I recently read a blog post by Sifu Anthony Korahais that really struck a chord – and a nerve – in me. For decades, I hid the same secret: depression.
My first bout with clinical depression came in my late teens and early twenties. Like many, I didn’t realize what was happening until I was caught in a full-blown depressive episode. It was an incredibly painful time, and the drugs available then only made matters worse. I consider myself blessed to have made it through the experience.
From that time on, I would have shorter periods of depression each year, usually lasting only a week or two. Because of my first experience with anti-depressants, I didn’t even consider medication – I just waited out each episode. Until about ten years ago, when trying to wait out my worst depression since the first one led to a horrible downward spiral, and I sought out a doctor and medication out of desperation. Happily, the newer generation of anti-depressants were an entirely different experience to my first one. Not that they made me a happy-go-lucky, worry-free person – far from it – but they gave me enough relief that I could address remaining issues with other tools and practices like meditation, spending time in nature (critical for me), Reiki, and others.
Through all this, though, I kept my depression hidden from as many people as possible. This was partly out of shame – I felt like a severely defective failure of a person. (Thankfully, I know better now!) It was also out of pragmatic considerations; being self-employed, I was concerned about losing clients should they know. Korahais is familiar with this fear, saying “Look, I’m not naive. I know that, in publishing this article, I will lose students. Some people just don’t want to learn from a person who battles depression.”
I reached a point, though, where I just couldn’t keep the secret. For one thing, it takes an enormous amount of energy to hide that much of yourself away from the entire world. For another, friends and family members were starting to suffer depression themselves, and I knew that sharing my experience would let them know they were not alone, and that they didn’t have to just suffer through it silently.
And that’s why I’m writing this. If you are depressive, you are far from alone, and you are not defective or a failure. There are many options available now to help you lead a better life. There aren’t any silver bullets, though – from my experience, and the experiences of others I’ve talked with, you are likely to need more than one tool and strategy. For many of us, meditation and spiritual practices (not necessarily religion, per se) are very helpful.
And take one of the hardest but most helpful steps – find people you can trust and talk about it! You need to be careful in choosing the first people you open up to – they need to be people who will be on your side and who are willing to try to understand, and people who will be willing to keep your conversations confidential as long as you need. These are likely to be some of the hardest conversations you have ever had, so be kind to yourself as you go through them. But just being able to talk about depression with another human being can feel like a tremendous burden has been lifted, one that you don’t need to keep carrying.
I look forward to the day when we can discuss depression and other mental and emotional ailments in the same way we can discuss diabetes today. That day will come sooner if we are willing to be brave and vulnerable enough to open up and stop hiding our depression. We might have to take baby steps to build that courage, but we can do it.
Are you dealing with depression or some other chronic issue? If so, I’d love to hear what helps you cope or conquer – leave a comment below, or get in touch via the About page if you prefer!
Here’s an excerpt from Sifu Korahais’ post – it’s long, I know, but he does an excellent job of sharing his story and it’s well worth the time. I encourage you to read the full article on his website.
Like many depressives, I have a secret.
It terrifies me to do this, but I’m going to share that secret with all of you now.
My secret is that I’m depressive.
Of course, this isn’t news. The fact that I’ve battled depression is all over my website and the internet.
But you don’t know the whole story. I hid some of it.
I’m done hiding.
Why Depressives Hide
First, I need to talk about why I hid in the first place.
Hiding is how depressives survive in this world.
It’s not that we’re liars. We’re not. It’s not that we want to hide. We don’t.
We hide because 50% of Americans think that clinical depression is a character flaw rather than an illness.
We hide because, statistically, every other person that we meet thinks that we are weak, not sick.
Statistically, many of you reading this probably think that I am weak.
I Am Not Weak
I am depressive, but I am not weak.
Please understand that I am not being arrogant. Not by a long shot.
Arrogance is actually uncharacteristic of depressives. We put on a good show of normalcy, but underneath, we feel worthless most of the time.
And yet, here I am, saying that I am not weak. This is not a show. This is not arrogance.
This is me being raw and honest.
When I say that I’m not weak, it’s because I’ve learned it the hard way. The battles that I have fought, and the scars that I have earned, have forced me to acknowledge my own strength.
If you think that I’m weak, then I’m afraid that you’ll miss my message about depression.
I hope you don’t miss it because you definitely know people who are depressive. And I want you to help them, not hurt them.
Depression is Invisible
Most people don’t realize that depression is invisible.
I’m certain that you know people who are depressive — friends, family, colleagues.
But unless they’ve told you, then you don’t know who they are.
I run a support group for my qigong and tai chi students who are also depressive. Out of curiosity, I asked them how many people had ever witnessed one of their depressive episodes.
For most of them, the answer was 1-5 people.
My answer was the same.
Depression is an illness that has shaped, influenced, and scarred me deeply, and yet only a handful of people have ever seen me in an episode.
You may have seen me depressed. That’s what normal people experience. But you haven’t seen me during an episode.
