Sunday, 20 March 2016

Being Happy & Living with Depression: The Whole Picture (International Day of Happiness)

Happiness and Depression (International Day of Happiness): The Whole Picture

Since it's officially International Day of Happiness, I thought I'd make myself a cup of tea (Yorkshire, strong, no sugar ICYWW) and talk about what it means to be happy whilst living with depression and anxiety...*





Things that make me happy: 
Seeing friends, a good book, being by the sea, Corona and lime, climbing mountains, sketchbooks and 5b pencils, cats, good coffee, Harry Potter, new makeup, pizza, seahorses, putting my hair in a topknot, music, loungewear, a good smelling candle, knitwear, the coast, chocolate brownies, watching Friends, acrylic paint, pick and mix, Indonesian sunsets, gemstones, crime novels, open space, beans on toast, bonfire night, black skinny jeans, elephants, singing along to bad music, countryside walks, Netflix marathons, fresh sheets, laughter, my family, taking my bra off at the end of the day, taking my makeup off at the end of the day, silver jewellery, bloopers, car chats, dancing, burgers, red wine, writing...
...the list goes on, as with anyone else.


I originally started this post for Time to Talk day (see what I did post here), because although gathering momentum for the mental health conversation is crucial, it's important that we don't prioritise de-stigmatisation and normalisation over true, comprehensive understanding; they're two important sides of the same important coin.


Things that make me sad:
A bad cup of tea, break ups, arguments, a sad movie, a sad book, a sad article, a sad documentary, the news, death, being rejected by my cat, friends being sad, family being sad, strangers being sad, the bad kind of nostalgia, missing Bali, people crying, trying on clothes, unfairness, seeing homeless people, war, when people lose, rejection, darkness when I leave work, bullying, pms...

...the list goes on, as with anyone else.

Things that make me depressed:

Genetics, changes in brain chemicals, triggering life events (big or small).

Imagine that somebody asks me how I'm doing, today specifically. Seems like it should be an easy question: today, in this moment, I'm either happy or I'm not, right? 

Not quite.

You see, I'm happy. I'm happy with my life in all of its (granted, unremarkable) complexity. I'm happy because I have amazing friends and family, and because I really have nothing to be unhappy about, except a little bit of money/job stress. I'm happy because I ate a really delicious sandwich for lunch and made an especially good cup of tea just now. I'm happy because it's officially Spring and it's getting milder and Cheshire is beautiful, and because nothing bad happened to me or anyone I love today. 

But this isn't the whole picture (and here I give some context to the snapchats above), because I am also depressed; I have depression.

Today I got out of bed at 3pm, having fallen asleep after 6am (really). As I find all too often, I couldn't face the day, so I hid from the world for as long as possible instead. The above image is what my day looked like, from start to (almost) finish. But here's what I want you to understand: I'm not sad.

It's more and more widely understood that depression is different to sadness; being depressed is not the same as the varying levels of melancholy we all feel when we watch a sad movie about a break up, or experience a break up ourselves. Depression isn't the same as the sadness we feel when our pet passes away, nor when our family member passes away (though these things can be triggers for depression, of course).

Here's the thing, though: I think we also need to recognise that this means "happy" and "depressed" are not mutually exclusive. A person is not one or the other. Because I have depression, I am not unhappy. Because I am happy, I am not not depressed.

In his book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, as well as his incredible Ted talk, Andrew Solomon said "the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality". Hearing these words was life-changing for me; it was only after watching Solomon's talk that I finally began to understand the way it all works: depression is not, by definition, the absence of happiness. Tweet this!

If you are feeling sad, you can cure it with happiness. You can do the things that make you happy in order to counteract the sadness you are feeling at that moment. You can get up, take a shower, put on your favourite outfit, get some fresh air, see some friends, watch a happy movie etc. etc. and you will, whether entirely or marginally, feel better.


If you are depressed, you cannot treat it with happiness. That is, with "feel good" things to "cheer yourself up". Sure, if you are able, getting out of bed, taking a shower, putting on your favourite outfit, getting some fresh air, seeing some friends and watching a happy movie might help to distract you, to get you on the right track (that is, on the way to temporary "relief" from a "bad phase"), but these things are not treatments. Doing happy things will not treat your depression, because you are not simply unhappy.

This is a concept I've barely seen discussed on the internet, I think because it's a confusing one to try and get your head around, and, I guess, we also have quite a way to go when it comes to the complexity of the language we use to talk about mental illness (at least in English). We so often talk about illness and emotion as though they're one and the same; feelings and health like it's all just semantics. I'm guilty of talking about my bad days as "down days", and telling people I "feel" x, y or z. It's hard to avoid, though; we haven't developed a more sophisticated way of discussing mental illness yet so it's almost impossible to communicate without referencing "normal", everyday feelings.

You can do all the happy things in the world and it won't change the fact that you have an illness derived from genetics, chemical imbalances and triggers, is what I'm saying.

Happiness as an emotion has no direct impact on depression, because depression is not an emotion. You can't balance emotion and illness. Depression is an insidious takeover of your mind; a hijacking of your moods. It's not like feeling: feeling is a logical response to a stimulus, so you can change its path, supply other, happier, stimuli. 


Happiness is a cure for sadness, but it is not a treatment for depression.** 

I am happy, and I am depressed. 

I am depressed, and I am happy.



*this post is written from personal experience with generalised anxiety disorder and depression, and is only meant to be viewed from my own POV. Both depression and anxiety come in many different forms and in no way do I believe that every point I make here applies to every individual suffering with mental illness, particularly more extreme cases than my own, but including those suffering with the "same" illnesses as me. I hope I don't cause any offence - but if you want to discuss anything, feel free to email me.

**credit to my friend Niru for putting my thoughts in order and forming this.

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