Yes, You Can Be Depressed When Life Is “Good.” Here’s Why—and How to Start Digging Out

“Real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right.” So says Kevin Breel, a young man with everything going for him—except debilitating depression, which brought him to the brink of suicide in his teens. (His TED Talk is well worth watching.)

And I think the kid is onto something.

We are OK with being depressed when something terrible happens, or if life is generally awful. It’s no fun, but it makes sense to be depressed in bad circumstances.

But how can you possibly be depressed when it’s a wonderful life?

Well, I think there are lots of ways that can happen.

You can be depressed in the middle of a wonderful life when you’ve been running too hard for too long.

When you do too much for too long, you’ll exhaust your body’s chemical capacity to cope, and you’ll end up depressed.

Listen to Tommy Nelson, pastor of Denton Bible Church.

This is a guy who, by his own admission, believed that if you just prayed, read your Bible and trusted God enough, you could get through everything just fine. And then he started having panic attacks. And now he has a new understanding of what it means to be a human being with finite limits, who has a need for real rest and help from good meds when necessary.

When I was depressed, this was part of the problem. We had a stressful life overseas. Even though we wanted to be there, and there were many good things about it, it was still stressful. And then extra things kept happening and happening and happening. And eventually, my body and my brain chemistry just couldn’t keep up with the demands anymore. Kind of like a diabetic. Too much sugar, not enough insulin. Danger, Will Robinson.

You can be depressed in the middle of a wonderful life when you’ve got unresolved grief and pain.

I can’t tell you how many people come to me and say, “I wasn’t abused as a child. I don’t understand why I’m depressed.” Somehow, we have collectively gotten the idea that child sexual abuse is an OK reason for adults to be depressed, but that’s pretty much it. You’re only allowed to have grief and pain if certain truly terrible things happened.

Unfortunately, nobody got the memo to the toddlers of this world. “Hello, kiddies, I know you are terrified right now and it looks like your world is coming to an end, but don’t worry, there are kids who have it way worse than you do, so you have no right to be upset.”

As adults we look back and rationalize, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” But when you’re little, it is that bad. The grief and pain of our childhood is legitimate grief and pain.

And when I was depressed, this was part of my problem, too. I had grief and pain, but I had no permission to have grief and pain. I could never work through anything because I wasn’t supposed to have anything to work through. I looked strong, perfect and invulnerable. But I was really lonely and sad and broken.

You can be depressed in the middle of a wonderful life when you have bad boundaries.

Because your wonderful life isn’t yours. It belongs to the expectations others. You’re a slave to the expectations, to the demands, to the guilt, to the shame. You can’t say no. Your life is fake. It’s a lie. Even lies that are told to be nice, so that other people will be happy, are lies.  

And ultimately, lies belong to The Bad Guy, y’all.  The roaring lion is tearing you up inside with lies, and that’s why it feels so bad.

I have lived with bad boundaries for most of my life. When I have bad boundaries, everybody else gets to say what’s best for me. I don’t listen to God. I listen to whoever yells the loudest, and I try to stop them from yelling. And living like that makes me wonder, “Why am I even here? I have no voice, I have no meaning. I don’t matter.”

Mostly, I think, we get depressed in the middle of a wonderful life because we start depending on our wonderful life to define us.

We all say that the interior life is what matters.

But really? Really, truly?

We believe that being beautiful and thin will make us happy. We believe that being recognized and applauded will make us happy. We believe that more money will make us happy. The right house. The cutest kid. The best college. The most meaningful job.

And we get a little adrenaline bump from somebody telling us how fabulous we are, so we keep doing it, because it seems to work.

Until we find ourselves in a far country, behind a wall of glittering garbage, surrounded by people who all believe we are something we are not.

The truth is far from us, and we don’t know how to dig out of our mess and find our way home again.

Here’s what I think needs to happen.

We get real.

  • We get real about how many hours there are in the day, and what we can reasonably do. We stop trying to save the world, and let God have His job back again. We go to the doctor and get medication if we need to.
  • We get real about our grief and pain, and we let ourselves feel it and work through it. We talk to our nearest and dearest about what’s in our hearts.
  • We get real about our close relationships and we work on our boundaries. (Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend)
  • We get real about our wonderful life, and we get willing to let go and let God. (Celebrate Recovery is nation-wide, and a great place to go for support.)

Most of all, we learn to do what Brennan Manning says:

“Define yourself radically as one Beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”

For more on Kay’s personal battle with depression, check out her book As Soon As I Fell: A Memoir.

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Kay Bruner
Kay Bruner is a writer, wife and mom of four. A former (depressed) missionary, she is now a Licensed Professional Counselor and recently published a memoir, As Soon As I Fell: A Memoir. You can catch her writing more words of love and hope at KayBruner.com.