How We Learn to Be Blind to Our Depression
After living through three months of suicidal depression last year, I said I would always remember my symptoms, and never let myself feel that awful again.
Now, after five weeks of hiding my inability to crawl out of bed after lying awake for hours, shame and self-hatred for petty mistakes, lack of motivation to even wash a single dish, and apathetic listlessness, I realize that seeing my own depression isn’t as simple as I thought.
Depressive relapse and recurrence seem like they would be so obvious to diagnose. If we’ve recently experienced a traumatic event — the death of a loved one, or a divorce — depression is predictable.
But depression doesn’t always have a definite cause.
If it were so easy to understand, its falsehoods would be struck down on the spot, rather than seeping into our minds thought by thought.
The dividing line between “depression” and “relative normalcy” is less of a line in the sand, and more like the edge of the tides. Look at a list of depression symptoms: almost any warning sign in isolation can be excused as a normal change in mood.
It could start as a slight decline in energy. On another occasion, some uncharitable thoughts about how worthless or stupid we are flicker through our minds. Fatigue? Who hasn’t complained about being fatigued at the end of the day, or woken up on the wrong side of the bed at times?
Depression doesn’t always appear as abject despair or lifelessness.
It can be a quiet desperation to get the duties of life over with. We finish the bare minimum of the tasks we need to do, but we’re not driven by any motivation or desire.
Even meaningful activities are as inspiring as entries on a janitor’s cleaning checklist.
Whatever emotions we have are run through a mental trash compactor, smothered and made minuscule, so they’re easy to bag up and ignore as needed. Even if we seem happy and social throughout the day, by the time we get home, to recall that happiness feels like looking at pictures of tropical beaches during a hailstorm.
One day passes where we don’t bother doing the dishes, because it’s just a menial chore, and there are a hundred other things we could be working on. But at some point we can’t get drinking water from the sink, for fear of dislodging a Jenga tower of plates. To imagine washing each and every piece of the pile is exhausting, and so is the mounting anxiety of seeing those incomplete responsibilities increase.
But every time the symptoms worsen — when we feel drained at the prospect of shopping for groceries, when a hint of loneliness is ignored and stuffed away — there’s a ready excuse, waiting to be called upon.
“I have to work this hard. I need to get over myself and just get my job done.”
“I don’t have time to worry about feeling bad.”
“If I constantly sound angry at myself, it’s because I deserve it. I can’t even get out of bed on time — of course I’m worthless.”
“My friends are too busy for me to reach out and talk to them. They probably wouldn’t be interested in talking to me anyway, so why bother?”
We can keep clinging to normalcy, and watch the water level rise and claim what ground we have to stand on.
By the time an undeniable cause for alarm appears, like suicidal ideation, what used to be unthinkable appears a sensible reaction to our deprived state of existence.
In short, we learn to “unsee” depression.
If you’re nearsighted or farsighted, you are probably familiar with the astonishment of seeing the world anew. When I first wore my glasses, it felt like an mundane form of magic. I didn’t have to squish myself against the register at a restaurant to see the prices on menu signs. A forest vista — which used to resemble a sea of blobby spinach soup — became an expanse of trees in myriad hues, tinged by vivid sunlight.
I realized that at some indeterminate point in my life, I had forgotten what it was like to see clearly.
Even now, I can’t notice the infinitesimal loss of sight with every day that passes. It is only after remembering to visit an optometrist that I rediscover how surprising it is to see, with vivid detail, what was already in front of my eyes just moments before.
What we see is more compelling than how we see, and that makes us unable to tell when something is wrong with the way we are seeing.
Every person’s status quo starts with a few slow, incremental steps.
You complete a task so minuscule it appears useless, like exercising for 5 minutes. You make a compromise so modest that it appears harmless, like giving up on your plans to take a walk so you can catch up on emails.
You lose or gain just a little, every single day.
But if you keep spending each day in a certain manner, it is inevitable that your entire life will change.
This incremental decline also applies to depression.
For better or for worse, we learn to cope with our diminished sense of feeling while being depressed: like a myopic person using a pinhole between their fingers to see, and trying to shuffle around without stumbling into the nearest coffee table or chair.
Why do we continue to grit our teeth and endure living, rather than trying to see as clearly as we did before?
It’s because self-deception feels like a shield — something that will stave off depression and its consequences as long as we keep our defenses raised.
I feared the moment I lowered that shield, I would be branded as a depressive, as a failure of an adult who couldn’t live up to my responsibilities.
The costs of relapsing are too high, so we appeal to the consequences: “Depression isn’t happening to me, because I can’t afford for it to happen.”
It’s easy to rationalize that adulthood means working hard enough to be fatigued all the time, weary of life. Tired of hearing people ask how we’re doing. Tired of buying the groceries. Tired of making phone calls. Tired of having to wake up in the morning.
Suffering becomes something to tolerate, or worse, something we think we deserve.
We try not to be controlled by our feelings — but through denying them, the line between each emotion becomes blurry, until life appears as an indistinct and formless haze.
If we take stoicism and endurance of suffering to an extreme, every day becomes an enemy to be vanquished, and every glimpse of emotional vulnerability is an obstacle that must be snuffed out.
That is not maturity. That is not nobility. It is a form of emotional blindness.
Being depressed sucks.
But the only thing that could make depression more intolerably painful, and an even greater source of self-hatred and exhaustion, is to be unwilling to admit when it is happening to us.