Learning to Feel Joy

I may have depression, but depression doesn't have me

I had always dreamt that on my wedding day I would feel more beautiful than ever. As a little girl, I imagined it would just take a dazzling dress, a sparkly tiara (yes, I wanted one), and a pretty updo to make that happen. I had no idea then how hard of a journey it would be to actually FEEL beautiful inside.

From a very young age, I felt a vague sense of “brokenness” that I couldn’t share with anyone. I felt so lonely, though I always had friends. I remember as a third-grader wishing someone would ask me how I was doing and help me. By the time I was thirteen, I was in a destructive relationship with a person even more broken than me. I shudder to think back at how dark this first experience was—nothing like the sweet, silly crushes they show in movies. I cried alone every single day. And did not know this was not normal.

My depression morphed into different forms throughout the years—anger and negativity, perfectionism, playing the “fixer.” My emotional issues camouflaged into my life well enough that I could deny its existence for many years. Teens are SO dramatic; they don’t know what real pain is. Women, with their mood swings! All these messages made it impossible for me to recognize that I had a problem. That is, until it became impossible to NOT see it. I couldn’t get myself to go to class. Having always been a top student, I was suddenly tempted to drop out of college. I spent whole weeks hiding out, playing Guitar Hero and eating macaroni because I could not face real life. I am so thankful for the good people who loved me then, but I see now that those relationships were born out of my need for a lifeline, not as a product of my happiness. I could never be whole in those relationships because deep down, I saw myself as flawed and unlovable.

Finally, counseling and drugs helped. Not all at once, but slowly. Over time, I learned how family traumas had shaped me more deeply than I had allowed myself to believe, how my “stop crying and be strong” upbringing didn’t help me be who I needed to be, how so much guilt and sadness was not, in fact, normal. The medicine helped wake me up from the perpetual tiredness I felt. Some people say antidepressants make you feel nothing. But in my experience, they allowed me to feel more. It felt like taking a heavy coat off. Sure it was comfy in there, but once it’s off, you realize how much more freely you can move. You can dance, go for hikes, perfect that Warrior II. It’s strange at first, these new experiences of happiness.

I wish I could say it was all a steady climb up, that depression is absolutely, positively, behind me. But there are still ups and downs, mostly during transition periods, and I’m sure I haven’t seen the last of it. But now I have more awareness to see it coming and the tools to minimize its hold on me. I have a new narrative of resilience. I know that I can overcome hard times. Most importantly, I know what joy feels like, and it shows. On my wedding day, I can honestly say that I felt and looked more beautiful than ever.

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  • Caitlin_DD

    Thanks for this. Depression is hard.

  • Anon Also

    Wow, so much of this rings true for me. Everything from crying in the hallway in highschool and hoping someone would ask me about it (they never did) to missing weeks of class in college because I was shut in my room watching all 6 seasons of Sopranos and eating nothing but oatmeal (I couldn’t go to the dining hall because I hadn’t showered). After college, I had a really unhealthy relationship with someone else who was in denial about their depression/anxiety/insomnia.
    Only after starting on antidepressants was I able to feel like a whole person worthy of real love… and that’s when I met my fiance and was able to build a real relationship. Things are still up and down but better now that I know what the problem is and how to deal with it.
    Best wishes to the OP.

    • Alyssa M

      Man… “(I couldn’t go to the dining hall because I hadn’t showered)”

      Hits me right in the gut. I think one of my absolute low points had to be the time some friends asked me to meet them for dinner and I collapsed in the hall on the way back from the shower because days of hiding in my room with no sleep and little food had left me too weak for that much exertion. I still somehow managed to make it, clean and dressed, to the dining hall (couldn’t let my friends see I was “broken”), but I have no idea how I did it…

  • Sarah

    Tears. This really hits home today. My partner has depression. He has also had a lot of family trauma, and similarly was brought up with attitude of ‘stop crying and be strong’. And although he is undoubtedly the strongest person I’ve ever met, all that takes its toll. It has really only been about five months since he faced up to the fact that this wasn’t normal and he started seeing a counsellor. It is definitely helping a lot but of course he still has good days and bad days. I find it particularly hard because on the good days he seems so happy and cheerful that I forget about the depression and it takes me by surprise when suddenly he is feeling down again. Unfortunately this illness does not come with a handbook.

