By Michael Kimmel
I used to be in a Buddhist study group. One of the main tenets of Buddhism was: Pain is part of life; suffering is optional.
What this means to me is that there is no way to avoid pain and difficulty — they’re just part of being alive — but we don’t have to suffer, we can get help and work our way through our pain.
Many of us try to avoid pain: we pretend that we don’t see it, hoping it will go away. And sometimes, it does. But, usually, problems don’t magically disappear on their own; they require some effort to be resolved.
As a psychotherapist, one of the problems I see the most is depression. I was surprised to learn that, in the U.S., only 1 in 4 people who suffer from depression seek help. I guess the other 75% of depressed folks are just hoping it will go away.
As someone who used to suffer from depression myself, it rarely “goes away” on its own.
Defining depression and its causes is a complicated task: from the research I’ve read (and experiences I’ve had with clients over the past two decades), it seems to be a combination of family history, personal temperament, physical health, quality of relationships, traumatic life events and many other factors.
Depression can negatively affect so many aspects of our life, from our physical health and job performance to our sexual and romantic relationships. When I suffered from depression, my inner mantra was, “I’m doomed.” With a philosophy like this, it’s not a surprise how hopeless I felt and how much I suffered.
Ironically, I was experiencing this while I was learning to become a therapist (about 25 years ago). I think the process of becoming a therapist stirred up all kinds of unresolved pain/trauma in my life and it began “popping up” in my daily life in all sorts of unpleasant ways: I was dissatisfied with my friends, my boyfriend, my university classes … and with life in general. Everything felt like it took too much effort; I slept as much as possible to avoid being awake and depressed.
Finally, I took action and got some counseling. And I tried anti-depressants. The combination was helpful. It lifted me up out of my funk so that I could take constructive action. My suffering began to decrease and my feeling of doom began to subside. It didn’t happen overnight, but, gradually, I began to feel better about myself and my life.
As you read this, you may be asking yourself, “Am I depressed too?” Not an easy question to answer, since symptoms for depression vary from one person to the next, but consider these questions:
- Have I been feeling sad or irritable for a while?
- Am I experiencing feelings of guilt, hopelessness or worthlessness?
- Is it hard for me to concentrate, remember things or make decisions?
- Has my weight or appetite changed lately?
- Am I having difficulty getting a good night’s sleep?
- Have I experienced recurring thoughts of death or suicide?
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are some typical ways that depressed people suffer. If you found yourself identifying with some of the questions, here are some constructive things you can do:
Recognize that you’re suffering. Sometimes, this is the hardest part. We don’t want to admit we’re in pain so we keep denying that there’s anything wrong.
Be willing to take the first step to addressing your depression — just one step, don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do more (yet).
Find yourself a good therapist: someone you can talk to, are comfortable with and who has a good track record of helping people struggling with depression.
Consider anti-depressants: they helped me tremendously. I took them for about six months and haven’t needed them since. There is a common myth that you get dependent on them and have to take them forever. In my experience, this is rarely the case. Find a good psychiatrist to talk with. I recommend you don’t go to your general practitioner doctor; despite their good intentions, they don’t usually have the necessary experience with and detailed knowledge of all the different anti-depressants and how they work. Psychiatrists specialize in this, tap into their knowledge.
As the Buddha said: Pain is part of life; suffering is optional.
— Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.
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