One of the first things to understand about depression, if you have never suffered from it, is that is rarely just feeling sad. I have found over the years that, more often than not, many people think that someone suffering from depression is someone overtly sad, or sadder than they should be. Not to say this isn’t wrong, but (from my experience) it’s hardly accurate to say the least.
Depression, from my experience, is a huge range of negativity, it is seldom just sadness. It appears to me to be the case that sadness is the ‘go to’ description of depression because it is an emotion that pretty much every person on earth can empathise with (unless you’re a sociopath). It is human nature to try and understand how someone else is feeling (unless you’re a sociopath), and the main negative emotion that people can respond to is sadness (again, unless you’re a sociopath). I also think that describing it as sadness is a simple ‘get out of jail free card’ for depression sufferers as it gives an answer to a non-sufferer without having to examine the depths of what it truly going on. I fully understand this, and I know I’m guilty of it too, but when you’re in the midst of a depressive episode it can be overwhelmingly difficult to even speak, let alone describe the innermost workings of your mind and the spiral of emotions that are bombarding you. When you are feeling at your lowest and most vulnerable, an easy answer is a tempting offer, just like when you can’t fully understand something, comparing it to something you do know is the easiest fix.
Let’s have a look at some of these forms of negativity that form depression. I can’t speak for every form of emotion as I have not experienced them all – frustratingly depression comes in all shapes and sizes, but hopefully my stories and descriptions can help someone explain and understand the depressive symptoms more. There’s nowhere in particular to start, so let’s start with a common one: irritability. Irritability is one of the most common traits of depression and it can lead on to others. I usually find myself being irritated with me personally and becoming my biggest critic. My experience of it is quite self-destructive and usually involves fidgeting/restlessness because I’m annoyed at myself for a way I acted or a thought cycle that is stuck in my head, but then I fidget because I feel I need to rectify a wrong (a wrong that often doesn’t exist). I then panic and get irritated even more with myself because I’m unable to do something correctly or to the ability I want it done – and so on, and so forth. In hindsight, it’s a wasteful way to spend a day and is completely illogical; but at the time it is all-consuming and the frustration and irritability that I feel towards myself is all I can focus on. I personally don’t usually get irritated by others, but I quite often make sure I am alone when I feel this way; not because of other people, but because I worry that others are irritated and frustrated at me because of the way I acted or did something.
One of the forms of negativity that I know is hard to describe is the loss of enjoyment in things that usually make you feel good. The easy answer to give is “what’s the point?” when posed with the option to do something, usually a hobby. To a non-sufferer, I imagine this doesn’t make much sense, particularly if the activity in question is a hobby or team event that someone normally does multiple times a week. I have been trying to come up with the easiest way to explain this sensation to a non-sufferer, and I suppose the biggest metaphor I can use is this: imagine if your favourite hobby in the world (football, netball, video games, dancing, reading, playing an instrument) suddenly became a mountainous chore. This isn’t a true description of how it is, but it is close. When it comes to chores, they suck but they need to be done because they’re either essential or they bring about a higher quality of life. No one really enjoys cleaning out the gutters or the attic, defrosting the freezer, checking bank statements, filing taxes, or taking their car for a service or MOT (etc.) but these things need to be done either for legal reasons or for quality of life reasons. Suddenly not playing video games or reading doesn’t appear to a depression sufferer to have any legitimate reason or point to it. The activity feels like a chore, but because it doesn’t seem to have any inherent benefit it becomes a huge chore that wastes time. It’s also hard to explain why someone loses interest in something they used to enjoy, but it just seems to happen. The energy and effort involved in doing something that you don’t enjoy or want to do is multiplied, particularly when you’re depressed and have other symptoms at the same time.
This is a nice transition into tiredness. I’ve said it hundreds, if not thousands, of times and I have had friends say it to me: “what’s wrong?”, “oh, I’m just tired”. This isn’t a lie, but it’s not the whole truth. Tiredness is awful, and when it never seems to get better it can break you very quickly. Someone who suffers with depression often finds themselves struggling to fall asleep, struggling to stay asleep, and struggling to keep a regular sleeping cycle. I myself have had bouts of insomnia and frequently have stress/anxiety dreams (which are definitely worse than nightmares) and this piles up into the one simple term: tiredness. Tiredness is one of the symptoms that bridge the gap between physical and mental health. When you can’t sleep or haven’t slept, you are not functioning at your prime, you cannot think to 100% of your ability, and you cannot complete a ‘regular day’ in the same way that a non-sufferer can. Mentally, this is horrifically draining and (I find) upsetting. Losing the ability to sleep properly is embarrassing and confusing – it’s one of the few things you can do when depressed that doesn’t really involve energy, but you can’t do it. I have had nights before where I have legitimately laid awake all night in the darkness, just staring and being consumed by thoughts. I haven’t left the bed to go watch TV or anything else – I just lay there. The most noticeable physical affect this has on me is the darkness around my eyes and how red they can become. When I have had bouts of bad anxiety and depression where my sleep is greatly disturbed, my partner normally notices purely from my eyes.
