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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