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depression is an illness

I have two medical conditions that contribute to occasional low energy, mood, and motivation: hypothyroidism and depression. I was diagnosed with the first at the age of 32, shortly after the birth of my second child; and with the second at the age of 16, although it went untreated for another twelve years. I know what it is to suffer constant fatigue and unexplainable sadness. And I know the difference between feeling life completely and being completely numb.

Both medical conditions have a genetic component, which helped me get past the "I'm such a horrible person" self-talk that often accompanies depression. Both diseases are found in my family tree and, unfortunately, were passed down to me. Hypothyroidism can cause extreme fatigue, weight gain, and depressed mood. Fortunately, medications have existed for a long while that effectively treat the condition. Depression, however, is more difficult to pin point and treat.

It was my stubbornness and ego that kept me from accepting medical help for the depression for so long. I wanted to 'pull myself up by my bootstraps', stop being so 'lazy', on my own. And it was the kindness and understanding of my physician and a therapist who stuck with me as I wrestled with the decision to try medication. The decision was a difficult one, not made any easier by the multiple antidepressants I had to try (often for several weeks at a time) before finding the right one for my specific symptoms. Depression looks different in every person diagnosed with it, so this complicates treatment.

The other aspect of treatment that I was somewhat reluctant to try was psychotherapy. How could just talking about my feelings and relationships make any difference in my fatigue or lack of motivation? But it did. Having a safe place and person with whom I could share those self-defeating thoughts and feelings of hopelessness somehow made each day easier to get through. It helped put my suffering in perspective, although it didn't take it away.

I was one of those people who thought the recommendations of living healthy and staying in balance were pure fluff. Exercise? How in the world can I get out of this bed and go exercise? But in time, I became a believer. Getting up as the sun rose--an almost impossible proposition during the worst days of depression--eventually felt good. Taking a walk around the block gave me a bit more energy. Eventually, spending 30 minutes on a treadmill helped me feel better about my contributions to my own recovery. Eventually. In focusing on just doing the "next right thing", one step at a time, one day at a time, I got better.

There have been many aspects to my recovery, but the key for me has been in remembering that each wave of sadness, hopelessness, and worry has a life span. Each of them will pass, eventually. As long as I do my part of taking my medication consistently, getting up and getting out even when I didn't feel like it, focusing on positive self-talk and accepting the love and support of others, I can function better even in the midst of active depression.

Of course, for those who must deal with severe depression, these tactics may not be enough. Psychiatric help, even hospitalization, is sometimes required to help those diagnosed with depression get through its roughest symptoms. And they can be rough: insomnia, uncontrollable mind-racing, no appetite, suicidal thoughts or behaviors. But even then, we must remember that treatment is available, recovery is possible. Those suffering with depression, and their loved ones, must find a way to reach out to others for help, even though the illness makes it painfully difficult to do so.

Know that depression is a medical illness in the same way that diabetes, heart disease, and thyroid disease are. Know that treatment is available and recovery is possible. Know that there is no shame in having the illness--who's ashamed of diabetes or arthritis? Know that there are things you may do that contribute to the severity of your symptoms, but that there are things you can do to make it better as well. And allow yourself, make yourself, reach out to a trusted loved one and/or a trained professional. The pain of depression is best endured in the midst of compassion, understanding, and hope.

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