    Thank-you so much for sharing your experience, and I wish you and your husband all the best. I’m so glad to hear you had such a wonderful wedding. I really hope my partner is able to feel as good about himself as you did when our day finally arrives.

    • Jess

      If you’re willing to share, are there things that have helped you being the partner of someone with depression? I know it can be really tough to have someone you love who is happy suddenly about-face and be down – talk about emotional whiplash. I’m wondering if there are some tools you’ve used to deal that I can pass on as a suggestion to my partner (obviously not everything works for everyone, but it’s a place to start!)


      • ElisabethJoanne

        My husband has severe depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The ADHD is more of an issue day-to-day. On that, I read “Is it you, me, or adult ADD?” It taught me how to balance accommodating the disability v. taking over managing his care.

        On depression, “The Catholic Guide to Depression” was written by a Catholic psychiatrist. It was particularly helpful to me as a catholic, but the medical information was most helpful. Stuff like how it’s an oversimplification, but not exactly false, to call depression a “chemical imbalance,” how depression manifests with lethargy and other things I could observe, and explanations of other conditions often confused with depression.

        My husband is deeply involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They offer free classes on mental illness for patients (they call them “consumers” – more empowering) and their loved ones. You learn the basics of the most common conditions, the treatment options, how to advocate for effective care, and coping strategies. I was helped by joining a NAMI support group. They had recommendations for new therapists and just validated for that this stuff is hard and it’s ok to be sad and frustrated about that.

        • Jess

          Thanks for replying! I’ll see if we have a NAMI branch in our area and if he’d be interested in visiting a group. I’ll look to see if there’s some literature out there similar to the Catholic Guide to open up some converstions.

      • Sarah

        Hi Jess. To be honest I would be interested in some tools for coping myself! So far I haven’t really come up with anything. In Australia one of the most well known organisation for depression and anxiety is Beyond Blue. I haven’t found their resources particularly helpful personally, but it does provide a starting point- http://www.beyondblue.org.au/resources/family-and-friends/caring-for-someone-with-depression-or-anxiety
        For me, just knowing my partner is getting help and has someone else (ie, his counsellor) to talk to and guide him through it is hugely helpful. His family situation is such that he can’t rely on them for support, so prior to him seeing the counsellor I was really the only person there for him, which is a huge responsibility and definitely not something I was equipped for. It also helps that he tells me bits and pieces about the sessions and how he’s going, so I don’t feel completely in the dark and can see he is a lot more empowered than he was before.
        One of the things that I find most difficult is knowing how to attribute some of his behaviour. For example, it is hard to know when he hasn’t done x around the house, is it because of regular laziness/forgetfulness or a side effect of the depression. And then, how do I am I supposed to react to this? Trying not to get emotional is HARD!
        Sorry that I can’t be more helpful. Good luck to you both – sending good vibes :-)

        • Katie

          A really good friend of mine has depression and during one particularly bad period the thing that helped me support her was recognizing that just letting her know I was there, no pressure to respond in any way, was frequently the best thing I could do for her (vs. trying to “help her feel better” by getting her out of the house, etc). I remember days where I’d just sit and watch whatever she had on TV with her, and sometimes we’d talk and sometimes we wouldn’t. I also frequently reminded myself that her depression / mood had nothing to do with me or our friendship, she was just sick (to me, no different than someone who has cancer).

