The other day, I was out to dinner and drinks with some friends. Amidst our casual banter about work, life and play we somehow got onto the topic of depression. It’s something that’s affected my friends, family and myself over my 3 years of being a patient.
One of my friends said something that got to me.
“Being told you’re depressed gives you an excuse to not try to get better. Maybe if people who say they’re depressed tried more, they wouldn’t be depressed.”
He didn’t mean to be judgmental or mean about it, in fact, he was sincerely concerned for their welfare.
But it was obvious that he didn’t know what depression does to you. That it saps away at your energy, your very ability to feel happiness, to the point where you don’t even want to get out of bed.
Someone else brought up a relative who’d been through depression and agreed with him whole heartedly.
I tried to tell him about how depression really affects you, and talked about how I got out of it (by taking a step back, questioning what I was doing and eventually, seeing another way of looking at things, and talking to people about it). But he still maintained this idea that a majority of people use their depression as an excuse to not try – that it’s their fault they’re depressed.
At first I was a little frustrated that he didn’t understand the plight of the millions who live with depression.
But I try to never take thingsor criticism personally or dismiss them outright (I talk about that here). Instead I always use their criticism to try to improve myself and my ideas, and so after taking a step back and taking my own experiences and emotions out of the equation, I realised that he may have a good point.
When we look at ourselves, we’ve programmed ourselves to look at the bad rather than the good.
We label ourselves every day.
And it doesn’t just apply to issues like depression either…
We tell ourselves we’re not smart enough, not good enough, not cool enough to do what we wanna do. To get into our dream course, our dream job, to try out for the
first grade team or to ask that girl you like out on a date – we always use how we label ourselves as an excuse to not try.
These labels are garnered by how we grew up, how we were raised and by what we believe other people think of us.
But when we say that we’re either smart or dumb, or that we’re weak or strong or that we’re hot or not, it’s not always a bad thing.
These labels can be useful.
They allow people who are depressed or going through hard times to cut themselves some slack, and allow them to ACCEPT what’s happening to them.
And a lot of people look at themselves, and use those labels, either self-imposed or not, to improve themselves.
But it’s when we start to BELIEVE those labels, when we let them DEFINE us that they stop ourselves from trying to get better.
There’s a term in psychology, that often is related to negative connotations. Victim playing. It’s often used to describe pathologies, and circumstances where people pretend to play the victim to garner sympathy, manipulate people, seek attention, and to rid themselves of blame for what they’re going through.
If you’re someone who has gone through trauma, or depression, however, it’s only a natural reaction. You shouldn’t feel bad for feeling crappy about the worst thing that’s happened to you. It’s normal.
But sustaining this feeling, and using our disabilities as an excuse, only leads to us harming ourselves in the long run.
Half the time though, we don’t even know we’re labeling ourselves.
After thinking about his words, I took a step back and had a look at what I was doing, about 10 months after my transplant.
I thought about where I was at objectively, without any bias, and realised that despite not having any major treatments, despite not being hospitalised in a while, I still thought of myself as a patient.
That wasn’t a terrible thing – acknowledging my vulnerability would make me cautious. I’d watch what I ate, ensure I’d take extra care in terms of hygiene, sanitation, that I’d stay away from sick people and all the other things I needed to do to stay healthy because I knew I wasn’t a patient.
But I realised that at the same time I WAS USING IT AS AN EXCUSE to not
get fit, not want to learn, to not eat healthily, to sit around and be a slob.
It was stopping me from getting better!
That dinner was 2 months ago.
Since then, I’ve resolved to improve myself. Slowly, over time, I kept reaffirming and telling myself to not label myself, to not use my cancer as an excuse, in my head.
I did it slowly, by first doing little things that I was telling myself I couldn’t, or shouldn’t be doing, and then building up until I could do them.
And slowly, but surely, that became a habit… Your brain’s neuroplasticity and the power of affirmation and reinforcement, ensures that you can change your mindset on anything. Even if you feel like you can’t today (I’m a medical student, and researcher. Check out my book that I’m writing for the science behind this, and my own story!)
And today I’m proud to say that I don’t believe that I’m a patient
I don’t see myself as a depression sufferer either.
I see the value of being cautious. It ensures I have motivation to stay
healthy, it allows me some leeway to take breaks when I need them, it ensures that I won’t push my body too hard in my quest to regain my health. It ensures that I’ll always ask for help if I need it, when I’m down. I see the benefit of that label.
