28 August 2012

Depression & Choosing Happiness


Dear Readers - I am so happy today to have an important topic addressed:

How can you CHOOSE happiness if you are depressed?  

Choosing happiness is no small feat - for anyone.  I consider it one of the greatest human triumphs.  Seriously.  It doesn't just fall in your lap.  It's for someone who wants it with all they've got. 

So, for someone who has the added struggle of chemical or hormonal imbalances or very unhealthy & destructive mental patterns, etc...it can be extremely difficult to make even the smallest changes.  But, there's hope!  Read this inspiring post by one of our readers who shares her story about how choosing happiness became an option for her....despite clinical depression.
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by Alison Barnes

I'd heard it a billion times: you have to merely decide to be happy and then you will be.  I wanted to agree.  I wanted to be on that rosy colored boat with those happy people, loving life, feeling good, but it was a concept that I couldn't fully grasp.  I knew that there was a deeper reason why true happiness appeared just out of reach for me.  So I remained on the shoreline and let that boat go on without me.

As I have experienced different depths of clinical depression-- and in turn, tried different ways to pull myself out of that depression-- I realize that I can still choose happiness, in a way.  There are just a few more steps involved in that process.

Depression comes in many forms, and manifests itself in many different ways depending on the person and the severity of the depression*.  For me, depression is a chemical imbalance.  Even when things are seemingly going well and all logic says that I should be happy, that dark cloud
 is still looming.  In 2011, I hit my lowest low.  As a result, in January 2012 I moved back to my childhood home.  I had no job, and the school I was set to return to in the fall discontinued my admission.  For the first time ever, I very literally had no plans.  The only thing keeping me going was the anti-depressant I was taking- after a handful of duds, I finally found one that worked.  Unfortunately, my insurance did not cover the prescription, so I stopped taking it.  I once again 
relapsed into my lowest low.

  Despite the hopelessness I felt in this situation, and with the ever present cloud of depression overshadowing the whole thing, I now know I needed to hit that low to finally do something about it.

It is now August.  Since January, I have changed from prescription medication to herbal supplements, found employment, got readmitted to the university, stayed busy with a variety of creative projects, and found a renewed energy in life.  But it didn’t happen overnight.  Today I want to share with you how I got there, and how I finally learned to choose happiness.

When an individual is depressed, it can take every ounce of energy to be proactive about their health care.  Confessing the problem to a friend, calling a doctor, having to see multiple doctors and/or specialists, going through different medications and different doses, trying to find the right fit, and occasionally pursuing alternative medicine.  It takes its toll, and often times does not get done.  It can take years to find the right fit, and even then, our bodies are continually changing.  What works now may not work in 10 years.  It is exhausting and oftentimes that light at the end of the tunnel seems terribly dim.

But I tell you this with all sincerity: the fight is worth it.  It will get better, but you must work for it.

One of the greatest blessings in this journey is the company of friends-- friends who will not give up on you or abandon you when times get tough.  Friends who have enough compassion and love to see you through.  I have been blessed with a few choice friends who fall in this category, but I have also been cursed with those who have not seen me through.  It is heartbreaking.  But those few kindred spirits have been vital in my journey through depression.

To those with friends suffering through depression, please do not give up on them.  Please educate yourselves, be aware, and never be afraid to reach out.  Last month a leader from my church expressed the following sentiment: "If you come upon a person who is drowning, would you ask if they need help—or would it be better to just jump in and save them from the deepening waters?  The offer, while well meaning and often given, ‘Let me know if I can help’ is really no help at all."  (Read full address, here.)  It is so true, especially with depression.  Those suffering hide it well (and I should know).  A smile may be hiding the deepest of pain, and the friend who notices such a deception is truly a lifesaver.

I believe that even with such a metaphysical condition as depression, "choosing happiness" is still an option, but it must be preceded by those terribly draining tasks of getting a hold on one's condition, which may include counseling, medication, greater self-awareness, etc.  Every person is different, thus making every person's treatment different.  But it is imperative that you keep holding on, keep pressing on.  It will get better.

