Depression and identity

Whether depression is mild or severe, once it is identified and named it has an impact on how people see themselves. Some young adults we interviewed for this study described “dual selves” – one self who is depressed, and another who is not. As Leanna put it, depression can be “a different personality.” Others talked about depression as just one part of their complicated identity. Many people said that they work hard to reach a healthy way of integrating their experiences with depression into their overall sense of self.

Mara asks 'how much is me, and how much is my depression?'
Interview Transcript

I guess I like, I dont know. Something I think about a lot in terms of just depression is, and something I wonder, is, like, how much is, is me and how much is the depression? So, how much of, of me is just my personality and the things I learned and the things that I was conditioned to do or genetically inclined to do. How much of that is me and how much of that was influenced and conditioned by this, this disease? And I think, just something, I, I sort of like have to tell myself every day is just not to identify with depression, with anxiety, with self-injury, because I think that’s, that’s a really dangerous road to go down when you say “I, not only, I have depression or I have anxiety, but I am depression, I am anxiety.” So, I think, just something I would want to share is, is that, I, I think people should remember to keep themselves separate. Because that’s, that’s your first line of defense is to know where, where you start, where your, yourself starts, and where you stop, where the things you care about stop, and where depression is. Because that way, if it’s not an integral part of you, it’s easier to fight.

DEP Mara
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 14

Background: Mara is a student at a large university. She lives in a dorm room on campus. She is Vietnamese and White.

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For many people, depression symptoms can recur particularly in the context of life stress, less social support and coping difficulties. People emphasized that they think or hope they may be past the worst part of their depression, or that they see depression as more of a phase than a permanent part of life. Joey (age 27) describes his depression as mostly related to a difficult time in his young adulthood, transitioning from college and not having in place healthy ways to keep growing. Teddy (age 18) sometimes refers to his depression as “solved.”

Elizabeth feels drastically different than her earlier, depressed self.
Interview Transcript

I’ve often struggled with knowing who I am in relation to that. I feel like the person that I was then, is absolutely nowhere near who I am now. And sometimes I even look back and, I can’t believe that that’s been my life just because it’s so drastically different than where I am today, that I don’t really know if I feel like I’ll be known better or understood better, because I feel like I don’t even really want to know who that person was. I dealt with it, I went through it, and I kind of just want it to stay in the past sometimes…

I don’t feel like it’s made me who I am, it has definitely contributed greatly to who I am, it has made me thankful, it’s made me proud, and I feel, very accomplished having gone through something as life-threatening as that, and making it to now. But yeah, I definitely go back and forth with that, because she feels so different than who she is now.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

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However, most people we talked to said they believe depression is part of who they are, that it is likely to be with them in some way for the long haul — and also that it may come and go in cycles. For Kate, this means it is important to have her “strength and the fragility trying to work together.” Tia noted “some days I’m up, some days I’m down.” (See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope.’)

Sam says he will probably have symptoms of depression his whole life, but is learning to process them better with time.
Interview Transcript

I don’t know with a 100 percent certainty what the rest of my life is going to entail. It would not surprise me, based on my experiences with depression so far, what I’ve read of academic studies of depression, and what I’ve learned of other people’s experience with it, it would not surprise me if I continued to feel these symptoms for the rest of my life. But it also would not surprise me if, as life went on, even if I do experience more severe episodes than what I’ve experienced so far, I’d get, hopefully, better and better about recognizing what goes on in my brain and enacting consistent and healthy, and … I feel like there should be a third adjective, but I can’t think of one, so, consistent and healthy plans, and coping mechanisms with which to, not get rid of them, but process them in a beneficial way.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.

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Managing depression as part of who you are

Separating their depression from their sense of self is an important coping mechanism for many people. As Mara described, it can be “… a really dangerous road to go down when you say… not only I have depression…, but I am depression.”

Maya views 'depression' as too simplistic a label to describe who a person is.
Interview Transcript

But I think that it’s very difficult to reduce people to one aspect of their identity and I see that a lot with identity politics like, “Oh, look, gay people!” As though, like, that’s suddenly the most important thing about them is who they do and do not want to love or have sex with. And I think that, being able to be like, “Oh this person is gay and they love guns and country music,” is, is a thing. There are gay people who love music, you know, there are nuns who are pro-abortion, you know what I mean? Many people live in this grey area and I think that being able to not pigeon-hole yourself in any one identity, so you don’t have to be like, “Oh I am a depressed person.” Or like, “Oh this is an autistic person.” Or, “Oh this is, you know,” I think that, that’s unfair, and I think that denies you, your, the totality of your humanity.

