I have had difficulties with depression for about 13 years, and through that entire time, one of the most difficult parts of interacting with other people has been explaining how it feels. It’s a little like trying to explain colors to someone who has been blind their entire life. Especially with chemical depression (which is what I have) as opposed to situational depression, it becomes much harder to try and tell people how I am thinking and feeling with depression.
It started for me with crushing sadness, about midway through my undergraduate career. I felt like, aside from my roommate, I had no friends and no support, and that I was doing badly – and, in fact, incapable of doing well – in classes. I started having trouble sleeping, and I would stay up extremely late and sleep through half my classes. Often, I would just skip class to read, watch movies, or mess around on my computer (Napster was great for that). I would hardly leave the dorm room, and I subsisted mainly on Hot Pockets, potato chips, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and pizza. Consequently, I did pretty badly. My junior year, I met more people, and got out more, but my classes were still not going well – in fact, I was told by my counselor that I would not graduate without seriously revising my schedule and taking summer courses.
I lied to my parents over the summer and told them I was taking summer courses just because the subject matter interested me, but really I just needed the credits to graduate. It was so hard to focus on those courses, but the fear of rejection by my parents if I should flunk out of college overrode the black hole of depression. Even with all my summer work, though, the credits weren’t enough – I had to join the community choir for a final quarter-credit, and I squeaked by with a GPA of 2.9. Then I moved in with my parents, and depression really took hold.
My fear of rejection was still there, so I was reluctant – terrified, in fact – of going out in a new community, St. Louis, and finding new people to be sovial with. My family got a new dog, Merlin, and he would be my only real friend in the St. Louis area for 8 years. Without people to be social with, I had nobody to speak to face-to-face, and so my thoughts started running wild in my head. In a depressed person, this is bad, because a thought of worthlessness can lead to thoughts of uselessness, to thoughts of helplessness, to hopelessness, to self-hatred, and then back to worthlessness in a never-ending cycle. Each cycle made things a tiny bit worse; it was fractional, really, but the fractions added up. I slept late, went to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning, ate tons of junk food, and did as little as possible. One day was much the same as the next, and they all blurred together.
People want to help, but expressing how things feel in the grip of depression is supremely difficult. For one, you just don’t care enough to be accurate; mustering the kind of brainpower necessary to even come close is more effort than it feels like you’re capable of. For another, that deep, dark depression is such a foreign feeling to most people. At first, you can still feel things besides sadness, but feelings are muted, like they are squeezed through a filter that only a portion of feeling makes it through. Something that would make you scream with rage before now only gets mild annoyance. Happiness that would make others jump for joy gets a smile and little else. Only sadness is really getting through, and it blasts at full volume, all day, every day. And as that volume slowly increases, everything else is drowned out, until the sadness is all that is left.
Even the sadness eventually starts to disappear, though by then everything else has long since disappeared. There is really only emptiness left, a great, yawning abyss of a black hole where everything else simply disappears. You lose motivation, interest, and the ability to empathize with people around you. You can see other people feeling things, but it is totally foreign, like watching a foreign movie without subtitles in a language you can’t hope to understand. To even stay awake is an effort, and you have to occupy yourself with meaningless tasks and activities to just avoid sleeping all the time. For me, it was video games and collecting miniatures and TV. Nothing has any meaning, especially you – I lost any real sense of self-preservation, walking in front of cars, ignoring injuries, not using seatbelts. My parents kept pushing me to do things, like take classes or look for a job, but it was just easier to lie to them about what I was doing than to try to explain what was actually going through my head.
Eventually, you pull away so much, and your feedback loop of negative thoughts gets so dark, that you have nothing on your mind except those things. You become convinced that nothing will get better. You are certain nobody could love or care for you. There is no doubt that you are an entirely useless addition to the world, that you bring nothing to the table, and things would be no worse for the world -they would actually be better for everyone involved – if you stopped existing. So you start considering how to go about ending this sham that other people call a life. Personally, I can’t stand the sight of my own blood, and I had no confidence in my ability to break my neck by hanging, and so I settled on sleeping pills. My first attempt was almost impulsive; I bought my pills one day, typed out a note and then overdosed the next day. I was absolutely sure that I was so worthless, unlovable, and hopeless that this was they way to go.
What nobody seems to tell the friends and family of depressed people is that, often, we become exceptionally good actors. We may not be able to feel things, but we can mimic them well, and we develop this external persona to show to others so we don’t have to put up with constant questions and explanations and tearful pleas to get better. Those things take too much energy, and become too awkward, and so we learn to present a different face to the world. Other people have to be exceptionally observant to see through this mask – nobody had any idea I was considering suicide at all before my second attempt. Even now, after over three months in treatment, I am told I am hard to read. My face muscles get sore these days from constantly using expressions I never did while I was seriously depressed.
I am on medication now, and I have all sorts of coping skills to help me deal with my problems, and many friends around to keep me from falling into an isolating cycle of self-destruction. But I know that my depression is still there, tucked away in a corner of my mind, and it won’t ever go away. I will always have to deal with it in some way, and that scares me. But the fact that I can feel fearvat all is a good sign, because fear is an emotion, and I seem to be experiencing new ones all the time. It is awkward and uncomfortable rediscovering these things that have been missing for so long, but it gives me hope that they are still there.