As clinical depression becomes manageable, that's where the choice comes in.  You can dwell on where you have been, or you can move forward.  You can disregard your treatments, or continue on the path to stability and wellness.  The past influences the future, most definitely, but it does not define you.  I am grateful for where I have been, even the darkest places, because it has made me who I am today.

It gets better.  I promise.


* The National Institute of Mental Health offers information about the signs and symptoms of depression here.

Allison Barnes is a musician from San Diego, California, currently studying family science at school in Utah.  In January 2012 she made a goal to be more open about her struggle with depression in hopes that it would help someone else.  She can also be found here and here.

[Photo source: c-a-n-d-y tumblr (link is unfortunately inactive)] 

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Dear Readers - we would love to hear from any of you who have had similar success - or even those who are still struggling with this.  Allison mentioned the process is different for everyone - have you been able to make some positive choices (large or small) in your life despite great struggles?  What did that look like for you?  Your comments could be so helpful to anyone reading.  Love to all, MK



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32 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing in this post. I have to admit, your words struck a cord in me. In particular, your encouragement that friends of people suffering from depression not "give up on them". My gut reaction to your admonition was defensiveness; I ended a very serious relationship with someone not because I stopped loving him but because his depression was so severe he really wasn't capable of even loving himself (not to mention me). I still deal with whether I "gave up on him" or whether it was unreasonable for him to expect me to stick around while he become more and more debilitated.

    What are your thoughts (perhaps experiences?) with depression and romantic relationships? What can significant others of depressed people expect from their partners? Is it fair for them to expect anything? That's where I got stuck, and still do, a year after the relationship has ended. He still thinks I abandoned him and I still think it was impossible to be in a relationship with someone unwilling to seek treatment. Thoughts? Is it fair, at the end of the day, for someone to simply not be able to be with someone with depression? (Obviously I'm still dealing with my guilt...)

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    1. I saw your post today and without knowing all of your circumstances it is difficult to say whether you "gave up" on the relationship you were in. I can tell you though that I have a very dear friend who is married to someone with depression and she has gone through hell being married to him. He was okay for the first years of their marriage but later his depression got worse and worse and he started to not do as well at work which caused him to lose his dental practice. Then he started to spend money without her knowing it and soon they lost their home. This caused him to be more depressed and he ended up having an affair. Through all of this she had to walk on egg shells so he wouldn't dive even deeper into depression. She is now 65 years old and is still teaching school because his income is unpredictable and he won't get a job that brings in a steady income. Along with that, some of her children suffer from depression also because it is hereditary. She has had a very hard life and if she could go back and marry someone different I am sure she would make that choice. She has stayed in the marriage because she does not believe in divorce and they have 6 children so she wanted to keep the family together. I think you avoided a very difficult life for you and your children by making the choice you did and I would move ahead with your life knowing you made a good decision for you and not feel guilty any more.

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    2. Anon,

      You did the right thing, if only for the fact that you needed to take care of yourself, and that wasn't happening while you were with this other person. It's the whole airplane analogy- you need to put the mask on yourself before you put it on your child.

      Should you "give up" on him? No, not necessarily. Even if the romantic relationship is gone, I hope a friendship can emerge, and that you can still thoughtfully encourage him to get the help he needs.

      I hope that helps! Of course, I'm no expert, but those are just my thoughts. Good luck!

      -Allison

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    3. Anon - thanks so much for writing in. I also love the comments here. I know a lot about being married to a partner with mental illness...both from personal experience and that of friends and family members. This issue should NOT be ignored, rationalized, glossed over. Dating can really put the blinders on but this issue should not be taken lightly. Sadly, most of the divorces I know about personally are due to mental illness in one or both partners. Often times depression can be contagious to a spouse and the entire family. So - in my opinion, for a marriage or family to be healthy in these situations, it is ESSENTIAL that the person facing mental illness is committed to managing their illness through any and all means possible. And, THEY have to have the desire to do this (no amount of coaxing or "saving" or "convincing" on your part will take the place of a REAL commitment on their part.) THERE IS HOPE. I have seen couples pull this off and have beautiful marriages and families! But not many. Most have not made it. It is not an easy road and takes major work and commitment on BOTH sides. So, if someone with a severe mental illness was not committed to managing their illness by getting the help and care they need, in my opinion, they absolutely shouldn't be putting themselves in the position to be a spouse/ mother/ father. Often times it's too late - and the mental illness is mixed up with the spouse and the kids and the person still won't get help....and that is never a good situation for anyone. Bottom line - we are all responsible for caring for ourselves. It's a responsibility we all have to each other and our families. And we should all work our tails off to keep ourselves well. This entire blog is dedicated to that effort :) I've seen way too many people suffer and not do a dang thing about it. I think too often people discount their own power to step up to the plate and get the help they need and make the changes necessary.

