This popular saying is one of the worst things you can say to a person with depression

(Note: The headline of this post is an experiment in writing clickbait. Let me know if it worked on you! #ScientificMethod)

I had been thinking about writing this post for at least a couple of weeks but kept putting it off, in keeping with my usual approach to blogging. But with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this past week, it seemed like it would never be more appropriate, or at least not until the next (and there always does seem to be a next, doesn’t there?) cluster of depression-driven celebrity suicides.

Though this post is not about them. It’s about me.

So. I’ve been suffering from depression for about as long as I can remember. Most of my friends know this, and I’m not shy about discussing it on Twitter, even though my therapist from years ago strongly cautioned me against doing that (sorry Justine, if you’re reading, but I gotta be me, you know?). It was really bad – to include very occasional suicidal ideation, but never any actual attempts – from about 2010 to 2013 or 2014, and has dramatically improved since I moved to San Francisco. But it still affects me sometimes, though like I said, not as bad as it did when I was in Florida.

I have mostly learned to live with it. When it was bad, though, I definitely sought treatment (thanks, Justine!). I was in therapy for a couple years. I was on antidepressants for a while, and those helped until they didn’t anymore, which was maybe eight months or so. Treatment helped, and I know people who have been helped by it even more than I was. I also know people who got absolutely nothing out of years of therapy, various drugs, countless lifestyle changes, you name it. Everyone is different.

There are a lot more of us than I knew before admitting that I needed help. That’s comforting, in a way. But there are an awful lot more who don’t know what we are going through, and will probably never know. They can’t, really – they think depression means “feeling blue” or some other kind of trivial, superficial mood swing. It doesn’t. Instead, depression is a constant and often overwhelming force in your life, sucking the joy out of everything you ever loved about life and telling you that you don’t matter, that you’ve failed at everything you’ve ever tried, that you’ll never get what you want out of life, that nothing has any point, that no one will miss you if you were to just vanish overnight.

It tells you this, over and over and over. And the thing is, depression is strong enough to make you believe it. No matter how many nice things you have, or how much money you make, or how loving and attractive your partner is, depression will completely convince you that it doesn’t matter at all.

So when I read those insipid inspirational Facebook posts / memes / Tweets / whatever that say happiness is a choice, I get pissed.

I know you know what I’m talking about, even if you haven’t seen it online. There is a certain mindset out there that holds that for each of us, our happiness is solely under our control, and therefore solely our responsibility. If you aren’t happy, the thinking goes, it’s your own damn fault.

Happiness is a choice.

You could easily choose to interpret this mindset as advice to keep a positive attitude. Which is good advice. Don’t get me wrong. Negative attitudes are self-reinforcing, and can really make an episode of depression extremely hard to climb out of. But that’s not what a depressed person hears. Instead, he hears “the way you’re feeling right now is your own fault, and you could stop it right now if you really wanted to. Since you haven’t done that, you clearly want to feel this way, probably for the attention. Or maybe it’s because you like having this excuse for being such a failure in life. Is that it, loser?”

I try to make this point whenever I encounter this pablum during my travels online. It doesn’t always go super well:

Pro tip: If you want to double down on being offensive as hell, imply that the reason you are depressed is that you can’t or won’t use the tools God gave you.

I have no idea if this person actually suffers from depression or just went through a rough patch in life, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their experience was what they described it to be. Frankly, that’s even more discouraging, because it means even those of us who have been through this can be completely oblivious to how things affect the suffering of others.

In a way, I agree that happiness is a choice. For depressed people, that choice involves getting treatment and doing a lot of hard work to manage and overcome a disease they were born with, and that science knows little about. And even after we make that choice, there is still a good chance we’ll fail. It’s not just as simple as saying “I choose to be happy,” and then flipping a switch in our brains.

But I can promise you, we all wish it were.

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