Depression Marathon Blog

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Diagnosed with depression 18 years ago, I lost the life I once knew, but in the process re-created a better me. I am alive and functional today because of my dog, my treatment team, my sobriety, and my willingness to re-create myself within the confines of this illness. I hate the illness, but I'm grateful for the person I've become and the opportunities I've seized because of it. I hope writing a depression blog will reduce stigma and improve the understanding and treatment of people with mental illness. All original content copyright to me: etta. Enjoy your visit!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Validation vs Invalidation

Perhaps I'm being too sensitive. Perhaps I'm reading too much into innocuous words and statements. I don't know. You tell me. Over the last couple of weeks I've had doctors, nurses, therapists, friends and coworkers ask questions of me which I have found offensive and invalidating. Each time I responded kindly in the moment, but the questions stuck with me and later led to negative feelings. I found myself mulling them over and wondering, "Would that question have been posed if I had breast cancer?" And I think the answer is no.

Within just the last couple of days, after I detailed how severe this recent depression episode has been, how isolated and detached I've been feeling, and how extremely low my mood has been, a few of the immediate comments were, "Are you working?" "Are you running?" "What fun things are you doing for yourself?" The implication, I believe, is clear. Are these people not implying that I'd feel better if I was working, running, getting out of the house, doing something fun, etc...? In other words, my low mood is at least partly my own doing.

Am I wrong to find these questions and comments offensive and invalidating? I don't think the people who posed these questions did so to overtly blame me for my symptoms, but I do think these types of statements are another manifestation of the stigma surrounding mental illness. The inability to work, exercise, socialize or find fun in normal activities aren't seen as symptoms of my illness but rather as character defects. If I just did this, that, or the other, I'd feel better. But not being able to do this, that, or the other is the result of my illness, not the cause of it!

If I told you I was having low energy, found it difficult to get out of my house, and/or wasn't socializing because of my breast cancer symptoms, would you ask the same questions? I don't think so. I think the more immediate response would be something along the lines of, "I'm sorry things are so hard right now," or "I wish you felt better," and/or "What can I do to help?" These comments and questions validate the person's experience rather than question it or try to fix it.

This severe and lengthy depression episode has me feeling tired and battle weary, so perhaps I'm being too sensitive. But I've felt invalidated over and over again, even by professionals who should know better, during the past couple of weeks. If curing depression was as simple as getting out of the house and going for a run, I certainly wouldn't struggle with depression! I don't think people realize how invalidating these comments and questions are. Am I right?

If I am right, I'm not sure what to do about it. I usually don't have the awareness or energy in the moment to politely educate the offending person. And educating someone after the fact is rarely helpful or effective. But I'm tired of feeling as if I'm somehow to blame for what's happening to me. Depression is to blame, and I don't have depression because I'm lazy, or antisocial, or uneducated. My brain is sick. That's why I have depression. I'm no different than the person with a sick pancreas who has diabetes. We both have biological, treatable illnesses. Why can't people get that?


Wendy Love said...

I'm so glad you asked these questions and are inviting input. Who better than the rest of us who understand this illness so well to pass comment and give a little encouragement.

Your questions are valid and your feelings are valid.

I can sort of agree with you in that it would be so much more healing (and less damaging) for the professionals to at least say 'I'm so sorry you are having a low mood for so long.'

However, those questions that you found so invalidating (and I can see why you would feel that way) are simply the protocol for professionals dealing with your kind of illness to ask, and they use those questions to measure for themselves just how depressed you are (looking for their own assessment and not totally relying on your assessment, after all, they might not realize just how reliable, intelligent and proactive you really are).

If you need someone to tell you that you are not to blame for your own depression then I am only too glad to tell you that truth: YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME! Depression is to blame.

Oh how I wish I could remove this illness from everyone who has it, including you. I understand exactly how you are feeling. I have had some of those same feelings.

You will get through this. You have before. I am rooting for you.

I am continuing to pray for you.

Amy said...

I have a saying that I use when I'm going through a bad bout of depression or anxiety. My disorder now days tends to rear it's ugly head in the form of anxiety. It's largely under control now due to finding the right medication, therapy, etc - - but sometimes it just....comes at me with a hammer. And when it does, and I find myself thinking about things in a certain negative way, I have a couple of trusted friends whose brains I "borrow". And I literally tell them I need to borrow their brains for a while. Because I recognize that at that time, my brain is sick. And the very part of me that is sick is what I'm using to think these thoughts. So like you, I start questioning everything - things take on a much more negative hue. So my friends who let me borrow their brains let me spill out all my thoughts to them - unreasonable or not - and then they re-frame them in a way that is more positive. Much less catastrophic. Because my sick brain is disordered at that moment and it's very difficult to see things as they are without my mood covering everything with a gray film.

