Depression does not define you. With depression, some of us may have difficulty remembering what we were like before the episode. We struggle to separate the symptoms of depression from “my regular self.”
Depression is a set of symptoms. It is not what makes you “you,” does not make you who you are. You are more than your depression, more than a set of symptoms. You have personality, character traits (like kindness or a sense of humor), skills, abilities, and accomplishments that are unique to you. Perhaps you’re skilled in woodworking, sports, computers or gardening. Maybe you’re a very good friend, sister, uncle, son, neighbor, boss or coworker. You seem to persist in life in spite of your illness.
Try not to take on an “illness identity” of depression or let it overtake your life and then become lost in the symptoms of depression. This happens when a person loses interest in life and forgets all else that he (or she) does or did, spending all of his time going to appointments, taking medications, thinking about his problems and dropping everything else. That’s a pretty common situation to find yourself in.
When you have longstanding or repeated episodes of depression or bipolar disorder, it often happens that the memory of “the person you are or have always been” tends to fade in your mind. You may lose a sense of your previous healthy self. It’s there, just not at your fingertips. Your life becomes filled with feeling sad and miserable, going to doctors’ and therapist visits and working hard each day to manage the symptoms which may have somehow overtaken your life. There may be little time, energy or interest left for anything else. You then tend to forget who or what you were like before the illness, what you did with your time each day, what you were interested in or what made you smile.
During an episode of depression or mania you may feel that “I’m not familiar to myself – this is not ‘me’.” I experienced that feeling. You might feel lost, or that you have lost your bearings, as I did. When this happens you might also forget about the things you have always liked and dis-liked your preferences, interests, accomplishments, or the sense of yourself as a person. These are not permanently gone, just temporarily buried underneath an overwhelming array of illness symptoms that you face each day. The goal is to hold on to your usual sense of who you are and try not to get consumed by your depression symptoms.
Ugh, you say! Another thing to do! How do I do this? First, recognize that depression is an illness – nothing more. Yes, it does impact just about every aspect of your life, so you have to work hard to try to keep it in perspective as an illness and not a permanent life-changing event. Although it does change things a little, it’s usually in a positive way. For example, when recovery approaches, you will probably view the world around you a bit differently, with a renewed set of priorities, and that’s okay. Manage your symptoms and as you do this try to regain control of your life. One way to attempt this is by keeping up with your baseline sense of yourself, your work, relationships, activities and interests - the things that make you who you are - despite having this illness. It’s not easy to do; you may need the help of friends and family to remind you of who you are as a person and anchor you.
I myself use an easy exercise to help with this, called Defining Your Baseline, that I described in my first book on managing depression. It helps you identify your strengths and weaknesses, personal preferences, beliefs, values, competencies, sense of purpose, what nourishes and energizes you. It’s a way to help you connect to your inner sense of yourself, to your baseline person. This is important to draw on as an aid in your recovery.
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