Depression is probably the most widely discussed mental illness and many people could give me a textbook definition of what it means. But, with all that discussion comes so much misunderstand.
I’ve found that many people understand the surface concepts and make assumptions about the rest. Not only as those assumptions wrong, they’re often dangerous.
The Challenges of Depression
Depression is so many things.
I’ve heard it described as a dark cloud or a large black dog that follows you around. It can be all encompassing and affect absolutely everything, or it can be barely there at all.
I often consider it like background noise. Some days it is really quiet and I can almost live normally, other days it’s so loud that it drowns out everything around it.
To understand depression, even a little, you need to know that the mind simply works differently.
For a normal person, not thinking about stressful topics is fairly easy, most of the time. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re not constant. If you do think about something stressful, it’s not that big of a deal.
With depression, it’s like your mind can’t stop going there. You have to constantly correct your course. You need to be aware of every thought that crosses your mind and kind of steer it in the right direction. Sometimes you need to take the negative and make it positive. Other days you need to drown out the negative.
The same can happen with anxiety and with other mental conditions.
Going into the negative is also more dangerous. For me, if my mind brushed against a painful topic (and there were many), it was almost like a literal stab to my guts. I could actually feel it physically. Everything hurt, so much more than I can explain. It’s a feedback loop too, thinking about something like that makes you think about it.
I learned how to shake myself out of those loops but most people don’t know those techniques. From what I understand, I learn faster than most, perhaps because of the intellectual side of me, paired with self-analysis.
The why doesn’t matter anyway.
The point is that this is all incredibly difficult. Staying ‘normal’ is exhausting. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and most people around us don’t see that. So, we have our families telling us to do more, with no sense that the amount we’re doing is almost killing us.
The effort is so incredibly tiring.
That’s why we sometimes just don’t do anything. I would have days where I intentionally stayed in my room, watched tv and ate junk - because I needed not to fight, just for a little.
It’s hard to see the future when life is that hard. I couldn’t imagine fighting it another year, let alone for decades.
Swings of Depression
Depression can be unpredictable. There are often days where it feels like the world is ending and everything is horrible. There are other days where you almost feel normal.
The swings can be random, or they can occur because of specific events.
People would often ask me why I was down. The truth was that I often didn’t know. It just happens. That’s kind of how this works.
Over time, I started to see patterns. But, I still couldn’t prevent the bad days. The best I could do was take care of myself. That might mean not working on the worst days or wrapping myself in a blanket.
One of the most common pieces of advice for depression is just to push through, just do it anyway.
That’s actually horrible advice.
It’s like telling a person with a broken leg to just run, ignore the pain. That’s not going to help the leg heal and it’s completely absurd advice.
I’ll tell you something. For a little over two years, I did just that. I brute forced through everything. A lot of people will tell you that I was doing amazingly and in some senses I was.
The only reason I even survived that was that I forced myself to build a support network and to be honest, even when the people around me didn’t understand.
The process was exhausting. I didn’t have the ability to enjoy myself, to be passionate or to care. I genuinely didn’t see the point of life and the future just felt hopeless. If not for a few key people, I’m not sure that I’d be alive now.
I am on medication now and that fight has diminished dramatically. Most days don’t have that same difficulty and I don’t need to force myself to live. But, the medication works because of many different things, including the support I have. The answer isn’t always that simple. I’ve been on medication before and it did nothing. Not everyone responds to medication either.
The best answer is to look for help - and be patient.
One goal with this site is to show some of what this all looks like on the inside and what has helped me. There are some links to content at the end of this piece, along with links on the sidebar.
If you know someone with a mental health issue - please, be kind.
The fight is so much harder than you know and it is exhausting.
Here’s the thing… I’m intelligent and empathetic. I’m a researcher. I’m a Christian. I have a support network. I’m good at self-analysis. I keep healthy, I exercise, I have been through many bouts of therapy. None of that made a difference. The fight was still incredibly hard. There was still a period where I cut. I was suicidal many times.
Even if you’re the best self that you can be - mental illness is still a monster.
Depression vs Depression
The term depression is tricky. We use the same phrase to mean different things.
For example, some people experience situational depression when a loved one dies. This has most of the same symptoms and challenges, except that it is typically short-lived. Situational depression might be longer in some cases, particularly when the situation itself is prolonged.
Chronic depression is different. One way to consider them is like two ends of the scale, where situational depression is at one end and chronic is at the other.
This distinction is really important - because the techniques that help with situational depression often won’t help with chronic depression.
People who have had situational depression often assume that they’re the same. I’ve had many people come up to me and give me solutions that worked for them when they had depression. The thing is, if you’ve lived with chronic depression, you would know that it’s never that simple.
Chronic depression often doesn’t have a reason. Or, at least, none that can be easily pinpointed. People with chronic depression may have had horrible childhoods, or amazing ones. Everything may have gone wrong in their life, or nothing at all.
This also means that it can’t be fixed by changing the environment.
Personally, I’ve been through many ups and downs - and have fought depression through them all. The good times weren’t any easier, the bad times weren’t any harder.