Lessons from a Lifetime of Depression
Your partner breaks up with you, your boss fires you, or your cat dies. You fall into a depression, and we say this is normal. In other words, something has happened to cause your depression.
You feel depressed over and over again throughout your life or you suddenly fall into a deep depression, each for no apparent reason. We often refer to this form of depression like the plague—some affliction with no known origin. The belief is that some people just happen to have “it” and probably always will.
I didn’t know why I was cutting my body when I was 13. Or why I felt so terrible when, throughout high school, my bubbly best friend who was living with Cystic Fibrosis would tell me to smile more. Or why knowing that mental illness, depression, and anxiety ran in my family didn’t give me any peace.
I didn’t know why it felt so hard for me to just be me.
I never went to a psychiatrist, but if I did I’d likely have been diagnosed with clinical depression. I experienced depression throughout my life for no apparent reason. Sometimes I also experienced situational depression like when all of my friends ostracized me in sixth grade or when, two years later, one of my only remaining friends died from a sudden brain aneurism.
It wasn’t until I was 32, when I fell into the deepest depression of my life, that I was able to understand that depression had been trying to communicate with me all along.
I discovered that my depression was always a response to something.
The ways we suffer
Although more than 300 million people around the world suffer from depression, it is a lonely and isolating experience. I felt emotions like shame, guilt, self-pity, apathy, and well, sometimes I felt like I was crazy.
Depression made me believe there was something fundamentally wrong with me. It’s an understandable belief, really. Depression has often been described as seeing the world through a thick layer of glass. There’s this sense that we can’t quite fit into the world out there and that we’re trapped in some inescapable lab experiment.
In my worst experience of depression as an adult, I felt as if my soul was slowly dying. There was an immense weight sitting in my heart. I was desperate for a way out, but not only did I not know what to do about it, I also didn’t have the energy to do anything.
Whenever I went through a breakup, the hole of my depression grew wider and deeper. In 2013, I was working with a mentor who gently said to me, “You know, depression is a choice.” I had felt low energy and apathetic for over a month, but I immediately felt anger and clarity move from deep within me to declare, “This is not a choice.”
It didn’t feel like a choice. In fact, it felt like the opposite of a choice—it felt like a prison sentence.
When thinking positive, practicing yoga and meditation, and seeing a therapist don’t seem to make a difference, it’s understandable to feel helpless, hopeless, and even cynical. Learned helplessness, a condition that occurs when we believe we have no way out of our circumstances, can contribute to our inability to heal.
Fitting with our cultural mottos to treat the branch rather than the root, we have more medicines for attempting to make our depression go away than we do for actually understanding why it’s happening. We shrug our collective shoulders and do our best to get through the toughest moments.
Why we’re so depressed
While I do believe there are experiential differences between very deep, can’t-find-the-desire-to-live depression and bland, low-energy every-once-in-a-while depression, neither are happening for no reason. There is always an important message being signaled.
Depression can tell us that our relationship to ourself is in need of healing.
While we can slice and dice the causes of depression in a variety of ways, I have found there to be three main contributions worth addressing here, some of which will overlap:
- Your relationship to your life is off-purpose.
- Unprocessed emotions from a lifetime of unmet needs are living in your body.
- Limiting beliefs, unprocessed emotion, and stagnant energy has been passed down to you from your lineage.
Reason 1: Your relationship to your life is off-purpose.
Suicide rates are climbing along with our search for happiness. We are becoming desperate for something our cultures aren’t providing: a sense of purpose and belonging.
In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, The Power of Meaning, she says:
“It’s difficult, of course, to measure a concept like meaning in the lab, but, according to psychologists, when people say that their lives have meaning, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile—as part of something bigger; they believe their lives make sense; and they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.”
In contrast, when we feel lost, insignificant, worthless, like our lives don’t makes sense, and that we have no purpose—we’re depressed.
Purpose is often equated to career, but being off-purpose can mean you aren’t speaking your truth, you’re in a relationship where you feel devalued, or you believe false things about yourself.
At the core, being off-purpose means that your feelings about yourself are not in alignment with who you truly are.
If you paid very close attention to the way you talk to yourself you might find a slew of derogatory, false, and just plain mean thought patterns. Some of these beliefs are passed down from our families (see Reason 3), and they keep us stuck in patterns that limit our potential and contribute to the unhealthy ways we feel about ourselves.
There is another part of yourself (I liken it to the soul) that is ready to get on with the big exciting work of living your purpose. When your thoughts and beliefs are out of alignment with this part of yourself it creates discontent.
