The frustrating thing about depression is that it’s often caused by flat-out messed-up biochemistry but is nonetheless attributed to various real-world causes, both by the depressed person and by those around him or her.
Why is that frustrating?
Well, since you can’t wave a magic wand and make the chemical imbalance in your brain go away, it’s easy to focus instead on what the depression does to your thinking instead, and unfortunately, that doesn’t actually help much. It’s like searching for your dropped wallet under a streetlight instead of in the dark alley where you dropped it simply because the light is better. You’re not going to fix anything by worrying and worrying and worrying about what you believe to be the root causes. In fact, you’ll probably just make things worse.
I know I’m depressed. I know that this is probably biochemical, the result of unfortunate heredity. My maternal grandmother had severe depression as well as other mental health issues and spent a lot of her life institutionalized (and let’s face it, mental hospitals in Depression-era Florida weren’t all that great). My father has had a tendency to go to bed and pull the covers over his head pretty much the whole time I’ve known him. It was almost automatic that on his birthday he’d feel unloved and disrespected … and boom, he’d be in bed in a dark room in the middle of the day. Other members of my family have similar issues. There’s no real mystery as to why I’m depressed.
Depression takes hold of a person in various ways. I tend to have severe procrastination problems when I’m depressed. I find myself hanging around work well past the time everyone else has gone home, often just disconsolately web browsing, and then I go back to my hotel, gobble something without paying it much attention, and go right to bed. When I’m at home, I put off chores I know I need to do and know that I’ve meant to do for some time, but I just can’t get started. I lose my temper when a family member takes out their frustrations on me; I feel really wronged by that in a “don’t-I-have-enough-to-feel-bad-about already?” kind of way.
I don’t walk around crying and sobbing, acting out the stereotypical behavior of a depressed person — but I’m depressed nonetheless. Everyone tells me that I should get more exercise. It’s a vicious circle — when you’re super-depressed, you don’t want to exercise. It’s very hard to break out of this cycle, no matter what medication they put you on. No combination of pills is going to make 100% of problems go away.
But here’s the thing: even though I know that my depression has metabolic and biochemical roots, it’s so incredibly easy to attribute it to various external factors.
To say, in other words, “I’m depressed because I have basically zero friends who I can just go hang out with. I’m depressed because being on the road for work all the time means that I’m no more likely to get an invite to a Halloween or New Year’s party than I am to get an invite to the next Presidential inaugural.”
Or to say “I’m depressed because of a failed relationship 25 years ago that, at the time, was unbelievably important to me, and that I’d give anything to patch up, and where, unfortunately, the other party seems intent on ignoring every apology I’ve ever tried to send their way.”
Yes, when I’m depressed — when I’m really down in the dumps — those thoughts find fertile soil in my gloom. I’ve been brooding about the second issue, above, for literally 24 years… and I’m not likely to stop anytime soon.
When you’ve spent as many years cycling through waves of depression and regret as I have, you wear ruts in your thinking, if you’ll accept a somewhat strained analogy. You get so used to fretting about things you should have done differently all those years ago and wishing for a second chance that your mind turns to that path almost automatically. I suspect that even if someone came along and gave me a magic pill that would eliminate all the biochemical reasons for my depression instantly, I’d still feel bad about what happened way back then simply because my brain doesn’t know how to do anything else.
And that’s very, very frustrating. It’s very hard to break patterns of toxic thinking and acknowledge that your depression isn’t externally sourced. If you can come to grips with the fact that it’s biochemical in nature, sometimes you can stand up, look yourself in the mirror, and say “I don’t have to be a prisoner of biology. I can do the things I need to do. I can act like a non-depressed person would act. Even if I am actually depressed.”
But as long as your brain keeps trying to blame the depression on all the baggage you carry around in the attic of your mind, and that’s what your thoughts always turn to, it’s so damn hard to replace that way of thinking with a new, healthier line of thought.