A Fresh Look at Depression and Chronic Illness
When everything was at its worst,
the darkness engulfed me.
I yell out, “I hate my life.”
In 2017, an estimated 7.1% of all U.S. adults had been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives. It is much worse for those with a chronic disease; up to 50% of those with Parkinson’s experience depression. This means many people did not have noticeable signs of depression before developing Parkinson’s. I am one of those people.
Depression and chronic illness are intertwined. Grief is connected to the losses caused by the disease. There is the feeling that no one can truly understand the intense suffering I endure. Then there is the pain — every day, unrelenting. Add life stressors (such as moving across the country in the middle of a pandemic, and unhealthy habits in response to the stress) and the result is a compost pile fertile with triggers for depression.
To slow the development of depression I changed my reactions to the triggers. Life is quiet in our new home. And work on the new sanctuary is proceeding nicely. I developed a new way of looking at my chronic disease, thus decreasing the grief. Reaching out and connecting to others has soothed the loneliness. Regular exercise and pain management manage overall pain.
After these depression triggers were tamed, I discovered two things: First, there is the physical appearance of depression due to the contortions imparted by the disease. Second, there is a brain stimulus abnormality that creates surges of exaggerated emotion. Both contributed to my falling into the darkness. When I looked in the mirror I saw a stooped old guy, head down, not smiling, not engaging, and grumpy. Here was a depressed man. The exaggerated emotion of frequent sadness festered in the new caricature.
Once I got out of the darkness and back into exercise with healthier habits (such as meditation), I began to question the utility of sadness. Meditation is like standing in a pond. At first, it’s a raging storm, waves lapping up against my legs, fierce wind everywhere, dark clouds, thunder, lightning. There are a lot of signals coming into the brain from many different places so it’s hard to meditate. Acceptance of my map to well-being, healthy living, and practicing mindfulness are all helpful.
Standing in the stormy pond I can watch calmly as the storm passes through me. The surface of the pond becomes as still as polished mirror. It only lasts a few seconds before I have thrown the proverbial pebble. Last time I was there I felt the ripples before the storm, a tickle against the skin on my legs. I looked up and felt a gentle breeze on my cheek. I realized the ripples were driven by the breeze. Then I heard a faint cry in that breeze. We are born helpless and instinctually cry out when in pain or when our survival needs aren’t being met. The exaggerated surges of sadness are tied to this instinctual need to be nurtured.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a little nurturing. I’ve advocated for healing hugs. The problem comes when I let sadness run rampant in my brain — unrestrained, contaminating everything. It leads quickly to frequent sadness, then to overwhelming sadness. I get angry at feeling so sad. Soon, I’m spinning around in a dark place and I can’t find the door. Feeling hopeless, I say, “I hate my life.” I know the term “darkness” may have religious connotations, but I am not using it that way. Think of it more as a brain darkness. The brain is so focused on fight — light — nurture-seeking that it cannot see anything else. One is blinded to all other forms of perception that could be generated by other regions of the brain. In hindsight, I felt blinded. Unfortunately, when in that darkness, I am convinced of my own point of view. It is difficult to navigate well.
Reframing depression as instinctual brain signals designed originally to enhance our survival radically changed my outlook. I clearly see the need to be nurtured is often not connected to anything that anyone can do to change the situation. Asking other people to address my need for nurturing, when there’s nothing that they can do, is ignorant and possibly harmful.
I tore up that depressed old guy caricature. I cut my hair and my beard and I’m exercising my mouth into a smile more often. There is a new guy in town.
Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.