Mythbusters Edition: “Depression is Just in Your Head”

Well, okay—Depression IS just in your head, but not in the way people mean when they say something like that. People who make (misguided, misinformed, misanthropic) statements like the above are saying that you just need to change your mind / suck it up / pull yourself up by your bootstraps [side-note: what, exactly, IS a bootstrap?]… And Bingo, there-you-go, just decide NOT to be Depressed. If it were that simple, do you really think there would be anybody still struggling with  Depression? (“You know, I’ve been thinking about what my Outlook on Life should be, and I’ve decided that Depression is a perfect fit for me”... Nope, nobody says that.)

WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! If it were that simple, nobody would be Depressed!

WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! If it were that simple, nobody would be Depressed!

Like Addiction, Depression is a matter of Brain Chemistry. To borrow from the book Alcoholics Anonymous (substitute “Depression” for “Alcoholism”—I will personally vouch that this statement applies with equal truth to both): “If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.”  In other words, it’s absurd to believe that anybody would choose to be Depressed (or an Alcoholic, come to that) if the remedy were as simple as Deciding Not To Be. Both illnesses (and they ARE illnesses) are based in brain chemistry—and for one of them, science has presented us with a chemical answer, in the form of prescription antidepressants. (Of course, there are no “pills” yet to reverse Alcoholism, so thank God for A.A.!)

If I seem to have a bee in my bonnet [side-note: did ladies really used to have problems with insects invading their head-gear? why do we use so many phrases based on clothing that’s no longer in use?] on this topic, it’s because it makes me angry to see anti-depressants demonized (or even discouraged, or disapproved of), either in the media at large or in personal or social interactions around us.

tumblr_lumn9tscW71qjywvlo1_500Bottom line: anti-depressants are preserving quality-of-life for millions of people, and saving ACTUAL lives for some of those.  (Depression isn’t the cause of all suicides, true—but I’m here to say that when you feel utterly incapable of dealing with shit, the idea of having all-the-shit-go-away can be appallingly attractive.)

The first time I faced Depression, I really didn’t know that’s what it was. I was not-quite-thirty, and happily situated (I honestly believed) as the stay-home mom of an entertaining three-year-old Hobbit and a new baby (there’s a hint: I knew about Post-Partum Depression, but somehow didn’t imagine it would apply to me)…  At that point in my life, a deeply-ingrained part of my self-image was the idea that I was a person who pressed on (cheerfully! and stubbornly!) even through adversity. I grew up very comfortably middle-class American, with most of my “problems” of the trivial First-World variety, but I HAD dealt (cheerfully! stubbornly!) with a fair bit of real adversity, primarily medical in nature.

Since my diagnosis at 15, I’d been engaged in an epic and ongoing battle for control-of-my-life against my nemesis, Crohn’s Disease. Despite being told that I shouldn’t/couldn’t undertake or finish any number of things (school semesters, student-teaching, having children…) I managed to get those things done. Cheerfully! Stubbornly! More recently, I’d dealt with the three-months-early arrival of my daughter, 12 weeks of shuttling between my toddler at home and my (constantly endangered) infant in the NICU, and then the crushing diagnosis that my daughter was profoundly and irreversibly Deaf. (For a Hearing mom who knew only a smattering of words in what I presumed would be my child’s First Language—American Sign Language—that was a challenge of staggering proportions.)

Then some Miracles happened. Six months out from that diagnosis (confirmed by multiple specialists), my daughter was inexplicably Hearing—and had all those specialists scratching their heads at the “impossibility.” My own Crohn’s Disease at that point had inexplicably been in remission for almost three years (STILL is, in fact—leaving my gastroenterologist scratching his head at the “impossibility”).

Yet it was at that point, with my Life’s Challenges blessedly removed from my shoulders, and my family settling into a happy routine (that didn’t include a dozen doctor-appointments in a week), that Depression hit. And it took me way too long to figure out what was going on and get help for it—because (dammit) I was a person who DEALT WITH SHIT. Cheerfully! Stubbornly!

What stands out in my mind about that time isn’t SADness so much as FROZENness—the utter inability to face or cope with really, really simple stuff.  Perfect example: I can remember obsessing and stressing ALL DAY about the fact that I really needed to empty the dishwasher.  Yet despite my unwarranted levels of anxiety over this existence-of-clean-dishes, I absolutely could not bring myself to DO the sensible thing one would usually do when confronted with an affronting load of clean dishes: namely, to put them away. I just somehow couldn’t deal with that.  All day.

Prozac turned out to be my next miracle. (Though, unlike our family’s other Medical Miracles, this one is entirely explicable through basic brain-chemistry.)  Within a few weeks of seeing my doctor, that darn dishwasher no longer had the power to intimidate me.

