err on compassionThe best piece of marital advice I’ve ever heard came from an ex-priest, a kind and gentle man who has been married to his bride for longer than I’ve been alive.

“Always err on the side of compassion,” he told me when I called him up all upset one afternoon after my husband and I got into a fight.

I don’t even remember what the fight was about. Something stupid. But I remembered his advice and I’ve been trying to apply it not only to my marriage but to my life, in general. In fact, it has become my mantra.

Always err on the side of compassion.

It sounds so easy, but is so difficult to execute.

The more books and blogs I read about depression — from diet protocols to literature on mindfulness techniques, from guidebooks about essential brain supplements to cognitive behavioral tricks designed to jump start the more sophisticated and nuanced parts of our brain — the more I think that I know the antidote for depression. Yes, years of research and trial and error have rendered me an expert on what not to do to reach the Promised Land, a tranquil state of mind that knows no panic attacks or tearful outbursts.

Last month I spent a morning with a friend who started off the day with her signature power breakfast: three cigarettes, some instant coffee, and a donut. I so wanted to say, “You know … if you put down the lung rockets and swapped the donut for a kale smoothie, you might not be so depressed.”

I was judging her.

I was not erring on the side of compassion.

And I had to remind myself that my judgmental attitude toward her was feeding the negative intrusive thoughts that stalked me throughout the day, accusing me of bringing on death thoughts by eating a few potato chips, of causing my depression by skipping a workout. That same well-read, know-it-all judgmental chick inside of me had labeled me lazy and pathetic — not worthy of happiness and joy — for not meditating as much as I should.

Back before we had kids, my husband and I loved to analyze and comment on the rude behavior of children. There was this one night in particular, when my friend’s niece was sitting in a La-Z-Boy chair and was throwing herself back and up and back.

We exchanged glances.

“Can you believe her behavior?!?”

Last night, when one of my kids had quite the emotional outburst–— thrusting his body back and forth in a rocker just like the sweet cherub of a little girl (or so she seemed now!) in the La-Z-Boy 15 years ago — I bowed my head in remorse over my pre-kid assessments.

“God, we had no clue,” my husband said.

“Never mind walking a mile in my shoes. Try thinking a day in my head,” someone posted the other day in the online depression support group I moderate, Group Beyond Blue.

Just as I thought kids who were ill-behaved were products of bad parenting, I used to think that the combination of three things could treat all depression: a good therapist, an effective antidepressant, and some regular exercise. Anyone who did all three and still woke up with death thoughts, I assumed, wasn’t doing something right or, on some level, wanted to be depressed.

Since I only tried one antidepressant when I was in my 20s before I arrived at one that worked, I presumed getting stable was that easy. I didn’t realize I was being so condescending and patronizing (indirectly in my attitude if not directly in my speech) to people plagued by a more difficult, complicated illness.

Then I got knocked to my knees in 2005.

Nothing worked.

Not the first six psychiatrists or the first 22 medication combinations. Not running six miles a day or the cognitive behavioral therapy I was doing in counseling. Not attending twelve-step support meetings or the magnesium my holistic doctor sold me. Not the acupuncture or the yoga. Not Chinese herbs or fish oil capsules.

Suddenly, I was on the receiving end of so many unfair judgments and assumptions. When people asked how I was, I just lied and said “good,” because I was sure they wouldn’t believe me if I told them the truth. After all, if a well-informed person who had experienced depression like me could suspect that some people just wanted to be depressed, then the chances of finding someone who hadn’t been humbled by this mood disorder to understand my situation would be impossible.

That’s essentially the point I tried to articulate in my piece, “What I Wish People Knew About Depression“: that you can eliminate gluten and dairy from your diet and exist on green leafy vegetables and still sleep 15 hours a day; that you can try 50 different combinations of antidepressants and mood stabilizers and still cry every hour; that you can walk out of therapy and still be no better; and that you can meditate for an hour a day and still be anxious as hell.

That you can do everything right and still be depressed.

I know this now.

The warriors fighting for their sanity in Project Beyond Blue have taught me that there are as many varieties of depression as there are emotional outbursts in adolescent boys. There are some in our group with psychomotor retardation, a visible slowing down of physical and mental activity characteristic in severe depression, who can’t get out of bed. Others are highly functional, able to balance a stressful and demanding job with family responsibilities and volunteer work.

We have an unwritten rule that all of us within the group have to believe each other. We must cast aside any judgment and validate each other instead of question if the other person really wants recovery bad enough. We are there to build each other up, not break each other down.

We get enough of the latter in the real world.

I’m finding the more compassion I extend to others, the kinder I become with myself.

If I can err on the side of compassion with my friend who smokes, with my kids during outbursts, and with those in my depression group who can’t get out of bed in the morning, I have a better shot of erring on the side of compassion with myself.

Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

Join the conversation on Project Beyond Blue, a new community for persons with treatment-resistant depression.