I ran across a post on Hyperbole and a Half talking about her history dealing with depression. My own story diverges from hers a lot in some ways–I never hit quite such a low point (though how I managed that I can only attribute to sheer stubbornness) and things were such a slow, mild descent that people didn’t really seem to notice that anything was wrong (my mother’s initial response was that I didn’t seem depressed) so I didn’t deal with efforts to ‘cheer me up’. It took flunking school and a teacher telling me “you need help” for me to finally admit that the signs I’d been noticing for years were indicative of a larger problem that needed to be addressed, not just ignored and pushed through.
Her description of depression though, no longer being able to enjoy anything, was spot on with my own experience. To put in in my own words, think of the one thing that makes you happy, that more than anything else brings joy to your life, that you can count on to pick you up when you’re feeling down. Now imagine that thing no longer having any effect on you. That was me at my worst.
People generally aren’t great at understanding mental illness. That’s not surprising, as in some ways the difference between normal variation and actual issues in need of professional attention come down to how much of a problem they’re causing. So it doesn’t surprise me that some people seem to think of depression as simply being sad, but IME that doesn’t really encompass what it is. I’ve struggled with social issues my whole life, so in some ways I’ve always been depressed, but the difference between that and having a clinical diagnosis of depression is kind of like being wet versus being underwater. I wasn’t just unhappy, I was unable to be happy. The enjoyment had been sucked out of everything in my life, to the point where I wasn’t doing much more than simply existing because I couldn’t be bothered to do anything more. And it’s something of a self-reinforcing cycle–a common piece of advice is to keep busy (which DOES help), but if nothing is enjoyable then it’s hard to motivate yourself into any sort of activity.
One other thing that stuck out to me was a comment about always wanting to not care anymore, and finally getting there. I think that’s a state we’d all like to be in, to feel secure enough in ourselves and care little enough about other people to be able to brush stuff off, a Hyde-like ‘zen’. What I got wasn’t that. It was a lack of caring brought upon by despair, from feeling like nothing I did made any real difference so what did it matter anyways? That’s a pit of its own, and in no way a good place to be.
Although things are a lot better for me now, I’m still dealing with these things in lesser amounts, and I always will. Even with treatment I need to actively work at times to keep from falling back into depressed moods where I no longer care. While happiness is again a possibility for me, the darkness still lurks and is still capable of dragging me into places I don’t want to be in the right circumstances. I want people to understand that depression–clinical depression–isn’t just about feeling sad. It’s about feeling hopeless, and that’s far harder to shake than simply being down. If you know someone like this, don’t try and get them to ‘snap out of it’–if anything that’ll just make them feel worse when they inevitably are unable to do so. Encourage them to seek the professional help they need. I know a lot of people see this as a sign of weakness, especially in our individualistic society that puts self-reliance on a pedestal, but this is too big a problem for anyone to deal with on their own, and too important to try and deal with without trained support. This goes for any mental illness, really. Be supportive of people getting the help they need to feel better, because no matter what they deserve that.