Depression taught me to love the developmentally disabled

The title of this post was originally going to be “How I came to empathize with the developmentally disabled”. Then I realized I had no right to use the word “empathize”, because I have never walked a day in their shoes, and will never fully empathize. But I’m writing this because I believe my depression offered me a small window into the world of those who know they are different from the majority, those who feel incapable of fully participating in society. My last two cycles of clinical depression taught me to have compassion for those for whom such struggles are part of an inescapable reality.

Depression affects everyone differently. A recurring theme for me is being robbed of many cognitive, social, and emotional abilities. While I haven’t figured out how much of it is real, and how much simply a matter of distorted perception, it all seemed to me like an objective, permanent reality (and there was no talking me out of it — just ask my therapist, my family, my then-boyfriend, and my close friends).

I distinctly remember what it was like being at a friend’s 21st birthday party. I excused myself to go to the bathroom many more times than necessary, all to avoid having to converse with another person. I don’t know how to hold a conversation. I wouldn’t know how to respond and react appropriately. All it would take is one sentence or one stammer and I’d be exposed. They would know I’m a freak. And then they would either walk away, or at best they might stay out of pity.

At the dinner table, I freaked out when an academic asked me what I was majoring in in college. I knew that the moment I said Sociology, he would follow up with a question that would expose my ignorance and my failure to understand my own discipline. And I dreaded how everyone at the party would inevitably ask, “Where do you go to school?” Because I knew what they’d expect when I told them I went to the University of Chicago. They’d expect me to be intelligent and insightful, and I would hopelessly fall short. I didn’t even dare to talk to the little children at the party, believing that I would be looked down upon even by those a whole decade younger than me.

There was one partygoer different from everybody else, an elderly lady with Down Syndrome. I quietly watched how she stared into space most of the time, and how her relatives coaxed her into standing in the right place when the time came to take a group picture. I felt a profound sense of affinity with her. Though I wasn’t sure how aware she was of her own disability, I yearned to commiserate with her. It’s okay, I don’t belong here either. I don’t know what these people are talking about either. I don’t know why they’re enjoying themselves either. This world is a strange and scary place. 

It wasn’t just in public. I found this picture of me (in green) and my sisters watching Midnight In Paris at my apartment.

You can’t tell from looking at the picture, but while my sisters both loved the movie (as do most who’ve seen it), to me it was torture. I couldn’t really pay attention to the plot or dialogue — I was too busy feeling tortured about not being able to identify with the thoughts, motivations, and emotions of the characters in the film. The credits rolled and I had no idea what the movie was about.

And here’s a picture taken on graduation day.

graduationIt’s an iteration of classic goofy shot I often took with my friends. Except this time, it wasn’t funny to me because all I could think of was how I would ever justify being a UChicago graduate when I was so “dumb”, when I could function neither in the classroom nor in the real world, when I believed my life was “over” because I’d never be able to get/hold a job or start a family in the future. Not long after this picture was taken, I began going around saying my goodbyes as if I’d never see many of these people ever again, as I was planning to go into reclusion for good.

And as I come out of depression, as my mental agility, emotional energy, and ability to relate to other people are coming back, I haven’t been able to forget how lonely and out of place I felt all those months. Those feelings of not belonging in the world, of not being able to live up to the expectations of society, of being defective in every way, of being a mistake amidst all of God’s perfect creations, will always remain fresh in me.

And this is the story of how God humbled me, and instilled in me new and deep love and compassion for those labeled by society as “defective”, or “different” at best. I invite you to reflect on how you’ve perceived or treated our brothers and sisters who don’t meet the constructed, arbitrary standards of beauty, success, and normalcy.

If you personally know what it’s like to have a developmental disability of any kind, or if you know someone who does, I would be honored to hear about and learn from your experiences.

Related post: Those with “special needs” can teach us a thing or two about humanity

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22 thoughts on “Depression taught me to love the developmentally disabled”

  1. I identify with everything you described, almost to the point where i think I have been depressed my whole life, and possibly still am (I take anti-depressants and an anti-anxiety for sleep so I guess I am still considered depressed) but when I describe myself, I always refer to my breakdowns as the heights of my depression, when my functioning was severely impaired whereas the rest of the time, I can sleep, eat, etc, but still doubt I have anything intelligent to say during gatherings, etc. My outlook has improved to the point where I can regard my mistakes as blessings, and negative circumstances as opportunities to find the good in the dark, but I have a ways to go. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have special needs, but your point about the commonality between depression and special needs is interesting.

