It’s Just Your Depression Talking: On Agency and Mental Illness

31 Jan

I walked out of my therapy appointment yesterday. I don’t mean that I stormed out or anything – I politely told my therapist that I wasn’t in a great headspace and that talking about it was making me feel worse instead of better – but still. It felt like a rookie move. The kind of thing a sulky teenager would pull when things weren’t going the way she wanted them to. I felt that a real grownup would have stuck it out, pushing through all the bad stuff and coming out the other side. Because that’s really what talk therapy is, isn’t it? Wading through the shit and dealing with it, with the outcome of all that hard work being that you’re a better, happier, healthier person.

Except yesterday I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, wade. Talking wasn’t getting me anywhere – I was stuck in an endless loop of the same anxieties over and over again, and rehashing them just felt like poking an open wound. Reviewing my situation wasn’t giving me any special clarity, my therapist’s insights weren’t helping, and I was getting more and more frustrated and upset as the hour went on. It felt so stupid to interrupt my workday, drag myself halfway across the city and pay good money just to sit there feeling terrible. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to do something, anything, to shut off my useless brain. So I left, went home, and a crawled into bed.

When I told my friend about what I’d done, she asked, “Do you think that was you making the decision to leave therapy, or your depression?”

Framing a depressed person’s behaviour and speech as being influenced by their illness can seem helpful. I’ve certainly said things like, “that’s not you talking, that’s your depression,” often enough, both to myself and other people, as a way of mitigating negative self-talk. It works because it acts on the idea that depression feeds us vicious, nasty lies about ourselves, and that if left unchecked these lies will fester deep in our minds, crippling our self esteem and destroying our self-image. So when someone is telling you how worthless they are, how pathetic, how unloveable, the appeal of reassuring them that this type of talk is a function of their illness is undeniable. But telling someone, especially someone who is suffering from a mental illness and has spent years dealing with all the stigma that comes with it, that it’s not really them talking can be downright dangerous. Because once you’ve labelled someone’s voice as not being authentically theirs, once you’ve convinced yourself that what they’re saying isn’t coming from them but rather some invisible bogeyman you’ve labelled depression, you’ve taken away some of their agency. You think that you’re telling them something positive, but really what you’re saying is, “I don’t think that your words are your own.

How does anyone talk themselves out of that corner? Once their words and actions become suspect, how can they make you believe that it’s really them and not their depression? How can they have any agency when everything they do or say is written off as being done or spoken by some sort of evil spirit possessing them? It’s a slippery slope from there, and one that many people suffering from mental illness have faced before. Because once it’s been decided that it’s the illness and not the person talking, then that person may be considered to no longer be competent to make their own decisions. And then things can get really, really bad.

Are my depression and I really two separate entities? And is it necessarily useful to create this other, this monster, that represents all of my misfiring neurons and dysfunctional cognitive processes? This is something that I’ve been wondering about, and I’m still not sure what the answer is. It’s tempting to believe that depression is a sort of slippery parasite that changes my behaviour in order to further its own agenda, like that ant parasite that makes them climb to the very top of a blade of grass in order to ensure that they’ll be eaten by sheep and thus pass the parasite on. But I’m not sure if it really works that way.

I’ve heard of cancer patients imagining that their tumours are evil invaders, and then meditating on the idea that their bodies are fighting these bad guys off. Maybe that works when there’s something measurably wrong with your body, when you can pinpoint the existence of cells gone haywire, masses that have formed, blood counts run amok, but my depression is, for better or worse, my own brain. If my depression is smart, it’s because I’m smart. If my depression is tricky, then it’s because my mind has given it the tools it needs to trick me. I can learn how to manage it, how to work with it or maybe even outsmart it, but I can’t cut it out. And though it’s tempting to imagine it as a sort of demon that seizes me, takes me over and forces me to do it’s bidding, it’s not like that. Not really. It’s just my poor, sick brain.

