Psst, there’s a difference
There are plenty of terms related to mental illness that get tossed around regularly in general parlance. I’m thinking along the lines of: “I’m so depressed my favourite lipstick shade was discontinued!” “She’s so bipolar!” “He’s so OCD!” “I’m so anxious right now!”
English dictionaries aren’t particularly helpful when it comes to separating normal experience from illness. The first definition that Google gives for the word depressed is “(of a person) in a state of general unhappiness or despondency.” The first synonyms it gives are “sad, saddened, unhappy, gloomy, and glum.” That could be almost anyone (and/or their dog) at some point in time.
I wouldn’t have paid much attention to semantics in the past, but then mental illness entered my life. After major depressive disorder snuck up and tackled me to the ground, I started taking word choices a lot more seriously.
When I get sick, I can get very sick–hospitalizations, suicide attempts, the whole kit and caboodle. It’s a whole different creature than someone talking about temporary low mood because of a situational issue. If I tell someone I have depression and they get a mental image of me sitting at home in pyjamas watching Bridget Jones with a glass of wine in one hand and a container of Haagen Dazs in the other hand, we’re really not comparing apples to apples.
How does one avoid that situation, though? Major depressive disorder is not within the realm of experience of many people. When people tell me “chin up”, “you need to choose happiness”, “try to think positive”, or “you should try exercising more”, they’re talking to the Bridget Jones-watching creature that they’re imagining me to be. When they say “I was really depressed too when I didn’t get the bonus I was expecting at work”, they’re trying to connect on that same Bridget Jones-watching level.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Bridget Jones scenario. It actually sounds like a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
But what is the right way to explain the difference between feeling depressed as an emotion and having depression as an illness? Does it require a bit of weird humble bragging along the lines of “I’ve been in hospital X number of times”, or “I’ve tried to kill myself X number of times”? That doesn’t seem like a great conversation starter, though.
When people experience low mood or struggle with difficult events, that’s entirely valid. When they use that experience as a basis to commiserate with my illness by saying “I know what you mean” or “I’ve been through the same thing”, that invalidates my experience, which is entirely unhelpful.
If there was one thing I wish people knew about the difference between feeling depressed and having depression, it would be that feeling sad/depressed is only a part of having a depressive illness. Sometimes it’s only a small part of the overall illness. Other times, sadness is not part of the symptom mix at all.
If I had magical powers over the English language, I would remove words like depressed and anxious from the everyday language of emotions. Their common usage implies a false apples to apples comparison that makes it all too easy to underestimate the severity of these disorders. I’m thinking more along the lines of comparing apples to an apple tree falling down and destroying part of your house.
I’m not trying to be the language police. When it comes to stigma, for the most part I think that words are a convenient thing to latch onto rather than the words being the source of stigma. When it comes to lack of awareness, though, ambiguous words can perpetuate ambiguous ideas and assumptions.
Words, depending on the meanings we attach to them, can bring up closer or take us further apart. Perhaps the most important thing is not to assume. Listen. Ask questions. The only way we can truly understand someone else’s experience is if they share it with us.