Depression Obsession: Basking in Your Misery

Some of you may have read this post on my old blog when I first published it 11/19/2010. I have made some revisions. Next week, I will post my list of activities that I have found effective for keeping my depression under control.

This post is specifically about some common unhealthy thought patterns that are a major impediment to recovery from depression. I used to embrace these fallacies myself and I recognize them in other depressed people, too. It took me eight years (without therapy) to realize these beliefs are false and counterproductive.

That said, I am not trying to discount anyone’s experience with clinical depression because I acknowledge that it’s real, and I have experienced it myself. I am only referring to unipolar depression here, since I have no firsthand experience with bipolar disorder. Everyone’s case is different, but these are based on observations from my own thoughts and experiences, including over 250 hours of service as a crisis counselor for a suicide hotline, and my observations of others. I’m not an expert, so take it or leave it.

This post is NOT about those of you who want to recover and are actually trying to, because you are taking care of yourself.

What I consider to be a “depression obsession” describes the people who come across a though they are almost proud to be clinically depressed, “messed up,” mentally ill, etc. They express a desire to get out of their living hell, to feel happy again, normal again. But some of their actions indicate they are holding on dearly to their depression.

These are the people who see “beauty in pain.” Their depression defines their life and who they are. You can usually identify the extreme ones from all the lists of hospitalizations, diagnoses (with insurance codes), and past and present medications (including doses) that they flaunt on their blog. (Perhaps their blogging behavior is different from their daily life, but posting something publicly on the Internet is indicative of a desire for someone else to see it.) They show it off, as if to say, “Look at all I’ve been through!”

I used to want to show off, too, that I was “messed up” and taking antidepressants. But I’ve learned that most people are not always accepting or understanding, especially when it comes to something as misunderstood as mental disorders. There are many people who will immediately pass judgment and think you’re crazy, unreliable, or even dangerous if they know you’re on psychotropic medication. The older I get, the more I see the importance of keeping personal issues separate from academic and professional work. (In fact, I felt quite hesitant to post this entry on my public site, but I decided to do it in hopes that some people can benefit from it.)

When I was in high school, I used to think I was special among my peers because I was clinically depressed. Later I figured out my next point, which is: Depression does not make you special. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 14.8 million adults suffer from major depressive disorder, and another 3.3 million have dysthymic disorder.1 One in eight adolescents are clinically depressed.2 How special is that? Everyone is unique (even when it comes down to the details of their problems). Why not try to cultivate your uniqueness in some other direction?

Being depressed does not mean you’re deep and meaningful–it just means you’re depressed. Yes, you tend to notice and have an appreciation for things that non-depressed people do not. You may be offended when people who have no idea about mental illnesses just don’t get it, and think that they’re shallow. But it’s still possible to be deep and introspective when you’re not depressed.

My guess is that people who have to go through some form of suffering or misfortune that they have no control over will start to come up with reasons for why the experience isn’t really so bad. (Such justification is known as cognitive dissonance.) After seeing what we’ve learned from it, we begin to see it as a privilege that only people who have suffered like us get to experience. Then the feelings of superiority may start to kick in. Those who have not been through such experiences look “simple” and oblivious in comparison. There is no doubt that there are many things that we will never truly understand unless we’ve been there ourselves, but I see such experiences as an opportunity for me to develop empathy for other people who are suffering.

Any “benefits” are not worth the cost. I used to think I was a better writer during my depressed moods. I wrote strange stories about depressed people, which impressed non-depressed people. At the time, I honestly did not want to let go of my depression because I did not want to lose my ability. Well, hanging on to it caused more harm in the long run.

Even if you can make a living from your artwork or writing, depression still results in lost productivity. You should know. I shouldn’t even have to bring out the statistic that every year $35.7 billion is lost in the U.S. due to depression significantly reducing productivity.3

There really is nothing deep, romantic, sexy, glamorous, cool, or special about being depressed. Depression also has negative affects on your physical health. Studies have found links between depression and heart disease, as well as depression and hippocampal atrophy. (The hippocampus is a brain structure that is crucial for learning and memory. Hippocampal volume has been found to be significantly reduced in depressed patients. The longer the duration of depression, the more atrophy.)

If you constantly use your depression as an excuse, and think you can’t do anything because of it, you will never get anywhere. Yes, it does affect functioning, significantly. But I’ve noticed that there are some people who have gotten so used to the excuse that they still use it even after they’ve started recovering, and it’s only going to hold them back. I made this mistake for the longest time, and I sometimes still catch myself falling for it. Yes, it’s difficult, but I keep reminding myself to face my fears. It’s the only way to grow. (This deeply ingrained habit will most likely take some—or a lot—of cognitive behavioral therapy to change.)