There have been times when I’ve felt relief at hearing someone tell me, “That’s your depression talking.” There have been times when telling myself that has been a useful way of checking in and re-evaluating a situation. But there have been other times – many other times – when I’ve thought, “If this is the depression, then where am I? And why do you get to decide what my voice sounds like?”

Sometimes I make bad choices. Sometimes I say stupid things, especially about myself. Sometimes my depression really does influence my self-image, how I talk to myself, how I behave. But I am still me. I am still myself. I have my own voice, and when I speak, the words belong to me alone.


40 Responses to “It’s Just Your Depression Talking: On Agency and Mental Illness”

  1. DysthymiaBree January 31, 2014 at 4:12 am #

    Sounds good to me. “That’s the depression talking” can end up sounding like “God made me do it” or “The Devil made me do it”. Then, on the other hand, I know at times I’ve been really, really unwell and have said/done things I wouldn’t otherwise have said or done … still, it was me, influenced by an illness.
    After all, we don’t say “that’s the flu coughing”, do we? Even though we know the flu is the cause of the cough.
    Great post – thanks.

  2. jlbf4 January 31, 2014 at 4:46 am #

    I have been on both sides of this situation, the therapist who gets walked out on (once and I’ll never forget it but it did create an amazing moment for us to work through) and the client who walks out because it’s just not there or going to work that day/session. I wrote a post called “I am…..” when I first started blogging. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves that I may have depression but I don’t have to BE depressed, I have to find some choice somewhere, even if it’s just showering that day ;-).

    • annie February 1, 2014 at 5:38 am #

      I’ve not ever been able to be “un-depressed” when in fact I am suffering from legit depression. So what’s up with that comment?
      It’s like saying, we don’t have to “have the flu”…. it still sucks in reality.

      • jlbf4 February 1, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

        Oh no, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to invalidate any of it. I’ve just found it helpful to not make my depression all of my identity but rather something that I struggle with and therefore must chose to treat. You’re right, I cannot choose that I have depression, or anxiety or whatever, but I can choose what I do with it. I’m sorry if I offended you in any way!

  3. HeatherN January 31, 2014 at 5:22 am #

    Maybe it’s just because of where I’m at right now…but it seems to me “that’s not you, it’s your depression” also plays into the stigma that depression isn’t real. As if depression is something one makes up and is all in one’s head, and thus ignorable. Like, seems like a good way to end up feeling guilty for “letting” your depression ‘get to you.’

    Anyway, loved the post. 🙂

  4. Foghorn The IKonoclast January 31, 2014 at 5:46 am #

    As a person with severe anxiety problems and major depressions I can see in part through other people how our self-criticism works on us. These people and us have this tendency to be OCD over stupid stuff and we are doing self-harm. This is further entrenched when we believe the Depression is winning, So my suggestion as a serious self-doubting, depressed person is to try and replace that negative thought with a still pond or a stream and that these feelings are floating away.

  5. startledoctopus January 31, 2014 at 6:55 am #

    I find it especially frustrating when someone says that about something that was, for me, an act of self-care, something that made me feel better. Deciding not to attend a party that was making me feel pressured, tired, and anxious is an act of self-care – and self-care is not “my depression making the decision,” it was me making the decision of how best to manage my depression. Whereas thinking negative things about myself is not me managing my depression, it is directly how my depression affects me. For me, that’s the important distinction between when that kind of comment is useful versus insulting and disempowering.

    • annie February 1, 2014 at 5:39 am #

      Thank YOU!

  6. laurajosephineauthor January 31, 2014 at 8:19 am #

    Something I had to train myself to say “That thought is unhelpful” rather than “you’re talking like you’re depressed” which lead to me not liking my depression and in turn myself. I learnt to talk aloud about the things I like and the positive things that were happening, even if it was just “this bed is comfortable,” “my cat is soft,” and simple things like that. As with many things, starting is hardest, and it is a really hard habit to get into. But it really helped me. I’m officially depression and anxiety free!

    • Caroline M. February 10, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

      I’ll have to remember that, thanks!

