In the past few months, I’ve seen the quote “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” all over the place. If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, the majority of my friends and the pages I like feel strongly about this topic. It would be lovely to think that the world suddenly got more empathetic and understanding and was suddenly inspired to live according to these words attributed to Plato, but somehow I doubt that. It’s just something neat to put on their wall to grab a few likes.
For me, it’s different – because I fight the hard battle known as depression.
It’s difficult to come out and admit that, because of the stigma we associate with any condition that smells mental or emotional in nature. But when you consider the National Institute of Mental Health reports depression as the leading cause of disability in people between the ages of 15 and 44, and further reports that 9.5% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a mood disorder in any given year, it starts to seem silly to keep it to yourself. Don’t believe the statistics? Looks them up here. And then learn something about the most common mood disorders and start paying attention to the people in your life. I’d wager that more of your friends, family members, and acquaintances deal with this than you might expect.
In my case, I’ve known that I’ve been fighting this battle off and on, in the form of Major Depressive Disorder, for 3 years or so – ever since a few years after my husband died at the age of 40. As much as I resisted the notion that this was a Real Thing I Needed To Deal With at the time, in retrospect, I’ve come to realize there have been at least a couple of other times that I’ve had bouts of depression. I primarily deal with what is known as situational depression, which means that I become depressed when there are stressors in my life that result in symptoms of depression. Situational depression can transform into clinical depression, in many of the same symptoms of depression are present but there is no obvious continuing stressor that you can attribute the symptoms to. So far, I’ve been spared from a diagnosis of clinical depression.
Many people have a lot of ideas about what depression looks like in a person. In a lot cases, they think a depressed person is extremely likely to be suicidal. While it’s true that virtually all people who commit suicide are either depressed or dealing with substance abuse issues, only a small percentage of depressed people commit suicide. There is also a perception that if you seem to have your act together and are not overly morose at all times, you mustn’t be depressed, but that’s also not the case. Depression is a disorder that has a very broad range of severities, and many people – including myself – are quite adept at hiding the fact they are dealing with it.
One of the most insidious things about depression is that people have no idea when it’s happening to them, so I am hoping I might help someone by sharing my experience. Please keep in mind that I am NOT a mental health professional – I can only tell you what I’ve gone through and maybe point you to some neat stuff on the interwebs. Don’t sue me, and for God’s sake, if you think maybe you are depressed, don’t hold off of taking action to address it or getting help just because your situation doesn’t sound exactly like mine.
What causes it?
Mental health professionals and MDs will tell you a bunch of stuff about chemical imbalances in the brain and whatnot, but I can’t even pretend to speak competently about this so I won’t. I’ll just say that for me, it’s been life stressors.
The stressors that cause it are varied. The first time I really remember dealing with depression – and this is in retrospect, because I had no clue what was going on and never sought any help – was shortly after I got my master’s degree and started my first Real Job. I was away from home, thrust into the organism that is Corporate America after a lifetime in an academic setting raised by academic parents, and away from my then-boyfriend for all but 2 days out of 8 weeks. Oh, and to cap it all off, I got a serious case of walking pneumonia in the middle of the training program so I couldn’t perform nearly as well as I should at my shiny new job. I was one effed up girl, and I may have been lucky to complete training and not lose my job.
About a year and a half or so ago, I had my worst bout of depression to date, which reared its ugly head shortly before the 2 year anniversary of Andy’s death. I had never seen any kind of therapist after he died, reasoning that my gym was my therapy, which is sort of was given that exercise is considered a great way to help treat depression AND my personal training had an MS in Psychology and experience as a therapist. But at one point, I was feeling so bad that I actually contemplated taking leave from work. I felt hopeless and directionless, but was fortunate to have a glimmer that what I was doing was not living well, but rather it was simply existing and I owed it to myself to take action.
I’m currently dealing with another go-round of this – not nearly as bad as the one a year and a half ago – that is largely brought on by workplace concerns, significant anniversaries in my life, and grappling with the reality that there are some things in life that I really, really want but I don’t know if I can ever have because I have very little control over them. Since I’ve become more conscious of what a bout of depression looks like in my world, I’ve managed to start addressing it faster than I did in the past.
