I didn’t want to go to the movies with my friends. I wanted to sit in my room with the shades drawn listening to terrible nu-metal by myself. All I needed was the all black wardrobe to complete this perfect teenage cliché. In a loving attempt to get me out of the house, my father offered me $20 to go hang out with my friends. I turned him down.
I was 15 and I was depressed.
My parents and my best friend encouraged me to go to therapy. But in my mind, therapy was for screw-ups and people with problems they couldn’t handle on their own. I wasn’t drunk or high, I didn’t have an eating disorder, and I wasn’t cutting myself. I was just bummed on life. I went to school every day, kept a high GPA, and didn’t turn to food, drugs, or sex for comfort. I just sat in my room in the dark when I was done with my homework. I felt like I didn’t need therapy because I was “doing just fine.” I thought I didn’t have any problems. But depression was the problem. If I wasn’t alone in my pitch black room, I was obsessively writing dark poetry and short stories about abuse and more; some won awards, others got me called to the guidance counselor. One day my best friend read my poetry book, then looked at me and said, “You should really go to therapy. Nobody who writes stuff like this is okay.” She was right, so I went.
The actual process was incredible. I was lucky to find a great therapist, and for 45 minutes each week for a year, we put in work. To be honest, I don’t remember the specifics of anything that we talked about. But I will never forget how it helped. Most importantly, it made me feel normal. I learned that my dark feelings were okay. The therapy helped me recognize and acknowledge those feelings early so I wouldn’t dwell on them in the future. After a year, my therapist and I mutually agreed that I was fine. But a few months later, after being diagnosed with a chronic physical illness, Ulcerative Colitis. I was in and out of therapy to cope with all the baggage that came with being sick. That was my routine for the next eight years until I went into remission. The following few years were great; I started my business, really came into myself, and felt truly happy for the first time.
I went back for one last round of therapy four years ago. I had just recovered from two major surgeries that removed my pre-cancerous colon and simultaneously cured my Colitis. I was going through a lot, but I felt like I knew how to cope on my own. That all changed when someone whom I never would have expected to have utilized therapy told me that he saw a professional while he recovered from cancer. “Sure, you can work through this by yourself, and get your head right in a year,” he said. “Or you could pay a professional to help you, and feel better in two or three months.” I made an appointment with my therapist the next day. Between our history, my work outside of our sessions, and her expertise, I was in a great place after 12 weeks.
For the last few years, I’ve stayed in that great place. I’m happy with who I am as a person. (I also have a pretty cool business, I’m in a great relationship, and my hair is fantastic.) Don’t get it twisted: getting happy was work, and staying happy remains work. I pay attention to how I feel, recognize when I’m starting to get a bit down, and know what to do to keep my spirits up. I start by taking care of my body. A steady sleep schedule, healthy eating habits, and daily physical activity are my first line of defense when I feel my brain getting a case of the bummers. If I don’t have time for a morning gym session, I’ll go outside for a 10 minute walk to put me in a better mood. If I’m feeling lazy at home, I’ll fold my sweaters, tidy my coffee table, or wash my dishes. (It’s amazing how a clean sink can lead to a clear mind!) If I know the upcoming week is going to be a stressful one, I make sure to stock the fridge with fruits, vegetables, and healthy snacks so my late night stress eating is only apple slices and peanut butter. And if I have to miss out on a few nights of sleep, I will schedule myself a restful evening with an early lights out to recalibrate my body.
(Think about it this way: if you slouch in your chair every day, you’ll develop back pain. You can pay someone to massage the knots out, but if you don’t make a conscious effort to adjust your posture those knots will just keep reappearing. You have to be mindful of your issues, and actively work to fix them.)
Although I have my body running smoothly, my mind can still trip itself up. I’m a stereotypical neurotic New Yorker! Work is the most stressful element of my life by far. Running my own business means there’s never a time when I’m not “on.” Constantly thinking about new designs, cash flow, or open orders can drive me crazy. A dose of fashion gossip and social media measuring-up might make me question my own ability to succeed. Without fail, the quickest way for me to mentally reset is to get together with a few of my inner circle girlfriends for a dinner at home. It helps me get centered and remember that I’m so much more than my job. If I do have a freak-out moment during the day, I take the time to ask myself “why” I’m feeling that way, and think about whether or not I can do something immediately to fix it. Sometimes one little pause is all it takes.