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    4. I want to add that I have all the compassion in the world for someone, even when they aren't able to step up to get the help that they need. That's an extremely hard place to be in...and those in that state should be loved and cared for as best as possible in their time of need.

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  2. Thank you so much for this post.
    At times it can seem impossible to be happy with depression. Such an evil disease- what other condition can say that, by definition, it makes you miserable? Myself, I'm a cocktail of mental illness, suffering from social anxiety, PMDD, and what is known as 'existential depression'. It was a long process to be able to figure out which was causing which, but choosing happiness was a major milestone in my recovery. It was so huge because it made me look at the different kinds of happiness. I've heard them described before as gratification and pleasure. Gratification is the happiness of your mind, of being satisfied with the things in your life, being content on an intellectual or spiritual level. Pleasure is the physical side, the rush of emotions and endorphins, the actual physiological changes like increased heart-rate. I have conditions that make it difficult to feel either one. But, when I decided to choose happiness, half the problem was gone. That, and through the love and guidance of my Heavenly Father, I almost completely overcame my nihilistic thoughts and existential depression, so that I could feel gratification again. My body still sometimes disagrees. So, like this post says, it's about learning more self-awareness, learning when you are unhappy because of you, and when you are unhappy because of your body. Choosing happiness empowered me to be able to recognize that sometimes sadness is an emotion that you can't help, but that doesn't mean you can't have gratification with your life.
    That may be an extremely complicated explanation, but to simplify, choosing happiness may not fix my chemical imbalance, and I still feel that very physical emotional pain often. Treating that is very different, I do it through exercise, minimizing stress, and if necessary, medication. But that is my body, that is not me. I can still choose happiness in my mind and spirit, and that gets me through the hardest times.

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    1. Sara, this is so awesome. Thank you for your that perspective. It has certainly given me some things to think about! -Allison

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  3. I am very happy for you Alison, really happy that you are doing better and that you wrote this post. I have dwelt with depression too, I have even tried to kill myself and I know how dark and lonely it gets inside oneself when we are inbalanced/dealing with this disease. But after a decade where I got in and out of depression, I got better and haven't fallen back for the last decade(although I am always very, very attentive).

    However, a friend of mine did,some years ago. And I was there for her, and I jumped into the waters when needed. And I would do it again. But I have realized something that I couldn't when I was depressed. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of balance yourself and you have to be in a very good state to be able to do that for someone else. Otherwise, you are just drown into the black hole with them. I was also broken hearted for the friends I couldn't count on in my depressed years. But now I totally get it. It's not a lack of love or will to help. Many times, it's a lack of the tools (psychological, spiritual), or they are not quite well themselves, sometimes it's such a foreign experience for them that they cannot totally relate, sometimes they can relate so much that they are afraid of falling themselves. And it's legitimate.

    I helped my friend and when she got really better, it took me over a year and a half to recover from helping her, as I was handling pretty rough things too at the time (a threatening disease, financial problems, etc.). I had never imagined, when I was depressed, that so much was being demanded of others to be there for me. I could only see my own suffering and whatever they were living, seemed less painful than what I lived. But it's a distortion of reality. I love the phrase that says: " Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a hard battle". It's amazingly true.

    So friends are more than needed, but it's better to count on some friends and not only one, because it is extremely heavy on them too (that's why love partners have it really hard too). It's better if your friends know each other and that they can support you and themselves as in a team and exchange between them. (Cont...)