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

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  2. I can’t say what it feels like to be that “other” as a disabled person. But I can say what it feels like to be the mother of one. I am constantly aware of people’s glances and stares. I can picture what they are thinking (I’m an overthinker too) and try to turn that part of my brain off. I don’t mind them realising my daughter is different. What I mind is any pity they might feel for me or her.
    I can also relate to your feelings in social situations. I’m a hyper aware introvert and when meeting new people I often panic about what to say and worry that the person I’m talking to is bored and only staying to talk because they feel bad. I think since my daughter was born I’ve come to care a little less (which is liberating!) but it’s still something I find hard to ignore in myself.

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    1. I agree, children and adults need love not pity! If people pity a disabled child/person what is the disabled person supposed to think? I think it would cause the child or adult to pity themselves. And if they don’t understand that they are different treating them this way could cause more issues they don’t understand. I too used to worry what people thought about me. Not anymore! It took a long time to realize, but I am just as God intended me to be. Why change it or hide it? God bless you and your daughter!

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  3. Thank you for this post Karen!

    The honest truth that I have come to know from my personal struggles, my family’s issues, and my professional work as a dual diagnosis specialized mental health clinician is this:

    “In our struggles, we are all the same!”

    I have issues.
    You have issues.
    He has issues.
    To have issues IS normal.

    We must embrace our issues and find a way to use them as tools in our life’s work! My experiences are my greatest therapeutic tool. My awareness of my own flaws allow me to acknowledge, honor, and cherish others, flaws and all!

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  4. I had noticed you “liked” a post in my blog about my 5 month old son, who has a rare chromosome deletion. I generally try to check out the blogs of those who visit mine, and I’m just struck by what you’ve had to say here. So to answer your question, I’ve treated those who don’t belong with fear. But I treat most things with fear. I struggle with depression and anxiety as well, and I was always afraid of how to approach people who were different because I would surely do it wrong.

    I began working in homecare a few years ago and with ventilator patients in particular. People who had severe disabilities. It absolutely changed my life, and my ability to make those connections with people. I still feel like I’m going to do something wrong sometimes, but I know that people who are different are worth reaching out to. They’re worth the friendship that comes with getting to know them.

    You see my problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to interact and reach out. Its that I didn’t know how. They taught me how. Now that my son has a severe disability himself, I made my blog to teach others what its like. For me and, to the best of my ability, for him because he may never be able to speak for himself. If we can open our world to others, than maybe they wont be so afraid to say hi to someone with a disability. They wont be afraid to reach out and be their friend. Sometimes some of us just have to be taught.

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  5. I have bipolar disorder that is more depression than anything else, so I know how hard it can be in groups sometimes. I’m raising a son with autism, who also struggles in groups, but differently than I do 🙂 he never worries about what to say or if people are interested because he’s ALWAYS interested in what he has to say and he has no filter. Sometimes I wish I could borrow a tiny bit of that lack of inhibition from him. And maybe give him a teeny bit of my internal filter.

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  6. My story is similar to yours. I didn’t want to be anywhere around anyone nothing. I would deliberately alienate myself so I didn’t have to deal with people. I began to have violent black outs. I did seek medical intervention and the medications did make the blackouts stop. However I was still alienating myself, I was avoiding people and situations. Worst of all I was avoiding God! I made a conscious decision to stop taking the medications and to become whole again. I wanted people to see me for me again and not my mental illness. I have the utmost respect for anyone with any kind of disability, mental or physical. Many are not blessed like you and I are where we can get past or heal from ours. Theirs is permanent, and though they realize their disability or not they still function everyday. Great post! Thank you for sharing with us, I know it can be hard to share things of this manner. May God bless you endlessly by sister!!

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  7. Karen, What the two pictures appear to have in common is that you are attempting to put a barrier between you and the camera, whether it is hiding behind a sister or the body language of crossed arms. Having put barriers between me and the world for different reasons for most of my life, one of many sad things I perceived is that people often see it as arrogance. In fact, in my case, it was just the opposite. It was shame.
    I am so happy for you that you are emerging from behind the barriers. In the picture you shared of you and your friend/student in the hospital, you are right out there in the open: no barriers between you and the camera. In fact, it appears that your recent willingness to share more pictures is symbolic of your progress. Lois

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  8. You’ve learned a lot from yourself and from your depression which in turn helped you be more perceptive to others. It takes a dedicated act of paying attention to oneself, especially when it is hardest (during the bouts of depression). Would you mind terribly if I were to disagree with you on one point? You talk about not really being able to empathize and I will say this: more often than not, people who struggle with depression are some of the most empathetic ones. This is why depression appears sometimes in the form of guilt and shame; taking responsibility for what is yours and others, and getting pulled like a magnet into other people’s shoes. What do you think?

