Generally, I lack the patience to sit through internet videos, but I came across this TED talk by Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. His discussion on depression is a much watch for both those suffering from depression and those who are caregivers, loved ones or friends trying to understand what this disease really is.
When he says that “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality” I actually cried. Not only because it resonated so deeply but also because it finally put eloquent language to something I could only explain as “I’m fucked up.”
In therapy, we have been discussing what not being depressed looks like. What does my identity become if I am no longer “depressed”? The reason I have this conversation with my therapist a lot is that I am wondering how all this intervention will change what I view as my fundamental self. Deep down I fear that all these meds, talk therapy, and coping skills are akin to plastic surgery, where it changes something perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse, but at the end of the day will make me into something artificial. With that being said, his answer to my question of what not being depressed would look like is instead of being barely functioning (or just going through the motions of daily living) I would have more robust functionality - operating above and beyond what I currently think I am capable of doing. Perhaps I will always have negative self-worth and a need for external validation, but I will be living and functioning at my utmost potential. In other words, I will have vitality.
Another major theme in Solomon’s talk is about all the ways depression is misunderstood. This misunderstand shows through with how we treat depression and how we view depression in ourselves and in others.
I agree that treatment is shoddy - I have had different psychiatrists diagnose me with various conditions (major depressive, bipolar disorder, and dysthymia), prescribe different medications with little therapeutic or even harmful effects, and provide no guidance about what the best course of action should be to treat whatever is wrong with me. If I had a physical health condition, I could have filed for malpractice by now.
Armed with the experience and understanding that most people consider psychiatry a “pseudoscience,” over the years I have become more proactive in my own care. I will research any recommended medication before taking it, ask as many open and honest questions as I can about all my options (using assertive communication), and recently I have included my partner in my coordination of care. To quote from Solomon’s remarks, “I hope that 50 years hence, people will hear about my treatments and be appalled that anyone endured such primitive science.”
I was unsurprised that Solomon saw such stigma around discussing depression, even with those we are supposedly most intimate with (the husband and wife story greatly amused me). The stigma surrounding mental health is lethal and prevents people from seeking out the help they need to get help for their illness. I still question if I made the right decision getting “voluntarily” admitted to the acute psychiatric unit - it took weeks for me to reveal to my friends and family why I was incommunicado for three full days.
I got a lot out of watching this talk. It was informative, and I have made it a must-watch among those close to me. I hope you can spare a few minutes for it as well.
about the author
My name is Dana Johnson and I am the creator of the Mood Check-In blog.