Depression can make you feel alone and isolated, but in reality you aren’t. Many other people live with depression every day, and you can learn a lot from them. Here, three people diagnosed with depression share insights they’ve gained along the way.
1. It’s Not Your Fault
For the longest time, “I felt like something was wrong with me,” says Marisa McPeck-Stringham, 37, a social worker in Ogden, Utah, who blogs about her life, including her depression, as Iron Daisy. She first noticed as a teen that she was sometimes down in the dumps, but she wasn’t diagnosed until age 20, she says. Before the diagnosis, she would ask herself: What’s wrong with me? She knew she had a good family, a good home, and great parents. “I didn’t know it was a mental illness,” she says. “I didn’t know it was a problem with my brain chemistry.”
That reaction is a common one, says Michelle B. Riba, MD, associate director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center in Ann Arbor and past president of the American Psychiatric Association. Patients often tell her they think they did something to bring on the depression, and that they could have been stronger.
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Dr. Riba tells her patients, “It’s a medical condition and has to be treated like a medical condition.” Anyone diagnosed with depression must be evaluated to see which treatment or combination might work for them, Riba says.
2. Being Depressed Takes a Lot of Energy
Elizabeth Moon, 70, of Austin, who wrote Crown of Renewal and other books, was diagnosed in the early 1980s. She didn’t understand until after she got a diagnosis and was treated how exhausted she had been from trying to keep up with her life. “I didn’t realize how long I had been depressed,” she says.
“I was active, very physically active,” says Moon. “I didn’t think of myself as depressed; I didn’t realize I was sliding into depression.”
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“Not everyone fits the stereotype of sitting on the couch,” unable to do anything, she says. “If you’re feeling worthless, like you have no future — even if you appear to be healthy and holding down a full-time job, get checked out.”
“People may not pinpoint [depression symptoms] right away,” Riba says of those who get depressed. They may think they’re sleep deprived, for instance, or just have some temporary issues balancing responsibilities.
3. Exercise Has Been Proven to Help With Symptoms
Often, the last thing you want to do if you’re depressed is go out and get some exercise. But those who’ve been there understand the value of exercise, and say it often helps. “If I don’t get out and exercise, I have to really watch myself and make sure I’m not sliding,” Moon says. “I do much better if I’m active. I have much less chance of sliding into another episode.”
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Exercise ”readjusts our brain chemistry,” says McPeck-Stringham. She includes exercise as part of her “self-care” routine. Her workouts also become valuable “me” time, she finds.
And there is good evidence that exercise improves your mental health. A study published in 2014 in JAMA Psychiatry found that exercise does lower your chance of becoming depressed. And in people who already have depression, exercise helps lift depressive symptoms.
4. Writing Helps You Sort Out Your Emotions
Keola Birano, 33, of Hilo, Hawaii, is a full-time writer who also works for his wife’s clothing business. Diagnosed at age 19, he soon learned the power of writing — not for his livelihood, but for his depression. First, he wrote a letter to his father and ”without giving it to him,” burned it. “It released whatever [negative] feeling I may have held onto,” he says.
He has continued writing, both for his blog, Keola Birano Reimagined, and for personal growth. “When you write, it opens up parts of your brain you didn’t know were there,” he says. “I try to do 10 minutes a day on autopilot, to let the feelings out.”
5. Managing Depression Is an Ongoing Effort
“It takes a lot of significant work to keep yourself strong,” Birano says. “You have to keep working on it. Once you start thinking you have it beat, you set yourself up for failure.”
Moon agrees. “I can go downhill in 30 seconds,” she says. “I’ve learned to have a plan in place when that happens,” she says. Part of her plan is to keep tabs on her mental health before that slide downhill. “At least five times a year, I take the Beck Depression Inventory [a tool used by mental health experts] and see where I am. If I’m coming up [on the score], I need to be very careful. If the score doesn’t go back down, I may need meds.”
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For her, the best approach has been to take medications when needed and then taper off them, she says, but she doesn’t claim this is best for everyone. It’s important to remember that decisions to stop or start medications should always be done in conjunction with your physician.
“Right now, I’m in between episodes,” Moon says. “I know another one may come and it isn’t a disaster when it does come. It doesn’t mean you’ll end up committing suicide either.”
Figuring out what works for you to stay on an even keel is critical, Moon says. The most important thing for anyone who’s depressed? “Recognize when you’re falling off the cliff,” she says. Then go get the help you need and deserve.