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  4. (cont...) Another thing is that we tend to fake that we are ok, and normally we think to ourselves "Nobody knows how bad it really hurts inside", but that's a very bad choice. If people don't know, they can't reach out to you (and you feel lonelier, misunderstood, etc.)That doesn' mean you shouldn't smile (smiles are always good, as Mara has already talked about it), but you shouldn't pretend to be ok. The thing is, a true chemical depression never goes away on it's own, so not ringing the bell, only means that it will explode at everyone's face latter on. My friend was actually proud that her family and other friends didn't know how bad she felt. But it was extremely unfair to her, to them and to me (who was trying to help her all by myself). I begged her to talk to them, but she didn't. When they realized it, it was after a suicidal attempt. Meanless to say how traumatizing it was to everyone. They all had to seek counseling and years latter, they haven't recovered (although she did). As I didn't realize as a teenager when I did my attempt, my friend who is a grown up does not realize how traumatizing and harsh this was to everyone. It's an abstract idea to her.

    What I loved in your post is that happiness is still a choice. It really is. But it's not as easy as to someone who is not dealing with the disease. The disease handicaps our capacity to adress our energy, our clear view of life and the proportion of things. It's not a lack of will (as people who never got depressed sometimes think), it's not as you are having a bad week, or you just broke up so you feel like not doing much. It's a huge balance problem. As you've said, even when all is well externally (you have your job, a place to live, social recognition, love), you can still be depressed because of this lack of balance. But even at the lowest, we get to a point in which we have to choose to fight to get our power back, to have a happy life.

    I am happy you did, and if the monster comes back, may you remember your own words, there is a light out there and it does get better. Sending all my love to all struggling with it out there!

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    1. I agree with everything you said. Thank you so much for your words! And best of luck with everything!

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  5. Thanks for this. I am also in a continual battle with depression. Since discovering this blog in February, I've been working on compiling simple ways to combat depression and also making note of the things that don't help. When it comes (for me it usually takes the form of intense numbness and fatigue), my first instinct is to isolate myself. Obviously this is one of the worst things I can do--but it's very hard not to just close up. But the best combat tools--and I'm not including the obvious ones like medication or therapy in the list-- for me are:
    1. Naming out loud or writing down everything I'm grateful for. Even if it seems fake at first, it usually lifts some of the heaviness by the time I'm done.
    2. Going for a run or walk
    3. Distracting myself by keeping busy doing things for others--cleaning the house, making a roomate's bed ( If these small acts of service involve a bit of physical work, it's even better.)
    4. Accepting the depression as something that can help me grow. That may sound strange, but it's possible to even be grateful for the depression. I used to always beat myself up and give up and think extremely negative thoughts and sink further down whenever the depression got bad, but realizing that even though it's something that I may always have to battle, it can also become a blessing because it can teach me how to find deep, non-surface joy out of real suffering has helped me SO VERY MUCH.
    -Taking plenty of vitamins and eating well
    -Dance. In the moment it may seem ridiculous, but putting on a song and dancing to it--even just dancing through what you feel--has helped me tremendously. I even began recording these anti-depression dances I do, and now I have a little collection of myself dancing that reminds me that there is hope beyond what I can perceive.

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    1. Excellent ideas! I will definitely be using some of those in the future! -Allison

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  6. Thank you for your story. What herbal suppliments are working for you?

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    1. I use St. John's Wort. I love it, and have heard many other positive reviews of it.

      There's also 5-HTP, which didn't personally do anything for me. I've also heard good things about SAM-e, but have never tried it.

      Of course, every body is different, so keep that in mind. But St. John's Wort is what worked for me.

      -Allison

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    2. From another... SAM-e didn't do anything for me, but I've heard of others who've have a good response. Vitamin D and B12 helps a lot. Blood testing showed low levels, and deficiencies in either or both of those can cause low energy and poor sleep. Balancing vitamin intake, led me to enough clarity to seek further help.

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  7. I love this post, and it really hits home for me. Choosing happiness had eluded me for so long. Yet, when I started reading about it (Mara, and some of the other fabulous women you've linked to), it was so forward in my consciousness, that the possibility of making happiness a choice was clearer.

    I've avoided getting help for my depression all my life. I was afraid that I would be like my mother (duh - genetics!) and be dependent on therapy and drugs and it would be an excuse, or crutch for what I perceived as bad choices. Okay, there's a lot more in that statement, but let's just say that coming to terms with my own depression was terrifying. It was also liberating. I had to let go of judging others (my mother mostly) in order to find my own healing.