What does it look like?
It starts slow. And usually it creeps up on me like a thief in the night. Most of the time, it’s going on for a few weeks before I become conscious of what’s happening. I live alone, so I’m an expert at hiding early stages of depression, which means that my friends and family.
*It starts with fatigue for me. I just want to sleep more. It’s not like when you get a bad cold or the flu and want to sleep like 20 hours a day like a cat – it’s more like I’m used to 8 hours of sleep and then sometimes I start wanting 8.5 or 9 hours. And the sleep I get is not very restful. Which makes you want to sleep more. At the beginning of this mess, I’ll want to go to bed 30 to 60 minutes early a couple of times a week, but later on, I’ll want to go to bed at 7:30 or 8pm almost every weeknight.
*I start caring less about my environment. Anyone who has ever lived with me knows I am not a neat freak, but I like my house to be relatively habitable and I like to feel like I can have a couple of close friends over with almost no notice. The first thing that goes in my house when I start feeling depressed is putting dishes in the dishwasher. No kidding. If you come to my house and see a pile of dishes in the sink during a week I haven’t had a dinner part or been putting in a crapload of overtime, odds are I am starting to slip. As time goes on, I don’t manage to get the trash to the curb on Wednesday mornings, the mail piles up unopened (which is unheard of when I am in my normal state) and I don’t get the laundry put away or groceries in the house. This environmental change is something nobody else sees, but it is also a vicious circle because when my home isn’t in nice shape, I get more depressed. Not good.
*I start dropping the ball on things I care about. A recent example of this is when I bowed out of a few volunteer related meetings because I. Just. Couldn’t. Handle. It. My heart and soul were to tired to deal with it. I have pretty much stopped volunteering for things I don’t enjoy, so when I am disengaging from things I like it’s an enormous indicator that something is wrong.
*I start isolating myself from other people. This happens gradually, and is not really deliberate. I don’t wake up and say “Hey, I think this week I’ll isolate myself from my friends and family! That sounds fun!” What happens is that I don’t feel motivated to reach out to others very much. Instead of calling my mom on the way home from work like I often do, I will turn on the radio. Instead of going to the gym 4 times a week or so, I will go once or maybe twice if I’m lucky. Instead of posting witty statuses on Facebook – something I am known for! – I will read my news feed with a more negative view, thinking that maybe Grumpy Cat has a point and we are all assholes for making fun of her. The worst part of this is that despite my varied friend and family, not many people notice when I am in this mode because they all have things like significant others and children and busy lives that mean they don’t notice when I’ve gone radio silent.
*I start caring less about my appearance. I am not an overly girly girl, but I generally manage to look nice when I go to work each day. We can wear jeans every day at my office, but I am typically in jeans, very cute flats or heels, and a nice blouse with makeup on and my hair looking at least presentable. But starts to slide when I’m depressed – I’ll end up not washing my hair and instead putting it in a sloppy pile on the back of my head or I won’t wear makeup. When things are really going south, it can even impact hygiene a little bit – taking a shower seems like a colossal ordeal and flossing my teeth? Forget it. I’ll deal with the cavities later. The lack of attention to appearance occurs a little later than the other things I’ve mentioned, and this is when some of my closer friends and family start noticing something is amiss.
What does it feel like?
It feels dark.
It feels hopeless.
It feels helpless.
It feels like my life has no point or purpose.
It feels like I am so irretrievably broken and flawed that I can never have what I want, whatever aspect of that I might be lamenting at the time.
It feels like nobody gives a shit, because nobody calls me. Because I am a proactive person by nature, and I am the initiator of most of my own social life. And since I’m not initiating it, I grow more isolated and alone.
It feels like my soul is positively suffering, with no end in sight.
Also, it sometimes feels deliciously justifiable and righteous. Mostly, I hate being depressed, but there are times when I know the reasons I am feeling this way, and I just wallow in it a little and savor the fact that I have a right to be depressed and am damn well going to keep myself busy with it for a while. This is a particularly shitty place to be, because when I am in this place I am NOT taking action to get out of the depressed place because I’m too busy feeling justified about being depressed. In case you are wondering, this is completely fucked up.
That sounds awful. Can there be anything worse than feeling that way?