  7. Nadia January 31, 2014 at 8:20 am #

    Anne, I agree. Often I try to find the magical line between myself and mental illness. But in the end, I am the one experiencing these thoughts and feelings – owning them – and responding to them in the best way I can – sometimes by crawling into bed even. I think many people don’t realise how important emotional validation is when you’re in the throes of depression or any other mental illness. Blaming someone’s feelings, thoughts and actions on it is indeed dangerous, as it invalidates the person’s inner world to an extent. Thank you, this was really some food for thought.

  8. The Great Epiphanist January 31, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    I think a lot of it is just semantics but the most dangerous thing for me is to start IDENTIFYING with my depression – I mean thinking that my depression defines me. This reminds me so much of Eckhardt Tolle’s concept of the ego. Nice post 🙂

  9. lruthnum January 31, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    I think good for you for knowing your limits – at the end of the day, only you know how you really feel or what is happening in your head and whether it is the right time to deal with the situation. It is good that you didn’t let expectations dictate your rate of recovery and I’m pleased for you that you were brave enough to draw the line. Don’t feel like a rookie, if anything if was you showing that you are in control.

  10. Kasey Weird January 31, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on Valprehension and commented:
    I think most people with mental illnesses go through a phase of very strongly “othering” their mental illness. It has it’s value, but it’s definitely not the be-all and end-all way of looking at it.

  11. Donna Gottschalk January 31, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    Yes …I have found it infuriating to be told ….after relating a litany of obstacles ( something I actually rarely do , for just these reasons ) that I’m ” depressed ” . Or , hearing someone describe my brother ( while he is on a bi-polar swing ) ” that’s just not him ” .
    It’s dangerous . Within the limits of our illnesses , and during the most virulent forms of them …we are still “us “. When people say that …it just tells me , they are tired of listening , they have no answers ….and for me …they are making things worse . For my dangerously ill brother , it can mean they feel free to turn their back on him and leave ” the beast ” in the care of strangers . The police , the psych wards ..and after he’s drugged and roughed -up ,. back out in the streets when the insurance runs out . No better equipped than before . Thank-you for speaking to this .

  12. scotsman January 31, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    I’m sorry you’ve been feeling this way … I’ve been there a lot, lately, myself. Not long ago, a friend told me “You haven’t been yourself in a while – I wish Scott would come back!”

    I knew she meant well, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I bit back the sudden flare of rage that wanted to shout out “This IS Scott! THIS IS WHO SCOTT IS! How could you possibly be a friend and NOT KNOW THAT?!?!?!?”

    Instead I kissed her on the cheek and told her I’d see her tomorrow. I spent the rest of the afternoon alone, and cried a lot.

  13. Cathy Olliffe-Webster January 31, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    Sometimes you just don’t feel like talking. Nothing wrong with that. Not depression talking, just a real human reaction to not wanting to talk at the moment.

    I really appreciate your posts about depression, the clarity of what you have to say. I think it helps so many other people.

  14. Gappy January 31, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    Well, you have an illness that affects your thinking, and therefore your feelings and behaviour. That much is true. And I can understand why it it therefore might be difficult for both you and others to work out where the “real you” ends and the “illness” begins sometimes. But the point is, if you want to end a therapy session for whatever reason, you are perfectly entitled to do that. Whether it’s “you” or the “depression”, or a mixture of both, or whatever. You’re an adult and you can make your own decisions.

  15. TheCerpent January 31, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    When you described the idea of imagining your depression as a monster, it reminded me of my own experience with my anger issues. I had a very short temper, and I ended up viewing it as some sort of rage monster that I had to keep caged up so it couldn’t hurt anyone. It wasn’t until much later that I had an epiphany that made me realize that it wasn’t a separate thing – it was part of me. I was already on a personal quest to love myself, unconditionally, and so I had to accept that my rage, my anger, was another part of myself that I have to love. And by loving and embracing it, I was able to accept it and control it. Food for thought.

