A young man, a soldier, from western New York was recently killed in Afghanistan. He was 21. His parents were interviewed on the local news. They talked about how dedicated their son was--how, the last time he'd been home, he wanted to get back to Afghanistan--couldn't stand the thought of the other men in his unit being there without him. That is very brave. Such feeling is full of passionate dedication, loyalty and a kind of patriotism usually only seen in the very young. The last thing the young man's father said was that, though very proud of their son, he was gone and all that poor father and his wife could do now was wait for the body to arrive.
As a parent of a son, a son who is almost 21, I can't think of anything worse than waiting for your son's body to arrive.
The other day, I wrote about a university, a place of higher learning, that fired one of it's best and most acclaimed professors and scholars--seemingly, for those two very reasons. I've also had to write about the joblessness in America, the fall of our dollar, and how self-commodification causes severe disconnection, helping to perpetuate negativity in society and elsewhere. Everyday, there's a preponderance of depressing information to filter through, and thanks to the omnicient eye of technology, we can see it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Well then, it's no wonder we are all so depressed.
The way depression, or any repetitive physical behavior as a result of psychology (also known as "habits"), work is that with every new behavioral response, a new neural pathway is forged in the brain. Enter the conundrum of depression:
Just like with any habit, you can change your behavior through mindful deliberation, forging new neural pathways that your brain can access as an alternate physical response. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But we're not machines; we can't just re-program our brains with new commands. The old neural pathways don't disappear; they can't be replaced with the new ones. SO, yes, you can fall back into the bad habit or negative physical response fairly easily. Why do you think smoking is so hard to quit? Why do you think people have a hard time ditching habits like nail biting, hair twirling, and other anxiety-driven "tells"? Even with nicotine replacement therapy, people still can't break their smoking habit because it's not as simple as an addiction--the act of doing something with your hands and extending an oral fixation is calming. It's not much different than eating in response to stress and anxiety. Both of which, are neural pathway patterns we develop as individuals in response to psychological distress. So when something happens to make us feel stressed, anxious, or unhappy, our brains tell us to rely on those proven pathways to reduce the cortisol now pumping through our bodies. Cortisol does very bad things to us, including helping to feed cancer cells, but it also lowers the dopamine and seratonin levels in the brain--the feel-good hormones. And our brain directs our actions--we suddenly get a "craving" for a cigarette, to bite our nails, to twirl our hair, or shove food in our mouths--if we follow through, we release limited dopamine and seratonin and "feel" better. It's similar when you have depression.
Even if you are on medication, if something negative occurs, those same neural pathways will light up and you'll find yourself experiencing the same side-effects you faced before--things like lack of motivation, indecision, difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, loss of appetite, an increase in fear and sensitivity, etc. That's not to say that for the rest of your life, you'll have to deal with depressive symptoms every time you hit a stumbling block--you'll learn coping strategies that may even get you healthier: channeling your energy into things like physical activity, meditation, painting, wriiting, or some other hobby. But it pays to be aware of the pit-falls of depression. A change in hormone levels or change of circumstances or anticipated change of circumstances can have a powerful impact on someone who is dealing with depression, or has in the past.
The best way to think about depression is like seizures: once you're prone to having it, anything, even a fever, can set it off again. Being mindful becomes a biological imperative. If that means you have to change some aspects of your life, like avoiding people and/or activities that tend to upset you, you have to hope your loved ones understand. Because if you knew that a certain behavior caused you harm, you'd have to avoid it--it would be considered a psychological disorder to cause yourself injury--so don't do anything you know will hurt you later--regardless of what others say, feel or think. Because depression is silent--invisible--it is one of the hardest medical conditions to understand and explain. But why should you have to?
Well, people love to judge. If you take meds for depression--you're judged. If you don't take meds for depression--you're judged. Even people who have experienced depression themselves can be judgemental about how you are dealing with it. And it's the same with other health conditions, too.
I did qualitative research with cancer patients beginning in 2002 through 2007 and learned that everyone always has an oipinion about the way a patient chooses to govern their treatment--a socially-perceived control of the disease. Those who chose not to take chemotherapy and eventually died were judged as cowards; those who did choose chemotherapy and still died were judged as cowards. It was odd--like somehow, the afflicted were being blamed for the outcome of a very predictable disease--no matter what type of cancer a person may have, the end is always death--even if it takes decades. So how can a patient then be judged?
Another conundrum--it's the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" problem. And it's the same with depression.
The thought that a person experiencing depression must be stronger than the other people around them is an astounding yet valid recognition. It's the same with almost every other medical condition. It's part of the problem with social perception of disability as well--the disabled person, disabled through events beyond their control--is blamed for their difference. The disabled are judged for either being too competent and therefore, not really disabled, "faking" it, or, for "giving up"--not trying "hard enough" to "get better."
As the individual suffering through any medical condition, whether depression, disability or a diagnosis like cancer, you must be aware of how these social perceptions make you feel and the resulting physical responses that may be destructive to your overall person.
Ultimately, it comes down to survival. Yours. Know that only you can assess your needs. Remember that you can counteract some of the developed neural pathways but it's something you have to continuously work at on a daily basis--even with the aid of medication and things like therapy. So if you slip and fall, forgive yourself. Everyday is a new day.
Depression certainly isn't all it's cracked up to be from many perspectives but it doesn't have to be the end of the world...it can sometimes be the beginning of new and healthier habits: turning off the television, not feeling pressure to visit relatives or friends who take every opportunity to say something negative, learning to protect yourself by learning your limits, and, just saying "no." You may find yourself more open to things like accupuncture, massage and meditation. You may begin to appreciate the endorphin-release that comes with physical activity. You may begin to find ways to channel the negativity through productive pursuits like painting or learning a new language. And even if you're not quite there yet, you now know it's possible. Even probable.
When we fall, we can get back up again. It's when we can't that life has ended.