Depression: Ten Things You Should Know
On Monday, August 10th, 2014, I lost my current battle with depression. Not the war, mind you, that I’ve been fighting my whole life, but this particular battle I’ve been struggling with since my daughter left to live with her dad on the other side of the country in August 2013.
As far as good decisions go, moving her was best for her. She had too much history of being bullied here, of being let down by schools who never seemed to punish her bullies but always punished her reaction when she’d had enough. We moved her, because we are lucky enough to have the option of allowing her a fresh start. And for that I will be eternally grateful.
However, my broken heart fed that mostly managed demon in my head, and this battle in a war I’ve fought for the entirety of my life began.
I tell you this, because in light of Robin Williams’ rather public death, we have a unique opportunity to have an honest conversation about depression. And in that vein of thinking, this is my top ten things I wish people who do not suffer from depression could understand.
1. We Don’t Stop Being Depressive
Being depressed is a 24/7 condition. It is a constantly daily battle with our brains on a good day when nothing else is going wrong. Add in any stressors or other medical conditions, and that battle is like fighting while trudging through mud up to your knees. We have to continue to fight, because we know if we stop, if we just rest a minute, we’re going to sink into the abyss.
And climbing out of there can take days, if we’re lucky, as long as years, if we’re not.
Triggers determine the difference between a good day and a bad one.
I’ve had more than a dozen times where I have felt okay, and then the voice in my head will whisper, “Couldn’t keep her safe, could you? What kind of mother are you? A shitty one.” Sometimes I can tell that voice to STFU. But sometimes I really can’t, and that becomes all I can focus on until I can again.
2. We Feel Guilty About Being Happy
If you ask me if I’m happy, I’ll tell you that I am. Really, sincerely for the first time in my life, I am honestly happy with my life. I am loved by my amazing husband and children. I have a great network of friends who support me. I am well-respected within my work scenes.
And I feel absolutely guilty about it.
We’re used to being ‘less’, so when we find something that makes us ‘more’, we usually try to enjoy it with a sense of wary caution. After all, experience has shown us that the other shoe will eventually drop, and it will be like an anvil to the head. Why? Because we don’t deserve this happiness. We should know our place and just stay there, worthless scum that we are.
That’s why telling us, “But you have so much to be happy about!”, you are only feeding the guilt that we’re already carrying around.
3. If You Can See We’re Depressed, We’re Losing the Battle
We are master thespians, we depressed folk, and we know how to be ‘on’ for the rest of the world when we have to be, like at work or friend/family functions. It’s a mask that we wear, because we know if we don’t then:
a. We’re not going to survive the day,
b. It’s easier to pretend to be someone else than deal with our demons, and
c. If we let you see, then we have to explain, and explaining is exhausting.
I’m not sure what it is, but every time I am depressed, people outside my circle of friends feel this entitlement to know every nuance of ‘why’ I’m depressed. As if they have the ability I don’t to figure out how to ‘fix’ me, if they just have every detail.
Except that they can’t ‘fix’ me. There is no ‘fixing’ depressed people. We can manage our disease, but we cannot be cured. And you are not entitled to know what very personal trigger set off this episode.
So I wear a mask instead, and 9 times out of 10, it works. It fools you into that complacent ‘I don’t have to get involved’ state. I get to muddle through, and you get to go back to your life.
But on the occasion that I cannot get the mask on just right and you notice, it means I’m losing that battle. It means I am struggling with everything I’ve got to keep myself together, because I have to work. I have children who depend on me to be present. I have people who depend on me to do my part.
4. Depression affects E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G
You’ve seen the commercial for ‘Depression Hurts’? Not only does depression cause physical issues with our bodies, it can make any other medical issues we may have worse and harder to treat. It can make sleep a combat event, if we get to sleep at all. It also shortens our fuse to an irrational rage at trivial nonsense.
Depression can steal away your creativity and drive. It siphons the precious little energy we have in brain fogginess, inability to focus, downward spiral of job performance, and bad decision making. Doesn’t make it okay, but I have done things in a bad depressive state that I would never do when I was well-managed. Ever. Why?
Because when you’re in a bad depressive episode, it’s usually a toss up between feeling everything and feeling nothing. (And sometimes that means knowing you should feel something, but being a wreck because you are unable to touch that bauble of emotion.) So we go to what we know will either dull the sensory overload or let us feel something.
Let me clarify: I am not making excuses for our negative aspects or behavior. I am explaining that these are part of our disease. We already know we’re screwing it up, thanks.
5. Your Good Intentions Confirm Our Sense of Worthlessness
We know you mean well, but man…Let me break it down for you.
“Just choose to be happy” Cos we’re actively ‘choosing’ to be miserable? We can ‘choose’ to pretend to be happy, but when we do that, it’s for you, so that you stop telling us that the only thing keeping us from not feeling like giant steaming piles of shit is that decision.
“[Insert terrible thing that happened last week], but I don’t let it affect my day.” Good for you. I envy you the ability to separate out the facets of your life, so that you can function like a normal human being. I do not have that ability, because my disease is not logical and infiltrates every part of my thought process. If I could do it, I would. I don’t, so I’m here, working my ass off as best as I can.
“Exercise more. You’ll feel tons better.” Or diet. Or go on vacation. Or…the list goes on and on. I know we humans are inately insistent on fixing our fellow humans, but this is really hard for us.