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    1. Diana,

      Hmmm…you bring up a really good point. That may be true for many people who struggle with depression, but from my experience, I found it incredibly difficult to empathize with or have compassion on others while depressed. I would listen, yes, but I struggled with feeling like their suffering is so small and petty compared to mind. I was just so self-absorbed that I couldn’t recognize the validity of other’s experiences. That said, as I begin to recover, I find my ability to relate and show compassion toward others not only coming back, but also enhanced. Well, this is something I definitely want to work on, so that the next time I’m severely depressed, I’d still be able to genuinely love and support others.

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      1. Absolutely a good point. It’s hard to focus on anyone or much of everything outside yourself when you’re in the middle of it. Thank you for sharing your experience and allowing us to get a picture of how depression feels like to you 🙂 by writing about it you help and support others who are struggling with it.

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  9. Thank you for sharing this! I think its beautiful.

    My daughter, who will be 4 in January, was recently given her diagnoses of autism. My husband and I were already aware of her differences and we were finally relieved to be moving forward with getting her the help she needs from those qualified to give it. We didn’t feel sad or disappointed or anything of that nature, we felt happy. We had been through so many “first” visits with so many different doctors, therapists, I.E.P. meetings, case workers etc. and now we finally reached a plateau and can steadily move forward. She is non-verbal, high pain tolerance, few social skills, is a runner and excellent escape artist. We have bad days and good ones, sometimes few and far between, but she has definitely taught me things that I don’t think I’d ever taken notice of before. Like how to take things slow, to take the time to understand and savor moments that normally blow past without a second thought. One of the lowest points as a parent that I’ve felt is when she was in pain but couldn’t tell me where it hurt, she became so frustrated that she tried with all her might to say something but we both ended up in tears because I just couldn’t understand and she couldn’t tell me. But she soldiers on, and who am I not to follow suit? We call her autism her super hero powers, some days we encounter kryptonite and others we’re on top of the world.

    God has blessed me with her as well as with compassion to never be to quick to discredit what someone else may go through. I’ve always been a listener/watcher, never much for one to engage, and from that I’ve found myself to be in positions to be able to see many facets of someones problem, to be able to understand what goes on, how someone really feels about something and why they may feel that way. So many details, so many experiences, so many differences, but they all make up a part of someone. We just have to be able to be willing to listen and understand and help one another along. Just as I hope some day my little one does for someone else.

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  10. I like your post.

    Just wanna ask. Is this depression? Sometimes I like to be in a group, love to be counted. But most of the time I want to be alone loving my lap-top. When i’m in a group i want an early parting from them and go home. But when i’m home i love just sitting and doing the nothingness of space. Am i beginning to be depressed? Just asking. Thankx…

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  11. Hello Karen. I guess many Christians do experience depression. Especially people who have never experienced God’s love. I came into an experience while in my early twenties where one friend told me I should think about taking medication perhaps AFTER I told him how I was feeling. But I could share that with you someday :-). God took depression from me and I do not have it to this day. God bless you.

    You know, our Father God FIRST loved us while yet we were even born or while in our sin.

    ~Rob

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  12. I relate to everything you have said in this post. I don’t suffer from depression as such but it is a side effect of my mobility problems that started 9 years ago and has put me in a position of constant never ending pain daily. I feel like I am just taking up oxygen and I don’t belong on earth anymore, I’m a waste of space with no discernible future. I know a lot of people are worse off than me but knowing that does not make my life easier or my pain reduce. I have been picked on by youngsters, kicking my walking stick away from me and making fun of me, but the elderly also give me dirty looks when I’m in my mobility scooter but at least they acknowledge my existence which is more than a lot of people do, they don’t even look at me and will speak to the person pushing my wheelchair instead of me, like I’m a child! I used to be outgoing now I want to disappear. I used to like wearing unusual clothes so I would be different from everyone else now I long to be the same as them.
    Your description is very accurate and I know how difficult it is to put into words and talk about so thank you for posting this xx

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