          • Anon

            I wish I had had a friend like you. <3

        • Jess

          Thanks for the response! Aside from knowing help is on the way (which it is, and I think will give us both some relief), it sounds like knowing what to attribute behavior to is hard for lots of people, which gives me a place to start – “I am not mad at you, I’m just crying for no reason.” “This is a big deal right now only because depression is making it big.” I’ll also see if he is interested in hearing about sessions and what we discussed (both to get some progress reports for him and to ease his mind about what is wrong and if I randomly ask for help with something strange)

          Good luck to you too!

    • Anon

      As the partner, please try to remember that the swings aren’t your fault. There are things you could do to help, but it’s not on you. I just want to say that because I know it can be hard to separate his emotional issues from the emotional strength of the relationship.

      It doesn’t come with a handbook, but here is a book that helped my partner. http://www.amazon.com/Talking-Depression-Connect-Someone-Depressed/dp/0451209869

      • Sarah

        This looks really good. Thank-you so much :)

  • Ella

    <3 Depression is a tough, tough battle. It's difficult to put into words, and you've done so here perfectly. Thank you for sharing. Please know that the more we talk about depression, the more help we can give to those who feel it's their burden to shoulder alone.

  • MEM

    I have struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life and didn’t really realize it until wedding planning began. It’s amazing how much a wedding taps into core beliefs about worth.

    • Sarah

      I have had the same experience. I’ve finally reached out to get therapy and I started on meds a couple weeks ago. I’ve really been battling with this since I can remember (I had huge amounts of anxiety as a kid too), but I didn’t realize it until I started planning my wedding.

      I’m still not sure why its come about now. I guess in college I was in denial and drinking a lot, and as a kid I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to cry yourself to sleep worrying that your parents were going to die (what??), and then my post college life wasn’t as stressful as college was so I could ignore it…but now that wedding planning is happening and I’m gearing up to go to law school, I can’t sweep it under the rug anymore.

      • Good for you for getting help. Sending good vibes your way.

      • “and as a kid I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to cry yourself to sleep worrying that your parents were going to die (what??),” – this describes my life. i’m going through a wave of it surrounding my dad right now- the past few nights I haven’t slept well with my heart beating so loudly in my chest over it. ugh

        • Sarah

          I know how this feels. Since getting on my medication I haven’t had the same obsessive anxiety thoughts. In the past few months mine had been centered around money and law school and failure, but I’ve had the thoughts about loved ones and parents dying before. It’s very hard to deal with and it feels near impossible to turn them off when they happen. It was important for me to realize that no, stressing out about something didn’t prevent it from happening one way or the other, and I didn’t actually have to live like that (I had lots of weird magical thinking). Medication helped SO MUCH.

          • “stressing out about something didn’t prevent it from happening one way or the other” – YES. that’s something I am really learning/working on with my anxiety. a big example of it for me is airplanes. i’ve made a lot of improvements this year with my fear of flying and mindfulness and all that jazz – but the idea that my fear isn’t proof that something is wrong, and that my brain ruminating does not change anything in the outside world were HUGE false beliefs i’ve had to break down and shift in my head.

    • amen to that

  • I’ve battled depression my entire life, from insane “I have no idea why I feel like this” days in high school, crazy amounts of medications and doctors, to recent traumas that have sent me spiraling back. One of the biggest things that helped me was finding out I’m not alone – obviously it didn’t magically fix things, but it made a lonely disease much less lonely.

  • emilyg25

    I’ve had depression for most of my life, but I’ve trained myself to always look for silver linings. One of silver linings of my depression is that when I do feel joy, it is so pure, so glorious, like the first crocuses after a brutal winter. I immerse myself in it and enjoy it as long as it last. My wedding day and honeymoon was also one of those times!

    • annejieun

      I notice and treasure the same thing, Emilyg25! When I have bouts of my depression, I lose my appetite and taste. When I’m in recovery, food tastes AMAZING!! I would never wish depression on anyone, but it can really make one wake up and notice the treasure in every day life, like this example.

