what if depression is nothing but grief in disguise?

I’ve made it to Day 22 of this food elimination process, now plowing ahead to 30 and beyond. The health yields have been imperceptible to non-existent. But miraculously, I have not given up faith; curiosity (mixed with desperation to feel well) keeps me going. The daunting experience hasn’t been without tiny silver linings, like learning how to cook fish (the only allowable protein) and reclassifying acorn squash as comfort food. Parsnips aren’t so bad either. Plus, I’ve been reminded that inside my less-than-healthy body beats a tenacious lion’s heart.

Beyond the pleasure deprivation, there’s been a much deeper, entirely unexpected dimension to this food experience. When I subtracted the crutch and comfort of foods I love, I was shocked to discover that I’d been left with a sludgy pile of accumulated, long disavowed grief. Despite struggling with intermittent depression for nearly twenty years, I had no idea this much sadness was lurking just beneath that plate of Indian takeout or at the bottom of my giant bowl of herbal popcorn.

Over these last few weeks, it’s looked a lot like good ole’ fashioned depression around here. Little interest in spending time with people. Inability to do a whole lot of what I can do when I’m less depressed, like writing. Unable to recall what it felt like to stand in that more hopeful spot on the path, that place where I’d been right before detouring for this health effort. Early in the elimination process, a friend posted a comment on my blog. She said that for her, giving up most foods she loved included a true mourning period, with all the characteristic phases and feelings. This brief note gave me permission, and from that point forward I started reframing this recent round of “depression” as “grief”.

I’m not a stoic girl. I’ve cried countless times about my struggles over the years. Unfortunately, there’s always been an invalidating barnacle that attaches itself to my heartache, especially when it comes to my health challenges. I’ve never felt entitled to my sadness, just as standalone sadness. More than anything, I’ve yearned to be that person who no matter how many limbs she loses, smiles wide and chirps “I just love life, don’t you?!!” Like that surfer girl who lost her arm in a shark attack and is now back to being a champion surfer. Man, does she make people like me look bad. The more tears that dropped, the more I internally berated myself, demanding that I be tougher, more resilient, and more focused on what’s right in my life instead of what’s wrong. Well, as I’m fond of saying these days: fuck that. I’m tired of feeling ashamed of the feelings and struggles and special needs that make me who I am. This latest test of strength and determination is enabling me to see and recast myself in a new light: as my own relentless warrior, weepiness and all.

In the last few weeks, the unadulterated sadness that I’ve been working so hard to invalidate and dismiss for years has poured in, filling every empty crevice. Turns out that grief for food pleasure was only a harbinger, warning of deeper griefs to come: Grief that I’ve felt unwell year after year after year, despite Herculean efforts to feel better. Grief that I’ve missed out on so much by being hindered by my body. Grief for the unrealized promise and potential that defined the first half of my life. And the vice-grip pain that has caught me most off guard: grief for the increasingly likely odds that I may never bear a child. I’m ready to admit that this shit is worthy of my compassion and love and attention.

When my brother, Jeff, died a few years ago, it was one of the only times in my life that I didn’t play any of these convoluted mental games about whether I was entitled to my feelings of loss. Of course I was – we’d suffered a flagrant tragedy and I’d lost one of my best friends. That may be the only thing about death that’s tolerable: it’s one of the few times in life when we’re “allowed” to feel our pain, and lots of it. I let myself creep into the heart of the grief cauldron, and saw that I could survive it. Consequently, though I still miss my brother terribly, especially at times like these, I don’t feel confused or stuck in my grief, the way I’ve felt paralyzed by my other struggles and losses.

We create the allowance for grief because somewhere inside we know it will shift and lessen with time, even when it feels like we’re drowning in it. Death grief, though brutal and barbaric at times, is tidier in a way than murky, borderless depression. It’s warranted, understood, and tolerated because everyone can see what you’ve lost. And as anyone who’s suffered a massive loss knows, it’s nearly 
impossible to bypass or skirt around this kind of grief. Eventually it catches up to you, demanding to be faced. One of the reasons that acute grief eventually recedes is because we give it the time and attention it requires. We pass through to the other side.

So far, this food process hasn’t been the health panacea I hoped for, but maybe that wasn’t what the universe intended for me to get out of it. Whether I want it or not, maybe it’s giving me a far more applicable gift, in the form of a question. What if depression, whether it’s a one-off episode or a chronic battle, is nothing but smaller pieces of unacknowledged, less socially acceptable grief for things that people don’t send sympathy cards about? What if we paid compassionate attention to feelings of depression, to investigate if some kind of loss lies at the center of the sorrow? Then maybe we’d be kinder to ourselves, giving the pain space to shift and heal. So that’s what I’ve been trying to practice over the last few weeks. It’s not easy and it doesn’t come naturally, but I’ve heard tiny voices of gratitude that shout to me from deep inside, saying “thank you…thank you…thank you…for being sweet, for validating the pain, without comparison or qualification.”