But I’m not going to use my “being a patient” as an excuse to not push forward now. I’m no longer going to take a day off because I may have felt dizzy a few days ago, no longer not go on a run because my legs are too sore, no longer going to stop myself from going to classes because I shouldn’t be around too many people UNLESS I REALLY HAVE TO.
I’m not going to lie to myself anymore.
It wasn’t easy at first. But a change of place, a change of atmosphere, A CHANGE IN ATTITUDE really helped me get there. I started by going on a daily walk up and down a long hill, doing little bodyweight exercises like sit-ups and push-ups and helping out around the house. And I slowly built up from there.
I knew that I wouldn’t see results straight away, that I’d feel tired at times, and lazy at others. But I’d push through those times. Eat well, at the right times to make sure that I didn’t even feel that lazy feeling.
I knew that at times, I’d have to take breaks, especially when I’d be getting my treatments.
But I reminded myself that I wouldn’t use my sickness as an excuse to not try.
I’m glad to say it’s working.
Because of my consistent work, because of my commitment to getting healthier and because of me not using my past as an excuse, I‘m happier, healthier and fitter than I have been since being diagnosed.
I’m running around, I’m going to classes, I’m playing basketball and I’m looking and feeling better than ever, since finding out that I had cancer.
I’ve been a patient now for nearly 3 years.
Today, 1 year after my 2nd Bone Marrow Transplant I no longer think of myself as one.
And to those of you reading this – I hope this inspires you to stop using these labels as an excuse too.
Have a look at yourself, and see what you label yourself as.
If you find yourself telling yourself you’re too sad, stupid depressed or weak to do what you want, do exactly what I did.
Take a step back, have a look at yourself and question why those labels DEFINE YOU.
And once you do that – take your time, take little baby steps and you’ll
FROM STOPPING YOU.
If you think you’re not smart enough or accomplished enough to do something, ask yourself why?
No-one was born with the ability to read, to do calculus, to do propose theorems. THEY MADE THEMSELVES PEOPLE WHO COULD.
If you wanna get that job, get into that course, pass that paper –> try your hardest, work smart, not hard and you can get to where you wanna go. It won’t happen straight away, but if you work hard, ask the right people for help and work your way up like I did, you give yourself the best chance of doing it, don’t you?
If you think you’re weak, or dependent, or just unable to change, take a step back, have a look at yourself and you’ll realise that just telling yourself that is stopping you from trying. Instead, take small steps to improve yourself. Give it time – weeks, maybe months, and you can change yourself to become the happiest, strongest version of yourself.
If you think you’re depressed, and bound to stay that way, maybe, just maybe, you’re making yourself more likely to be that way too. When you next are in a good mood, when you’re feeling happy and able to do this; set up a system of talking to others, whether it be friends, family, a professional psychologist, and you’ll give yourself the best chance of getting better. You may have had some bad things happen to you in the past, you may have grown up to be that way, you may even have some chemical imbalances that predispose you to feeling that way –> But it’s only you – your perception of yourself which stops you from trying.
Depression isn’t something you have to suffer from forever. It’s almost comforting to be depressed. It becomes your norm. Trying to fight it, to do things seems like way too much effort at the time, so many don’t try to get better.
But in truth – it not only confines us to this box, to us feeling worse about everything… It also isn’t too hard to break out of either. The toughest thing about depression is that it makes us believe that we can’t do anything. But just like teaching yourself how to get past those labels, your brain can be rewired to release more dopamine and serotonin – our happiness neurotransmitters – as your norm. It’s actually easy to do. It just takes time, and a bit of planning. Accepting that it may not happen right away and that you will occasionally fall back into downward spirals every now and then, only allows you to get back up and continue on your trajectory of becoming a happier version of yourself, when you can. Again, this isn’t just conjecture. Neurobiology, and decades of psychological research guide what I say, and the advice I give (again, I’m writing about it – be sure to check out nikhilautar.com/mybooks for more info!).
But yeah. Feel free to contact me if you need help with these issues. I’ve talked to hundreds of people, and not all patients as some of my posts may make you believe. (contact me via here anonymously, at [email protected] or via my FaceBook page)
These labels keep you grounded, they keep you realistic and they can motivate you.
But if you believe them, they only pull you down.
If you give it time, you CAN become the best version of yourself.
And as I said before, if you need any help in your journey, feel free to contact me.