I’m coming to the end of the school year and there’s something I have to admit. This year I was not the best teacher I could have been. And I know it, but it wasn’t on purpose. There were days when I stood in front of my students and simply lacked the energy and motivation to put forth my best effort. Instead of my usual enthusiasm to greet my students and orchestrate an engaging lesson, I had to settle for sitting down and doling out less-than-exciting work. There were even days when I resented my job, which is a feeling I’ve never experienced before.
None of this is to say that I actually did hate my job. Or that I didn’t want to work hard to engage my students. The truth is, I was simply depressed.
Depression is something I had never experienced before until this year. Normally my mood and energy levels are quite the opposite of depressed. People usually have to ask why I’m so happy because I’m one of those people who jumps out of bed and sings while going about my daily routine.
But I then I got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis last summer. I started waking up with painful, swollen joints. Some days I could barely bend my wrists or hardly walk, because bending my knees was so painful. One of the symptoms of this disease is depression, partially due to the pain but also partially due to the loss of control over your body’s response to otherwise ordinary daily activities.
For example, I became almost neurotic trying to control my diet, because it seemed like every food and drink caused inflammation. I couldn’t work out any more — which used to be my usual form of stress relief — for fear that my joints would hurt worse. All of these stresses compounded into an utter sense of hopelessness that overwhelmed my rational faculties. And then depression sank in.
Not every day was a bad day, but there were certainly days when I could barely get out of bed. My life became a cycle of surviving the work day, going home to immediately change into my pajamas and sequester myself in front of the TV, awaiting glorious bed time and fearing the next morning when I had to fake a smile and go out into the world again. This cycle is how I managed for months. I couldn’t wait for weekends and breaks off from work.
And no amount of rest was ever enough. All of it was paralyzing and debilitating. I couldn’t make myself happy, no matter how hard I tried. Even worse was that I spread my sadness to everyone around me. Although I hid it from my students, I couldn’t hide it from the adults in my life. Every little comment, or question, or attempt to make me happy just angered me and further isolated me from the world. I retreated from everyone, because hanging out and socializing meant talking about my pain and frustration with this disease. I didn’t want to open up or make myself vulnerable to others so I pushed them away instead. I became a completely different person and even though I knew that, it seemed like there was no way out.
But, there is a way out. And as a society we need to help those who are depressed overcome this awful condition.
1. Understand them.
Honestly, this is really hard to do. Lucky for me, I have an incredible husband who himself had dealt with depression before and helped me cope with mine. He didn’t give up on me, even when I became the most sullen, non-responsive person. But when he was depressed, I did a terrible job of understanding how he felt, because I hadn’t experienced a level of sadness like his before. If you want to help someone who is depressed, then educate yourself through research and professional advice. It’s not enough to try and motivate or encourage someone who is struggling with depression to “cheer up” and get back to life. Any attempt at downplaying their feelings will only make it worse, so take the time to show you understand how they feel.
Remember, depression is itself an illness that requires treating. That’s why it’s so important for everyone to recognize the signs and symptoms, in order to best empathize with the needs of those who are depressed.
2. Love and support them.
Everybody is different, so it’s important to find out what being supportive means to your loved one. The best thing my husband did was stay positive and love me, despite my constant doom and gloom attitude. I didn’t want to talk, but I did want someone to sit with me so I wasn’t truly alone. I needed someone to motivate me to do things that took my mind off of the arthritis. I needed to see that there were enjoyable things out there and that my life could go on, if only I’d let it. It took a long time, but eventually I found activities and distractions. I stopped letting my arthritis dictate my thoughts and mood, and slowly but surely I overcame the feeling of hopelessness.
So stay positive and find ways to offer hope to your loved one, in order to break through the depressed state.
3. Help them.
For depressed people, just living everyday life becomes an insurmountable chore. It’s hard mustering up the energy to get out of bed and put clothes on, let alone take care of all the other daily responsibilities there are. So tasks start to pile up and suddenly it’s as if life is spiraling out of control, which makes the depression worse. But you can help with this by taking some of the burden off of their shoulders, at least temporarily. Try helping them with cooking, cleaning, laundry and other errands in order to alleviate some of the stress they’re feeling.
Yes, it means extra work for you and that is hard. But the good news is that these are actions with an undoubted benefit to your loved one.
4. Take care of yourself too.
This one is huge. Remember that just because you do all of the other steps, doesn’t mean that the depression will just vanish overnight. It could take a long time and that person may never recognize how hard you’re working for them. You’ll not only wear yourself out trying to help them, but you’ll also start to feel stressed yourself. And depression can be contagious, so be mindful when you feel yourself falling victim to the negativity and take time to recharge yourself.
After all, one of the biggest steps we can all take toward beating depression is being self-aware and recognizing our own mental health struggles. Everyone faces them at some point, which is why it’s for everybody to learn how to manage their feelings and seek help when necessary.
I learned a very important lesson this year. It’s been a journey full of ups and downs, and although I regret not being the best teacher for my students I know that in the long run, this lesson will make me an even better teacher in the future. I’ve learned what it feels like to be depressed. I understand how to help myself in these situations and ultimately now I can better support those struggling with depression too.
Depression is a very real illness, and everyone will struggle with depression or love someone who does at some point in life. So it’s vital that we all learn this lesson and help each other overcome it.