When Depression Strikes: 5 Ways to Cultivate Hope and Healing

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” — John Keating, played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society

As we mourn the loss of Robin Williams, I want to honor his family’s wishes and focus most on the tremendous gift he and his brilliance were and will remain. While I’ll remember him most for his artistry, I also feel compelled to speak up on the disease that took him.

Major depression affects an estimated 16 million adults in the U.S., making it one of the most common mental disorders. Episodes can last weeks or more, interfering with your ability to sleep, eat, work and enjoy life. While it may only flare up once in your lifetime, several episodes are more common. Other forms of depression are less severe, longer lasting, seasonal or triggered by specific events, such as childbirth—but all cause a seemingly unfixable emptiness and can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Going far beyond the blahs, depression is an intense apathy and hopelessness no one who’s been there would wish upon another. I certainly wouldn’t.

In my case, depression led to a severe eating disorder. Though I was never technically suicidal, I knew more than once that death was possible, or even probable—and more than once, I didn’t care. But I was lucky. My near-fatal experiences took turns for the better, and I kept hoping amid hopelessness that one day life wouldn’t feel so hard. I also knew what it was like to nearly lose someone to depression, because my mother had come close during my teens. My family’s potential pain paired with her courageous fight, which she won, gave me strength to keep breathing.

depression quote

My parents taught me and my siblings that mental illness wasn’t shameful, but a disease like any other that required treatment. So once I recognized that I indeed had depression and anorexia, embracing treatment was a given. For many months, I thought I wasn’t making any progress, but my therapist disagreed. Talking helped, even when my words seemed senseless; when you’re a sensitive extrovert, as I am, the isolation depression invites was a double-edged sword. My own form of music therapy, expressing my thoughts and feelings through song, brought profound healing, as did adopting and caring for my first dog. Every step forward drew me closer to freedom, and as the clouds began to clear, passions and purpose sprung forth. In the last decade, I’ve only had one major depression episode and for the past six years, I’ve been depression-free. But I don’t take that for granted. When a lower backache pairs with low feelings (my personal cues), I know it’s time to seek preventative care.

I wish I could say why some people are able to move past or learn to cope with depression, while others are swallowed whole. All I know for sure is that there is reason to hope, even when hope seems like a faraway fairytale—and that seeking help is always worthwhile. Here are some of the steps that helped me in my own battle with depression. They aren’t easy by any stretch, but they are worthwhile.

5 Ways to Cultivate Hope and Healing 

1. Do away with shame. As I mentioned, I was fortunate to learn early on that mental illness isn’t shame-worthy. I wish this wasn’t uncommon, particularly for men. Males are seldom encouraged to embrace their sensitivity or discuss their emotions in our culture, which is one reason that while depression is more prevalent in women, men are less likely to seek help and more likely to turn to drugs, alcohol and suicide. Contrary to common belief, people with depression aren’t lazy or selfish; they need help. The earlier it’s sought, the better—but it’s never too late.

2. Don’t try to measure it. When I was diagnosed, my initial thought was, “I’m not sad enough!” I laughed and smiled occasionally, so how I could be depressed? “Depressed people laugh and smile,” my therapist told me. “And not all consider suicide.” Like many artists, Williams said that his humor often sprung forth during dark times; though creative expression and humor can help, one doesn’t cancel out the other. Depressive symptoms are worth addressing, regardless of the intensity. The same goes for disordered eating thoughts and behaviors.

3. Embrace your body and sexuality. While some depression is rooted in genetics and brain chemistry, our brain chemistry and emotional wellness are deeply influenced by how we feel about ourselves and damaged when our sexuality is suppressed. I personally believe that cultural beliefs and myths about sexuality that demean women, encouraging us to perceive sex as “dirty,” “naughty” and namely a “guy thing” are a significant reason depression affects more women than men. Cultivating positive body image and sexual self-esteem played a huge role in my own recovery, while instilling a sense of purpose and empowerment that has safeguarded me from relapses.

4. Do whatever you can to eat and sleep well. This is a tricky one, because self-care is often the first thing to plummet when depression sets in. Whatever you can manage, however, is worth the effort. For over eight years, I taught nutrition in- and outpatient therapy for individuals grappling with depressive disorders. The overwhelming majority ate and slept very poorly prior to treatment (which also involved psychotherapy and, often, medications). Even if all you can manage is drinking smoothies for every meal instead of skipping them, do it. The malnourished brain becomes depressed, agitated, hopeless and unable to rest, even in a depression-free person. Sleep loss causes similar symptoms.