I now know my own mind and body well enough to tell when I have to take action, but healthy living isn’t one size fits all. I may be a glitter professional, but I’m not a medical one. Luckily, my cousin Shira Burstein L.C.S.W. is a Licensed Clinical Psychotherapist with a thriving practice in Brooklyn. I asked her how a professional evaluates sadness versus depression. Shira says that one way to think about sadness is to see it as fleeting, something that’s “manageable in terms of being able to carry on with your daily life activities (school, work, socializing, sex, responsibilities) and your activities of daily living, which include six major items: eating, bathing, dressing, toileting, hygiene and mobility.” If you’re feeling sad in any degree, you should do some checks on your body. “Rule out any medical conditions first,” Burstein says. “There are many, many medical conditions that feel like depression but are not.” Undiagnosed hormone imbalances or undetected hearing deficits are just two physical issues that may manifest as depression symptoms. She also mentions that someone who has recently experienced a significant loss may seem like they are exhibiting signs of depression when it’s really grief. While therapy can definitely help someone work through those issues, it isn’t depression from a medical standpoint.
So what is depression then? “Depression isn't when you cry in your cup of tea for one entire day after your boyfriend breaks up with you, and then you go out partying with friends feeling fine the next day,” explains Shira. “Depression is more than just feeling sad. To start, there are many different kinds of depression, determined by the periods of time that the symptoms exist and also by the qualities and characteristics of the depression itself. Depression includes significant feelings of worthlessness, major shifts in weight gain or loss, loss of appetite, lack of interest or pleasure in every day activities, insomnia, excessive sleeping, inability to concentrate, and more seriously, reoccurring thoughts of death or suicide.” Shira notes that “serious episodes of depression can and do include thoughts of death or suicide and perhaps episodes of self-harm.”
That’s heavy, I know, but so is depression. And heck, so is being bummed. Between the holidays and the late afternoon sundowns, this time of year is hard on a lot of people. I asked Shira for suggestions on how to combat day-to-day sads. She has six stellar suggestions:
1. Make a routine that you stick to (get up at the same time / try to go to bed at the same time).
3. Eat three meals a day, and if possible eat with others.
4. Identify negative narratives in your thought process, and look for “clues” that will challenge their validity.
6. Cut down on caffeine, sugar, and other mood-altering substances like alcohol.
Shira also recommends some alternative remedies that can add a little flair to your mental care. “Vitamin D deficiency also causes depression-like symptoms, so having a daily dose of vitamin D supplements can help.” She also recommends serotonin-strong foods like turkey, and foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and (a personal favorite of mine) coconut oil. She also suggests lavender and peppermint essential oils for their calming effect on the body. Of course, popping a vitamin and eating a box of anchovies won’t cure you, but it may make you feel a bit better.
When you live in New York and most of your friends are “creative” personalities, going to a therapist is incredibly normal and openly discussed. But to the rest of the world, the simple idea of therapy can still feel like a personal defeat, or something that only messed up people need. I get that. It took me years to believe that therapy is an incredibly useful and effective tool to make you a better, more successful version of yourself. But it’s nothing at all to be ashamed of.
PS: If you want to go to therapy yourself, here are some tips. Nothing beats a referral from a trusted friend or doctor, but Googling “therapists” + “your city” is a simple way to get started. Call your insurance provider to see if they cover treatment, but even if you can’t afford a private practice I encourage you to search for subsidized therapy in your areas. Psychology Today has a robust therapy database searchable by zip code. Many colleges and universities provide inexpensive therapy sessions with graduate students. (If you live in New York and want to try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for free, Shira recommends checking out ihelpcbt.com.) If you’re feeling suicidal, please tell someone you trust and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.