THE BLOG
10/01/2014 12:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When You're Depressed, You Can't Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps

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I'm a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" kind of guy. I'm rarely seen outside of my house without a cowboy hat and boots that include straps, just in case I need to pull myself up. I'm always after my kids to "get over it," or "buck up." In many cases, I think that's good counsel. But because principles like that are so effective when they are appropriate, people like me, who use them, often believe that people can fix anything by themselves. That is dangerous thinking.

I was one of those people who had never experienced depression. Oh, I had experienced bad days and sad things, but that led to discouragement, not depression. Still, since I had never experienced actual depression, I thought it was just a little more intense version of discouragement. That is part of the problem with depression in families. Since everyone has been discouraged, people who have never been depressed think that they can relate to someone who suffers from that type of mental illness. That is a common but serious misconception. When we think that discouragement and depression are the same because both make us sad, it is akin to thinking we can understand a cruise missile because we once had a fire cracker go off in our hand. After all, they both explode, right?

Our family business had been struggling for quite some time. I had convinced family members to invest everything they had into a dream that I shared with them. Though other family members had been seriously concerned for quite some time, I firmly believed in the principles we had used as the foundation for our company. I really believed that if we worked long enough and hard enough that the company would "pull through." As time went on, I got to be pretty discouraged. I felt extremely stressed. Then my 29-year-old little brother died in an accident. That made me pretty sad. My brother, who had not been a part of the start-up business, had indicated that he would like to work in our company a few months before the accident. For various reasons, I turned him down. Because he died in a work accident, in another place, I blamed myself. That made me incredibly sad. Still, I would only consider what I was feeling to be discouragement mixed with sadness. That is not depression.

I worked harder at solving the family's financial troubles. I read more. I networked harder. I worked on back-up plans. Nothing worked. I didn't know I was on a slippery slope. I realized that I was becoming more discouraged, but I thought that was just like being "more hungry," "more tired," or even "more sad." I guess I was right, to an extent. More discouraged is simply "more discouraged" until it turns into depression. I don't know exactly when it changed from discouragement to depression for me, but I do know what the difference was.

They thought that depression was just a bad case of discouragement. It's not, though. Depression is an illness that is like other illnesses.

I stopped caring. That sounds like I had a choice in the matter, but I don't think I did. I don't believe it was a decision. I couldn't care anymore. It wasn't that I didn't believe in the principles we used to found our company, or even that I stopped accepting that it could eventually succeed. I simply didn't care. I didn't care if I went to meetings. I didn't care if I kept commitments. I didn't care if I let others down. It wasn't that I missed my brother so much that I couldn't live without him. I didn't care. I didn't want to live. I didn't want to die. I didn't care. I wasn't looking to get better because I didn't see myself as being sick. I was overwhelmed to the point that I stopped caring about almost everything. I cannot describe the apathy I felt at that time.

No one told me to pull myself up by my bootstraps. It wouldn't have done any good. I knew how to pull myself up by my bootstraps and I knew I could do it, but... well, you get it, now. I didn't care. Knowing what I know now, I should have been receiving professional therapy and maybe even medication. My family should have dragged me to that end, even if I refused. Most of them didn't understand. They thought that depression was just a bad case of discouragement. It's not, though. Depression is an illness that is like other illnesses.

As things got worse, my family did become more and more concerned. They did everything they could to remove every bit of stress they could from me. One of my brothers/business partners took on far more than his share of work and forbid anyone to approach me with anything that was negative. He always took everything as far as it could go, and then asked me for input when he had taken everything as far as he could without me. My wife and children did everything they could to make home a happy and non-stressful place. Over time, as my mind recovered, I began to care a little bit at a time. It took months for me to care on any level that most would consider normal. It took even longer for me to get back to what normal was for me. Getting "back to normal" from that depressing time never involved me pulling myself up by my bootstraps. When you are depressed, you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Fortunately, I was able to recover even though I never got professional help. However, I would never recommend that method to anyone who is fighting depression. No one else has any idea how dangerous that method was for me.

Oh, I still tell my kids to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. My son who has Down syndrome tells them all they can try again, tomorrow. On most days that is all they need. But there are members of my family who suffer from recurring depression and that requires much more than tough love or mandates to "pull it together." Whenever I see someone who seems not to care about things that have always meant the most to them, I get them professional help.

Follow John M. Simmons on his blog.

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