When I was a child, I called my depression “adult sadness” and told few about it. Over the years, as I grew, so did my depression. Depending on the doctor or phase of my life, I’ve been diagnosed with a variety of things — persistent depressive disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar II, and an overarching diagnosis of unspecified mood or affective disorder.
All forms of depression can be devastating and debilitating for the more than 300 million people worldwide who experience it. It’s a persistent and smart illness, often convincing those who experience it that they don’t deserve the help or support they desperately need to survive and recover.
Having struggled with depression since a young age, I’ve come to know its treacherous landscape well.
I’ve lost a great deal due to depression — friends, jobs, grades, and self-confidence.
I also believe, that like most difficult things, my experience with depression has actually helped me have a more joyful life.
This isn’t to say I believe depression is better than health. In fact, as a mental health advocate and mental health worker, I believe in therapy, medication, resources, and education around mental health issues and concerns.
I do, however, subscribe to the philosophy that “everything makes you more.” That means that no matter what you experience, whether terrible or glorious, you can learn something from it.
I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone. But reflecting on my decade-long experience dealing with the illness — I can say for certain there are ways that surviving depression has shaped me into a better person.
1. Depression magnified my sense of compassion
When you experience mental illness, you experience humility. There’s little that makes you feel more vulnerable in life than sobbing in public or needing to leave a friend’s party early due to a panic attack.
We work hard to hide our emotions. But sometimes, like when we’re in the midst of a depressive episode, we don’t have that luxury.
Experiencing mood swings that made me vulnerable and openly emotional around others has taught me a great deal about compassion and humility.
When I see others struggling, I feel a rush of recognition. I remember the heat in my own face, the shaking of my hands, the shame I felt for being so exposed.
My memories of my hurt allow me to reach a place of heartfelt compassion and empathy for others. That compassion also helps me know the best way to support them.
2. Depression demanded I be my own best advocate
Anyone who’s experienced mental illness knows how frequently you have to fight to get the help or services you need. While I have a stellar care team now, there were many times during the last 10 years when I received substandard care.
These situations pushed me to become my own best advocate.
The skills I developed while fighting tooth and nail to get the help I needed in a largely broken mental healthcare system, are ones I apply often to my everyday life, whether I’m experiencing depression or not.
I know how to politely demand the help I deserve, and I have the skills to ensure that I get it, no matter how many hoops I have to jump through in order to get there.
3. Depression made me aware of my resilience and strength
Once, after auditioning for a college dance performance, I was turned away with the explanation that they were “searching for a cast of strong and powerful women.” It was true that I didn’t look like the women who were cast. I was small and scrappy and, at the time, deep within a depressive episode. My eyes had dark circles under them, and I shook slightly as I walked, not from weakness but from fear.
Leaving that audition, I felt a piercing awareness of our society’s skewed perception of strength. The women they chose had solid legs, thin waists, well-toned arms, and wide smiles. They appeared to move about the world effortlessly.
It had taken me weeks to mentally prepare for the audition. I was terrified of being in front of people, terrified of my own vulnerability and the rawness that came from struggling so deeply with depression every day.
It occurred to me then how much we misunderstand what strength can be, how it’s often the person standing on a stage, nervous and scrawny but following the choreography anyway, that’s strongest.
I believe those who experience mental illness possess a fierce strength and willpower that they often don’t get to brag about.
There’s something incredibly powerful about experiencing deep despair and continuing to look for ways to live and recover.
4. Depression allowed me to make authentic friendships
My friends are people who I’ve shown the depths of depression to and who’ve stuck around anyway.
Depression has, in many ways, brought these people into my life. Some of them have never experienced depression. Some of them have. The connecting thread is that we’ve all shared our authentic selves with each other. Often, for me, this has happened by accident.
At times I’ve been so vulnerable or honest due to my mental health that my friendships have either strengthened or disappeared.
There are many past friends who’ve walked away, fearful of my vulnerability or lacking the skills to both offer support and set boundaries around their own needs.
But the people who’ve stayed are magnificent. I’m touched daily by the types of friendship and connection I get to be a part of.
I believe strongly that a huge part of experiencing mental illness and loving those with depression is learning how to practice self-care, set firm boundaries, and enforce limits around what you and others need.
I also believe that within the spaces where we care for each other and ourselves well, there’s the potential for deep relationships to form.
5. Depression taught me to be grateful for the small things
Living much of my life with depression has opened my awareness to the small, mundane things in life that I used to ignore.
Depression is devastating, dangerous, and often life-threatening. But if I was given a magic wand and told I could erase all my past struggles, I wouldn’t take it.
These days, I find pure and expansive joy in the most ordinary of things: a glimpse of a bright yellow raincoat on a rainy day, the wildly flapping ears of a dog sticking his head out of a moving car window, the first night of sleep on clean, soft sheets.
Once depression leaves, once it goes away again, then everything comes back into focus. But this time, it’s even sharper than before. With that clarity, my gratitude has grown.
I feel that big, painful things, like depression, are often that way — excruciating and awful. Yet when they are finally over, finally done, they leave you with something important — something permanent, resilient, and powerful.
Caroline Catlin is an artist, activist, and mental health worker. She enjoys cats, sour candy, and empathy. You can find her on her website.