I’ve been away awhile, trying, trying, trying to fight off a nagging sense of depression’s lingering presence in my brain. I couldn’t keep the Deep Dark away this time, so as I wait out these weekend hours until I can reach my psychiatrist and get some medication to send my serotonin levels back to “normal” I thought I’d take the time to share a bit of how depression feels.
As I was telling J last night, I haven’t been posting on here because 1) I haven’t felt well enough to write and 2) I long for this blog to be a source of optimism. Nonetheless, I think I can talk a bit about what I am feeling without taking an entirely pessimistic view on life.
If you’ve read anything about depression, I’m sure you’ve read that it isn’t just “a bad day.” I cannot emphasize strongly enough how true this is. Everyone has bad days, bad weeks, even. Depression is a different beast.
Take a second, if you will, to study this picture of brain activity scans of a depressed person versus a not depressed person. Pretty major difference, huh?
My first warning sign is usually a decreased interest in everything. There’s a clinical term for this: anhedonia. It means you lose interest in all those things you used to love doing. Previously, I’d found pleasure in cleaning and decorating the house: no longer. I love taking walks in early spring: no energy. Everything around me loses its color and vibrancy.
Second sign? My brain feels like it’s muddled in cement. I can’t think clearly. I have trouble explaining myself. I catch myself staring into space, staring into my coffee, wondering how long I’ve been “gone.” Every action seems to require a tremendous amount of concentration and energy. I’ve found I have to practice simple, non-verbal mantras to myself. Lying in bed this morning, realizing I’d been there for 12 hours… “Get up, Holly. Get up. Get out of bed and make coffee. You can’t lie here all day. Get up and make coffee.” Repeat until I muster the strength to throw off the covers and put both feet on the floor.
And then, the crying. Random, unexpected crying. I remember a time I had a sob fest because a bouquet of flowers had died, and I had to throw them in the trash. Somewhere in my sad mind, the flowers represented all that is life and suddenly “we were all slowly withering on the brink of death.” Sounds like a real drama queen moment. It isn’t.
Bring in the feelings of guilt. Depressed people will apologize for all the troubles and ills of the world. It isn’t that we are being purposely selfish or ego-centric but that our brains are filled to the brim with thoughts of inadequacy or of being a burden. For my part, I experience immense guilt over the concern I cause others and for how needy I become. I am naturally a very independent person. I hate having to ask for help. But when I’m depressed, something as simple as a sink-full of dishes can reduce me to tears. I need help but knowing that I need help, that I am draining my loved ones of energy, compounds those feelings of guilt.
Next up, physical pain. By now I’m sure many people have seen the commercial for Cymbalta. “Depression hurts, Cymbalta can help…” And hurt, it does. I’ve noticed that I experience more physical symptoms with depression as I get older. My back will ache, I’ll feel like my neck is made of limp asparagus and cannot hold my head. My head will ache, or I’ll get strange stomach pains. It can become difficult to distinguish whether you’re depressed or if there’s something seriously wrong with your body.
Other common symptoms of depression include sleep and appetite disturbances, irritability and/or restlessness. I can go either way on some of these. I’ve had times where I didn’t sleep for days despite being exhausted and other times when I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of bed. Appetite is a confusing topic for me because of my comorbid (not sure I used that correctly, but it just means an addition of another disorder on top of the primary one) eating disorder. I’ve taken loads of online depression self-tests over the years, and whenever I reach the question about appetite disturbance, I always wish there was a “how the hell should I know” option.
As I wrap this up, I feel the need to clarify that my purpose for sharing these things comes out of a desire to dispel the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses by spreading the truth. Depression is a real, physical illness that severely affects an individual’s daily life and functioning. Later, if I can get my brain to cooperate with me, I’d like to address what to say and what not to say to someone who is depressed, possible suggestions and tips for caregivers and things I’ve learned over the years about surviving a depressive episode.
If you’re interested in further information, WebMD gives a nice overview of depression here. For a reputable self-test, PsychCentral offers a well-rounded quiz that covers the basics of depression but isn’t overly long.