Turn on the lights

Originally published on 19 April 2017 at Medium.com.
Republished on 25 October 2021 at blog.jwf.io.

Many times, I’ve sat down to write this. The same number of times, I never finish and delete it all. Many times, I’ve wondered how to say the things I want to say. I’ve been doing this for years. However, the motivation this time is different.

Two important events made me realize that writing this is important. A conversation with one of my friends about what was happening in my life reminded me of the critical, psychological benefit of communicating and being honest and open about myself. The second thing was an insight from an article I saw on Twitter, about Sheryl Sandberg and dealing with grief. The profound insight in the article to me was the intersection between effective leadership and expressing emotion. “Expressing emotion when you’ve gone through extreme pain is not weakness. It is humanity.”

It’s time to turn on the lights. (Armando Ascorve Morales, from Unsplash)

This post isn’t like anything I’ve written before, but it is a necessary next step for me to move forward.

I live with depression.

It’s a battle that has various turns and twists, and different highs and lows. There are days, weeks, even months where I don’t feel its weight. But there are also long periods of time where it envelops me and becomes my world.

There are some insights I’ve learned over time, though. In the spirit of being more open and true to myself, I want to share some of my experiences and also some advice from those experiences.

In my own world

Others who have experiences of their own can recount similar details to the looming feelings that overtake them. Sometimes it comes at the most unexpected moments, even if everything around you is going right. Yet, there it is.

The looming feeling deep in your stomach.

The heavy weight that presses down on your consciousness.

Sleeping early and waking up late, or not sleeping at all.

The sucking of your productive energy towards meaningless tasks, like spending more of your time reading about the lives of other people instead of living your own. The feelings have a wide range. Regardless of the specifics, anyone who has walked this quiet path can take these general points and recount them into their own story.

After a while, it feels like you’re a lost explorer, navigating the endless forest of your own emotions and feelings. (Martin Reisch, from Unsplash)

The most difficult part is the creeping feeling when the depression begins to take hold, but it feels like there’s nothing that can stop it.

Now that I’ve had more years to reflect on my depression, I’m better able to pick out some of its origins and characteristics. Even knowing these things, there isn’t one form of depression or one way it looks like. What form it takes on depends on contextual evidence and what’s happening around me.

Depression is…

Sometimes, depression wears the mask of incompetence. It’s not uncommon for me to set too high of a bar for myself to reach. When I don’t meet those expectations or if I fall behind, my self-esteem slowly erodes. One missed assignment or deadline turns into two, then four. What was a small problem is exacerbated into a chain reaction of many problems. This builds the feeling of incompetence. Navigating the web of problems after it is spun becomes difficult and drains all energy. Personal motivation decreases leaving me wondering why I bother at all.

Sometimes, depression causes you to cast poor comparisons. It’s looking at the highlight reel of other peoples’ lives while you’re going through the cut-out reel. I wrap myself up in the achievements and successes of others. It’s an echo chamber of negative thought, where the lives of friends, family, or acquaintances remind me of my self-perceived incompetence. Everyone seems smarter and brighter. It looks like everyone else has it together when I’m struggling to meet deadlines and remembering to eat. Social media aggravates this. The entire premise of social media is to share the “highlight reel”, to show off when everything in your life is going right—which is why social media is the worst thing to look at when you’re in the trenches.

John Green shared a video recently about how we frame our lives that describes this well.

In which John discusses the ways we frame reality, the distance between the selves we put online and the selves we inhabit, and the challenge of understanding public lives as self-portraiture rather than reality.

There are other forms that it takes too. But underneath its form, the emotions are usually the same (at varying intensities). It’s a spectrum of feelings and activities, ranging from loss of interest, difficulty finding motivation, worthlessness, unusual sleep patterns, nail-biting, and at its worst, wanting a permanent way to escape. This goes without saying, over the years, I have become more adept at pushing out the harsher thoughts by recognizing them and reaching out to a close friend when I feel that way. But the spectrum varies depending on the surrounding events.


My biggest challenge was how I kept it all hidden. Only a handful of people knew about some of my difficulties and what was going on behind the scenes. There were two critical fears that always prevented me from stepping out of the dark.

If I were to be honest about what I was going through, I didn’t want to be treated differently by others, personally or professionally. I’ve always felt that if I presented an idea or had a conversation with someone, agreements or disagreements were because of the ideas being conveyed, not because someone cast judgment on what they think I can handle. This was and is valuable to me.

But why was this a fear of mine? We have a problem of “talking about it”. The stigma is that it’s wrong to “feel bad”. It’s not comfortable to talk about. It’s difficult for others to sometimes relate. The tone that people speak to you changes. This stigma created the fear that every conversation would become heavy-handed with special treatment. What I realized is that this fear isn’t justification to keep the lights off.

By becoming transparent about it, my hope is that this won’t be the case. I don’t want to be treated differently than how anyone has already treated me. If you’re wondering about how you can help, this is one of the best ways: to treat me the same way. (Although more hugs are never something I complain about!)

However, there was one more fear that kept me in the dark.

Not expressing what’s going on in a healthy way only sets you up to find unhealthy ways to express it instead. (wafflesduhpanda, from tumblr)

To become more comfortable with sharing these emotions, it means being honest when someone asks how you are and reaching out for help when you need it. But it can be a lot to ask someone to help untangle the thick cobwebs when you’re having a hard time seeing through. From being on the receiving end before, I knew how it can be draining (even if it’s worthwhile and makes a difference in the end). My fear was putting too much burden on others and draining their energy on problems that don’t concern them. Everyone has their own stress and problems too. As a result, I rarely shared my pain and difficulty with others to avoid placing more stress on others.