5. Don’t be afraid to seek help. Depression lies, telling you that you can never heal and the world would be better off without you. Neither is true. If hearing of Robin Williams’ passing has you wondering how you can move forward when someone as brilliant as he couldn’t, know this: he was just as human as the rest of us. People move past and learn to cope with depression and related disorders every day, finding unimaginable fulfillment. What if healing means that you’ll find yours life’s purpose and inspire others to do the same? Having experienced it myself and witnessed it in others, I can assure you that it’s possible. Once you do find healing, I hope you’ll let others know that Robin Williams inspired you to find the help you needed and deserved. If anything could make him smile down from the hereafter, I imagine it would be that.

My beautiful mama - a light in every darkness

Me and my beautiful mama – a light in every darkness

Thoughts from others:

I asked friends to contribute thoughts on their own experience with overcoming or learning to cope with depression. Here’s what they had to say:

“Depression can’t be battled alone! It needs a team of people supporting you and focus in the blessings in life and be grateful. It is hard work, but it is worth it!” – Laura

“I lost my thyroid to cancer thirty years ago. When my thyroid levels are off, I get depressed. I long ago learned that if I ever feel suicidal because I burned dinner, I should get my thyroid checked before acting on that emotion.” – anonymous

“Exercise helps a bit but when you’re depressed it is hard to get going, if not impossible. Sometimes just getting out of bed takes every bit of strength. I found that if I get outside and move around, go down to the ocean or exercise it helps but must be consistent. I battle this every day, and more so since my friend who was battling depression passed away in June.” – Janelle

“Picturing the deep, black hole… And not wanting to go down there…” – Karen

“My first husband and I used to joke that, ‘Suicide is taking one’s own life . . . entirely too seriously.’ When I lost him to mental illness, I was severely depressed. Not killing myself was a completely dispassionate choice that I made each morning, and it was neither here nor there to me if I lived through the day. Each day, I chose to live because I didn’t beat cancer to off myself. I also didn’t want to ever be accused of taking myself too seriously.” – anonymous

“It takes all of us practicing loving behavior towards all. Kindness is a ‘pay it forward’ activity. And we never know who is suffering silently around us.” – Roni

“…my faith saved me. I definitely needed love, and have supportive family and friends. I agree about exercise—it can be a remedy.” – Susie

“One of the ways I deal with my depression is being really open about it. I don’t believe in stigma, and I’ve found that being open relieves some of my internal downward-cycling pressure. Plus, you’d be surprised how many people suffer from depression or know someone who does.” – Lisa

“What helped me get on a better path was acknowledging that I was depressed, and then accepting that I could not do this alone. I needed help. It was a very hard step to take but one that I will never regret…  I’m learning that I need to give myself credit for the little things and not be so critical of the big things that I just can’t do right now.” – Jennifer

Wonderful related posts:

First Star I See Tonight by Pauline Campos (Aspiring Mama)

We Don’t Start with Needles in Our Arms by Janelle Hanchett (Renegade Mama)

Depression and Robin Williams: It’s No Hoax by Karen (The Missing Niche)

One more thought for those who are suffering:

I’ve known many people with mental illness, some of whom have lost their battle and more who have gone on to thrive. In addition to sharing similar struggles, they share beautiful sensitivity and heart I’ve seldom seen elsewhere. Once you move past such a disorder or learn to better manage your symptoms, it can become a tremendous gift. I know that’s tough to believe in the throes of it, but trust me: beauty springs from pain, endurance and even defeat. Please don’t let an illness keep you from recognizing how spectacular you are. ♥

Leave a comment

26 Comments

  1. Lovely post, August, with great insights and suggestions. I attempted suicide at 13, utterly convinced my family and the world would be better off without me. Perhaps I only came to understand how wrong I was when my niece killed herself, at age 24, in June; perhaps I have just gotten old enough to treasure every second.

    I wish I could have told her, “Everything, except that finality, can be fixed. Nothing is as grim as it seems while blood rushes through us and breath inflates us.”

    Reply
    • How heartbreaking, Elizabeth. I’m so sorry you endured such pain, but am beyond grateful that you were able to choose life. What gorgeous and true words you wish you could’ve shared. May many read them!

      Reply
  2. Beautifully written post, August. And true words. It’s hard for me to take it all in when my own family was traveling up and down with my brother in law. We don’t have any answers yet. While we know it wasn’t a direct suicide, we do know that he was making choices from a place of anxiety, depression, and self sabotage. It’s a really awful thing to watch when you want to help someone, and they can’t help themselves. Even with the necessary resources needed being available, there’s a level of WANT that needs to be inside the person. Hope. Not everyone has that glimmer as bright as those around them wish it to be.

    Thanks for sharing Janelle’s post. Her words moved me. And allowed me to see what life was like for someone who survived their addiction. It is a constant struggle. She bravely put a face to it and I support her for it.