Trying to understand why I’d gone into meltdown AFTER things got better (because I tend to over-think stuff!!) I came up with an analogy from my college days at University of Hawai’i. I’d been Scuba-diving once, about 80 feet down, when my air tank blew. I (calmly) banged on my tank to get my dive-buddy’s attention, (calmly) instigated “buddy-breathing” procedure from his air-supply, (calmly) made the ascent at the prescribed rate to avoid the Bends, (calmly) swam the half-mile or so to shore… And then went completely to pieces. I still remember my dive-buddy standing over me in bewilderment, asking “Why are you crying NOW?” And the best I could answer was that I couldn’t go to pieces “out there” (where keeping your head can literally be a matter of life-and-death) but this was something I HAD to go to pieces over… Once it was “safe” to do so.  Looking back, I think there’s SOME truth to this analogy, but I also know better (now) than to discount the biology behind an episode of Depression. The fact that I’d been super-stressed half a year earlier does NOT fully account for the insane amount of power that dishwasher was holding over my mental and emotional life.

In the intervening years, I’ve dealt with a round of Depression far worse than the first one—because the second was exacerbated by alcohol. (Yes, the Biology-major-in-me does know that alcohol is a depressant… But the Alcoholic-in-me was nevertheless senselessly trying to “feel better” by using it, to excess and insanity…)  Once again, Prozac relieved me of one of those illnesses (while A.A. has enabled me to keep the other at bay).  I thank God that I live in a time when both of these solutions are available to me, and I HATE (a word I use sparingly) seeing either of these solutions—or worse, the people who need them—disparaged or denigrated. I’d like to think that there’s somewhat less of a stigma on anti-depressants (and people who take them) than there used to be. Just ten years ago I remember some of my acquaintances expressing shock that I was open about seeking the help of “psych meds.” (Not shocked that I was taking them, I think, so much as shocked that I would admit to it.)  I’d like to think there’s less of that mentality out there now.

During my freelance-writing years, I was hired to write on a lot of crazy topics, but there were a couple where I just couldn’t bring myself to write what was requested. Knowing full well that the client might refuse to pay (and worse, find another writer who WOULD write that stuff) I nevertheless forged ahead with a version I could live with. One of those was a client who wanted me to write about why people should use “natural” remedies instead of “drugs” to deal with Depression. After wrestling with myself, what I actually wrote (and, incidentally, what the client did accept) was a set of articles on natural remedies that might help with Depression IF a person were unable or unwilling to turn to pharmaceuticals, or even in addition to such prescriptions. I wasn’t willing to be responsible for even one person reading that they “shouldn’t” consider prescription anti-depressants.  There’s too much of that out there already.

If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly busting-out-of-nowhere with this topic (breaking an 18-month writing-drought, no less), it’s because I recently realized that my (formerly friendly and utterly inoffensive) mailbox has taken to intimidating me. Last night I MADE myself go out to collect a week’s worth of mail, which had accumulated there while (day after day) I’d been thinking I needed to get the mail, but somehow couldn’t face doing it. This is especially “crazy” given that we don’t even get BILLS at our home address (those all go to the business address), so it’s not even a matter of worrying about what was IN the mail… There’s not going to be anything threatening, or even bothersome (unless you count junk-coupons) in that box, but the task of emptying it seemed to be beyond me. Apparently the mailbox is my new dishwasher.

Happily, at not-quite-forty (birthday in a couple weeks) I understand myself somewhat better than I did at not-quite-thirty… I have an appointment Monday to renew my Prozac!


About Kana

I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a minister, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a cartographer, a joyful wife, a mom (and Granny)... a list-maker! :) View all posts by Kana

41 responses to “Mythbusters Edition: “Depression is Just in Your Head”

  • ogresan

    It’s good to see you posting again.

  • Keoni da Kook

    Aloha Kana Girl! I am joyful to once again be able to read your blog. Please keep writing…it might even help you through times of depression. Me Kealoha Pumehana, Ko’u ‘Elena Makule

  • Beth Parker

    What a great post, Kana! I have missed you, by the way. I’m happy that your business is thriving. Just miss seeing your wonderful writing. You have the ability to get to the organic heart of things.

  • Anonymous

    Pretty powerful stuff. “pulling oneself up by the boot straps” at the top of old time boots, and even cowboy boots today, there are two straps sown into the inside of the top of the boot so you can “pull up your boots” and you a Western gal, shame on you. Nice article Love you. Firefighter Bob

  • walttriznastories

    Good to hear from you again.
    Hang in there.

  • notewords

    Great to see another blog from you. As we say in this part of the world, ‘Sterkte’ (Strength).

