TWIGGER WARNING: depression
If the topic of depression is triggering, please do not read further.
Over lunch recently, a friend asked me, “What does depression feel like anyway? It’s like sadness right?”
I stopped with fork halfway to my mouth and kinda sat there with my jaw hanging slack. First of all, since I’ve lived with this disorder/condition/illness/piss-stanky-unfun-sludgefest-wet-blanket-of-yuckiness my entire adult life, I’m always boggled whenever someone tells me they’ve never experienced depression. It’s as incomprehensible a concept to me as if they had never experienced breathing. “What’s that breathing thing like anyway? It’s just like playing an oxygen accordion or something right?” Second, I was at a loss of how to succinctly, casual-Friday-lunch-appropriately describe An Entire Lifetime Battle with Depression.
Clinical depression seems rampant among creatives. All my writer friends struggle with depression. Which gives new meaning to the lyrics I got friends in low places. I am no exception. Depression and I are long-time buds (without all the fun and chummy feelings that word implies). I’m so familiar with it that I actually had a tough time explaining despression to my lunch pal. Like explaining the color black. “It’s, ya know, dark and blackish, and well… it’s BLACK okay?”
I realized I needed to up my Depression Description Game. My friend had the mistaken impression that depression equated to sadness. Sadness is definitely part of depression, but it’s far from the whole story. And depression, while containing some universal elements, is also unique to each individual. No one experiences depression the same way.
So for anyone wanting to understand depression better, I’m posting this Brief, Illustrated Guide to One Creative’s Depression. That creative being me, myself, and I.
And for the purpose of hopefully being informative to anyone who lives with someone who battles depression and wonders “What the heck can I, or should I, do for my depressed friend/family member/loved one/feathered, lippy dinosaur (who BTW has reason to be depressed because he is a dinosaur who has lame-ass feathers and stupid lips), I’m also going to describe what I need during different phases of my depression. I don’t know what your loved one may need when they’re depressed. If you’re unsure what your loved one needs, it’s okay to ask them. And if they are unable to tell you what they need, it’s okay to wait until they’re feeling stronger and ask them then.
Okay – I cannot speak to anyone else’s experience with depression, but mine looks like this:
What I feel: Sadness. Yes, the overwhelming component of my depression IS sadness. A crushing sadness that WILL. NOT. LET. THE. HELL. UP. An engulfing, relentless anguish that grips me from the moment I wake up, clamps down hard for every excruciating nanosecond of the day, and only releases its choke hold when sleep kindly powers off my conscious mind. Woo hoo sucky sucky sadness.
What I need: When I feel this way, I need to be alone. I have a weird, glitchy, feelings-processor that needs solitude when sadness strikes. I do not seek out hugs when I’m hit with sadness. Quite the opposite. I cannot cry or Be Freely Sad around others, so if I’m hurting and someone is hanging around trying to comfort me, I feel cornered and under attack to be honest. I need to be able to manage my sadness and I cannot do that with someone hovering near me. Any attempt to comfort/console/soothe me at this time makes the depression worse. Counterintuitive? Yep I guess so. But nobody said depression was logical huh?
What I feel: Hopeless. All is lost. Never again will anything in my life be okay.
Oh yippee yay hopelessness.
What I need: When I’m feeling hopeless, IF I ask “Is x, y, z hopeless? Is the world really a spinning vortex of utter despair disguised as a blue and green planet with cute animals and flowers and stuff?”, someone could theoretically try to tell me x, y, z was, in fact, not hopeless, that no, the world is not an inverted cyclone of endless misery, but indeed a pretty little marble loaded with fuzzy koalas and kittens and magnolia blossoms. Depressed Brain is likely to disbelieve any such answer of course, but it’s okay IF I ask to try to fling some hopefulness at Depressed Brain. Hey, maybe that slippery hope stuff will actually stick.
If I do not ask, it means I need space and silence. If I do not ask, it means I’m in too dark a place to be able to communicate. If someone tries to discuss x, y, z when I need silence, Depressed Brain will flare with pain and all manner of other unpleasant emotions that will only deepen the depression.
Again, I know Depressed Brain can seem illogical. Black holes seem illogical too, but that doesn’t make them any less real and yes, confusing and problematic.
What I feel: Agitated misery. At times, my depression flares with a kind of agitated misery. Hurray agitated misery.
What I need: Possibly distraction. Not always, but sometimes distraction helps when my depression is the agitated type. A silly movie may help. I can’t guarantee that I’ll even crack a smile if I watch it, but if I’m watching it, it means it’s distracting me and therefore helping.
What I feel: Weakness. Another aspect of my depression is an intense weakness that takes over my body and mind. I remember well the first time I truly comprehended how potent and real this component is. I was in my twenties and a kick-ass fitness buff. At the time, I could bench press 135 lbs at a bodyweight of 110. I could practically deadlift a dump truck. I was taking mixed martial arts out of a dude’s garage who loved to train us until we literally puked in his lilac bushes. And although I hated it, I also ran 5 days/ week.
