kicking the depression stigma

                               behind_the_mask_by_ookami_seaempress

I hate the negative stigma in our society that comes with being sad and depressed, or struggling. As someone who works in the mental health field, I see how this stigma affects people every day. Recently I came across an article on Huffington Post about “types of friends worth keeping forever.” Although one can see it as a insightful article on the choice we have in making friends and the ones we “should” keep, there was one caveat that I found a little disconcerting. For one of the types, the article’s author wrote, “People who are upbeat.” She further elaborated on those who are the opposite, or not upbeat, “They are those folks who ruminate over every little problem in their life again and again — and yet never make one move to change their situation. They are Debbie Downers. And they bring me down. Misery loves company and downbeat friends generally are more interested in your bad news than your good news. People who are positive and motivated and optimistic and who lift up those around them are worth hanging on to.

Perhaps I am making it out to be more than it seems. And I can completely see the author’s intention in writing this. Upbeat people are nice to be around… they make you feel good. It’s good to have them in your life. However. Whether it is intentional or not (and I want to hope that it is not), just in the way she frames her words, she is implicitly encouraging the aforementioned stigma. These upbeat people are the “types of friends worth keeping,” and only those who are “upbeat” are “worth hanging on to.” I could not help but feel after reading that that one could easily read this piece and come away feeling they are “not worthy” to be a friend, or worth keeping to someone else because they are suffering with depression, or are struggling deeply and find it immensely difficult to “pretend to be happy.” Am I supposed to make you happy and talk only about good things in order to be a friend worth keeping? What if I am reaching out to you for support? Does that mean I can’t because it might bring you down? It’s as if I have to hide away my issues and pain, so I won’t be a “Debbie Downer” and bring people down, like this article writer. I need to find a way to put a mask on so people will accept me and want to be around me.

As a therapist trainee, I am seeing clients who suffer with depression, anxiety, relational issues, trauma, sexual abuse, the list goes on. And for many of them, I see them minimize their issues, feel left alone in their struggles (most likely by those who avoid “Debbie Downers”), and feel shame for feeling what they do. They constantly seek validation from me to know that it is okay to feel and think the way they do. I have found just by the act of validating my clients’ feelings, they feel greatly empowered… and it is because we are constantly de-validating each other in this society and forcing one another to “be happy.” And I can’t help but think, how would this society if we just allowed others to express sadness and suffering? What if upbeat wasn’t the main goal, but instead being authentic and genuine with ourselves and with others? Many of my clients would not be needing to come into my office, of that I am sure.

This is a long diatribe, but essentially what I want to get out is that I am not in agreement with the negative concept this article writer is (unintentionally) transmitting. What I do support is this: you are worthy as a friend and as a person, regardless of your mood, whether you are happy or sad. You are not a label (i.e., Debbie Downer). And you are NOT your emotion. You are a complex and beautiful person. You have a right to love and be loved, and you have a right to exist. No one else has the power to define you, except for you.

on grief

                               sunsett

Mourning isn’t a temporary process; it’s a lifetime one. Whether we’ve lost someone to death, broken up with a love, or had a falling out with a best friend, I think that all of us can imagine what mourning is like. The 5 stages of grief come to mind for many, but I think the concept warrants more elaboration. Something that I have come to learn in my own life is that losing someone in any context isn’t something that you simply “get over.” You cannot counsel children or teachers who were victims of (or lost loved one to) the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to “get over it.” In obvious ways, they may never “get over it.”

I am not speaking of complicated grief, or being so immersed in one’s grief to the point that life’s meaning is forever lost, which is a different issue. What I argue against, however, is the message we give in society or the expectation we push on others and even on ourselves to “get over it.” Because it is not reflective of the true mourning process. The reason I believe that mourning is lifelong, is because many losses are heavy and deep indeed, and cause our lives to shift in innumerable ways. It takes time to settle into a “new normal.” And once we do, we may be happy on some days and other times we may be stressed or anxious in our daily living. But there are certain moments when we are reminded of our loss and the old pain is scratched. It hurts. A tear or two (or many) fall. Our hearts feel the emptiness of that loss. But then we continue to go forward.

And those moments that remind us of our loss will always be there throughout our life walk… like on my wedding day, walking down the aisle without my father. Or when I reminisce with my mother, and that desire bubbles up, I wish I could hear my dad call my name again just once. Or when I see a man playing with his kids at the park or a daughter taking out her father to a nice Italian restaurant on Father’s Day. The old wound scratched, I feel the pain of what has been lost and will never be fully redeemed. But the thing I have come to find is that this process is normal… and maybe, arguably, more true than just the concept of 5 stages of grief. Acceptance (the last stage) does not mean we are done with grieving. If anything, these moments of grief peppered throughout our lifespan are to be expected.

We are not still tied down to our grief. Most of us are still able to live our lives. But grief will come up from time to time, and if we conceptualize of these moments as part of the typical grieving process, we won’t be burdening ourselves with the fruitless goal of “getting over it.” There is nothing to get over. There is nothing wrong with having our feelings come up again and to be missing the person we lost. The pain tells us how special that person was and how much we loved them; so of course, if we are reminded of their absence, it will hurt. But it’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to feel the pain. We only do ourselves more harm by ignoring it. It is the tail side of the coin, in which heads is love. It is all inextricably part of the beautiful, and often unfathomable, human experience.