  • Widdershins

    It was wonderful to see your new post notice pop up in my email this morning. Kinda figured you were busy with the restaurant and other life stuff.

    Depression sucks, no doubt about it, but what’s worse is some people’s attitude toward it.

    Good on you for noticing that dastardly letterbox was out to get you, and do something about it.

    Self knowledge is a powerful, and scary, thing. Stay brave, and yeah, what Keoni said about writing!

  • Dakota

    Great post… and yes, the scuba analogy completely makes sense to me… because I’m another one of those “have to hold it together have to hold it together folks,” only to find myself utterly ripping apart at the seams and then deflating at the end of the crisis… which normally works well, unless there’s crisis upon crisis, in which case I go a little crazy. Which is what is happening right now, in fact.

    Good on you for recognizing this before it gets worse, and for writing about it so vividly and coherently!

    • Kana Tyler

      Hang in there! You DO sound like me—and I can tell you it took some “mental wrestling” for me to accept (at first) not only that I DID need some “outside help” (in the form of an anti-depressant), but also that the need-for-help did NOT have to negate that self-image of a person who could (cheerfully! stubbornly!) deal with stuff… I’ve continued to do so, and I recognize now that the “Prozac-assist” simply enables me to continue on AS ME… If that makes any sense? :)

  • Kulia

    So it is you that I get my “Cheerful and stubborn” ways from!?!?! LOL. I am so happy you are writing again. I definitely have missed your blogs. BTW Leland has already planned our next trip to visit “Granny and Grandpa”. We love you!

    • Kana Tyler

      Ha, who knew you could “inherit” traits from your stepmom? ;) Well, if there’s one thing that Daddy & I have learned in our years together, it’s that ‘OHANA is not just about biology! Granny & Grandpa can’t wait for the next invasion of Cali-kids, so tell Lele-Boy to keep planning. :) Hugs all around!

  • Kathy Waller

    I’m glad to see you’re posting again. Antidepressants are like any other medication: if you need them, you take them. If other people could understand the mental and physical toll depression takes, attitudes would be very different. For example, there’s a high correlation between depression and colon cancer, because depressed people get fewer colonoscopies than those who are mentally healthy. “Cheering up” doesn’t help one bit.

    • Kana Tyler

      That makes SO much sense—after all, if the dishwasher and mailbox are overwhelming, how much more so the prospect of something as unpleasant as a colonoscopy?! (And that’s one I do know about; colonoscopies used to be a regular feature of my life, thanks to the Crohn’s Disease… Just last month I had my first one in a decade, but this one “preventive” in nature, rather than in response to symptoms. Clean bill of health there, and my gastroenterologist—who assumed he hadn’t seen me all that time because I’d moved away—is scratching his head all over again. “Crohn’s Disease, especially as bad as yours, doesn’t just GO AWAY.” Except, I guess, when it does…) You’re absolutely right: advice to “just cheer up” is ridiculous. As another friend said to me yesterday, “Would anyone tell a cancer patient to ‘just stop’ having cancer and expect that to cure the illness?” Of course not. Depression is still far too widely misunderstood!

  • cygnusx1

    Welcome back Kana! Great post on a subject very close to my heart. Here’s one of my many Web clips on the subject you might find interesting. ..

    And it’s good to know you and your family are doing well.

  • Joseph M Kurtenbach

    So great to hear from you again this side of the restaurant business, Kana! I hope your old-made-new vocation has been going well, as it seems to have swallowed your writing time whole! I know appearances can be deceiving, though. This is a great post on a subject and a disease I both struggle with and occasionally struggle to write about, and I’m so glad you’ve learned to recognize the signs of how depression affects you and that you’re acting to take care of yourself! I join everyone else here with kind thoughts and hopes to see you around more frequently again!

    • Kana Tyler

      Thanks for the warm welcome-back! :) You’re absolutely right in observing that the restaurant has “swallowed” my writing-time… Or rather, that I’ve allowed it to do so—but my husband and son are joining forces to nudge me back into doing what they know I love (especially now that I’ve “broken the drought”), and I’m planning to spend more time here. I’ve missed it, I realize! Not only the writing, but also the reading and the Community. :)

  • Alejandro De La Garza

    People who say ‘Depression is all in your head’ are the same ones who tell depressed people to “get over it,” as if it’s a cold. I’ve fought with depression most of my life; mainly as a shy kid who was bullied frequently, even into college. I didn’t “get over it,” but I did get a grip on it and realized I’m important, too, and a lot of the people and the crap that annoy me aren’t worth the trouble.

  • Miranda Gargasz

    I have missed you so! And now I’m sad to hear that the depression demon is rearing its ugly head. Happy again to hear that you are doing what needs to be done. I, too, take Prozac for this wicked chemical imbalance. I’m a better person for it and so are you. Thanks for this honest and open piece. Please keep writing. We need your words.

