I hate the word depression.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression in my early 20s. It runs in my family so I was never ashamed of it, knowing it is simply a chemical imbalance in my brain.
But I hate the word depression. For those who suffer from clinical depression, this word doesn’t adequately describe what a depressed person feels like. Most people think depression means sadness, and because of the ridiculousness of the English language, it does. But clinical depression is not sadness.
Clinical depression is more like the Great Depression. There is a lack, a deficit, a shortage. Clinical depression is a lack of emotion, of feelings. You don’t feel sad, you feel nothing. Feelings are opinions about what is happening around you. If you have no feelings, you have no opinion about life, and you lose interest in the things you have no opinion about. Depressed people are basically chronically bored with life and everything in it. There is no meaning. Nothing makes them happy or sad. There is no reason to do anything when you are in the throes of a depressive episode.
Every single thing is hard when you have depression. You just don’t care. It’s like being forced to go to a boring party with people you don’t know after a long day at a job you hate.
Writer Andrew Solomon said during his TED talk, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.” Depressed people don’t feel. There is no life in them. Ally Brosh (the cartoonist of Hyperbole and a Half) describes her feelings when she is depressed as dead fish. They are not missing or hiding or sick. They are dead. My sister describes her depression as a three day old helium balloon. I describe mine as feeling scooped out, hollow, just a body. There is nothing inside me.
That’s why a lot of depressed people sleep. There is literally nothing better to do. When I was in the throes of a depressive episode, I remember having terrible insomnia because I was actually afraid of how tired I was. I felt like I had been dosed with anesthesia. My limbs were heavy and I spent all day and night in bed because it was too hard to get up. I felt dead inside. The only reason I didn’t end it all was because of my family. I would lie in bed thinking about how each person in my family would react and what would happen to them. I already felt like a waste of space and didn’t want to disappoint my family even further. Any reason will do when it comes to finding one to keep going.
A lot of depressed people don’t get help. It’s too hard. The best way to help a depressed person is to help them get help. Call their insurance company and see which doctors are in their network. Set up an appointment for them and then drive them there. Ask if they want you in there to help answer questions. Those with depression have trouble making memories because oftentimes there are no feelings associated with them so it’s like memorizing the phone book. I personally have no recollection of my time spent in the emergency psych ward. My mom said she drove me there and she’s not a liar so I guess it happened. And don’t expect any gratitude from them; they don’t feel any. They don’t feel anything.
Zoloft has helped me a lot. Finding the right antidepressants can be tricky but I was lucky enough that depression runs in my family so they did all the hard work for me. My mom found Zoloft works for her and I found it works for me. But antidepressants are not the cure. In that same TED Talk, Andrew Solomon talks about how his antidepressants didn’t make him happy, but it did make it easier to make a sandwich. I love my Zoloft. I like to think of him as a really good friend who convinces me to get out of the house every now and then. But Zoloft on its own doesn’t make me happy. It just makes it possible for me to experience happiness.
Just because Zoloft makes it possible for me to be happy, doesn’t mean it does. The neural pathways that depression carved through my brain are deep and familiar roads. My first reaction to any new stimuli is that it’s stupid and meaningless. But because of Zoloft, I am able to get out of that rut and explore what each experience means to me. It takes a lot of hard work. I am currently in therapy, my third time. I take supplements like Vitamin D and magnesium citrate. I meditate with the Headspace app. I have to write incredibly detailed to do lists (with gems such as “wake up” and “go outside for ten minutes”) or I will just lie in bed all day. I start my day with an energy drink or coffee to get my energy up and I don’t drink alcohol anymore because it made my depression worse. My period is especially hard for me. No matter what I do, I will sink into a depressive episode and I just have to ride it out.
Dealing with depression is like pushing a boulder uphill. You can’t just “get the ball rolling”; it is a constant struggle and you can’t take a day off. It takes a lot of work just to feel “human,” and I feel like I exhaust myself for what appears to be so little. Or, I can do nothing and the results can be dramatic enough to wind up in the psych emergency ward. The latter can seem tempting, especially when other people belittle your depression. Telling someone to ‘get over’ their depression or ‘just get up’ or ‘just smile’ or ‘just try’ is like telling someone to ‘just win’ a marathon and not caring that they’ve just run for 24 hours straight. A non-depressed person thinks a depressed person who watches TV all day is lazy. A depressed person is proud they made it to the couch. But when someone tells them they are lazy, they see that huge triumph and realize it was worthless, so again, what’s the point? They have no confidence in themselves and then someone comes along and tells them that their best isn’t worth shit. When I am in a depressive episode, I find myself wishing there was some physical sign. I want to point to a huge bruise on my chest and say, “See?” to all who doubt me.
Dealing with clinical depression makes me stronger. Fighting an outside force is easy because you have something to attack, an enemy that must be defeated. With depression, my thoughts are my enemy. I have to fight differently when I’m fighting myself. I can’t attack blindly like some kid pushing all the buttons on the controller. It has to be more nuanced. It’s the difference between water boarding my enemy versus sitting down and finding some common ground. I’ve found I’ve developed incredible empathy and sympathy towards myself and others.
It’s not all bad. I’ve come to appreciate my depression. I’m incredibly grateful for anything that makes me feel something. Pain and sadness are actually good things because it means I’m alive. Joy takes my breath away. My depression has also made me funny. In the deep throes of my depression, I am a clinical scientist examining the human species around me and I’ve come away with some spot-on observations.
Most people do things they don’t want to do all the time. I find I am almost physically incapable. Depression strips away the bullshit from my life. I only do the things I want to do with the people I want to do them with. I’ve been called a bitch, told I am rude, and ignored. It used to bother me, but now I see these people are searching for meaning just like me.
Most difficult job I ever had was working at Target. I worked with people in their mid 50s who have been there their whole lives. I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew that living a mediocre life would kill me. And I knew that I would be the one to put myself out of my own misery. And so I quit my job, moved back into my parents’ house, and started my writing career. If I didn’t have depression pushing me, I probably never would have done it. We all have dreams. The consequences for not pursuing those dreams leads to regret. For most people, that’s the end of it. For depressed people, that regret could kill them.
And so, I hate the word depression. I’m not sad. Depression just makes it impossible for me to ignore that empty spot inside us all.