And those episodes are what depression is really about.
Feeling Like A Failure
Since starting this support group for depressives, I’ve learned that some of my students feel guilty that they haven’t yet cured their depression with qigong and tai chi.
As a result, they feel weak. They feel like a failure.
This is heartbreaking for me. I desperately want them to understand that they are not weak.
Some of this misunderstanding is my fault.
For years, I spoke about my depression in the past tense. I have even been guilty of using the word “cure”.
I simply cannot abide the idea that I might be causing my fellow depressives any additional suffering.
I’m here to relieve suffering, not add to it.
And that is why I’m done hiding.
Setting the Record Straight
Many of my depressive students were also students of Sifu Wong who sided with me during the “divorce”. So it’s understandable that they might still have vestiges of his message.
My teaching on this issue changed gradually over time, but I regret that I never made a public statement.
I would like to set the record straight now.
To the depressives reading this — If I led you to believe that you had to fully cure your depression in order to be a success, then I’m sorry.
Truly. I apologize from the deepest part of my spirit.
Let me be clear: I am not cured of depression, and I don’t believe I ever will be.
I’m Not Cured, But I’m Still Alive
Now that I’ve set the record straight, I need to straighten it even further.
Qigong and tai chi haven’t cured my depression, but they saved my life.
These arts are my medicine. They not only saved my life back in my 20s, but have kept me alive — and healthy — into my mid 40s.
When I say that these arts saved my life, I mean it literally, not figuratively. Depression is the 10th leading cause of death in America. It would have killed me had I not found qigong and tai chi.
The Odds are Against Me
Apparently, I have a 99% chance of having another depressive episode in my life.
This is because people who’ve had 3 or more episodes of major depression have a 99% rate of recurrence.
Well shit, I had 3 episodes before I even hit 30! So the odds are definitely against me.
What this statistic doesn’t convey is that depression is highly treatable. A growing body of research shows that mindfulness training is a terrific treatment for depression. (And yes, qigong and tai chi count as mindfulness training.)
When depression is managed well, a recurrence is not such a big deal.
And vice versa — when depression is not managed well, the episodes are a big deal. A huge deal.
Unmanaged depression kills.
I still have episodes, and they suck. But they are manageable, thanks to qigong and tai chi.
I Am a Success Story
As I said earlier, I need to make it clear that you don’t need to cure depression to be a success.
The same is true for me.
I am still a success story even though I am not cured.
For example, I went over 8 years without a major depressive episode. That is a big deal. That’s a success. A big success.
Instead of feeling like a failure because I had an episode after 8 years, I should feel like a success for having such a good run.
And my good run only ended because of extreme circumstances.
The Year That Could Have Killed Me
Many of you know that 2015 was the year from hell for me and my wife. It wasn’t just stressful: it was the kind of stress that kills people.
Here’s a sampling of some of the major stressors I faced in 2015: Heartbreak over my divorce from Sifu Wong after a 17-year discipleship; hate mail and death threats from Sifu Wong’s followers; a flood in our new house; a cancer scare for my wife; an injury to my psoas muscle that limited my mobility; financial stress connected to leaving Sifu Wong; and the death of my dear, dear grandmother.
And let’s not forget the cumulative stress of running a small business. I’ve been working 60-hour weeks since 2008 to keep the lights on in my studio (and at home). That stress didn’t stop in 2015.
The kind of stress I endured in 2015 was so severe that I know it could spark illness in a normal person.
I am not a normal person. I am a depressive.
The level of stress that I endured in 2015 would have killed many depressives. It certainly would have killed me in 1996, before I learned qigong and tai chi.
And I believe it would have killed me had I not been practicing qigong and tai chi all these years.
Again, let me reiterate that tooting my own horn like this is decidedly uncharacteristic of depressives. I’m mentioning all of this to frame things, and to demonstrate that I am — still — a success story.
In fact, that’s another sign of success – that I can see my own success.
High Functioning Depressive?
“But Sifu, you don’t seem depressive. You get so much done!”
It’s true. I get shit done.
I work like crazy. I’m what is known as a “high-functioning depressive.”
But this term can be misleading.
I am, first and foremost, a depressive. The “high-functioning” part came later, thanks to qigong and tai chi. Before these arts, I was a low-functioning depressive.
My Spiritual Growth
Qigong and tai chi helped me to stay alive, and they also helped me be highly functional.
But these arts also helped me with something far more important.
In spite of my depression — or perhaps even because of it — I have grown spiritually.
It has been said that deep suffering can induce profound spiritual growth. I now know that to be true.
The growth I’ve experienced, especially the last 2 years, is not yet something that I can describe. It’s still too new, too profound. I don’t have the words.
One day, I will write more about it. A book perhaps.
But the important lesson here is this: It was precisely because of qigong and tai chi that I was able to transmute my deep suffering into spiritual growth.
Without these arts, rather than growing spiritually, I would be dead.
I’d say that’s another sign of success, wouldn’t you?