    Reply
    • I think of you and your family continually, Jess. Please let me know if you ever need an extra ear or shoulder! One thing that can be helpful, I think, is knowing that very few families go unaffected by depression, addiction or suicide to some degree. The sense of aloneness can make things so much tougher. ❤

      You're so right about a person needing to want to heal and move forward — I see that all the time in people with eating disorders, and what the lack of it does. Addiction and depression can douse that light, which is so devastating to so many. I still don't know why my glimmer kept on when everything in my life and body said "give up." I do know that you're rock-star-awesome and that your brother-in-law was blessed to have you in his life.

      Reply
  3. Roni OConnell

     /  August 12, 2014

    I’ve never heard the term “sensitive extrovert” but realize how well that describes me.

    Reply
  4. laurie27wsmith

     /  August 12, 2014

    If depression manifested as a purple rash on your forehead then people would realise something was amiss. Because it can’t be seen sufferers face the uphill battle of not being believed and the stigma that any mental illness brings. This only adds to the pain of the sufferer, as if they need any more of it in their life. I’ve tried to take my life twice in 30 years. The first time I had the barrel of my revolver in my mouth and the hammer cocked. I’d come home from work and felt overwhelmed by the happenings in my job (police) my marriage and the constant interference by my parents. My son walked through the front door, slamming the screen like he usually did, only he was 15 minutes early. The enormous feelings of guilt I felt afterwards almost overwhelmed me again. It brought home to me how it would have ruined his life to find me dead on the bed. Fast forward 18 years, my son is overseas, my marriage is almost over and I’ve had a near death experience at work. (Anaphylactic shock from multiple wasp stings) 2 Vietnamese drug dealers ambushed me on my way to work, a month earlier, emptying the clip from a semi-auto rifle at me and I feel a little sad. I remember going down to my shed to fetch a pair of pliers, then I find myself standing on a 5 gallon drum with a rope around my neck. I’m looking up the driveway to the road and a small girl is walking towards me. She stops and says, ‘Grandpa, what are you doing?’ Yes it’s my 3 year old granddaughter, the only thing wrong, she was living in Canada at the time. I couldn’t die for trying. My eldest sister took her life at 39 and my younger brother sat in the darkest part of a park one night and slashed his own throat. He was found almost instantly by a copper on patrol. My father hung himself but I think it was attention getting, he stood on a barrel in the barn and kicked off when mother and the two youngest siblings drove up. Unfortunately they saved him and gave him another 12 years of life to abuse more children and ruin lives. A litany of sadness indeed and I believe that depression is hereditary. We didn’t stand much of a chance when you look at it.
    Now, 13 years on from my last attempt? I started therapy in 2001 and finished in 2010. I still get down but my new wife is on the ball and drags me back. If I don’t shower or shave for two days I know things are bad and I force myself to do the things I don’t want to do. When I hear the little voice in my head that says, ‘Go on, do it, it’ll be easy the shed’s over there.’ I tell it to fuck off and I go and do something else. My saving graces are writing and photography. I love poetry but it only seems to happen when I’m down, so I haven’t written much of it lately. 🙂 My advice to others who are depressed, tell someone you’re down. Talk positively to yourself, yes even out loud. Get professional help asap, going on prescription drugs for a while can help, you don’t have to take them forever. Yes, depression is painful, both mentally and physically, go outside and do something different, or just sit and look at the sky. Reject that little voice that creeps in. Try and focus on something positive you’ve done lately, think about how much you mean to others. Convince yourself that you are important too. If you are doing something that makes you down, stop it now. Yes, there is a tomorrow and it can be better.
    Laurie.

    Reply
    • Such beautiful insight, Laurie. I can only imagine how helpful it will be to anyone struggling who reads it! I love your tip about reaching out. Even if all one can say is: I feel helpless — that’s a hugely important step.

      Reply
      • laurie27wsmith

         /  August 22, 2014

        Thanks August, I fear you may been the only one who read it. I know it spoke about terrible things and suicide is not your average conversation starter. The message still stands though and that is…Speak to someone… talk about it… get help.

  5. Yes, sexual repression is hard, particularly on women, and freeing one’s sexuality will help. Certainly.
    But freedom of choice doesn’t merely mean that you have the choice to have as much sex as you like and not feel shame about it – it also means that you can decide NOT to have sex and not feel shame about it.
    A woman’s sexuality is a very controversial thing. Being a virgin is at once holy and strange. As Shirley from Community says to her friend when it’s revealed she’s a virgin: “Oh, honey, being a virgin in this day and age is no shame. You’re practically a unicorn.”

