The Five Stages of Divorce Grieving – part 4: Depression

Welcome to my 4th installment in my 5-part series entitled The Five Stages of Divorce Grieving. In this blog, I will discussing depression. At the outset of this topic, it’s important to take a moment to discuss what depression is and what it isn’t, or more accurately, how it may manifest in your life.

I’m not a licensed counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Therefore, I’m not addressing depression from a clinical perspective, nor am I diagnosing anyone with depression. Moreover, when I discuss treatment, I’m not recommending a course of treatment. I recommend that any reader coming across this blog consider consulting with a licensed mental health professional to fully evaluate your mental health and course of treatment. 

Now, with that important disclaimer, let’s dive in. As a divorce attorney, I have noticed that clients who reach this stage in their divorce grief, are often reluctant to consider themselves depressed. I believe that is due to many competing factors. Primarily, I suspect that often people have a pre-conceived picture of what depression looks like, and they don’t see themselves matching the image of a depressed person in their minds. 

Depression can materialize in subtle ways for very mild cases. Too often, we think of the extreme cases of depression as being the standard image. For example, we may think of depression as an inability (or unwillingness) to get out of bed, to self-care, to eat right, and to just be either sad and crying, or just numb and emotionless. Yes, it certainly can be all of those things. But often, it can be just a general sadness and withdraw while still being functional, i.e., going to work, parenting, socializing, etc. You may not feel like doing things of everyday life, so doing those daily things can feel like it takes a lot of effort. Sometimes, depression can be the explanation for your low energy, lack of enthusiasm, and even just general grumpiness. It’s perfectly accepted that anyone going through a divorce will have sad days or even just blah days. But when you begin to feel like everyday is like rolling a boulder uphill, then it’s time to see a professional. It’s critical to see your medical doctor for a check-up to rule out anything medically that could explain your low energy and/or chronic bad mood. But once a medical issue is ruled out, then call a mental health professional. 

Another reason why divorcing clients are unwilling to see themselves as depressed is because they view depression as a weakness and fight against appearing weak. To some people, for whatever reason, they view depression (and every other mental health or mental illness) as a character flaw. That perception could not be more wrong. People who suffer from depression are desperate to feel better and loathe feeling bad. Most people who suffer from depression feel incredibly guilty for how they’ve manifested their depression, like they’ve done something wrong. When really, feeling bad during a divorce is very normal. I frequently say that therapy is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. It’s simply asking a professional for help. Most of us can’t change our own oil, prefer not to do our own taxes, don’t want to be without an attorney (when we need one), and don’t have the ability to dry clean our own clothes. We use other professionals for many services without much thought about our own ability to accomplish the task.

Last, another reason why divorcing clients are reluctant to see themselves as depressed is because they think that labeling themselves depressed and obtaining professional treatment will be used against them by the other parent. Listen folks, judges are people too. Judges, especially family law judges, are very familiar with the emotions that people feel while going through a divorce. A lot of judges have even been divorced themselves and felt the emotions first hand. Some judges see therapists regularly no matter if in a divorce or not because of the high-stress demands of being a judge. I can’t think of a single judge or case wherein anyone was seen in a bad light simply because a parent was seeing a mental health professional for help during a divorce. In fact, when I have a client in therapy, I think it’s important to let the court know, when appropriate, because it is a sign of strength and positive adjustment to life’s new circumstance. Never be shamed into thinking anyone will judge you harshly because you sought professional help during your divorce. Anyone who shames you for getting professional help for depression (or any other ailment) is a fool, in my opinion. 

Depression is a natural progression toward self-actualization of your divorce. At this point in your healing, you been through denial, bargaining, anger, and now depression. Your mind has needed to pass through each stage in order to make sense of your situation and allow you to heal. Like everything in life, the amount of time spent in each stage will vary. In fact, it’s still progression even when you bounce between stages rather than enter them linearly. Progress is not always a ladder or a yellow-brick road path. Progress can be a step forward and two back. And the lack of linear flow is fine and can even be good for you as your mind works through the pain and heals. Blips on your progress path are ok. Remember, it’s progress, not perfection that ultimately matters.

There are ways to feel better and overcome mild depression. I see the most improvement when my divorce clients are in therapy, are limiting consumption of alcohol (which is a depressant), getting regular exercise, getting safe exposure to sunlight, eating healthy foods in the right portion size, and completing tasks where they naturally feel productive afterward, like cleaning out a garage, or organizing a closet. I also notice that journaling really helps and volunteering/helping someone with something. I’ve experienced an uplifted mood after I’ve helped someone with their own problem just because it gave my mind a rest from ruminating on mine.

To recap, consider that depression is not always what you think it is, depression is not a weakness or character defect, and neither is the need and desire for professional treatment, and last, never let anyone get into your head that you’ve done anything wrong by feeling depressed.  

In our next discussion, we will cross this marathon’s finish line and finally exhale our way into acceptance. 

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