In writing all this, the main point that I’d like to get across is that we often do have more control over our mood disorder than we realize. For instance, I can usually sense a possible relapse, but I know there are things I can do to try to not let it get there. I can either make sure I get adequate sleep, some physical activity, time out of the house, and positive interactions with people, or I can stay up late doing nothing, continue to think negative thoughts, dwell on things that can’t be changed, withdraw from others, and stay curled up in bed all day. Even if my effort does not prevent a relapse, my attitude will help me work my way out of it earlier, before it gets real tough. I know that preventing relapse is not the same as trying to recover when you are in-a-ditch depressed, but what I am saying is that you can take active steps to make the best of your condition.

If you don’t think you can do it on your own, get a psychotherapist to help you. An effective therapist who practices cognitive-behavioral therapy will teach you how to recognize your cognitive distortions and evaluate the evidence for and against such negative automatic thoughts. The therapist can assist you in coming up with alternatives, instead of only letting you ramble on and on about your problems. This is not the same as giving advice. Having someone listen is important during times of crisis, but if you’re not in a crisis and come in week after week to talk about the same issues, but never work through them, they will remain there (until you do or die, whichever comes first). There are some problems that pills alone can’t solve. Although people who were treated with cognitive therapy and medication recovered more than people on a placebo did, those with cognitive therapy were less likely to relapse the after treatment was finished.5

I’ve heard many people say that sometimes it’s necessary to accept their depression instead of trying to fight it. I agree that acceptance is important, because acknowledging there’s a problem is the first step to dealing with it. However, I also believe there is no need to dwell on it. In fact, people who ruminate more will remain depressed for longer and with greater severity than those who do not.4 You’re a victim only as long as you think of yourself as one. I don’t like the word victim because it implies powerlessness. I remind myself: Don’t be a victim, be a survivor!

Knowing what it’s like to be clinically depressed, these words will most likely be met with resistance. Nothing could get through to me while I was under that cloud. I am NOT telling anyone to simply “snap out of it” because I know that’s not possible. My only hope is that this will lead to a change in attitude and a sense of empowerment, however slight they might be, and a start on the road to recovery.

A Woman’s Physical Appearance and Confidence

Why, particularly for women, is physical appearance inextricably tied with confidence? Sure, we’ve all heard “Look good, feel great,” which I do think is true to some extent, for both genders, but that is not the topic for this post. What I’m talking about here is if a woman says she doesn’t care much about how she looks, people automatically assume that she is lacking in confidence and that she does not believe her body is worth the effort to look good. While it could be true in some cases, it isn’t always that way. Everything that I state here is the opinion of one woman, so while there definitely are women who think differently, it is likely that there are others who have similar attitudes.

Not wearing makeup or shaving legs on a regular basis has little, if anything, to do with one’s sense of self worth. I don’t regularly wear makeup because I don’t think it’s important, not because I don’t think I’m important. Can’t a woman simply not find those things necessary to do because she thinks there are more significant things for her to focus on than looking pretty?

I have classes to attend. Outside of class I spend most of my time in my room or in the library, studying (or attempting to study). I have a fifty-paged thesis to write by the end of July. These things are currently a higher priority to me than my superficial appearance. There are some girls who care about it all and can pull it off. They always show up to class fashionably dressed, with makeup on, and manicured nails. Good for them; they are they, and I am I.

When I say I don’t care much about my physical appearance, I am referring to makeup, styling my hair, manicures, dressing fashionably, and wearing sexy but uncomfortable shoes. Note that I did not say “I don’t care [at all] about my physical appearance.” I am not saying that I think it’s fine for me to look like a total slob. I still care about my health, hygiene, and basic grooming. I shower, brush my teeth and floss every day. I remove unwanted hairs from my face and axillae when needed. My nails are always clean and I trim and shape them every two weeks. I do my best to stay fit by eating a balanced diet and exercising nearly every day. I am happy with my weight. It is a healthy weight for my height, and that is what matters to me.* Bottom line is: a woman can express love for her body by eating healthy foods, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining good hygiene, and not engaging in self-destructive behavior.

To me, makeup is icing on the cake. While I will admit that I do look prettier with some eyeliner and mascara on, it simply isn’t important enough for me to use it every day. I go natural because I don’t see a need to hide any imperfections on my face. If I really wanted to let all my blemishes bother me, I would be walking around with a paper bag over my head. In my opinion, a lot of it is mind over matter. I will, however, use makeup for photos and important events.

I might fret more about my appearance when I first become interested in a man, but currently, none of the guys I’m surrounded by on a daily basis are ones that I’d actually want to attract. Besides, the special men in my life found me attractive the way I naturally am. I understand that there are men with different preferences, and they’ll seek women who share the same priorities.

In no way am I implying that women who put a lot of effort into their physical appearance are insecure. Everyone has their own style, and it’s important to be respectful and to not make assumptions about people based on their appearance.

*If you’re wondering, I am 5’5″ and 125 lbs. I think that I have a nice body underneath my clothes. While I have turned heads in the past by wearing a halter top and mini skirt, I no longer seek such attention. The only people who get to see more of my body are those who deserve to.

Written 5/11/13

Vegan: to be or not to be?

Some of you may already know that I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which means that I eat dairy products and eggs, but no animal flesh. I also want to make it clear that I don’t care whether other people eat meat. I respect your choice, so please respect mine.