One, we’ve already considered all the possible fixes, and we’ve probably tried them all. And you know what? Everything is a bandaid for this gushing wound. There is no long term ‘fix’. And anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to themselves.
Two, the idea that you think we haven’t already exhausted the resources we know we have is demeaning, whether you mean it to be or not. In our heads, we’re screaming at you, “How am I doing it wrong? I must’ve done that suggestion wrong, because I still think I’m worthless!”
“If I had your life, I wouldn’t be depressed.” Not sure if this is part of the ‘You have so much to be happy for’ thing, but if you had my life, then you’d have my depression, and you’d sure as hell would be depressed. And I honestly have a love/hate relationship with my life. See #2.
There are so many more, but I hope you get the point. We know you’re trying to help, to love someone as broken as we are the best you can (and the most we’ll let you), but for the millionth time:
You cannot fix us.
6. We’re Usually the Most Loyal of Friends
Just about every depressed person I know will give the shirt off their back to help another friend in need. Even when we’re in crisis (if we know and can manage to get out of bed, and sometimes we can do it from our beds. Thank you, technology!).
Why? Because we know what it is to be at the bottom of life, looking up at that speck of light from the hole we’re sitting in. Self-made or life-made, everyone could use a little help getting up and out.
I know, I know, you’re thinking, “So, you clearly know how to get out…” The thing is it’s not that simple. We don’t believe we are worthy of getting better, but damn, if we don’t think every single one of you are.
7. We HATE Burdening You With Our Problem
I have an amazing support system. All you have to do is read my wall this week. And amid all the offers of help (and most were offers of a listening ear), all I can manage is ‘Thank you.’ Not because I think they’re insincere or nosy busybodies, but because I know they have things going on of their own. And I don’t want to burden them with this pain.
Which, again, illogical, because most of us depressive folks are the first to tell our friends, “You need me, you call me. I am always here for you.”
All I can tell you is to keep offering. Don’t be pushy about it. Don’t say, “You’ll feel better if you just get it out”. Just remind us that we are worthy and you are there whenever we’re ready to reach out.
And hey, sometimes just knowing you’re there makes a little of our darkness go away.
8. Depression Does Not Equal Suicidal
I am severely depressed right now. While I have been suicidal in the past, some 20+ years ago when I was a teenager, I am currently not. I have too many things I need to do still. I have kids to raise, books to write, TARDIS to paint, people to love, and networks to build! And that’s just the easy stuff!
We can be depressed without the urge to kill ourselves. Think of a Venn diagram: one circle is depressed people, the other suicidal people. Mush them partially together, and you have the depressed people who are suicidal. It’s not all of us — though many of us have considered it, and some of us have a history of previous failed attempts (hooray for being failures!) — so please, for the love of all things sacred, do not let the first thing that comes out of your mouth when you find out we’re having an episode be:
“OMG, are you going to kill yourself?”
You should only be concerned if we start giving our personal belongings away. Or if we specifically talk about trying to kill ourselves. Or we’re suddenly reconnecting with people to make amends for wrongs we think we did against them. Or we don’t return calls, emails or texts. But even then, just tell us you’re concerned about us and do we need you to help us get help.
And if we say that, yes, we need help, please follow through.
9. Your Sad and Our Sad Are Painfully Different
This is probably one of my biggest pet peeves. I’m not saying that my constant issues with depression trump your dog dying last week. I am saying that they are different and should not be compared.
When you do decide to compare how you managed to move on from your dog dying, your parent’s medical issues, how [insert random event] was so stressful, to my struggle to keep my head above water without any undue stress, in my head I want to scream:
I’m not you! I cannot just ‘move on’! If I could, don’t you think I would? Do you think I like feeling like a complete and total failure at life, because I cannot do this one thing and get past all the guilt and self-doubt and self-hate over this issue which clearly isn’t a big issue for you?
I don’t, of course, because it wouldn’t do anything good. You still wouldn’t understand, and now you’d just look at me like I’m insane. And you’re going to treat me differently for the rest of our interactions. And instead of blaming you for being insensitive, I will now focus solely on my inability to do what you want and be normal.
10. Genuine Happiness Does Not Equal Cure
My second biggest pet peeve: “Yesterday, you were all happy. Really depressed people aren’t ever happy.” WTF ever. We are allowed our happy moments. We are amazingly great in celebrating life milestones, birthdays, promotions (even ours), and all the great parts of being human.
However, that does not mean we are ‘cured’ of our depression. It really just means that we won the battle for the day and manage to carve a little goodness out for those we love. The war is still ongoing, but even the battle weary can have good days.
So, where do we go from here?
The best thing you can do for us is be there. Be patient. Be compassionate. Remind us to eat. Let us sleep. Buy us a book. Nudge us to come out of the darkness when we’re able. Be a safe place where we can cry hysterically at night. Forgive our irrational anger. Help us find our worthiness, even temporarily.
Let us grieve our losses, however trivial they may seem to you. Don’t look at us like we’re crazy. Buy us a coffee or tea and sit on a park bench with us in silence. Remind us that you’re our 2am friend. Don’t pretend you know our struggle. Just respect it and support us. Listen without trying to fix it. Hugs. Fresh baked goods. Kleenex in your house.
It really is the little things. And we’ll be ever so grateful.