I heard a story the other day about a woman, Sofia Pedro, who gave birth to her infant daughter, Rositha Pedro, in a tree, above Mozambique’s floodwaters. She climbed to shelter in the tree after being forced out of her home due to the rising water.
This story was part of an inspirational talk on resiliency and moving forward in the face of adversity. To most ears, the anecdote would motivate a person to positive thinking and actions.
However, this is how the same story falls on depressed ears: “What the hell is YOUR problem? Here you are, in the richest country in the world, with every resource at your finger tip – a hospital that can accommodate every need, food in the fridge, beautiful children, a good job — and you struggle with getting out of bed and facing the day? This person has REAL problems. You have imaginary ones that are paralyzing you. You are exhibit A of the definition of L-O-S-E-R.” And thus the spiral of negative thoughts begin.
That’s why, in the state of a depression, I have difficulty reading the paper. For every story of tragedy, I will somehow twist it and distort it to make myself feel more pathetic.
So when people say “count your blessings,” “look on the positive side,” etc., to someone fighting like hell to feel okay about herself, she feels even worse—because she DOES acknowledge all of her many blessings, but doing so doesn’t take away the pain of depression, and so the guilt sets in.
Last week at my doctor’s session, I listed a few reasons why I was feeling like Exhibit A of loserdom: the woman who gave birth in a tree; a veteran who had his legs blown off that was giving back to other wounded warriors; a friend with cancer who inspires others to live to the full. And that’s when she reminded me of renowned psychiatrist Peter Kramer’s wise words, which I always return to when a story like the woman who gave birth in a tree makes me feel less than brave for facing debilitation symptoms of depression and anxiety, and I hope it relieves your guilt or self-doubt, as well:
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.
But then, depression is not universal, even in terrible times. Though prone to mood disorder, the great Italian writer Primo Levi was not depressed in his months at Auschwitz. 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.
Beset by great evil, a person can be wise, observant and disillusioned and yet not depressed. Resilience confers its own measure of insight. We should have no trouble admiring what we do admire — depth, complexity, aesthetic brilliance — and standing foursquare against depression.