What “I’m Tired” Really Means When You’re Living With Depression
Tired is a word too simple to fully explain depression.
Every human can understand what it means to be tired. We all need our sleep and sometimes life gets in the way. We are an over-caffeinated society, always trying to fit more into a 24-hour day than we realistically can. Any number of us have uttered the phrase “I’m tired” in response to “How are you?”. But when I say I’m tired, I usually invoke an inflection suggesting it’s the tired-you-understand-from-being-too-busy-for-8-hours-of-sleep when I really mean I’m-so-exhausted-you-can’t-fathom-it-so-I-won’t-explain. Let me take the time to explain it now.
No matter how much sleep I get, I still feel like I need more because I live with depression. And sometimes this means sleeping for 12–14 hours on the weekends. My roommates showed concern when I moved into my apartment a year ago, but they got used to it. Yet, even those nights of sleep that end up being half of days, it’s still never enough.
Depression’s Physical Symptoms
Tiredness just doesn’t sum up the real, deeper experience of depression. Exhaustion is the closest stand-alone word I can come up with to represent this phenomenon associated with depression. It goes beyond sleep, it’s the piercing headache, the nausea, the sore or tight muscles, this feeling of my body being dead-weight, just wanting to lay in bed until it all passes.
And in sleep we still have dreams. I am fortunate to not typically have full-on nightmares, but things that haunt me certainly come up enough. So sometimes sleep itself doesn’t feel like rest. My exhaustion is often a feeling of wanting to put life on pause, like a pure dreamless sleep.
The word tired also can’t fully capture the brain fog of depression. I am a focused person for the most part, able to concentrate for extended periods of time. Except when the depression is really kicking. It’s that feeling of a word being on the tip of your tongue, except it’s more like full thoughts are there but it takes extra effect to reach them. It’s harder to concentrate and takes longer to get work done than it normally would.
My point through all of this complaining that I hope didn’t make you click away is that depression is more than being sad and tired. It is a disease just like any other that comes with many physical symptoms. And diseases take no days off to help you catch up on the sleep that you always seem to need more of.
The Mental Strain
With depression being a mood disorder, the exhaustion goes beyond the physical into mental fatigue. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), it’s draining for me to handle overwhelming situations. This intersects with my depression because I already have a lower threshold for dealing with life. Being out and about all day or even having too many lights on can drain me quickly. It’s a fine line to walk because doing nothing makes my depression worse but doing too much depletes my energy.
Part of this is that I can’t handle excess time with people where I have to force myself to have the energy of a “normal” person. Living in our world requires people like me, an HSP introvert with depression, to deal with an energetic society. I think most people with depression can relate to the struggle of pushing yourself to find the energy to live a positive life, even if at the end of the day you are drained.
And then there is the mental irritability of feeling like I’ve reached my limit when it comes to dealing with my emotions and problems. Of course, there are a lot more deep-seated problems at the root of depression that weigh on us. Whether it’s grief, trauma, stress, or any other struggles, emotional hardship is something that sleep alone cannot heal.
Overcoming the Exhaustion
If you made it this far, thank you for listening to my depressing musings. I promise it gets better here. For a while now I’ve resonated with spoon theory, which describes how those living with chronic or mental illness wake up each day with a certain level of energy, represented by spoons. Throughout the day, we use up our spoons, having to decide how best to give them away. The number of spoons we carry varies daily. So I must consider what I need and want to use my spoons for on any given day.
I cannot do everything, but each day I can do something. I can prioritize and use my spoons wisely. Each of use must conserve and best utilize our energy, it’s just an added challenge when depression can deplete you quickly. Focusing on one thing at a time helps.
Given part of this experience is physical, medication can help for some. I have been on antidepressants for a few years now and have found it to be a game-changer. It adjusts my baseline hormones, helping me start the day with a few more spoons than I would have without it. It helps minimize the level of physical symptoms I deal with so I can better attack the emotional ones.
I am at a stable place with my depression because I’ve learned my limits and triggers. I do my best to take care of myself and honor how I’m feeling so I don’t get so exhausted all the time. I’m working on not feeling guilty when I’m being unproductive because taking care of myself is productive in a way that’s also important. I know that when I give myself moments of peace, such as reading a book or watching a show, it helps me handle whatever is happening in my life.
Oftentimes that extra bit of self-care does include more sleep. Sleep helps even when “tired” doesn’t fully cover it. While I do live in the City That Never Sleeps, I cherish cozying up in bed long before the Empire State Building’s light show dims.