That is, until a severe depression hit.
Telling myself to suck it up, I went to the gym, piled my usual amount of weight on the leg press stack, climbed in, planted my feet, and pushed.
And nothing happened.
I stripped off some weight and tried again. Nothing. Stripped off more weight. Again, nothing. I ended up taking off eighty percent of my usual poundage and even then I could barely eek out a few reps. I was weak – not just in the soul, but in the body. In my sad, wretched state, tears threatened and, quick before any of the steroidified gym rat dudes could see me, I left the gym. I felt like a wimp. I felt defeated. But I could not deny that the loss in my strength was real. I hoped it would come back (it did), but its loss added to my feelings of inadequacy. It made tangible the lies my brain had been shouting at me: “You’re weak, you’re worthless, you’re nothing.”
Depression can make me feel like I’m walking around with 200 lb weights strapped to my back and wrists and ankles. Every movement requires a Herculean effort. Huzzah weakness.
What I need: Maybe some help with chores or errands. Being me, I will never ask for said help, but the help would be appreciated, I can guarantee you. No it isn’t cool that I won’t speak up if I need help. I’ll try to get better at that. But if you see chores and errands that I normally handle slipping by the wayside, it’s a good bet that although I’m trying to work, that I’m trying to manage, I’m also feeling like every tiny task is a gargantuan, impossible feat.
What I feel: Muddy anger. At rare times during a depression, I’ll have a spark of inner strength that has enough energy to feel something more than sad, hopeless, empty, and hollow. I’ll feel anger. It isn’t the kind of anger that would allow me to climb a mountain to bellow my warrior cry at the capricious gods of the universe like Prometheus. It isn’t the kind of anger that has the energy to Hulk smash anything. It’s a heaviness with enough weight, enough mass, and therefore enough momentum to look at the bad crud in life and say, “Eff you. Eff you so hard, you bad crud you.” Yass muddy anger (unlike all the others, this hurray isn’t sarcastic).
What I need: Now is a great time to share some dark humor with me. In fact, I probably kick butt at dark humor during this time. Let’s have a Dark Humor freakin party.
What I feel: Empty or numb. Walking through the world numb is a feeling I know well during various phases of my depression. I feel separate from the world around me, alien, empty, hollow. My movements are slow and sluggish. My mind is slow and sluggish. Wee hee emptiness.
What I need: Ideally – silence and stillness. During numb periods, I am unable to process others’ conversations well. I am unable to keep pace with the world as it spins in mad circles around me. I am a cold anesthesized lump of nothingness trying to operate like a functioning human being. Like an anesthesized person, I need time and quiet and stillness until the anesthesia wears off.
What I feel: Bombarded with negative thoughts. Part of my depression is a constant bombardment of negativity. I have to scratch and dig through endless layers of dark hardpan to find any nugget of positivity.
I hate the torrent of negative-thought-sludge that pours from my synapses during this time and yet I can’t, no matter how hard I try, shut it off. Rah rah rah for raging pessimism.
What I need: Distraction will probably be helpful here, something to hopefully yank me off the Dark Thoughts Carousel and away from the spinning, braying horses screaming pessimism and fatalism at me.
So anyhoo. Okay. That’s it. That’s a quick overview of my depression. Sadness, hopelessness, agitation, weakness, numbness, emptiness, spinning non-Merry-Go-Rounds of pooping fatalistic horses. Yippee and yay. Woo hoo!
I need to add this: Regardless of the phase of depression I’m battling, there is always one thing I do need and I need it desperately: I need for those around me to go about their lives. I need to see that I am not bringing them down. I need to know that they are okay. I am relieved when they are happy and going about their business. I’ll get through my depression, but while I’m working to get there, I need to know that my loved ones will be alright even if I’m temporarily down. That doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to have their own sadness or emotions – it means if I see that my illness is hurting them, I feel enormous guilt and self-loathing and that guilt and self-loathing only exacerbate the depression. (Which also means that even if I’m ragingly depressed, I’m pretty good at imitating a fairly high-functioning person for just this reason – to minimize any impact on others.)
So, that’s what my depression looks like. Yours (if you experience depression) will look different than mine. You will need different things than I do when you are depressed.
If you’re the loved one of someone who battles depression, your loved one’s depression will look different than mine. They may need completely different responses from you than I do from those in my world. But hopefully this post gave those wondering what depression “feels like” some insight and maybe answered some questions.
Also, please please please remember…
Also remember – there can be light and fun stuff again. Remember – you are still awesome even though depression is telling you otherwise. You are awesomely awesome and you are loved (and not just by this weird little dude).
I’d love to compare notes with fellow creatives. Do you experience depression? If so, how does yours manifest? What helps? What doesn’t help? Anything else to mention (because I probably left out all manner of important stuff here)? Hit me up.
And as always…much love to you, my fellow humans,
If you need support, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is a great resource: http://www.nami.org/Find-Support