Low self-esteem and low mood are two of the most common signs of depression and are usually two of the emotions that are immediately connected with depression – but what does it truly mean if you have never experienced them? For me personally, these two ‘traits’ are closely connected with a sense of hopelessness and guilt. One of the things I would like non-sufferers to take away from reading this is that not much with regards to depression is logical, so if you spend your time looking for a route from A to B to C, you will seldom find it. I frequently find myself feeling guilty for what I have or my achievements. Things I have actively worked hard to attain, or that should be merits and celebrated, frequently make me feel guilty. This links with the low self-esteem and the notion of worthlessness where the sufferer usually can’t understand the reasons why ‘good fortune’ has come their way. The concept of being praised for something or being rewarded for an action seems completely alien. Sufferers are so used to their internal monologue criticising each and every move, when someone admires a sufferer it doesn’t seem possible. I have racked my brain for any form of metaphor that could help explain the process, but nothing quite fits. The closest I came was this:
“Imagine a dog has ripped apart the sofa and knows it has done something bad. The moment you come home and see the destruction, the dog assumes it will be yelled at – but instead you praise it and reward it for what it has destroyed. The dog then sits there, very confused and unsure of what is happening.”
It’s not a great description, but when you spend your life diminishing each and everything you do, finding someone that appreciates and applauds you is an incredibly odd sensation. This leads into hopelessness as we convince ourselves that no matter what we do, it isn’t enough, it isn’t needed, it isn’t wanted, and it is in fact a detriment. When a sufferer rejects a compliment, it isn’t because we’re being purposefully irritating or overtly humble, it’s because we genuinely do not believe we are worth the words coming out of someone’s mouth.
This was me. Taken on 07 September 2015 during a depressive period that included dissociation. I keep this image because it reminds me that the sensation does pass.
One of the stranger symptoms I have personally suffered with is dissociation. I will probably try and go further into this one in a different blog, but as it is a symptom I have frequently suffered with due to my depression, it’s one I think needs mentioning. It’s a rarer symptom, and one that can be quite scary on occasion. The simplest way to describe one of the sensations of dissociation is detachment – the sensation of not being connected to either you or anything around you. The way I usually describe this to people is:
“Imagine you are in a very thick full body wetsuit and someone has pinched your arm. You can feel the pressure of something in the region, but you cannot feel the precise sensations or pain of pinching. It doesn’t feel as though you yourself are being pinched, but that something near to you is.”
I’m sure that sounds very strange to a non-sufferer, but that’s possibly the best you’ll get. When this symptom hits me, it can often last for days. It can become scary because you’re never sure when it will leave you (if it ever will) and it creates a sense of isolation. Not being able to feel connected to the outside world, being stuck in this ‘shell’, makes me acutely aware that something is wrong with me, which connects to far more negative aspects such as hopelessness, anxiety, sleeplessness, lack of worth, and frustration.
Some of the hardest moments I have had involve trying to explain to a loved one how and why I am feeling or acting in a certain way because of depression. The first few times it happens it is embarrassing, and you cannot find the words – and when you do finds the words, you hear them and think what you’re saying makes no sense at all. It’s as though you are letting the loved one down because you are revealing yourself for something far less amazing than they think you are. For me, the main loved one is my partner. Telling her how broken I am and felt when she had spent so long praising me and telling me how wonderful she thought I was made me feel as though I was destroying the image she had of me. When I said the words to try and describe how I felt, I thought I sounded like a child and incoherent. It’s incredibly difficult to explain something to someone when they cannot see it or feel it – but it is possible, and you are definitely not alone.
To any sufferers that have read this far: you are not alone. You might feel alone, but you are not alone.
To any non-sufferers that have read this far: I hope this has helped you to understand. If not, just ask questions and allow a sufferer the time and space to try and explain. Be patient, be caring, and be loving.