Looking on the bright side and focusing on our blessings is powerful and worthy and sometimes imperative to emerging from funk. But I think the pollyanna directive is too often used prematurely, to short circuit pain since it’s so uncomfortable to look at or feel in ourselves and, especially those around us. Plus we operate under a mythology that emotional pain is bottomless, which is why we’re discouraged from “going there”, for fear of being swallowed alive. I know it feels that way to me a lot of the time.

But I’m starting to think otherwise. Maybe it only feels bottomless because understandably, we’re too scared to swim down and look. Maybe the bottom isn’t as deep or horrific as we think. Maybe depression clings to us so tenaciously, like those static-y little styrofoam packing peanuts, exactly because we’re so irritated by it, doing everything in our power to shake the sadness off. The more we shake, the more it clings. Instead of letting it be still, long enough to notice that it will fall off, or at least be pluckable, when it's been witnessed and supported, like with grief. As I’ve been playing with this idea of mini-griefs guised as depression, I do spot a deep sense of loss at the core of all my depressive material. So I've been trying to apply the same tenderness I used with myself and my grief after Jeff died. This radical new approach is already bearing fruit: today I was ready to write again.

I hope to spend a lot more of my time on the bright side when all is said and done – that is the point of this entire Laughing in Traffic endeavor – but these past few weeks have let me in on a secret. That the only way I’m going to get to that shinier destination, is by releasing the parasitic judgment of my own sadness, allowing myself to head straight into the marrow of grief for all my little and big losses, so I can come out the other side.

In the intro post for Laughing in Traffic, I explained my come-hell-or-highwater commitment to finding contentment, even if I never feel physically well again, or find love, or have a baby. I think a part of me was naïve enough to believe that by simply making this first-time decision and declaring it publicly, that it would be so. This self-directed metamorphosis has been more like quitting a job before you have a new one lined up. If the process was going to be pretty and simple and painless I would have done it a long time ago. I’m just hoping that right now I’m in the throes of one of those ten steps back, thirty steps forward deals. 


  1. fall down 7 times get up eight
    my mantra

  2. dear Kyle,

    Again and Again your bravery and clarity and willingness to share is so appreciated. As someone who is always fighting the depression for control of my wife's heart (and life) I cannot say how scary it is to swim into the depths. I am so afraid that the bottom is close, hard and deadly. I told her the other day "this will lift. This depression that is so heavy- it will lift and we WILL move on to brighter moments." She said "this isn't depression. my heart is broken"

    So this is what we call depression. Broken hearts, grief, other ailments caused by walking through the world with a tender open heart. These days I think of her heart as actually broken, in need of healing or mending. A wide and deep crack in the vessel that leaks out all the love and care others try to fill it with. Even as I write this my fear that the crack is too deep, there are not enough people pouring love in, the heart too broken and the pain too much to support a life long enough to heal- as you so hopefully say it will. in time.

    So where does one find the patience, the energy and the belief that broken hearts will mend? That deep grief will pass in time- without the cards, flowers, space, love and acknowledgement that one can give oneself and receive in plenitude from friends, coworkers, neighbors, family. When my wife tells me she's tired. and I know she is. How can I acknowledge grief, offer validity of these broken parts and encourage swimming down in the face of my own fear that she will go down and choose not to swim back up? It's a solo swim and this is perhaps the scariest part.

    Thank you thank you for writing. it means so much to me.

  3. thank you for validating my depression/grief ... with your writing. I too have been super depressed recently, feeling like I've been swallowed alive, as you say. I wish I could post on my Facebook profile I AM SUFFERING FROM CLINICAL DEPRESSION and people would react in the way they would if I lost a loved one. But people are scared of depression. They want a reason. I have no reasons. I hate it.

    Kyle, I'm terribly sorry for your losses, all of them, whatever they be. You are not alone. Keep writing. xo Lilli

    ps - how do you make herbal popcorn? It sounds divine!

  4. So great to hear from you Kyle. I took a Jewish parenting class last year and I found the section on how grief is dealt with in Judiasm really inspiring. People are encouraged to WAIL, OUT LOUD, and IN PUBLIC to really express what they are feeling so it doesn't get "bottled up". This is exactly how my non-jewish family growing up did NOT do it. You'd be shamed for doing something so publicly embarrasing!

    So I say yes, let it out. Let it be loud or ugly or whatever it needs to be. Express what you're really feeling as much as you can.

    Take care. Hope to see you soon. Glad you're feeling even a tiny bit better.

    Amy W.

  5. Kyle
    Another AWE moment for me!
    Your blog always gives me the opportunity to reflect on your journey but also on my own "being"
    Thank you

  6. You have been on my heart this last week ~ some how I heard you loudly through your silence...
    What you have written is extremely poignant and thought provoking. Just the phrases "We create the allowance for grief" and "compassionate attention to feelings of depression" are packed with 'food' for thought...nourishment for the soul. I am not good at giving myself permission to grieve ~ as I have not suffered the loss of a loved one (or any other tragic injustice), I correct my grief and tell it that it is banal and that I am being selfish, self indulgent. AND I pay compassionate attention to others, to the ups and downs of their lives and feelings, but have so very little compassion towards myself. I LOVE that phrase ~ compassionate attention. We talked about God and faith a few weeks ago... and those two words describe so well how I think God feels towards us. THANK YOU for opening your heart ~ Sending love your way!