My choice to become a vegetarian was simply because I did not like eating meat, so it was rather easy for me to give it up completely. As a child I didn’t like sea food. I was even revolted by occasional white crunchy areas in sliced turkey ham. (I felt that I got those a lot—my sister, who had the same lunch, never seemed to get pieces like that.) I will admit that I liked chicken and pepperoni pizza, but after not eating them for a long time, I now think they have a stench. (Of course, I won’t say anything when I’m in the presence of people eating meat, out of respect for their choice.)

Ever since taking a course on nutrition three years ago, I’ve been debating whether or not I should give up eating animal products completely and become a vegan. The following is my sorting of reasons, primarily from a health perspective, based on information from the class and a few other sources. It is primarily for myself. I’m not asking for any opinions on this matter and I’m not trying to convince anyone to give up animal products or prove I’m superior here. I’m simply including this information on my site for anyone who might be interested in becoming a vegan.

Reasons for being vegan:

  • It can be the healthiest diet if well balanced.
  • No cholesterol: cholesterol is only found in animal products. (Of course, the body makes some because it is necessary.)
  • Low in saturated fat: This is a major reason for me, since when I analyzed my diet for the class, I found that my saturated fat intake was quite high from all the cheese I was eating for calcium.
  • High in fiber: only plants contain fiber, which is important for heart health (soluble fiber), gastrointestinal health (insoluble fiber), and feeling full.
  • High nutrient density, low calorie density
  • High in phytochemicals
  • Based low in the food chain, so there’s generally less exposure to environmental toxins. This is because pesticides are stored permanently in the fatty tissue of animals, so they get more concentrated going up the food chain.
  • I’ve heard several people say that since becoming vegan they have much more energy. That’s something that I really need!
  • I know of a few people who lost significant amounts of weight after becoming vegan.

Vegan Diet Nutritional concerns, and sources

  • Iron and zinc: beans, whole grains, fortified cereals, supplements. Iron supplements and iron from plant sources should be taken with citrus for better absorption, because the plant fibers bind the iron in a way so that it’s not as easily absorbed as from red meat. Iron can also come from using cast iron cookware.
  • Calcium: fortified foods, beans, most tofu, supplements
  • Vitamin B-12: is only naturally found in animal products, so it must come from fortified cereal and supplements.
  • Vitamin D: fortified soy, sunshine, supplements.

Protein deficiency is NOT a problem as long as protein complementation is possible. You may have heard before that plant protein (with the exception of soy) is incomplete, meaning that it does not contain all the essential amino acids, whereas animal protein is complete. Well, it is possible to get around this problem with protein complementation, or combining two incomplete proteins. This is done around the world by eating grains with beans (e.g. rice and beans/tofu, barley and lentils, even a peanut butter sandwich). The sources must be eaten together because once digested, proteins are broken down into individual amino acids and all the amino acids must be present for the body to synthesize new proteins with. (If one is missing, the protein cannot be made.) Note that once protein is broken down to individual amino acids, those from plant sources and those from animal sources are indistinguishable, because amino acids are amino acids.

In the U.S. vegetarianism is the exception, but the vast majority of people in the world are vegan, though not necessarily by choice. (Meat is not as cheap as it is in the U.S.)

Being vegan is also better for the environment than animal husbandry and more efficient in terms of the energy needed to produce one Calorie of food.

Of course, I don’t want to be so extreme as to deprive a baby of its mother’s milk, since I believe that a new mother lactates for the purpose of feeding her baby.

So what’s the hard part?
I like cheese, yogurt and ice cream, and I have mixed feelings about eggs, meaning sometimes I enjoy them and sometimes I think they’re gross. I never liked drinking cow’s milk. I thought it had a “cow” stink. (I prefer soy milk.) The things is, there was a time when I abhorred eggs and cheese. When I was a child, I would only eat tiny crumbs of scrambled eggs; the bigger chunks were too nasty for me. I didn’t like most cheese, other than cheddar and mozzarella on pizza, and even so I often would refuse to eat it.

I started eating sharp cheddar when I was in high school, and found that I actually liked the taste and texture. (I would avoid smelling it, though.) Gradually, I opened up to trying more types of cheese, and I liked a lot of what I tried. (I can’t stand the smell and taste of Swiss cheese, though) Recently whenever I eat cheese I feel guilty and I also think about how the saturated fat is clogging up my arteries, and it makes it less enjoyable. Considering how cheese is third highest when it comes to carbon emissions (source), I’m also inclined to eat less. I’m still not completely decided on this, yet, but knowing that I once avoided cheese might make it easier for me to cut it out of my diet altogether. Also, not having it as frequently this past year made me crave it less.

I think becoming vegan might actually be doable for me, since I love tofu. (Tofu jiggles because it’s mostly protein and water, not fat!) I used to avoid eating nuts and beans but now I think they’re not so bad (in terms of taste). Falafel is wonderful, too.

I’m thinking I should give it a try for a week and see how I feel about it.