After a particularly severe experience with depression as a younger man, Dr. Jon Rottenberg was able to come out the other side -- but depression is still a big part of his life and work. Here, he shares some of the lessons he's learned from living with depression.
When I was a depressed young adult, my life seemed like a total loss. At that time, I gave up on career goals, withdrew from friends and family, and felt all alone in what seemed like a futile struggle. I was stuck, blocked, hopeless, and slowed down by negative thoughts.
My depression was a whirlwind that left only wreckage behind.
However, now that I’m on the other side of depression, I see things differently. Yes, my depression was destructive, but it was also creative. Stranger still, I now see that depression gave me things I didn’t have before.
While I would never wish depression on anyone — even my worst enemy — depression taught me a lot about how to be an adult.
Here are a few of the lessons that depression taught me:
Before I got depressed, I took a lot for granted. You could even say I was holding onto an illusion. My younger self lived in a bubble of invincibility — the sense that I could glide through life untouched. Enjoying mental and physical health was, of course, a given.
This bubble was forever burst by the weight of days, months, and then years of low mood. But that bursting was a good thing. On the other side of depression, I place more value on just feeling OK. In fact, I’m grateful every morning I wake up feeling OK.
Make no mistake, depression can tax your relationships. Almost certainly, some people will disappoint you. I certainly lost friends who were not interested in hearing about my depression, especially as it wore on. Depression can be a solitary place.
At the same time, I also learned there are some people who will stay with you no matter what. Twenty-five years later, I’m still married to one of these people.
Depression knocks you on your back. It may feel as though you’ve become as helpless as a kitten.
When you regain your footing, you may find that you’re now more open and alert to the signs that others are also struggling and feeling helpless — whether that’s because of depression or perhaps some other challenge.
Having been knocked down yourself, you’re much more likely to extend a helping hand to those who’ve lost their balance. In these ways, going through depression has probably made me a better listener and a better friend.
In my depression, there were many times I thought I was done. Finito. Fin. To be brutally honest, there were even moments that I thought about ending my life. Somehow, I found a way to persevere. Somehow, depression was not the end. I did not throw in the towel.
Like many who struggle with the condition, I learned that, at my core, I’m a survivor. I discovered a secret strength. This strength accompanies me today.
Having survived the horror of depression, life’s daily annoyances and hassles look just a little bit smaller: the annoying boss, the struggle to find a parking place, that dog that won’t stop barking, or that flight that gets canceled.
After going through a raging depression, you’re less rattled when these “smaller” things happen. Sometimes depression can give you more confidence. You think: “If I can cope with a raging depression, I can probably cope with whatever else comes my way.”
In the middle of my struggle, I was overwhelmed by depression. My life seemed completely senseless and random. Although I don’t pretend to understand all the reasons why I got depressed in the first place, depression ended up serving as a huge wake-up call for me.
I learned there were some parts of my life that needed work. Once my depression lifted, there was a chance to work on these parts and a chance for me to seize on things that really mattered.
Crawling from the wreckage of depression, I became a psychologist who tries to understand depression. I became a husband and a father. I became a mental health advocate. I got second chances to make a difference. I won’t waste them!
I want to be especially careful about what I’m saying here.
It’s possible to learn from depression, but this does not mean that we should discount other people’s suffering. It does not mean that depression is a good thing that we should welcome with open arms. And it does not mean that everyone learns the same things from depression.
But by the same token, I believe that my learning from depression is more than just one man’s experience.
With the right tools, community support, and help from mental health professionals, many of us with depression are able to find our way with the condition. And in some cases — like mine —we emerge stronger than ever.
If you feel overwhelmed and have thoughts of hurting yourself, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.
For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
NPS-US-NP-00469 May 2021
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