    • Kana Tyler

      Funny you should say that… I’m realizing this week that *I* need my words—and that returning-to-writing is likely to help bring me back into balance! :) Silly me for letting WRITING (not to mention the Prozac-prescription) slip in the first place.

  • jannatwrites

    Good to see a post from you. Depression does suck and I’m sorry you’re having another round with it. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be such stigma attached to anti-depressants. Hope the Prozac gets you on track to living (not just surviving) again!

    • Kana Tyler

      Well put! I am definitely shifting from survival-mode back to LIVING. I know the Prozac won’t fully kick in for a week or three, but even the simple recognition of what’s going on (and the act of taking steps to correct course) have me turning a corner already! :)

  • restlessjo

    How strange, Kana! I thought about you just the other day and wondered how it was going. I must have ‘willed’ you back online :) Welcome back!

  • rangewriter

    What a fabulous post, and not just because of it’s heady timing with the unfortunate loss of Robin Williams, but because you’ve taken this opportunity to break that demon and return to your writing (which is spectacular, btw) and to your meds. Congratulations.

    I love how you point out that it’s not necessarily the monumental issues that may trigger an episode of depression. It can be the oh so mundane. The snail mail box of all things!

    I do hope you’re feeling better already. Or will soon be so. And thanks for commenting on my piddly little blog.

    Thanks for myth busting.

    • Kana Tyler

      You’ve hit it exactly: the big events that I’d “expect” to send me spiraling seldom do so—but the craziest little things do sneak up on me. ;)
      I SO enjoyed your post–we didn’t get out of town this summer as we usually do, so I got a lovely vicarious taste of Idaho-exploration through YOU!

  • silentlyheardonce

    I’ve suffer with depression since I was a teenager. Smoking reefer and drinking were my mode of treatment. Other then that I cried and wrote out my depression. Since being diagnosed with lupus seven years ago depression became difficult to control with tears and writing. I got help and was prescribed medication different kinds, buspar, proszac, adavent all they do is help me sleep. So I don’t take them instead I just try and ride it out. I’m battling it right now but with meditation I’m able to keep it at bay.

    • Kana Tyler

      My husband (who also suffers from clinical depression) had an experience similar to yours, in that the first few anti-depressants he tried did NOT work for him. It took a lot of months and a number of trials, but we finally DID hit on one that helps (immensely!)… Pristiq turned out to be his “magic”—maybe there’s one out there for you too. In any case, keep hanging in there! Meditation & writing are good “prescriptions” too! ;)

  • Raven ShadowHawk

    Wow! See your name pop up in my mail was like Christmas. ^_^ Even if you’re just semi-back, it’s lovely to see a post from you.

    Admittedly I know very little about depression. I’ve been lucky enough that it has never really factored in my life or the lives of anyone I’m close to. That is, until a few months ago. Now I’m trying to learn as much as I can so I can help and support those close to me. So far, I’m not certain I’m doing a good job, but I DO know enough to say that all those folk who insist that you should ‘get over it’ or ‘stiffen your upper lip’ or whatever other crap they come out with, really don’t know what depression involves. And that makes me sad.

    Anyways, welcome back, Kana. Tis good to see you.

    • Kana Tyler

      Believe me, you’re probably already doing some good, simply by NOT joining those ranks of people who are dismissive of Depression. :)

      One thought that comes to mind (and I’ll share it in case it might help-you-help) is that when I was at my lowest, I had plenty of folks who were willing and offering to help me with stuff… But the effort to organize my mind enough to identify-and-communicate a specific need seemed (ironically) to be one of the things that was beyond me. When people asked what they could do to help, I didn’t have any answers. But when someone identified a specific, concrete “need” and offered help with THAT, I would accept with relief. (A number of people offered to take my kids for a couple hours at a time, for example… and one person even asked for my grocery-list and debit card and did my week’s shopping once, wow!) If it had occurred to anybody to empty my dishwasher, I probably would have wept! ;)

      • Raven ShadowHawk

        That is mega helpful, thank you. Sometimes I find that being specific with my offers of help yields much better results. I’m the same myself; I need people to be specific otherwise I’ve no idea what to ask for.
        So I’ll do that. I know what he needs to be able to do, so if I offer things to help ensure he can do those things, I think it will be much better for him (and me as a result).

  • Pat

    HI Kana! So good to see you back online.

  • Cardinal Guzman

    “the mailbox is my new dishwasher.”, hehe! We never get mail, but the dishwasher .- that’s another story!

  • andrealee4691

    Thanks for the follow, and I appreciate your thoughts on this important topic. Would love to see less “judgy-ness” and more compassion overall.

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