    I've talked with Mara a lot how reading uplifting things can make a huge difference in my thoughts and actions. That was the first step for me, I think. I chose to let go of the cynical pundits out there. I stopped feeding into the negativity of others that I myself battled with. I gradually stopped hanging onto relationships that were endlessly negative.

    Next step was to talk openly with my doctor. You know, I have a few tricks to lighten my mood, but there are days, often weeks, when none of that works. The dark clouds descend and no amount of exercise, healthy food, positive words, great sex (which isn't so great when depressed) etc can lift them.

    I'm lucky so far. The first prescription we've tried, which is a tiny, tiny dose, seems to be doing the trick. I didn't realize how depressed I was until I wasn't depressed anymore. This isn't a simple story with a simple end, but just for today, the sky is clear.

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    1. Dominique, that is awesome. It takes such courage to face depression head on, and you did it! Best of luck as you continue on! -Allison

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  8. Allison, Thanks for the honest and open account of your struggles. It was truly inspirational. I am sure it will give hope to others. Great read.Thank You.

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  9. So funny, I was just thinking about this very topic, how choosing happiness and depression relate to each other and then I open up Google Reader and there is a whole post about it. One aspect of depression I struggle with is knowing the line between depression and situation sadness or grief. More and more I am realizing the importance of education and knowing myself, my needs and habits.

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  10. It's always hard to be happy when all you can think of is the things that don't make you happy, but as you go through your days remember that being happy comes from within yourself. I'm sure it'll at least give you something to smile about regardless of everything that's going on.

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  11. Thank you, Allison, for sharing your honest story. And thank you, Mara, for knowing your readers' needs to hear the balanced truth about happiness, the ever-constant need to self-assess and share honestly the struggle and blessing called life.

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  12. depression is hard. i was diagnosed with it six months after i had my first baby, and that was nearly 9 years ago. i still struggle with it to this day. for some people, depression is a one episode thing. and for some, like me, we may struggle with it all our lives. but, it does get better.
    there was a point in my life where i lost my driver's license because i didn't have the energy to go in and take the test to get it renewed. so it expired, and i didn't drive, for years! i couldn't get out of bed some days. i had to ask my husband to stay home from work so he could take care of our kids. i thought about hurting myself sometimes. i tried probably 10 different medications over the years. none of them worked very well for me.
    i've been off medication for 4 years now, but i still have some depressive episodes. i have some issues with anxiety over certain things in my life. but things are a lot better. i drive all the time. i never need to have my husband stay home from work to help me. i take my kids to their activities and to school. a few years ago this would have been impossible.
    i think in the hard times the important thing is just to get through it; to keep alive. people can tell you to go to therapy or take medication or exercise or change your diet all they want, but sometimes that seems as impossible to a depressed person as climbing mt. everest. just get through it. it's hard to hope, but try to hope that there are better days ahead. and there are! my bad days now are still bad, but they are nowhere near as bad as they used to be, and they don't last as long. plus, i just had a baby without going on anti-depressants afterward! that is unheard of for me!
    yoga helps, if i can get in a routine and just do it. there are some great books and dvd's of yoga specifically meant to help depression. prayer and meditation help. talking to other people about what you are going through can help. i've been very open with my friends and family about my depression, and i've written a lot about it on my blog. i think we need to remove the stigma from having this disease. i wanted to stop being ashamed about it. so i started talking about it, and that helped. now, even when i have bad days, i think to myself, this is not going to last forever. the good days are going to come again. i am doing the best i can. and that's how i choose happiness while dealing with depression. :)

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  13. This was a great post, particularly the comment about taking the initiative to reach out and help a friend who is struggling; I really appreciated that point.

    I have also struggled with depression, since I was a sophomore in high school. For me, it came down less to choosing happiness and more to choosing gratitude. I set myself a goal of learning how to cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving, no matter how I feel, and doing so has made all the difference in learning how to cope with my depression.