When you’re afraid of adding more stress onto others, it impacts the type of actions you make. It might look typing out a long message when someone asks if everything is okay, then deleting it to say, “Everything is fine!” Other times, it’s the confusion over how to answer a simple question like, “How are you?” Sometimes it’s simply feeling alone.

But even though this is a fear, there is also a balance and a way to prevent adding so much stress to a close one’s life. Real relationships don’t flow like a river, in a single direction. It’s like a two-way road where traffic passes in both directions. It’s unsustainable for one person to only lean on one person. It goes both ways and the communication has to be two-way to be successful. However, letting everything out at once after it’s built up for so long isn’t the answer either. This is that overloading stress that creates this fear of sharing in the first place. Communication needs to be early and often. You have to share and you have to be honest.

I realized these fears shouldn’t keep me from sharing my story. The benefits of being open and sincere outweigh the perceived negatives from these fears. It takes a lot to throw yourself out in the open, but once it’s out, some of the extra weight falls off.

Opening the blinds, turning on the lights

But my purpose with this post wasn’t to only reflect on my personal experiences either. I hate raising problems without offering means to solving them. There are plenty of ways to learn about how to deal with depression. You can talk to a therapist and seek medicine too. But I wanted to share some of the things that have helped me get out of the hole and fight back.

However, none of this advice should be taken over professional medical advice. I am not a doctor and I won’t act like one. If you are experiencing severe depression, please take the first step and talk to a doctor.

Seriously… talk about it

Maybe this seems like common sense. Maybe you are afraid of what others might think of you if you tell them “the truth”. What talking about it looks like is up to you. Whether it’s a trusted friend, a family member, or a trusted individual, psychotherapy (or talk therapy) has significant benefits for helping you put your best foot forward. Whether it’s formal or informal, professional or friend-to-friend, getting it out there helps. It lets you have a chance to decompress from the build-up of stress. It also gives someone else a chance to remind you of the positive counterpoints to the negative thoughts.

Sometimes the best responses I’ve received is just an affirmation of love. Telling someone that you value them and that you love and care for them goes a long way.

Find your detox

Your “detox” activity depends on you. Everyone has a different form of what helps remove them from the negative emotion and feelings. The purpose of detoxing is to give yourself a chance to separate from what’s providing the stress and to step away, even if for a short while. Usually, one of the best first steps is unplugging from the laptop, the phone, or other digital ties. Some time off from the grind will help you to refocus and bring your mind to a better place.

For example, some of my detox activities are listening to the right music and taking a walk. My music might be my best therapy. Sometimes it’s having a conversation with a close friend about something completely random. Other times, it’s writing a few lines into a notebook. What the activity is depends on you. But it’s important to find those positive, uplifting experiences and remember them when your vision becomes cloudy.

Look up, even if it feels wrong

One of the things that I’ve started to practice is persuading my mind how to think. Even when everything looks or feels completely awful, I make myself look up. I tell myself that I’m feeling good, and I make myself genuinely believe it. I put my entire faith into that positive energy, of what I know things should be. It’s a challenge. It’s not easy. I can’t always do it. But it’s an art of persuasion. And with any art, it takes practice.

The challenge is to sincerely look for the positivity and happy emotions that are around you. You have to tune yourself to the same emotional frequency as the positive energy. Like a radio signal, you have to turn your channel to receive that positive energy and emotion. And if you’re ready to receive, it will present itself.

Even when it feels wrong, you have to look up. (Frank McKenna, from Unsplash)

In the more difficult times, this is the hardest advice to follow. The negative thoughts creep back into your mind. But recognition is key. To see and identify those thoughts and consciously acknowledge them for what they are is the first step. After identifying the negative energy, you have to turn your own channel. Instead of thinking, “I don’t want to feel that way,” think of the way you do want to feel. Think of the positive energy, emotions, experiences, or memories. Tell yourself, “I want to feel this way,” or “I want to feel good.” Even if it seems trivial and impossible, invest your energy and focus into attracting that positive energy. If you convince yourself that it’s there and you are going to find it, circumstances change. They have a strange way of working themselves out. But you have to know what you want.

Even when it feels like you’re in an emotional headlock straight to the ground, twist a little more to look up. At the sun, the light. The positive emotions and energy in life. And keep looking up.

Remember what’s good

Depression isn’t a one-time illness. You don’t have a revelation one magical day and are suddenly “cured” of depression. It’s a cycle, with ups and downs. It requires balance and powerful support systems to stave off its hardest moments. The first step is recognizing the tug-of-war and identifying when things start to feel wrong. Make the steps to pull back from the things that bring the negative thoughts and energy. Remember what you do want and how you want to feel. Remember what’s good.

It took me a long time to write this. For six or seven years, I’ve tried to find the right words. But what I realized is that if I wait for the right words, I’ll wait forever. Even with the advice I gave, I’m not perfect and I’m not always able to fight it every time. This is something I actively live with. I have good days and I have bad days. The bad days are what brought me to write this in the first place. But the sun always comes up, one way or another. That’s what I always have to remind myself.

There are many stories out there. But this one is mine. Thank you.

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