It’s easy to talk yourself out of getting help for depression — especially during a pandemic. Here’s how I learned not to.
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Ever been asked in a job interview what your weaknesses are?
I hate that question.
When they ask it, I’m highly aware that I’m being evaluated and studied. I know that to answer their question, I have to walk a perilous tightrope where I tell the interviewer exactly what they want to hear while also making sure they don’t think I’m trying to tell them exactly what they want to hear.
I want to be honest — but not too honest. I want to appear to be in complete control of my weaknesses, while still appearing transparent. I want to come off as flawed, but not look like I’m too much of a work-in-progress to hire.
So you try to craft the perfect answer — that perfect mix of armor and faux vulnerability — and hide your true feelings in the process. My default answer was usually “I’m overly optimistic… sometimes.”
But the answer never felt totally candid, and it made me feel guilty, like I was being inauthentic. Still, it was my go-to, because I don’t like being vulnerable. I don’t like being judged. And I don’t like portraying myself as someone that needs to improve, to get better.
I ran into the same problem when it came to admitting I had depression.
Those same staunch feelings I’d get when someone asked me about my weaknesses reared their ugly head every time someone asked me “How are you doing?” when I was depressed.
Just like in a job interview, that question made me worry about how others perceived me:
How do they know I’m depressed?
Do they think I can’t keep my emotions in check?
Do I look whiny if I’m honest and say I’m down?
Does saying “I’m fine” look like a lie, or is it what they want to hear?
Even though a part of me felt down, depressed, and discouraged — especially after the pandemic hit — I didn’t tell the truth when someone asked how I was doing.
And it took me way longer than it should have to get off that couch to look for help, even when I needed it.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I felt pretty fortunate. I didn’t lose my job right away, like many of my friends did in the entertainment industry, and my job allowed me to work safely from home, in the woods, where it wasn’t hard to socially distance.
My wife was employed too, at first. So we had our jobs, our house, and food to put on the table.
Then she lost her job in June. Then I lost mine in September.
Suddenly, I didn’t have a reason to get up in the morning. My only job now was to find a new job, and I’d waste hours pouring over job posting boards that were more than happy to let me know I was one more applicant in a sea of over 1,000 other applicants.
“Am I really struggling with depression, or is that an excuse I tell myself because I’m too lazy to find the energy to get off the couch?”
I filled my time like most people did, picking up little hobbies and tasks. I started to read more and started cooking more often and experimenting in the kitchen. I even threw myself into housework to help fill the time.
But over it all, there was a dark cloud of anxiety, fear, and despair that I kept trying to not acknowledge.
I’m fine, I told myself — and anyone who asked. We’re managing. Other people have it much worse… We’re fine.
But as the days bled into weeks, and the weeks bled into months, I didn’t feel fine. It became harder to get out of bed, and harder to accomplish tasks. I lost hope that I’d find a new job and I lost hope that things would get better.
Without realizing it, the countertops started to get cluttered. I accumulated an overwhelming stack of books I still hadn’t read yet. And I gave up on cooking because getting delivery was so much easier.
In other words, I was experiencing classic depression symptoms.
“If someone is [experiencing] depression, their sense of hope begins to fade, and this can lead to lethargy,” explains Dr. Victoria Harris, an author and psychotherapist.
“This can be very difficult to shift out of,” Harris says. “Many people find self-care doesn’t come easily and struggle with feeling [like] a burden, which can hamper their seeking of treatment.”
I didn’t realize I was depressed. In fact, I didn’t even realize how bad I was feeling until one night, as I was trying to explain to my wife how frustrated I was with myself because I felt like I needed 2 days to recover from 1 day of freelance work, she asked me if I thought it was because I was battling depression.
It turns out, it’s not unusual to not realize you need help until someone else points it out.
“Many come to therapy as a result of being encouraged by family members who have noticed a change in behavior,” says Harris. “It could be that the person was isolating themselves, or that their sleep or eating habits changed.”
But, just like when someone asks me to tell them about my weaknesses or my feelings, I blew my wife off at first.
“It’s a pandemic and everyone’s spending this beautiful Spring hiding in their houses and hoarding disinfectant,” I retorted. “Who isn’t depressed right now?”
But in my quieter moments, I let my wife’s words bounce around in my head. What if she was right?
“…[my wife] asked me if I thought it was because I was battling depression.
It turns out, it’s not unusual to not realize you need help until someone else points it out.”
The problem is, admitting that I was depressed felt selfish, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
The news was full of stories of families facing evictions and locals losing loved ones. How could I be depressed when other people have it so much worse? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t cope better?
After all, I had gotten a severance, we were freelancing enough to pay our bills, and our family was healthy.
Sure, I may have depression, but compared to those hurting worse than me, I didn’t feel it was something I could claim for myself.
I certainly hadn’t earned the right to be depressed, and I felt like by claiming it for myself I was taking it away from someone more deserving of sympathy and help.
Of course, depression — like trauma — doesn’t work that way.
It doesn’t just affect the people who go through the worst things. It can affect anyone, regardless of your circumstances.
Everyone copes with hardship or stressful life events differently — and while stress and trauma can be risk factors for depression or other mental health conditions, not everyone will develop them because they live through hardship.
“Whilst it is important to have empathy and compassion for others, especially those who are suffering, it is also important to have self-compassion. Your experience is important and valid,” says Harris.
Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions — and it targets people indiscriminately.
Because depression kills your motivation and self-esteem, it’s also easy to talk yourself out of getting help — even when you need it.
“Of course, depression — like trauma — doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t just affect the people who go through the worst things. It can affect anyone, regardless of your circumstances.”
By deflecting to other people needing it more, and framing therapy as this financial cost we couldn’t afford while we were out of work, I was actually covering up my feelings while telling myself I had things under control — when I didn’t.
Depression left untreated takes a toll, though.
Not only did it affect my motivation to get out of bed and do things, but it also affected my mood and my relationship with my wife. I was irritable and quick to anger, especially when I felt challenged or criticized by questions like “How are you feeling today?”
In fact, I don’t know if I would have made an appointment to talk to my doctor had I not agreed to do it in anger, mid-argument with my wife, just to get her to leave me alone.
But I’m so glad that I did seek help.
My doctor didn’t force me to do anything, but he presented me with options, including a list of antidepressants and therapists in the area. He let me choose my next steps — and helped me slowly start to feel better.
“If you feel your symptoms are impacting your quality of life, talking to someone can really help you to manage your feelings, gain clarity, and navigate any challenges,” says Harris.
I regret that it took me so long to look for help.
Of course, change is gradual, and I still live with my depression. But I’m managing it — and that makes a world of difference.
I had been telling myself for so long that things would get better if I could just find a job, if I could just get the house clean, or if I could just go back to “normal.”
Turns out, I didn’t need the perfect world or perfect circumstances to feel better. I just needed to pause and ask for help.
The next time I have a job interview and they ask me what my weaknesses are, I don’t think “overly optimistic” is the right answer.
And when it came to my depression, that brush off answer led me to think I could handle depression alone.
I think the more honest answer now is: “I can be stubborn about asking for help when I’m struggling with something. So I’m learning to ask for help sooner. In all areas of my life, professionally and personally.”
Steven Rowe is a New York-based writer and father. He has a degree in psychology, a master’s from Columbia School of the Arts, and he enjoys writing about mental health and childhood development. When he’s not writing, you can find him hiking in the woods with his family and rescue beagle.