  • This so much. My parents had the good sense to realize that selective mutism and blind rages were not normal behavior for an eight year old and put me in various types of therapy from third grade through my mid-twenties (college was a particularly bad time for me). I remember feeling so relieved when I got the diagnosis of major depressive disorder. There really was something wrong with me! It can be managed! It took years of rather excruciating work to develop what my therapist calls “appropriate responses to stimuli.”

    The first thing I did after we got engaged was to hire a wedding planner. When people ask why (we’re having a small destination wedding), I tell them it’s to protect my experience. I’m not worried about the wedding day. I’m worried that I will have an episode that derails the planning. I feel ten times better knowing that invitations going out is not predicated on my ability to walk to the mailbox.

    • Meghan

      You are SO SMART to hire a wedding planner! I chose not to, and spent the entire wedding weekend focused on not freaking out. Congratulations, and I hope it is a wonderful time for you both!

    • karyn_arden

      We hired a wedding planner as well. After several months of planning, I was having a hard time doing it all myself (my husband wasn’t very interested in planning with me but he had opinions and was free to voice them). We looked into it and hired a “month-of” coordinator/planner. Easily the best money we spent on the wedding – she took all of the stress I was having a hard time managing and did the work with ease.

      People asked why we needed a wedding planner for a Friday afternoon, 35-person wedding. I told them it was because I wanted to actually ENJOY my wedding day instead of worrying that things weren’t happening on schedule or that people were unsatisfied with things. We had a better day than I even imagined us having, and I have our planner to thank for it!

  • themoderngal

    It’s like you reached into my brain and pulled out my own thoughts. Your description of the antidepressant effects is spot on for me — they allowed me to more fully feel and more fully experience my world. It’s also good to stress that depression is not something we can necessarily be cured of, but it is something we can learn how to manage so that it doesn’t manage us. Thank you so, so much for writing this!

    • Jess

      Thanks for sharing that anti-depressants helped for you. I’m terrified I’ll go back to not feeling anything, the way I did when I was younger. It helps me be open to more forms of treatment when I know they help others.

      • Meigh McPants

        Response to medication can vary dramatically, even among the same class of drugs. Just because one medication didn’t work well for you, doesn’t mean another won’t. Also, one thing that helped me be okay with meds is when someone pointed out to me that if I were diabetic, I’d take insulin, right? If there’s something chemically wrong in your brain, it’s only reasonable to take medication to fix that. Good luck!

      • themoderngal

        Meigh is right — the medication can affect everyone differently, and it might take some trial and error to figure out what would work for you. Plus, they’re best used in conjunction with therapy to work though whatever triggers you might have. A doctor or therapist can make the best recommendation about whether you should try them. That said, don’t automatically discount antidepressants because of the bad rap they get.

      • Anon

        I think many/most medications are formulated for adult bodies, so it was probably a lot harder to find something that worked when you were a child/teen. I wish you luck! Don’t give up.

    • Sarah

      I find that with my recent medication I actually feel way more like MYSELF, which is awesome. I’m happy to find that I don’t have that numb feeling, I actually just feel better. I do have quite a few side effects though, but I’ve heard that over time they will subside.

      • Meg Keene

        They almost always do. And yes, meds should make you yourself again. And from there you can work on issues as needed.

        • Sarah

          The other thing that surprised me is how, now that I’m on meds, I will gladly endure the side effects (headaches and nausea mostly) to feel like myself. It feels very much worth it.

  • Jess

    One of the most hurtful things in my experience with depression was the messages like “teenagers are SO dramatic” and “Women, with their mood swings!”

    I was 13, and suicidal, and to this day, my mother doesn’t believe I have a problem. I’m just being dramatic, I don’t realize how good I had it growing up with every opportunity, I’m ungrateful, I’m trying to hurt HER, it was that-time-of-the-month etc. Luckily, I was able to decide I needed help on my own and got to a point where I would stay alive. Trivializing the issue doesn’t make it go away and adds to the shame of having depression.

