Say My Name: Talking About Depression
Recently, I saw a woman post in a Facebook group that she was so depressed yesterday and cried for about 30 hours. My first reaction was that’s weird because there aren’t 30 hours in a day. Then I thought, when I was depressed, I wish I would have been able to cry that long because I would have felt better and that might mean I wasn’t depressed at all. I don’t know if this woman had depression, because I couldn’t determine if she used the term casually or had an actual diagnosis but her statement it made me think about how we talk about depression. If you’ve never been depressed, really, clinically depressed, you might not understand what depression actually is and what it isn’t.
Depression Isn’t Sadness
Sadness is an emotion, a reaction to life events that comes and goes quickly depending on the event. Even the loss of a loved one, a tremendously sad event, can be interspersed with joy, anger, laughter and calm. Emotions are ephemeral.
Depression does not come and go. It is pervasive in all parts of life and sticks with you from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed. During this time you can feel sadness, joy, anger but more than likely all of those emotions are dulled, numbed, pushed down so you don’t feel much of anything. Depression can effect people differently, but when I was at my lowest, most depressed state I felt nothing. I would give anything to feel sadness because sadness is normal.
I remember when I was depressed that I would give anything to cry. Other people many have different reactions to depression, but I knew that it numbed me emotionally and made it difficult to interact with anyone or anything on an emotional level. It was just as impossible to find sadness as joy in every day life. I have a few self-tests to determine my mental wellness so I can compare my average brain to one affected by illness.
Depression Is Chronic
Emotions change in response to events quickly and sometimes wantonly, flipping from joy to sorrow, anger to fear. Depression is chronic, a long term condition that does not change much over the weeks, months, clouding the mind, stopping the thoughts and emotions of a healthy person. If you feel ok after 30 hours, it’s probably not depression. If you can draw a clear line of where it starts and stops, then you are probably not depressed.
One of the dangers about depression is that it can feel normal and when you’re in the fog of a depressed state, you begin to believe this is the normal way of being. I found it incredibly hard to get help for depression because I began to believe that it was normal for me to be in a numbing fog for a long time. I didn’t understand that this was not normally and I tried to rationalize the existing of depression as just another day. But as days became weeks, became months I eventually conceded that something was going on.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Depression
If you’re not depressed, it’s easy to use “depressed” and “depression” casually to discuss sadness or a lower mood. “I was so depressed yesterday” seems like a banal statement, but the casual uses of depression diminish the seriousness of the illness. As with many instances of mental illness, it’s easy to not understand the illness if you’ve never had it. Throwing around the word depressed in daily conversation as a synonym for sadness or bored or in a bad mood confuses the seriousness of the illness with an emotion.
Imagine that you tell a friend about a recent diagnosis with brain cancer and he or she responds with “me too, I had a headache all day yesterday.” That’s how many people react to depression. Even though most people haven’t had cancer, they know they don’t have cancer and would not equate a symptom with a disease. But in our culture, we do this with mental illness frequently. We equate moodiness with bipolar disorder, sadness with depression, fear with anxiety. We throw around words like schizo and psycho and manic and multiple personalities all of the time without giving those conditions their due respect. Mental illness isn’t a temporary condition. It’s a serious problem that is minimized when we treat it casually.
I am just as guilty as everyone about casual use of mental illness terms. For me it’s easy to use mental illness as a metaphor, short-hand for an issue or situation. We can talk about cancer and heart attacks and allergies in a metaphorical way because there’s a more clear delineation on what is metaphor and what is actual illness. When someone says, “that just gave me a heart attack,” we can generally assume they’re comparing the shock to the seriousness of a heart attack, but not the actual medical condition. With mental illness, it’s much more difficult. The lines are blurred and we don’t have as deep an understanding as mental illness as physical illness. If we catch each other, help each other out, engage in deeper discussion we can give depression the respect it deserves.
Keep the Conversation Going
Even if we don’t talk about depression in the most respectful way and even if we don’t give it the gravity it deserves, it’s better to talk about it and end the stigma than repressing it. For too long people have been reluctant to talk about mental illness because of the stigma of being crazy and being blamed. As a society we should continue to talk about depression, the symptoms, the causes, the treatments to better understand it and elevate it to the serious condition that it is.▪️
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