need to contribute, but how? I didn’t want to share my life story with my 600+ Facebook friends, because the details of my life are not everybody’s business. I didn’t want to be “that person” dishing out advice and telling people to “get help” or “talk to someone”, because it is never that easy and not all advice is relevant to all manifestations of anxiety and depression.

But I didn’t want to sit silent, and so instead of empty advice, instead of releasing an entire memoir, I am writing this in hopes that maybe, somehow, and in some way, a part of what I have learned in my struggle with depression and anxiety can help someone else.

Note: I am not a mental health professional and these things may not apply to everyone reading them. These are just some words of wisdom based on things I have learned through my experience, and my experience alone.

First and foremost, never feel guilty or ashamed for being depressed.
This is something I wish I had learned a long time ago and am just recently coming to terms with. An all-too-common response to people with depression, far more damaging (I think) than the “cheer up” nonsense, is to tell people to think about how much worse off ‘other’ people are. When you are depressed, you can’t imagine feeling worse. But that doesn’t make you selfish, or whiny, or unappreciatively privileged. It doesn’t make you narcissistic or apathetic to the suffering and struggles of other people. Similarly, you are not a burden to those around you, and you are not ruining anyone else’s day/life with your anxiety or depression. Your thoughts, feelings, and concerns are VALID – always – and they’re nothing to feel guilty about.

Crisis hotlines serve more than one purpose.
Crisis hotlines are not only for people on the verge of taking their own lives. Calling a crisis hotline does not automatically rope you into treatment, and the person on the phone will not force you to do or say anything that you are not ready or comfortable to. Seeking treatment can be scary, and feeling alone when you are depressed or mid-panic attack is scary, too. Calling a crisis hotline is a great way to just talk to someone, completely anonymously, on your own terms and for any length of time you choose. The people on the other side of the phone are trained professionals and can give you advice, but they will also just listen if you ask them to, or sit on the phone with you in complete silence, if all you need is to know that someone is there. They can discuss treatment options with you (again, anonymously) if that’s what you want, give you tips on how to cope day-to-day, or talk you out of a bad moment. You can talk to them for 30 seconds, 30 minutes, or three hours. They are there for whatever you need them for.

You don’t have to consider yourself mentally “ill”.
This is a matter of choosing the right way to represent what you feel as you struggle with your own depression and anxiety. I’ve come to prefer the term mental “difficulties” in place of “illness” because it more closely resembles what I experience. I don’t consider myself ill or sick and so finding another word that better describes what I do experience has been paramount to how I approach these difficulties on a daily basis. If mental illness is a term that works for you, then that’s fine! But if it’s not, that’s fine, too. Just as there is no one way to talk about mental health, there is no one way to describe or identify what your experience actually is.

Similarly, find the method of treatment that works best…for you.
I can’t stress this enough. I understand that telling someone with depression/anxiety to “get help” is like telling someone to lift a car, but there are options out there, choices to be made, and only you have the final decision in these matters. Medication is not the right course of treatment for everyone (I choose not to take meds), but works for some people. A good therapist is hard to find, but you can find one (I did!). It takes time to find the right treatment method and treatment is hard work, but you’ll know you’ve found the right approach when you see that hard work paying off.

It’s okay to spend some time alone.
The answer is not always to surround yourself with tons of people all the time. While it is definitely necessary to have a strong support group (even just one or two people), giving yourself time and space to breathe can be really important, too, especially for those who also experience anxiety. As long as you’re careful not to turn alone-time into isolation (which can happen very easily when you’re depressed), a little breathing room once in awhile can do wonders. The trick is to spend your alone-time doing something. Read a book that makes you starry-eyed. Write something, even if it’s an explosive rant of feelings that you tear up, toss, or burn afterwards. Take a walk listening to your favorite music. Or just watch something mindless on TV for an hour.

Separating yourself from your mental illness/difficulties is desirable, but not always achievable (and that’s okay!).
The mantra, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD,” is one that has been engrained in me by nearly every therapist/counsellor since my diagnosis, in attempts to reinforce the notion that my mental difficulties are not who I am. Similarly, the #notmymentalillness hashtag has, over the last few days, flooded Twitter with beautiful messages from people showing and telling the world who they are outside of their mental difficulties and diagnoses. It’s all an important reminder that our depression and anxiety issues do not have to define who we are. As anyone who suffers from these difficulties knows, however, it is sometimes impossible to not feel overwhelmed and as if there is no way of existing outside of these bad feelings. And that’s okay. Don’t kick yourself on those days you just can’t say #notmymentalillness, because it will only make you feel worse. Bad thoughts and feelings come with the territory, unfortunately, but remember…

…at the end of the day, it’s all about self-preservation.
You will be in good shape if you can find ways to self-preserve. This goes for “good days” as well as “bad days”, because you will have both and every day you will have to do the one thing that is often so difficult – live. The only person you have to live with is yourself, and you owe it to you to make your life livable. This is much easier said than done, but learning how to self-preserve for the moment, for the day, for the week, is just the beginning of learning how to cope with your depression and anxiety, and the people/events that trigger them, for the rest of your life. Deep breathing, having mantras set for certain triggering situations, channeling bad energy into exercise or art, learning when to let go of toxic people, learning when to reach out to good people – these are all pieces of self-preservation. Write a list of techniques that work for you, and keep it close.

And always remember, in the words of the brilliant Lucille Ball, “It’s a helluva start being able to recognize what makes you happy.” Everything is just one day at a time, even happiness. We can get there.