  16. lucylaloca January 31, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    I hear you! This has been my struggle with depression as well, and I’ve decided that it’s ALL me – we’re just people with different brain chemistry. All of these chemicals are necessary to “normal” brain function – ours are just a bit out of balance sometimes. And this affects us in ways that only WE understand – that’s the hardest part about it. There’s no visible tumor or open wound, people can’t see how we feel/think, and we ARE responsible for the decisions and behaviors that the world sees from us. BUT, those chemicals DO influence how we feel and therefore how we behave sometimes. It’s like PMS in a way – sometimes those giant hormone (chemical) fluctuations make us feel “crazy”, right? If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend you read Karla McLaren’s The Language of Emotions – it has changed my whole outlook! Hang in there, lady!

    • thecerpent January 31, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

      Well, my anger struggle was years ago, but I’ve adapted the base philosophy to every other emotional dissonance I’ve had to work through. Unfortunately, being male, I can’t directly understand the menstrual cycle’s effect on emotions and so forth, but I can certainly appreciate the POV. 🙂 I might check out that book, though. I’m always open to new information.

      • thecerpent January 31, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

        Dammit, I’m not used to WordPress. I thought someone was replying to my earlier comment. >.<

      • lucylaloca January 31, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

        It’s a great book – even if you don’t have a uterus! 🙂

  17. Helena Hann-Basquiat January 31, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    You sound pretty wise, darling — you’re right about the danger of attributing the awful things we sometimes say as “just your depression talking” — it’s like denying the responsibility of our own actions — giving us license to be an asshole. I know that I myself sometimes use my depression as an excuse to be anti-social, or sometimes even downright cruel — and I have learned to know the difference between the times when I am letting my depression drive me, and when I am hiding behind it.

  18. lucylaloca January 31, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    You know, I was just reading through all of these comments and, firstly, I’m struck by our shared experiences! We are SO not alone in this!! Secondly, I think we who deal with depression, anxiety, and other mental/emotional illness are forced to be somewhat more introspective and self-critical than “normal” people – it could be considered an advantage if it didn’t slow us down so much. I mean, we examine our thoughts and feelings in much the way that I imagine gurus and holy people do in an effort to attain enlightenment, right? It makes living in “the world” hard, but I think we learn/know things that all those mentally healthy people may not…

  19. topazo January 31, 2014 at 10:37 pm #

    sometimes, it is hard to determine when it is us or the mental illness speaking. depression makes us perceive the world differently, and make decisions based on these false premises, and it all looks real. whilst saying ”it’s just the depression talking” may look useful as an immediate check to negative thinking, on the long run, it is a form of self stigma. we then define ourselves by the medical diagnosis. every human emotion and action is now judged on the premise of an illness. identity is lost and we end up not knowing who we are, anymore.

  20. kelslinton January 31, 2014 at 11:03 pm #

    I actually really enjoyed this post! I feel like when you start to acknowledge the scary fact that depression is the route of some decisions made. It has an conniving way to control your body and mind without you realizing. You should be proud of yourself that you looked at your problems head on and wanted to accept yourself for simply being…you.

  21. ksbeth February 1, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    perhaps you were just being perfectly honest. your self-reflection is a good start i think, beth

  22. Natalie February 2, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    Thank you for this post. I don’t think leaving your session was foolish – in my view, you recognized your limits and respected them. For me, that has been a large part of my journey of recovery, learning how to accept my limits and see them as gifts.

  23. Joanna Polley February 3, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks for this post. The comments are great, also. I really liked what you wrote, lucylaloca, about the opportunities for insight that depression and anxiety allow us. I don’t know which is cause and which effect, though, or if they can be separated that way – might it not be that people who are naturally more introspective become more easily anxious/depressed (rather than the other way around).? Rather than floating along in life thinking everything is dandy, we ‘sensitive’ people have access to the deeper implications of being human. The other thing that occurred to me is that things may not be so black and white – ie., either we ARE our depression or we are NOT. I think there is so much wisdom in the idea that something like depression can’t just be seen as an alter ego, etc., but I also think that it can be helpful to question what this so-called ‘self’ is at all. As a philosophical counsellor, I see many clients who believe in an ‘essential’ self, and then identify behaviour and traits that are ‘not really them’. Maybe the self is all of this and nothing – meaning that we have no essential self (what would that be anyway?), only our myriad ways of meeting the world and responding, some of which are far easier to control than others, and some of which feel good and others of which do not (but might bring us great insights at times). The thing, I think, is to find ways to negotiate between these in a way that allows us to live most fully (and with some measure of peace). Anyway, thanks for the post – it’s very enlightening to hear people’s thoughtful reflections on this issue.