  7. Great post. Thanks for writing. I think you are definitely on to something--grief and depression must often have a strong connection. I second Amy's response about a Judaic approach to mourning... the wailing out loud, and I recall stories of Jewish mourners ripping their clothes as part of making the grief public.
    I'm going to a traditional Chinese funeral ceremony tomorrow and I was told there would be a lot of incense burning. I think it might be interesting to explore the ways that different cultures/traditions/religions express grief. Maybe you'd find something that speaks to you...
    "Keep on keeping on" (as Bob Dylan says)

  8. They are swimming in pain, fear, and darkness, the water even feels thicker than usual. Some with broad, sweeping movements of their arms- some with gentle, sporadic flutter kicks with their hands held out in front of them - reaching. You can hear the water swishing. They are swimming.

    Thanks, Kyle.

  9. This woman reminded me of you: she writes a powerful blog about her life with hidden pain, chronicbabe.com

    Here is a video of her: http://www.chronicbabe.com/articles/895/

  10. Hi friends.

    Your comments mean the world to me and give me something new to think about each time. To the commenter who spoke of your wife, my heart is with you and with her. I wish there were easy answers. I will say that your comment got me thinking about writing about how to support a loved one who is depressed. (So hopefully more on that later)

    And thanks for all the other comments and ideas. To Lilli, awesome find on the chronicbabe!! Will totally check it out.


  11. I love this post so much; what a wonderful discovery you have made here. I really agree with the premise of grief...sometimes we have no words for these things...but we sure are mourning something. Someone at a lecture once asked the Dali Lama, "why is it that when people need self-compassion the most is when they have the hardest time giving it to themselves?" I can't remember exactly what the D.L. said in response, but the question always stuck with me. Oh, how the world needs more compassion...with yourself is a beautiful and powerful place to start.
    Thank you for writing; it's amazing to see your creativity at work.
    much love, Elizabeth

  12. Dear Laughing ( I can't figure our your name. I am just not blog savvy yet!)
    I saw this shortly after I read your blog. It seemed to fit.
    "Do your sadhana,[yoga practice] and allow your grief to be beautiful and full. Grief is a high form of praise for what is lost, and a path to remembering what you have gained."

    I hope that is a comforting & Uplifting perspective for you. Very best wishes.

  13. The mountains are high and the valleys are deep ... and sometimes it is difficult to figure out which one is harder to cope with ... Should we risk trying to climb that seemingly impossible ascent or should we allow ourselves to descend further into that dark hole ??? ... OR ... Maybe we can be content with who we are ... where we are ... Maybe we can pitch our tent right here ... Right in the middle and begin to build a meaningful life right where we stand ... Hmmm ... What , and not go up or down ??? ... Uh Huh ... Right here ... Right here where we stand ... I know it goes against every convention that we are taught and every discipline we impose upon ourselves ... BUT , maybe we should risk being CONTENT with who we are and begin to live life ... Really LIVE LIFE and give the finger to the pressure of convention ... Maybe we have a right to be happy and everything else always gets in the way ... today I had a banana split and I didn't feel guilty ... I really enjoyed that decadent delight and I survived without needing to do penance ... I actually felt relieved to realize that I didn't have to apologize to that little voice inside that always gets in the way of pure joy ... From now on I am going to listen to that other voice that says "Make yourself happy and everyone else will benefit along the way " ... Now THAT felt cathartic ... Thanks , Kyle , for giving me permission to be ME ...

    Love , Dick C.

  14. Kyle, I think writing a post on how to help loved ones in depression would be an excellent topic. I love you

  15. Hi Kyle

    Such a beautiful post and brought tears to my eyes... Yes, I agree with you that the world would be a different place if we all treated ourselves and others experiencing depression with the compassionate understanding that at the heart of it is a little unclaimed piece of grief.

    I'm also with you that our cultural denial about grief causes so much damage - and that there is a real fear that if we get to the 'bottom' we won't get back up. I had that fear too, and life took me there anyway.

    I have a memory of lying on the floor in my flat, completely alone - literally floored by grief over not being able to have a family - and feeling like a big scary void (with teeth!) was eating me alive. Existential terror 101! I felt like I was going to splinter into a billion pieces and that I would never be able to put the bits back together again. I was right on both counts. Except it turned out to be a good thing!! I discovered that in my fear of utter aloneness there was a purity, a clarity and a beauty that I'd been too scared too look at, for ages. "Down there" I found my joy, my drive, my joie-de-vivre, my freedom.

    Grief heals. Resisting grief is what screws us. But grief is a dialogue,not a monologue. I started my dialogue as a blog, and it became a source of healing for many. I think yours will too.

    With love & compassion from a fellow kick-ass grief warrior!

    Jody x


  16. beautifully written - thank you for sharing your heart, pain, and truth. xx k