Think Happy Thoughts

One of the most frustrating comments I hear from well-meaning people is that, in order to combat depression, all I need to do is to think positively.  Don’t dwell on the negative; don’t feel sorry for yourself.  You have so much to be grateful for.  All you have to do is to think happy thoughts.

Comments like this upset me.  In the past, it has often left me feeling even lonelier and more miserable than I had been.  It is a way that people have to invalidate my feelings, to question the very existence of the illness.  Most people don’t intend to cause more suffering; but they do.

I have sometimes wanted to make bitter replies – sarcasm, like, “Gee, that’s all I have to do?  All these years of suffering, of therapy and powerful medications, even ECT – and it was all so easy.  Just think happy thoughts.  Why didn’t I think of that?”  It was unfathomable to me how anyone could think that clinical depression could be fixed by such shallow means.

Over the years I have come to understand how people can make such thoughtless and hurtful comments.  Simply put, they find it extremely uncomfortable to think that a person might suffer without somehow being responsible for it.  They latch onto the idea that somehow I could make it all go away, if only I would be more positive.  Somehow, I have brought this upon myself; or if not that, then I have failed to take the necessary steps to find relief.

Sadly, this is untrue.  Bad things can happen to anyone, without their having to be in any way deserving of it.  We do not choose to suffer.  We do everything in our power to make the suffering stop.  One of the facts of clinical depression is that the sufferer becomes unable to think positively; that’s not the cause of the illness, it’s a result of it.  Telling someone to think happy thoughts is like telling someone with a broken leg to “walk it off.”  It doesn’t work.

It would be helpful if people would acknowledge that clinical depression, bipolar depression, and various other mental illnesses are highly complex problems.  Rather than offering advice on how to alleviate the suffering, it would be more helpful if they would remain silent.

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