    • Chloe February 9, 2015 at 10:36 am #

      I knew I needed a bottom for the molding of the deer.

  24. Simeon Morris February 7, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    Sometimes, one is just not in the mood for therapy. You can’t always be ready, prepared and in a position to work through things. It absolute is a self care move to notice when enough is enough, and simply take the day off. Just because therapy is sometimes about facing hard feelings, doesn’t mean we have to be a masochist about it. Sometimes therapy is also just about experiencing a healthy relationship with someone, and being able to say ‘not today’ is part of a healthy relationship.

  25. removingstitches February 8, 2014 at 1:51 am #

    I found that when therapy was hardest it was usually most useful, but I think what you did showed a lot of courage because depressed or not, you know what you can and can’t manage.
    I would definitely agree with laurajosephineauthor that labelling depressive thoughts or actions as unhelpful is empowering. It gives the power back to us to look for a helpful thought or action. That’s positive reinforcement & there’s no way to beat depression like starting to believe that you are smart and able.

  26. semicrazed February 8, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    I always saw depression as a part of myself and my identity, that it’s made me who I am and that it’s constantly changing me as a person. Without depression and anxiety I wouldn’t be myself in so many different ways.
    At the same I like to see it as a simple organic disease; a disfunction of my brain…that’s always been a strangly comforting idea for me. It makes living with it easier and gives me the feeling that I can control it somehow (although I know that most of the time I can’t)…depression is nourished by years and years of sickening thought patterns and theoretically it’s just about changing the way you think…but it’s like to tell a broken arm to move like it’s not broken. It’s not that easy…cells have to grow, things have to heal, rehab and workouts are needed…and that’s exactly what therapy is: it hurts, it’s frustrating and it makes you want to scream and run away from all of it sometimes but that’s part of the process.


  27. bowspearer February 11, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    The first thing I would say is, you need to be kind to yourself and realise that as all of us who deal with the black dogs on a daily basis know, there are some days that are better than others, and then some that are a glimpse into the abyss of hell. As to your dilemma, let me put it this way. If your depression were winning, you’d be in a ball curled up either in bed or on the floor, unable to do anything. Anything that is you up and about doing the best you can in the world, that’s you- the you that’s at war with the demons and the depression determined to keep you shut down and unable to move, unable to live.

    I’ve honestly come to realise that there’s no right way to respond with depression, except doing the best that we all can can. Ok, so you walked out of your therapist’s without opening up about it. Maybe you weren’t ready to talk about it and next session, maybe you will be. The worst thing you can do is beat yourself up about it, because that will just get the depression going again. I think all you can do is just love yourself and be patient with yourself (reminding yourself there will be other sessions), as hard as that can be sometimes, and trust that it will all work out in the end and at the time it’s meant to.

  28. Natural Born Observer February 11, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    Reblogged this on naturalbornobserver.

  29. Emilie February 16, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    Reblogged this on She Is On A Journey Back To Her Wings and commented:
    This is spot on. Hang in there, girl.

  30. Niki February 18, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    this is so eye-opening I’ve never thought of it like this before..thank you xx

    dreaming is believing


  1. Feeling SAD Lately? | National Sleep Therapy - February 3, 2014

    […] It's Just Your Depression Talking: On Agency and Mental Illness … […]

  2. It’s Just Your Depression Talking: On Agency and Mental Illness | Richard Evans - Writer of Oddities - February 3, 2014

    […] It’s Just Your Depression Talking: On Agency and Mental Illness. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: