By Elena Sledge, as told to Kara Mayer Robinson
I’ve been living with depression for almost 12 years. I’m 31 now and I found out I had major depressive disorder when I was 19.
I had a miserable freshman year of college, but I didn't really know what was wrong. I saw a therapist and the following summer, I was diagnosed with major depression. Looking back, I can see I was also depressed in high school.
Coming to terms with my diagnosis was a process. I had a hard time understanding why I was depressed and where it came from. In my mind, I hadn't been through anything bad enough to warrant having major depressive disorder.
Therapy helped. My therapist normalized and validated my experience. At one point, she told me, "You have depression because you have it." That’s something I've never forgotten.
I realized I needed to accept my diagnosis and take steps to help me.
I’ve been in therapy fairly consistently over the years. That’s helped me the most.
I’ve also taken various medications. I took one SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) for about 2 years when I was first diagnosed. The effects wore off, but it helped me so much initially.
I tried other medications for short periods of time, like other SSRIs and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). They helped when I needed them. I’m 100% a supporter of medication for mental health, but it's not something I feel I need right now. If that changes, I’ll probably try it again.
I’ve also made many lifestyle changes. Two years ago, I started working with a personal trainer because I was hardly active. I feel stronger and have more energy. I still work with the same trainer 4 days a week.
With exercise, I try to take care of my body in a way that feels good for me. I also focus on getting enough sleep. I hardly drink alcohol. I focus on keeping a routine in my day and taking care of my spiritual health.
Friends and Family Support
I feel fortunate to have the support that I do. I've done a lot to maintain close relationships because relationships are so important to me.
My husband is fantastic and has also lived with depression. Many of my friends and family have experienced depression or other mental health issues, so they have a lot of understanding.
It helps to have someone listen, care, and take the time to talk with you about what’s going on. Social support is huge. I believe human connection is so important for growth and healing.
I’m not consistently experiencing depressive episodes right now, but I find them easy to slip into. It's interesting because my brain really knows how to be depressed. In a way, it’s so familiar and comfortable.
I sometimes struggle with feeling like a failure. It most often comes up in relation to my work. I’m a mental health counselor. Owning a private practice and trying to help others can sometimes be overwhelming and bring up depressive thoughts and symptoms.
I have to do a lot to manage my thoughts and not start shaming myself. To release my emotions, I write them down or talk them out with someone. I also reframe my thoughts to more compassionate ones like, "I’m enough," "I’m trying," or "It won't be like this forever."
I still spiral sometimes when there’s too much going on. My main trigger is being overwhelmed by personal events and world events. World events in the last 2 years have definitely had an impact. It's so easy for anyone to feel hopeless and despair these days.
I know my triggers and I try to be proactive. I do best when I sleep enough, stay active, manage my schedule effectively, and show myself compassion. Depression likes to latch onto doubt. Thoughts of "You're a failure" or "It'll never get better" can grow pretty quickly.
My Biggest Hurdle
My biggest struggle was in my early- and mid-20s, when I was suicidal. Many times, I felt out of control and didn't know if I could keep myself safe. My symptoms were bad, and I needed more support. I feel like therapy saved my life. Medication was important too. I overcame it then, but passive suicidal thoughts can still come up.
Living With the Ups and Downs
My ups and downs were much more intense and severe in my early 20s. The roller coaster can still be very hard, but I do generally experience a lot more peace at this point in my life.
When I feel great, I feel great. Sometimes I feel just OK.
To manage the ups and downs, I rely on what I know helps me, like going to therapy, getting support from my friends and my husband, and staying active.
What I Know Now
The most important thing I’ve learned is that I’m not my depression. It's something I experience and live with, but it’s not me.
Depression has helped me grow and expand in ways I maybe wouldn't have otherwise. I don't wish it for anyone and if I had the choice, I wouldn't pick it for myself either. But it's the hand I was dealt and it's OK to see how it has shaped me.
It made me more compassionate. It inspired me, along with a powerful therapist I once had, to become a therapist myself. It led me to support others.
I used to resent my depression a lot, but I don't anymore. As awful as it's been over the years, it's an important part of my life and it’s helped me in many ways.
Photo Credit: SrdjanPav / Getty Images
Elena Sledge, MEd, LMHC, therapist, Awaken Therapy Collective LLC, Winter Park, FL.