DEP Maya
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

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Many people developed ways of assigning the depressed part of themselves a “defined role,” which they understand to be just one of the many parts of who they are. For some, the depressed and non-depressed aspects of who they are simply shift back and forth over time. For others, the two parts remain in conflict: as Nadina put it, “I always feel like there’s this girl in me fighting a dragon and sometimes I’m winning and other times I’m just this bloody stump… it’s just a constant battle… but it, it gets better sometimes.” Sierra Rose described an “energetic, happy” self who was hired to work a customer service job, in conflict with a negative, brooding self who lost that same job.

Brendan's depression comes and goes with time; he has learned to make adjustments.
Interview Transcript

That’s something that I manage. And, it varies. About a year ago, it was something that walked with me, you know, I woke up with it, it colored every thought I had. There have been times when it’s been really bad, and it felt kind of hopeless. But, what I’ve learned when I was young, in my first depressed — in my first suicidal, depressive episode at 10 years old, is that, periods of hopelessness are temporary. And that if you wait them out, you normally see a solution that you hadn’t thought of before. So sometimes, it is that. Other times, it’s — you know like, things are really good right now. Things are going really good for me, I feel optimistic about the future, but there are still, even today, there are certain days where like, I know that things are good, but I’m just tired, I’m just sad, I just feel a little awkward. It’s, something that you live with. It’s something that you, make adjustments to, you know, it’s — I try to think of it as like, you know, having like a sore shoulder or something. You want to be careful with heavy — lifting heavy objects. You don’t want to hurt yourself, but, it’s an annoyance, it’s not something that’s taking you out of the game. And that’s what I try to remind myself, is that, no matter, no matter how bad I feel, it’s almost never actually that bad and if I just keep on doing what I’m doing, then I normally turn out OK.

DEP Brendan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Brendan has three jobs and is a fulltime college student and musician. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. Ethnic background is White.

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Shayne sees versions of herself with and without depression in her cats' personalities.
Interview Transcript

It’s funny because they represent me so much, in a certain way. Walter always wants to be pet, petted, and he always wants you to give him all the pets and he’s super outgoing and super loving. He’ll just sit on someone’s lap, like brand new person, never been in the house before. He’ll just sit on their lap and get hair everywhere all over them, you know. He loves it. Richard is more standoffish. He doesn’t like being picked up. He’s not the friendliest cat. He’ll let you pet him if he feels like it. So it’s funny because I think they’re both like parts of me. They both, they both reflect parts of my personality which is really cute, I feel. Because Walter always wants attention and I’m super outgoing and I always want to make new friends, and then parts of me are like, when I get depressed or when I like am feeling anxious, I’m like, I don’t want to talk to anyone right now, like, I just want to do my own thing, you know, put my headphones in and zone out, you know? Like, it’s like, cats.

DEP Shayne
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Shayne lives in a house with two roommates and three cats. She works in research, exercises regularly, and does art. She is White.

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People can experience depressed and non-depressed elements of identity all at the same time. Maya said she has been learning to “hold, you know, my experiences at once… [sometimes] I get things done and sometimes I can’t get out of bed.” Kate noted that she has to work hard to realize that strong emotions can be positive as well as negative, and that she deserves to feel the good as well as the bad ones on a regular basis.

Nadina's thoughts are connected to her depression, but her body fights against it.
Interview Transcript

So it’s, it’s definitely, a struggle. And I feel like, eventually, my physical body and, and, you know, what’s in here, kinda separate themselves and, you know, my brain will be like, “I do not wanna get up,” and my body will be like, “well too bad,” like, you know, it’s kind of just, like almost like, this instinctual survival thing. And that I feel like kicks in when your brain is just, just wants to give up, but your body is like, “well we can’t, we must keep going,” you know, there’s so much to do and learn and to, to perceive and, even though this sucks, like, it can get better, it may go back to sucking [laughs] but, like there needs to be that balance, and I do recognize that, you know, the universe kind of flip-flops between negative events and positive ones …

DEP Nadina
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Nadina lives with her parents in a suburb near a small city. She completed college and works as a freelance illustrator. She is Caucasian.