    Feeling this estrangement from society can be very hard. I often feel sexual pressure, not because i physically have an enormous need for sex but because there’s a mentality that if you’re not having sex something’s wrong with you.

    Reply
    • You’re absolutely right. Embracing our sexuality means accepting and celebrating it for what it is, even for those who are asexual.

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve felt pressured to be more actively sexual than you are at any given time. That truly shouldn’t be the case. We live in a very polarized sexual culture where women are considered sluts or prudes; we should simply be considered women.

      Reply
      • Yes. All this focus on how sexual or non sexual women are can be quite frustrating. I made a blog post on how male trainers don’t pat women on the shoulders because they’re afraid to be called out on sexual harrasment. It’s terrible!
        Personally I’m not a-sexual, but I can’t look at a guy on the street and think him anything but objectively attractive. I’ve only been sexually attracted to people I’ve liked on a psychological level as well.

  6. Oh, gosh, what to say…

    The comment from anonymous: “suicide is taking one’s own life…entirely too seriously” epitomizes the inside/outside personas of those of us who used humor to cover depression.

    When I suffered from deep depression and anxiety, the inside “me” felt like the ominous first half of that statement, but the outside “me” popped with the punch line.

    I heard two things yesterday that gave me pause. One, from Larry King. He said (paraphrasing) that any deeply depressed person (as he knew R.W.was) — haunted by insidious demons — could receive news that s/he just won Mega Lottery or news of horrific tragedy in the family, and the soul level reaction would be much the same on either.

    The second bit was a news clip that Robin was considering checking himself back into rehab — not because he’d ‘gone back out’, but because he felt he was close to that point and wanted preventative treatment. I know how he must have felt. The thought of going back to those dark days when I filled a hole in my soul with wine…

    You may have noticed my absence for the last couple of months. Like Forrest Gump, I simply began to run when my glee meter hit the red zone. To Pennsylvania, to the shops, to the casinos in Vegas. Talking with my sisters on a deep, personal level brought me back to that point when Forrest stopped. No rhyme or reason as to why then or why there. It was time to come home.

    Thankfully, by the grace of God, I have a six year sobriety chip to pick up.

    Reply
    • I’ve absolutely notice your absence, and have missed you big time! I hope your time away has been rejuvenating and medicinal — and that you know you always have a friend in me (among so many others :)). Anyone who’s experienced an addiction seems to “get it” — depression, suicide, eating disorders…and overcoming something as challenging as you did is one of the most admirable and courageous feats around. Much love to you, sis!

      Reply
  7. What a fantastic post! Thank you for your positivity and honesty. ❤ Love & light!

    Reply
  8. I love this. Thank you for sharing your story, for sharing your light.

    Reply
  9. karenmcfarland

     /  August 13, 2014

    Thanks for putting this subject out there August. I think we’re all suffering a little bit from shock. It always difficult to accept, but especially so when it’s someone we dearly admire and love, whether up close or from afar. And it’s interesting that depression can affect every one of us, even though it does seem to run in certain families. Great suggestions that I think we can all use. Your story and others were very inspirational. Thank again girl. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks for your insightfulness, Karen! I’ve been touched by so many people’s openness and sensitivity as these discussions have cropped up. Depression really can affect us all–so glad love and caring do, too.

      Reply
  10. Raani York

     /  August 17, 2014

    This is a wonderful sensitive and extraordinary post, August. Believe me: I KNOW what depression means… I comes and goes… and yes… even without being suicidal it’s a feeling of hopeless waves of life who put one down.
    Support does help! Talking does help…
    I grew up, learning that “depression is something shameful and that I just don’t have to have that because I would be sick in my head and being abnormal and in my family nobody has ever the right to be abnormal”…
    Still, and I am like you: I never lost humor, not even during my blackest times… but does it save one’s life? Not necessarily, as we all learned…
    Thanks for this post, August. You’re amazing!!

    Reply
    • You are such a light, Raani! I think those of us who experience depression and up connecting with others with similar paths for good reasons. 🙂 Thanks for never giving up or losing that awesome wit! ❤

      Reply
  11. I, too, wrote a post on my own depression. It stemmed, of course, from Robin’s death, but it was long before that time.
    I loved what you said, all of it, but the most was “My parents taught me and my siblings that mental illness wasn’t shameful, but a disease “. Too many people have or don’t have the support of their parents, but even those with support, may have parents who do not know or understand depression. You were lucky to have both. I am thankful for it as you are still here for me to count as a wonderful blog friend and tremendously successful person.
    Scott

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry that you’ve dealt with depression, too, but am mutually grateful that you’ve seen your way through! Thanks for the lovely words. My parents have been huge blessings indeed. 🙂

      Reply
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