Reasons 2: We’re storing unprocessed emotions from a lifetime of unmet needs.
Far before we actually become depressed, we receive warning signals through the emotional body. As a culture we have been conditioned to repress our feelings, and we haven’t been given tools to decipher what our emotions are telling us about ourselves.
No matter how loving our parents might have been, we all have experienced needing something that our caretakers were unable to give us. For example, I desperately needed to feel understood. While there may have been times when I did feel that way, there were enough moments of feeling misunderstood that it created a lot of pain within me.
These experiences transformed into beliefs rippling through my nervous system that said, “No one understands me. I’m alone. I don’t belong.” As I went through my life, I found evidence of this everywhere because I believed it was true, and I didn’t have the self-worth to make choices that put myself in situations to prove to me otherwise.
A lifetime of experiences that told me, “You don’t matter,” created an enormous amount of grief. This unprocessed pain, layers of sadness and anger, were emotions I denied over and over again until they presented as the heavy weight that we know as depression.
After years of silencing our souls, depression is the spirit’s way of calling for an SOS.
Reason 3: We’re carrying unprocessed emotions and limiting beliefs from our lineage.
I was taught that mental illness, depression, and anxiety were in my genes. The study of Epigentics shows us that, just as Holocaust survivors passed down altered levels of stress hormones to their children, those who suffer from depression likely pass it on to their offspring.
While this may be true, the common belief embedded in that statement is that we are victims of our heritage. In reality, our genes and our energy are not fixed, but are instead influenced by our choices and beliefs.
Like Deepak Chopra speaks about in his book Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul:
“Your genes adapted to how you think, feel, and act. Identical twins, born with exactly the same DNA, look very different genetically when they grow up: certain genes have been switched on, others switched off. By age seventy, images taken of the chromosomes of two twins don't look remotely the same. As life diverges, genes adapt.”
What becomes part of your energy, whether through lineage or life circumstance, is now your responsibility. The beliefs we take on from our families are not ones we have to continue to live with. We have the power to rewire our nervous systems and clear out energy and emotion that don’t belong in our bodies.
Depression as a teacher
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally began to piece together why I had been depressed from age 13 till 30. The combination of unprocessed emotional pain, false beliefs stuck on loop in my mind, lack of purpose and meaning, and an unhealthy relationship to myself, left me in chronic cycles of depression.
Each time I found myself depressed, I had been given an opportunity to look at my fears, feelings, and beliefs. For thirty years I made the pain of my depression the focal point. If I had dug just a little underf the surface I would have seen a long, pulsing vein leading to a wound. The agonizing pain of depression was only a dull throb compared to the rotted root beneath. It hurt so badly, that I had done everything I could to avoid feeling it.
That meant some part of me actually preferred depression to feeling.
This is why so many of us are depressed. There is a whole lot of very deep, very painful emotion that needs to be healed, and we are wired to avoid pain.
Depression had been trying to show me the truth about my relationship to myself, and it was always too painful to look. It’s easier to blame your pain on someone leaving you or your genes or your society or your parents, than it is to take a hard look at the ways you have abandoned yourself.
When I chose to face the truth my depression was pointing to I began to see that my worth was contingent upon other people making me feel lovable. Anything, as small as a social media comment or as big as a breakup, could ignite that belief that sounded off in my head, “See, you really don’t belong here. No one understands you. You are all alone. What’s the point? There is none. Nothing matters.”
I was giving all of my power away, and it was a long journey to learn how to love myself and gain it back.
Our emotions are only scary when we haven’t gotten familiar with them. Things that we push away are scary. We disempower ourselves every single time we choose to ignore the truth, every single time we decide that we aren’t strong enough to face it, every single time we choose to believe that we are incapable.
Actually, we are incredibly strong and unbelievably brave. We can learn to release our grief, fear, and shame. We can take all of the pain from our ancestors, scoop it up in our arms, and tenderly set ourselves free.
I fully believe we can learn how to build loving, purposeful relationships with ourselves, that we can learn how to work with our emotions, and that our depression can be a great teacher.
For many of us, the path out of depression is through the pain.
I know from experience that this is not an easy path. Moving through the tendrils of the deepest human emotion is a path for spiritual warriors. It takes some deep soul searching to de-program those false beliefs and make new choices that honor ourselves.
Not everyone is going to choose this journey, but I wanted you to know that it’s available to you. Ask your soul if you’re ready. I have a feeling you are more courageous than you might know.
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