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For Casey, being present in his body can make him more vulnerable to depressed feelings.
Interview Transcript

I like, don’t want to be having sex I don’t want to be having, you know? But also I don’t want to be not doing things that I would otherwise enjoy, and I might actually enjoy once I began, because of depression. And that makes that very difficult to, to navigate for me, especially because, I don’t know, if, if it’s decent, at least it requires you, to actually be like present in your body a certain amount, which, can be hard and scary for me in times of depression because like, things can feel really scary if I’m present in my body and things can feel like too much and too, you know? And so it’s just a whole fuckin’ mess. Just sucks [laughs].

DEP Casey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Casey grew up in a rural place but now lives in a city with a roommate. He recently graduated from college and is considering graduate school while also looking for work. He is White.

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Living with dual selves in the long term

Looking ahead to the long term, some people remain concerned about how to manage their depressed selves alongside their un-depressed ones. Cara, for example, said she tries “… not to get my hopes up because I feel like as soon as I do that I’m going to have a really bad phase.” Some of those we interviewed have learned effectively to manage or distance themselves from their depressed selves. Kate tried to bring the happy, energetic person she is when out and about back home, where her depressed side can otherwise take over.

Colin works hard to choose what to do about his depression rather than letting the depression be in charge.

I’ve made some bad decisions and I’ve made some more recent good decisions, and just. It’s really a good way, to think that way to combat helplessness, which it’s so easy to feel helpless.

But I think you feel like you’re the one creating your own journey. There’s not somebody doing it for you. There’s not, depression’s not doing it for you, anxiety’s not, you’re making your own, paving the way for you, that it’s your decision. And sure, you can’t, there’s going to be ignorant people out there, so if you’re feeling sad, or like down, or you’re worrying about something that people say ‘Why are you worrying about that? It makes no sense. It’s irrational.’ Or ‘Why are you sad? There’s nothing to be sad about. Look at your life, it’s fine.’ I just don’t feel that way, that’s wrong. Sure, you can’t choose to feel the way you feel, but you can choose what to do about it. Like you could choose to make the right choices. Sometimes it might be hard, due to lack of motivation or lack of energy, or the will, but I think it’s really important to see that you’re the one, you’re the one in control of your future, ultimately. Like there’s other things that’s going to make it either harder or easier for you, but. You’ve got that ability.

DEP Colin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Colin works at the college he attends and lives with a roommate. He takes medications and sees a therapist. He is White.

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As a young student, Crystal describes how her functional self can help her concentrate, but she still struggles to navigate her two personalities.
Interview Transcript

And so, drained mornings, going through school and, you know, having this other side of me come out I, it brought up kind of a dual personality, because, you know, around people, I knew that, you know, I can’t act how I would if I was just alone by myself in my room. Or with no one around, not even my parents, and so everyone, if they were to describe me they’d describe me as an extroverted person, as someone who is very excited about life, ebullient, and very intelligent, and what not. But, deep down inside, I knew, you know, “Only if you understood how I feel the minute you walk out of this room or walk out of this interaction with me.” And so, I had to navigate those two personalities, it was, I felt, often times I did feel unfocused in school just because, my default train of thought is, you know, “Why are you here? Why are you alive? What’s happening to you? Why can’t you appreciate life as other people can? This is all just pulling to the fact that you shouldn’t be here, you should do something about that.” And so, that train of thought kept going in the background and so I had to find ways to distract myself and what distracted me was my school work. And so I carried through and I ended up doing well in school simply because I was so desperate to avoid that underlying train of thought. But in what, but what that caused, is the cycles of depression, because as I was on my high of being able to just, you know, focus on everything and, you know, just do all my school work, I was able to ignore the underlying issues that I was having and all the thoughts that were jumbled up in my mind. So that’s how high school was for me.

DEP Crystal
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Crystal is an African American college student. She works campus jobs during the year and internships in the summers.

Click here to view Crystal's profile page

See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘Going public with depression?’, ‘Depression and transitions to adulthood’, ’Depression and strategies for everyday life’, and ‘Depression and healing’.

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