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  14. Thanks for the great article! It's really inspiring. But sometimes depressed people push others away because they feels that they're a burden. That's the case with my boyfriend who had been depressed for more than a year now and he has his ups and downs. And he kept pushing me and dumping me but I insisted to be there all the way and never leave him alone. He's still struggling but thanks to your article I can see some hope

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  15. Thanks for sharing MK. It's tough and like she said, every day is a struggle..especially during hormonal imbalance. I have therapy and doctor who are there for me, not many friends. I quit drinking and moved home from the city. My transformation has brought a new and better me. I am growing everyday and I hope that one day I can share my life w someone else. I am scared, though, because I've never been this good and healthy and in a (serious) relationship. I like someone. Love is different for everyone and since this blog site is about that I have to say that I hope I can experience it one day.

    I am not going to feel sorry for myself and get more depressed. It is hard everyday with depression and I feel like to let someone into my life is such a big deal. He has to be...well..I can't explain it. But I hope..for that.


    My excuse is that I see a therapist for everything, however a true relationship..would be..life changing.

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  16. If there is anyone out there who is depressed I cannot stress the importance of trying anti depressants. They completely changed my life and pulled me out of my deep depression and made me myself again. I know they don't always work for everyone but don't let any stigma stop you. I don't have insurance, and it only costs 30 bucks a month... so well worth the price. I understand people want to do it on their own, but if its been a few months and you are still feeling bad, just try it. You have no idea how much it can help. I waited for a long time and now regret that I did. Good luck!

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  17. I just came back to this article and read the newer comments- thank you so much everyone. Amazing insights. Thank you for being a part of this discussion, xo

    Allison

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  18. I just read this article and the comments for the first time. I have been struggling with depression all through my 20s(and also went through a couple of bouts of social anxiety and chronic fatgue) and this year finally found a doctor who has been a great help to me. (I am taking vitamin D, iodine, and several herbal supplements, and he has encouraged me to give up gluten and dairy.) I also see a wonderful therapist. Although I am now much better, I feel so stuck; I've suffered from depression during the years I needed to have been BUILDING my career and my life...So now what? In the post, Allison says "The past influences the future, most definitely, but it does not define you." This is what I'm having trouble with. For a long time, I didn't call what I was going through "depression". I was sort of in denial, or I thought "This is just the way I am." So I wasn't good about pursuing resources that could have helped me. Depression impacted my grades during some semesters in college, and it's negatively impacted my career. So now that I'm feeling better and ready to move on, I don't know how to account for the past. I'd love to apply to grad school, but how do I explain those few bad semesters on my trascript? How do I explain my erratic job history/periods of unemployment to potential employers? As horrible as it sounds, I feel like if I'd had a purely physical illness, I could explain that, but there is a stigma attached to mental illness. Does anyone have any tips/suggestions for dealing with this?

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    1. Jen, that's a great comment that I don't really know the answers to. And because this is an old post (and a guest post that I'm assuming Allison doesn't regularly check on to write answers), you might have a better chance following the links to her blog that are provided at the end of the post.

      I agree with you that you do face a more difficult approach to this issue than someone who had a physical illness of some kind, and I would be interested knowing if Allison or any others have any ideas. I wish you the best.

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    2. Thank you for your response, Danny, and for the suggestion to contact Allison directly through her blog. Also - I recently discovered your blog and have been reading through some of you and Mara's old posts - truly inspirational. You two are doing a wonderful thing here!

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    3. Jen, I JUST saw this! So sorry, I feel so bad. As for your question: I agree that there is a stigma, but there shouldn't be. Mental illness is just as serious and legitimate as physical illness. That said, one of the most important things I did last year was "own" my depression. I acknowledged it, I was honest about it, and I didn't try to hide it anymore. I think this was important for my own sense of self, but I was also surprised at the responses from others. I have only been shown respect and kindness from others when I share my experience. Depression can either consume you or make you stronger, and when you can show someone that it makes you stronger, they will value your character even more. So I say own it! Look how far you've come. Look at your potential.

      I hope this helps, and I hope everything goes well with work/grad school!

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  19. I'm impressed, I have to say. Very seldom do I discovered a blog that's both educational and entertaining, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head. CURING DEPRESSION NATURALLY

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