It is awful.
The only thing worse than feeling this way is *watching someone else feel this way*, for a few reasons. One, it sucks to see someone you care about suffering. Two, there isn’t much you can do about their suffering, especially if they aren’t ready to take action yet. And three, if you are prone to depression yourself, you can find that their depression is a stressor in YOUR life that can contribute to the start of your own bout with depression. And while some might say “well, if that happens, just stay away from the person until both of you are doing better”, but in some cases the separation from a person you care about can also be a stressor. I dealt with this when I was dating my husband, and it was dicey. Was I supposed to break up with him because his sadness is contributing to my own? Wait, won’t being separated also make us feel depressed? It’s truly those situations you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t – and if I knew how to deal with it I’d be a billionaire.
How do you get better?
There are all kinds of ways to skin this particular cat. For me, it’s the following:
*Admit to myself I’m depressed. This takes me longer than it should, but I’m getting better at it.
*Admit to someone ELSE I’m depressed. This makes me feel like I’m not shouldering the burden of the world all by myself.
*Ask for help. This is HUGE, and one of the most important things. Every time I’ve ever done this, it’s been well received because I am only friends with awesome people and my awesome people want to help me out. The most difficult part of this is articulating exactly what help I need, because sometimes I am too soul weary to even think about it. This is very important for people who are watching a loved one deal with depression to realize, because if you say “call me if you need anything” to a depressed person, he or she is very likely not to call you because it’s a lot of work to articulate needs. I have trained myself to realize that one of the top things I need is social interaction with someone who cares about me, so I have learned to ask for that. Once I get that, I’m better able to move forward or think of other things that will be useful.
*Eat well, and drink water. Dead animals, dead plants, and things that don’t come out of a box make me feel better over time. Quarter pounders with cheese do not.
*Exercise. I’m not doing very well on this one right now, but I am trying REALLY hard to get back on track here for several reasons. Exercise 4 or 5 times a week really makes a huge difference in my outlook. The caveat for me is that I have to downgrade my expectations some. Depression causes a lot of physical symptoms, including fatigue, and if I try to lift as much, run as fast, or work as intensely while I’m feeling depressed, it will backfire. My mantra is be gentle with myself when exercising while depressed. Maybe instead of 4c-5 times a week of Crossfit, it needs to be a couple of pilates classes, a nice walk, and two visits to Crossfit.
*Engage with something interesting. For me, this can be exercise, a sporting event, a conversation about Everything Except What Ails Me, reading an amazing book, blogging, volunteering, or … or … or. Something interesting that can transport my mind for a little bit, even if it’s only five minutes.
*See my therapist. Yeah, I have one. I don’t see her a lot, but I probably should. But I do know that I almost always feel better even just from making the appointment because it’s part of Asking For Help. I don’t love spending the money on therapy, especially because there is a big fat deductible involved before insurance pays anything, but I figure it’s cheaper to pay for a few therapy sessions than it is to pay for in-patient hospitalization so I go with it.
The one thing you do NOT see on this list is taking anti-depressants. This is not because I particularly have anything against anti-depressants, but it has more to do with my philosophy that most pills address symptoms rather than root cause, and I prefer to try non-pharmaceutical methods that seem to address root cause. If I ever run into a situation where I don’t improve using other means, then if my therapist and doctor recommend it, I will go with it.
How do you manage to keep it together?
The truth is, I don’t always manage to. But I try, and that is what sets me apart from a lot of people. I want a good life, and I have to work if I want a prayer of having it. The universe isn’t going to hand it to me.
Right now, my soul is suffering, but it suffers a little less than it did a couple of weeks ago because I am finally admitting what’s going on. Right now, I’m sad because I’m watching a couple of other friends deal with depression and other issues. In one case, the person is actively seeking help and working on things, and in another the person hasn’t gotten there yet. Both are hard to watch, but I’ve realized that if I want to be any help to them at all – assuming they even would want my help – I have to work on me first.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
Please be kind. I’m fighting a hard battle.
Are you fighting a hard battle, too?
Again, I’m not a mental health professional, but if you think you might be depressed, please do something, even if it’s just admitting to yourself and a loved one that you are having a problem.