The many faces of depression

I’ve been able to successfully describe what anxiety feels like, and be confident in my description. I’ve also had the opportunity to share with various people what mania is like for me, and although less succinct than my anxiety description, I’ve been able to cross that divide between minds and establish understanding.

But no matter how many times I try to convey my experience with depression, I haven’t ever been satisfied with my explanations.

Depression is just so unlike any other emotion. Anxiety has physical sensations that everyone experiences and can relate to. It’s similar to the feeling of missing the last step on a flight of stairs, or when you glance away from the road for a second, and look back up to realize the car in front of you has stopped and you need to slam on the brakes. Mania is made up of emotions everyone has at some point experienced, and a lot of it is describing behaviors more than anything. But depression isn’t so easily relatable.

But I’m going to attempt to describe it, the best I can.

While grief can sometimes lead to depression, depression doesn’t feel like grief.

While sadness is often associated with depression, depression doesn’t feel like sadness.

Many describe depression as emptiness or numbness –and it often is. But other times it can be excruciatingly painful, the opposite of numb.

It’s a feeling of hopelessness. But not always because of a situation, like financial worry or relationship struggles. Sometimes it’s an overwhelming hopelessness about absolutely nothing in particular. You can’t think of a single reason to be hopeless, and yet you feel it intensely.

It’s also a lack of motivation. A lack of pleasure. I think that’s where people feel the numbness and emptiness. Things that normally excite them or bring joy suddenly hold little to no meaning for them. The best analogy I can come up with is childlike wonder versus adult cynicism. When most children look out the window and see snow falling on the ground, they feel joy and excitement. When most adults look out the window and see snow falling, it doesn’t elicit the same emotional response as that of a child. It could still be a positive response, but it’s not usually the jump-up-and-down-can-hardly-contain-myself energy that a child exhibits. Now, instead of losing that wonder slowly over the years, imagine losing it suddenly overnight. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s the best I can think of to describe the loss of pleasure and motivation that come with depression.

I saw a video once that attempted to describe depression. A woman filled a warm bath and got in. Then suddenly the drain was opened, and the tub quickly drained, leaving her cold and wet, vulnerable and shivering in the empty tub.

I didn’t identify with that. To me, that seemed more like my experience with grief.

If I had to rewrite that script, I would have a woman cozied up in a robe, and she climbs into a tub full of water that she expects to be warm, but instead it’s cold. She wants to get out but she can’t move. She sinks deeper into the water, hoping to find warmth further in, but it’s only colder. She struggles to keep her mouth and nose above the water, accidentally swallowing some. Breathing is painful and difficult, and her muscles ache as she fights against gravity.

That’s more accurate –at least for me.

But many people related to the original video, and I realize that depression is so different for each person. Perhaps that is why it has always been so difficult for me to describe.

When I was in high school, we read some Sylvia Plath poetry in my AP language class. My teacher posed the question, “why do you think those afflicted with depression self harm?” Silence. My heart quickened as I dared to be vulnerable in front of my peers. I raised my hand, “I think sometimes they may be wondering if they’re capable of hurting themselves, to see what their boundaries are, and if they would be able to take their own life.” Another girl immediately raised her hand and said, “I don’t think that’s right at all. I actually have depression and take medication for it, and sometimes the medication can make you feel numb. I think self harm helps someone who’s depressed feel something.”

What I didn’t say, and what she didn’t know, was that I too was diagnosed with depression. I too took medication. And I had self harmed. Perhaps my reason for self harming was different than hers, and maybe even different than most others. I do think many self harm to try and feel something. But for me, it was an experiment. I wanted to know how far I was capable of going. I was suicidal.

I’ve never forgotten that experienced. I felt so invalidated. Like my mental illness wasn’t the “right kind.” But it taught me to never ever invalidate someone else’s experience, no matter how foreign it was to me.

So while this is the best I can do to describe the “common cold” of mental illnesses, keep in mind that this may not be what other’s experience. And it may not be what you experience. When someone confides in you, listen. Even if you don’t understand their experience, take them seriously. And I hope if you did relate to anything I’ve written here, that you will consider reaching out to someone you trust, and ask for help. There’s always someone outside the bathroom, ready to rush in and help you out of the tub.

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