Please treat my depression like cancer

In talking with my nutritionist during eating disorder treatment last week, we decided that my depression is a bigger issue than my eating disorder, and that seeing her was probably not necessarily going to help much going forward.

But she did give me this gem:

“If someone got cancer, would you blame them for it? No, and you shouldn’t blame yourself for depression.”

I thought this was a pretty great metaphor. I need to start treating my depression like it’s cancer.

Here’s how and why.

It’s serious and it’s common

Cancer is a serious illness. In the United States alone, over 1.7 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year and over 600,000 people die of the disease. Depression is also a serious illness, with major depressive disorder affecting 6.7 percent of American adults each year and persistent depressive disorder affecting as many as 1.5 percent of U.S. adults in any year. 

It’s life-threatening

While it’s true that depression doesn’t have the same death statistics as cancer, the affliction can ruin your life in similar ways. It can take away your energy; it can take away your willingness to leave the house; it can cause you physical pain that won’t go away. Depression can also cause a burden on the people around you, who want to help but feel helpless to do so. And, of course, depression is one of the leading causes of suicide. 

It’s not my fault

Cancer can happen to anyone, at any age. There are certain behaviors that cause a greater risk of cancer in people, such as smoking or drinking alcohol, but it’s a straight line from those behaviors to cancer all the time. Similarly, there are lifestyle choices that seem to keep cancer at bay, such as good nutrition and exercise, but even people who are healthy by all other measures can get cancer.

Depression can also happen to anyone at any time. There may be life changes that are more likely to lead to depression, like major stress or trauma, but you can have a perfectly wonderful life and still get depression. And while there are behaviors that may mitigate depression, such as having a good social life, exercise, and good nutrition, depression may not be touched by these at all. 

There are treatments, but not necessarily a cure

Most people who are diagnosed with cancer undergo surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, depending on the type of cancer and its severity. There are different rates of success depending on many different factors, but the fact is, there is no real cure for cancer. 

The same is true of depression. While many different treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medications, and lifestyle changes can be effective in treating it, depression may not ever go away, and it may even come back. Because doctors don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms that cause depression, that makes it even harder to cure. There’s no blood test to determine if you have depression; the doctor guesses based on a survey you fill out about your mood. The only way to tell depression is gone is if your mood changes. 

Why should I treat depression like it’s cancer?

While I don’t want to take away from the seriousness of cancer or the agony of those going through it, I have to consider that what is going on with me is a disease. I need the people around me to understand that as well. I am not actively choosing to be depressed. It appears that depression is how my body reacts to major stress, even if that’s good stress. And my life can be perfectly fine around me and still the chemicals in my brain and body will continue to give me depression. 

I am trying my best to find treatments for it. I am working harder than I feel capable of. I try to identify stressors and get rid of them, and increase the things that make me feel better. But some days, it feels like the depression is winning. And during these periods, it feels that there is nothing I can do to make it go away, and I will be like this forever, and that makes me want to give up. I also can’t remember what life was like before depression, or what the moments in my life where I wasn’t depressed look like. 

I need to have sympathy for myself the same way I would a patient with cancer. I need to recognize that treatments can take a toll as much as the disease can. I need to give my body the rest it’s asking for, even if I just slept for 15 hours already. I need to be aware of how dizzy I feel, or how drained, or how out of it, and continue to do what I can with that information. I need to give my body some grace, because it’s reacting to the situation by defending itself, whether by storing up fat to get us through the stress or by giving me nausea for whatever reason. 

And I have to ask the same of my friends and family, even if it feels silly, because nobody treats depression the same way they treat other diseases.

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