    13 years of intermittent therapy later, and I’m still working to realize that I can get better – that there is actually something wrong and treatable and I’m not “just looking for attention.” I’m still scared of taking anti-depressants because the last time I did, I was completely numb. Stories like this reinforce the hope that there’s still a possibility they will help.

    Thank you.

    • /puts on pharmacist hat/
      Anti-depressant selection can be tricky. Experience and effectiveness vary wildly. So it may take a while to find the drug (or combination) that works best for you. A good doctor (and local pharmacist) will help you weed out the drugs that don’t help from those that do, and help manage side effects (which are different for everyone). Don’t give up searching.
      /takes off pharmacist hat/

    • jashshea

      All of these comments (and the OP) are very difficult to read, but yours hit me straight in the solar plexus, Jess. At one point in college, I had 3/5 roommates struggling with a variety of anxiety/depression issues and I hate to admit that at least some part of me thought “why are they being so dramatic!?” Now that I’m much older and have gone through more difficult life experiences, I obviously empathize so, so much with these same friends and the countless others for whom this is a struggle. Good luck continuing to move forward and address this head-on.

    • Ella

      “Trivializing the issue doesn’t make it go away and adds to the shame of having depression.”

      Yes yes yes. Even my husband, who has had depression, sometimes (unintentionally) trivializes my anxiety. We need to be talking more about our uniquely different experiences and the various ways we manage our anxiety/depression (through therapy, meds, etc) to reduce the stigma of seeking and accepting help.

      • Meghan

        My husband and I are in a similar boat (He’s depressed, I have depression and anxiety). He told me the most wonderful thing the other day. He has learned a lot about how *he* works from talking to me about how I work and noticing the differences! Hang in there, and keep talking. :)

    • Meg Keene

      Anti depressants that make you numb are drugs that are not working for you. Keep going till you get the right meds. You would try to fix a broken bone on your own would you? Stigma aside, depression is a illness, and has to be treated as such. Please please go get help (and meds).

      • Jess

        I am! Meds are mad scary for me from that experience. I was really young when I was on them, so I was pretty impressionable… and that didn’t help their efficacy either I’m sure.

        I’m getting the courage to go onto meds. Right now I’m scheduled for some talk therapy (2 weeks to go!) and from there will be discussing the anxiety of meds as well as the necessity for them.

        • Katie

          What a dichotomy – anti-anxiety meds aren’t helpful if you have anxiety about medicine…

        • JDrives

          Yay! I am hopeful for you that the combination of therapy + medication will help get you to the place you want to be. It is often the most effective form of treatment for many situations, including depression**. Best of luck to you!!

          (** just one example: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15237083)

    • EA

      Ahh, mothers. I was finally able to come to terms with how badly I needed help after a miserable year that included a friend’s suicide. When I finally got up the nerve to tell my parents I needed therapy (because I was still in college and needed help paying) my mother’s response was “is this because you think we have a bad relationship?” The phrasing says it all.

  • anon for this

    This is beautiful. I find the discussion about depression especially important in context of marriage/relationships because, obviously, “hurt people hurt people.” It takes a special kind of someone to help you through it, rather than to get upset and take it personally.

    One thing I’ve found is that joy is found not just in these big, beautiful moments, such as wedding days. For me, the kind of constant, throbbing joy that keeps me from sinking down again is found in becoming less focused inward (as those of us who have struggled with depression tend to do) and more focused on others. Donating my time and giving of my gifts has lifted the veil of depression far more than therapy or drugs ever did. Of course, you first have to get to that place where you can function, and this is just my experience.

    • Alden

      “It takes a special kind of someone to help you through it, rather than to get upset and take it personally.” — You are so right. Other people in the past who got close to me almost made me feel more broken, like something was wrong with me. It was until I met my fiance that I found someone who would never give up on me and really helped me accept that depression wasn’t my own fault.