I agree with the earlier poster that I think a lot of these folks who are asking these things are trying to find where you are on the scale of this bout. What have you tried already that has failed to work? That sort of thing. Most importantly, though, they are wanting to help. They're thinking of anything that might help because they don't like seeing you in pain. And that is them showing you care and love. Sometimes it can seem frustrating and invalidating to those of us who are trying so HARD to get back over to the other side....but they truly are, most of the time, trying to help.

I've heard friends with cancer lament that everyone knows of a "cure" they want to share with them when they're in the middle of chemo. Like "Have you tried eating only organic?" or "I've heard of this miracle wheatgrass cure that helped this friend of a friend and now he's in remission". That sort of thing. These people truly are well-meaning, but it's not what someone with cancer often wants to hear. Because they're doing the best that they can with the options available. But they're sick - they're tired. And often they just want someone to be there - listen, etc.

My point is that I think in this case, this isn't as much about mental illness stigma as it is about humans feeling so helpless with someone who is in pain. And sometimes they do and say the wrong things in this helplessness.

That's my take - from the innerworkings of the borrowed brain of someone who knows how dark the well of depression and anxiety goes, but whose brain is in a pretty good place right now.

It WILL get better. It always, always, does. So many good thoughts, prayers and hugs sent your way.

Wendy Love said...

I woke up thinking of something else that may or may not be of help. The last time I tried a new therapist I was in really bad shape about my circumstances and I was DESPERATELY looking for new insights and new hope.
The questions she asked just made me feel worse. Those questions made me feel like it was all my fault.
When I shared my story with a friend, she asked if the therapist was "Mrs. X..." and I said yes, and she said she asks everybody the same questions. My friend never went back to that therapist and neither did I.
At least I discovered that those questions weren't personal but they were just in her arsenal of questions to ask.
Hope I am not overwhelming you but your blog really struck a chord with me and I don't want you to feel bad about that experience any longer.

etta said...

@ Wendy and Amy: WOW! Thank you both for your thoughtful and well-reasoned perspectives. Truly...Wow. This is exactly why I needed to write this post. I especially like you noting the comments your cancer-patient friends have received, Amy. In one part of my brain I did have the thought that people were feeling helpless and trying to help, but my sick brain was definitely coloring things a bit, and I couldn't get out of my anger and resentment. You've both helped me immensely. Thank you so much.

Jason Perkins said...

You aren't being too sensitive. We get questions and comments that don't always make sense. I think that most are coming from a point where they truly want to help. Yes, if I asked a cancer patient, "did you do your run today, because it will help the cancer go bye bye," I would be told I'm an ass. Unfortunately, few people understand what long-term major depression is and what it can do. If there was a magic button to cure it, we would all press it. At best, depression makes little sense, especially when a major relapse occurs. My thoughts are still with you. And there is nothing wrong with a good cry in trying to figure out why people say the things they do. (At least that is what I would do.) They are trying to help, even if it is callous.

Chris said...

Etta -

It's rare that I have much insight to offer on this blog because I have never dealt with depression. I pray for you often, but I've never felt that I had anything to offer in terms of feedback until this post.

When I read this, I instantly could relate to those questions that were posed to you and I can certainly offer my impression from the perspective of someone with zero firsthand knowledge of what depression means.

To me, the questions that were posed to you did not come from a stance of pseudo-insinuating that your lack of work, exercise, etc is partly to blame for your ongoing episode, but rather from a stance of relative ignorance as to what a true depression episode embodies. Before the past couple of years with your blog, I can ABSOLUTELY see myself asking someone those questions ... not out of a suspicious spirit, but out of a true lack of understanding as to what battling a depressive episode actually encompasses. Now, having said all of this, I can't explain away an informed individual laying out those types of questions without also attributing to them some level of feigned ignorance or subverted insensitivity. If they "know" you and your history, grit-your-teeth forgiveness is your best approach.

I hope this helps in some small way.

You get stronger each time you deal with one of these battles, Etta. I would not say that if I didn't see it every single time you have to dig deep. I know it hurts to struggle with this, but you are making a real difference in the lives of others and doing so is giving you more resolve, even if you don't feel it yourself. It is so absolutely evident in your writing, I can't begin to convey to you how clearly i see it growing inside of you.

etta said...

@ Jason and Chris: Thank you for contributing to this conversation. I appreciate the insight each of you offered. Thank you.

Grace Wisdom said...

All of these comments were so helpful. I feel that the only people who understand what I'm going through are those who experience depression. I had a rough week last week and was having a hard time surviving through the day. Only sleep relieved the symptoms. I was doing all of the right things running, going to work, and forcing myself to do the minimum daily chores necessary. It didn't matter. My brain had decided to be sick. I went to see a therapist, I slightly changed my meds, and it is slowly getting better. reading your blog also helped me understand that I wasn't alone. I can see that now, although I couldn't see it then. I feel that everyone who reads your blog is somehow in those trenches and it helps somewhat. From my perspective, you sound as if you are improving and have gotten through the worst of this episode. You are getting better, and I'm so happy to feel that ad I read your words. Thank you for writing this blog and helping the world understand more about this confusing mind controlling Illness.