Yes, You Can Be Happy and Still Be Depressed (I Would Know)

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If you ask me if I’m happy, will enthusiastically tell you “yes!” Happiness was not always something I could claim, but I have a life that would make my 14 year old self proud. I have a great relationship and amazing friends. My social life is active and fulfilling. I love the city I live in. I am entering the career I’ve always wanted. I have my own art studio. I travel. I live in go an apartment decorated to look like an Anthropologie catalogue–that alone would have been enough for my 14 year old self.)

A year ago, I was happy, too. But I also had outside stressors. I was trying to manage working full time for a toxic boss and also manage the stress of grad school. I fell into a pretty deep depression. But unlike other depression I’d experienced when I was younger, this was directly triggered entirely by stress.

Because it didn’t look like other depression I’d experienced, I didn’t recognize for what it was.

Depression is not a monolithic experience. It looks different for different people, and it can be caused by different things: genetics, chemical imbalances, hormones, adverse life events, trauma, grief, stress or burnout. Some depression is intense and causes a major impediment in functioning. Some depression is hardly even noticeable. Dysthymia can be especially deceiving, because it is persistent and mild. Overtime, it may stop feeling like depression and simply feel like our “baseline”.

When I realized a year ago I was depressed, it was nothing like the depression of my teen years. I didn’t feel existential dread or depersonalize. I didn’t feel hopeless or suicidal. I didn’t cry. I didn’t struggle to get out of bed. I didn’t hate my life. I didn’t even feel sad

But what I did feel was bad enough to decide medication was worth a go. I almost immediately felt like a different person after I started taking Wellbutrin. Except, the different person was really me. I had forgotten how it felt to be me.

The low-grade dysthymia had settled so deep I didn’t even realize I wasn’t myself anymore.

When we are teens and young adults, our brains aren’t fully developed. We may react to depressive feelings with more impulsiveness and emotionality. We are more prone to the visible symptoms of depression such as excessive isolation, self-harm, suicidality and substance abuse. Before the age of 25, we “think” with our amygdala, the brain’s fight-or-flight center. Our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for reasoning and perceiving consequences, isn’t fully developed until adulthood. After the age of 25, we begin to process the world through our prefrontal cortex. Depression in our young selves can overwhelm us because we don’t have the equipment to process the emotional input we’re receiving.

As we get older, depression doesn’t go away, but we get better at compartmentalizing. We learn to be nonreactive to it. That’s why checking in with ourselves about our mental health, even when we think nothing is wrong, is so important.

Medication isn’t the right choice for everybody, but it turned my entire life around at the time.

It kept me from dropping out of my grad program and helped me recognize changes I needed to make in my life for my own mental health, starting with the toxic job. After a while, I stopped taking it because I felt I was in a good place. Since I’d removed the source of stress that triggered my depression in the first place, I felt I could go back to life without the daily pill.

A few days ago, I checked in with myself. I realized that the slow creep had been coming on for a couple of months.

Things I am usually passionate about felt uninteresting and laborious (I hadn’t updated this blog in months, for example.) I was less patient with people and more easily provoked. I was constantly guilty about what I “should” be doing, but couldn’t bring myself to do most of it. Regular things, like going to the grocery, felt overwhelming. I didn’t feel like exercising. I ruminated endlessly about all the ways I was failing myself/ my commitments/ my friends/ my projects/ my work. I started to fall into a pattern of procrastination, restlessness and self flagellation. This was my depression inching its way back in the door.

All of that may seem like a lot, but really, it was amazingly easy to ignore. Frankly, I’ve been having lots of fun. I’m happy and grateful every day for my life, my friends, the freedom I have to do what I want to do. My happy face isn’t there to fool anyone. What’s been going on in the world has been on a weight on my mental health like everyone else, but I’ve hardly been a “picture of depression.” Yet, there it was.

Depression can live in us as a houseguest so quiet we forget it’s there. In our culture, we normalize a lot of the symptoms of dysthymia.

Who isn’t kinda stressed? Who doesn’t want to spend 4 hours in the bath? Who really wants to go to the store after work? Who isn’t feeling bad they aren’t doing more? It’s almost weirder NOT to feel dysthymic, especially in times of global crisis and a constant onslaught of bad news.

There’s no shame in taking medication. You can’t always just meditate and yoga yourself out of depression. I know because I tried, and I’ve got much milder depression than so many people who struggle. All of us have different journeys with mental health. We cannot ignore our own because it doesn’t seem as bad as someone else’s. We can’t listen to people when they say “well I saw you at the party last week and you didn’t seem depressed.” People often expect depression to look like the more expressive form it takes in our youth. We can’t undermine our own feelings and needs because our mental health doesn’t fit into someone else’s box.

I had to ask myself the question, “I may be okay without taking this pill, but is okay good enough?” I decided I deserve to be fully present and fully able to feel engaged in the happy life I have.

Remember that a happy life is not immunity against depression, and depression is not repelled by happiness.

Even in the couple days since starting back on medication, I feel like I’m living in my own life again. I mean, here I am, writing this blog, a task that felt too big just a week ago. It’s good to be back!

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  1. Diane says:

    I feel like i live with some level of depression all the time.. One of the big warning signs for me that it is getting out of hand is when I stop feeling anything, stop caring about anything. When everything feels too hard, too exhausting. I haven’t had good experiences with medication but I have learned that if I can make myself get on the rowing machine or do some kind of exercise that gets my heart rate going even for 10 minutes a day, I will start feeling a turn around. Self-monitoring and knowing your patterns of behavior can help avoid a deeper dive into the pit of despair.

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