  • BD

    Severe anxiety for me, which is not the same as depression but it’s surprising how similarly it all pans out. It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties that I realized 1.) being this worried (terrified) about everything all the time isn’t normal, not even for “emotional women” and 2.) I don’t have to live like that. Not that I’m magically cured now – it’s still an everyday battle, some days and weeks and even months are good, then something triggers that old fear and I’m back to reassessing every thought that runs through my mind, going over every detail like a computer looking for all the possible ways things could blow up in my face. And wedding planning? Not only reawakened my anxiety but also taught me that I have a strong obsessive-compulsive streak (which is its own kind of hell). I wish you all the luck in the world! You’ll be radiant on your wedding day, as you are now.

  • Depression is so hard. I too, felt that drugs helped “wake me up” from how tired I was. When I was in college, I literally would nap multiple times a day. Thank God for Celexa, I feel like I have the energy to function like a normal human being now. I love this.

    Also, I feel so weirdly similar to you in that I also was so sad as a child. It didn’t help that my mother was abusive, but I cried all the time, and it was just accepted that I was a dramatic child. Glad to find someone else like me :)


  • Meghan

    First: CONGRATULATIONS!! On finding joy! Oh, and the wedding too.

    Second: Thank you. This is me too. No, really. I’ve heard lots of depression stories. None have matched my own experience better than yours. I had a really “down” day yesterday, and it’s inspiring to read about your hopeful perspective.

    Third: Regarding meds, I want to put out there that I’ve had both experiences myself. On my first try I felt nothing. That sucked. A lot. But now I’m on something new, and it is helping. Same thing with therapists. My first few were awful, but now I’ve found one who clicks with me. Other depressed readers: Please don’t give up!

  • Daniella

    “I have a new narrative of resilience” beautiful.

  • BA

    I love this piece, it’s brave and beautiful. Thank you, really.

  • Anon311

    Thank you for this. I’ve been severely depressed since I was 18, I’m 26 now, I also have borderline personality disorder and was anorexic. Mental illness is hard, and it’s a constant struggle. In December last year I finally found a drug that works for me right now, after others efficacy wore off and I became suicidal. As a bonus I discovered that I do in fact also have a libido. I’m so happy for you that you have found joy, I’m hoping I can find the self worth and strength to plan a wedding after putting it off for two years so far because the thought of it sends me into a deep spiral. Screw you, WIC, and thank you so much APW xx

  • Alden

    Thank you for writing this, it really struck a cord with me. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • anonwisconsin

    This essay was what I needed to read a month ago! My wedding is five days away. I’m not there yet. Coming out of the worst winter I’ve seen in months (I live in WI), I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m hoping that magically, on my wedding day, I’ll be able to smile and feel joy. The guilt of feeling like I can’t is sometimes too much to handle. Perhaps the biggest mistake I made was planning a wedding in the first place. I’ve turned into a seasonal affective disorder, anxiety ridden ball of stress. I have bought 14 pairs of shoes, a gazillion bracelets, changed my mind about the dress, tried to write vows and actually failed, obsessed over the music, and the list goes on and on and on. Here’s to hoping I get through it and never have to plan a wedding again! On a positive note, I am marrying the BEST one!

    • C_Gold

      This Wisconsin winter has been HORRIBLE! I don’t know if I’ve given it enough credit for my uptick in depression and anxiety the last couple months.

    • Anonymous

      You can do this! Your wedding will not be a mistake. My best advice is delegate like crazy or let those last minute things go. Find some vows you like online, ask a friend to help you narrow to two shoe choices, forget the music, etc. Second, try to release that negative energy a day or two BEFORE your wedding day. Have a cry fest or go somewhere to scream, seriously. Don’t let it pent up and expect it to go away on your wedding day because I’ve found for many the stress peaks the morning of. Make room for it by clearing your reserves early. Lastly, this is an important day but there will be so many more important ones as you have the rest of your life with this person you love. Take comfort that your best days are yet to come. Keep your eyes on your prize and you won’t have to fake any smiles :) I wish you all the best!!