Had depression not killed my godmother–my mom’s sister–and had it not made a pretty good attempt at ending my life, I doubt I would admit to anyone that I pack my suitcase full of the old-people container of meds. It’s hard enough to list them all at the doctor’s office with a straight face, much less speak openly online and offline about my ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression.
We all make fun of Tom Cruise for his beliefs that you can cure depression with exercise alone, but my guess—based on the reactions I get and the conversations I have when I throw out the D word—is that most people share his philosophy … that those chronic worriers and criers among us haven’t learned how to cope with life’s blows, give into needless thoughts and feelings, and—with a little yoga and tofu—might toughen up and get off the couch.
What do we do about it? How do we possibly stand a chance at fighting such an uninformed but common mindset?
1. Don’t Take It Personally
If someone says something stupid, the worst thing you can do is react defensively because a defensive response empowers the other person’s words. It presumes you are threatened by the response, which suggests there is some truth in it. And the more defensive you get, the more confident (and stupid) the other person becomes. If you were raised in a dysfunctional home—and the last time I checked, all of us were—you know well this dynamic. I try to keep in mind Don Miguel Ruiz’s second agreement (from his classic book, “The Four Agreements”) whenever I end up in an infuriating conversation:
Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds…Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians. They can hook you easily with one little opinion and feed you whatever poison they want, and because you take it personally, you eat it up…. But if you do not take it personally, you are immune in the middle of hell. Immunity in the middle of hell is the gift of this agreement.
2. Tell Your Story
Your story is the only one you own. You don’t possess Brooke Shields’ or Catherine Zeta-Jones’ or Lindsay Lohan’s. Thank God for the latter. You can try to comment on how each of them descended into depression’s inferno, but your guess is going to be as good as US Weekly’s, which is, well … You CAN, however, describe the exact thoughts that kept you locked inside your bedroom for three days. And if you merely tell the story without any expectation of understanding (difficult but possible), then you are merely telling a narrative about a life event. They can’t disagree, because it’s your story and you own it.
3. Stick to Science
Nothing combats stupidity—and speaks more directly and clearly about the physiological nature of depression–than neurobiology. All those scientific terms will make you look smart, sound convincing, and take the naysayer off-guard, like he’s talking to the president of the kick-butt debate team. I love commenting on the different regions of the brain affected by depression—like the amygdala and hippocampus—and the cell shrinkage and death that the poor guys experience, as well as the diminished capability for nerve generation, because most opinionated people ironically have no opinions about their hippocampus and how it’s doing on any particular hour. I like to quote renowned psychiatrist, Peter Kramer, perhaps the most knowledgeable man alive with regard to depression. He believes that to work with depression is to “combat a disease that harms patients’ nerve pathways day by day,” that “depression is the most devastating disease known to mankind.”
4. Talk About Genetics
Whenever I begin to doubt the physiological nature of depression and get a case of the pathetics, I remind myself of the genetics of mood disorders, and the specific genes that predispose people to this mysterious illness. There is a reason that both my twin sister and I suffer from anxiety. She lives a few states a way and lives a completely different life, but we experience similar symptoms because we share so many genes. Researchers have confirmed a role for the gene G72/G30, located on chromosome 13q, in some families with bipolar disorder, and also evidence for susceptibility genes on chromosome 18q and 22q. Most recently, with genetic studies on families with major depression disorder, psychiatric geneticists like James Potash, M.D. have been able to mark a narrow area on chromosome 15 as having a tie to depression. If you can remember to mention “chromosome 15,” you’ll put an end to the tofu conversation pretty quickly.
5. Throw Out Some Stats
Whenever I give a talk on depression, I start with these statistics that paint an alarming but real picture:
- One million die from suicide around the globe. Over 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression.
- Suicide takes more lives than traffic accidents, lung disease, and AIDs.
- Depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44.
- 90 percent of people won’t get adequate treatment.
- 80 percent would rather live with pain than do something about it.
I usually end with the fact that if there had been some more education about mood disorders, my godmother might be alive.
6. Walk Away
If you’re so frustrated you can’t get any of this out, then walk away. And try to repeat number one.
Published originally on “Sanity Break” on Everyday Health.