Depression Is Real But Conquerable


This post is from my archives.

Depression-Is-Real-1440x810I lost a loved one to suicide two weeks ago.

I am still reeling from the loss.

He was a father to two children, ages 8 and 12, a brother, a son, and a friend to many.

Thirty years ago, suicide took my aunt and godmother.

These two family members are mere statistics now: two of the 800,000 lives lost globally every year to suicide.

Suicide steals one life every 40 seconds.

By the time you’ve finished reading this, our world will have lost three people — possibly a young father, an only daughter, or a twin brother. Or maybe an older sister, a coworker, or a fiancé.

Keep in mind that suicide takes more lives than traffic accidents, lung disease, and AIDS, and it’s the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. By 2020, depression is expected to be the second most debilitating disease worldwide.

Since I have been fighting intense suicidal thoughts for four months now, I completely understand the desperation behind the decision to end one’s life. As I said in another piece, the urge to take your life can come over you much like the urge to sneeze — it can feel that instinctual, natural, and right. For those of us plagued by such thoughts, staying alive has to become our primary job, sometimes consuming all of our energy. We must keep on delaying our decision 15 minutes at a time, calling friends and hotlines and therapists and doctors, until we reach a place of safety and the pain that is driving our thoughts subsides long enough for a moment of truth to sneak in: that the suffering we feel so intensely will end.

The recent death has reminded me just how life-threatening depression can be.

We tend to put it in the category of “first-world problems” — seeing it as the inability to rise above certain circumstances or embrace the positive or adjust our thinking — and yet, as the statistics point out, it takes just as many lives as so-called “third-world problems.”

We see more than two million children die each year from malaria in Africa, and we can easily label that as legitimate suffering.

Mothers risk their lives to give birth in war-torn Iraq.

Legitimate suffering.

Women in Darfur risk rape for their freedom.


But a guy who lives in the land of the free, with a house and a job and an iPhone who can’t break free of debilitating thoughts?

Depression Is a Real Disease

Interestingly enough, 100 years ago, tuberculosis was perceived in much the same way as depression is today. It was an illness that “signified refinement” or contained a “measure of erotic appeal,” according to bestselling author Peter Kramer, MD, clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. But that diminished as science helped identify the origins of the illness and as treatment became possible and then routine. In his New York Times essay “There’s Nothing Deep About Depression,” adapted from his book Against Depression, Dr. Kramer writes:

Depression is not a perspective. It is a disease. Resisting that claim, we may ask: Seeing cruelty, suffering, and death — shouldn’t a person be depressed? There are circumstances, like the Holocaust, in which depression might seem justified for every victim or observer. Awareness of the ubiquity of horror is the modern condition, our condition.

He explains that the great Italian writer Primo Levi was not depressed during his months at Auschwitz, but years later, Levi took his own life when he could no longer bear the pain of depression. Says Kramer:

I have treated a handful of patients who survived horrors arising from war or political repression. They came to depression years after enduring extreme privation. Typically, such a person will say, “I don’t understand it. I went through — ” and here he will name one of the shameful events of our time. “I lived through that, and in all those months, I never felt this.’’ This refers to the relentless bleakness of depression, the self as hollow shell. To see the worst things a person can see is one experience; to suffer mood disorder is another. It is depression — and not resistance to it or recovery from it — that diminishes the self.

Depression is real.

It is as real as malaria and war. It is real enough to steal the lives of 800,000 people a year.

But there is plenty of hope.

I read this paragraph of hope from William Styron’s book Darkness Visible over and over again when I’ve hit a debilitating episode of depression and am back fighting for my life:

If depression had no termination, then suicide would, indeed, be the only remedy. But one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease — and they are countless — bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: It is conquerable.

It is conquerable.

We must believe that.

Join Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

Photo credit: Vinson Motas/Getty Images

Published originally on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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6 Responses
  1. Mary Noel

    Thank you so much for sharing this post—–I love the part where you say this disease IS conquerable—–I am going through such hard times now. Do others find that the older you get the harder it seems to believe you can overcome? I am approaching 65 and have been dealing with depression for almost all of my life. I think it actually began at the age of 3 when I was in a car accident that took the life of my 9 year old sister and another close family friend. Lived through the next 16 years of physical and mental abuse. Life has been so very difficult. I feel so tired—so very very tired. I look at the books you have listed and wonder—–could I possible change the way I think at this age? Thanks for the beautiful picture, too—–and the sharing which reminds me that there are others out there who face the hour to hour struggle. Blessings to you for your commitment to this community!!

  2. Thank you, for a profoundly helpful piece. I often refer to depression as the cruelest disease.
    This, because it attacks the very heart of our ability to respond to life. No other disease can claim this dark truth. Whether my own depression or that of my patients, it is always this aspect that is most painfully visible. Knowledge is power. Simply knowing these things can help us gain that higher perspective. “I have this illness, but it is not me”.

  3. Gilly

    Thank you for this blog Therese and I am so sorry for your loss. At the moment I feel that I am grieving for the woman who used to live in my skin. It’s a Saturday afternoon and I am alone in my flat with no-one and no plans. She would have a list of things that she wanted to accomplish today, she would be busy and productive and industrious. But she is as good as dead when depression takes over and isolation overrides creativity, hoplessness supersedes hope. The suicide statistics have not changed but nevertheless it still feels like someone has died. This is a terrible and debilitating disease that steals from us at a fundamental the worthwhile things that make us who we are and who we want to be. It Iis not something we can simply wake up one morning and decide not to be afflicted with.

    1. Mary Noel

      Gilly, I feel the same way. I will have one of those “Memories from ____ years ago” on my FB feed and I will be asking myself—-“who was that they are talking about? I can’t relate to myself which is just such a bizarre thing to me. Has depression, anxiety had this much of a toll on me?