Living With Depression: Hope


[Content note: depression and suicide]

This is my series on depression and what it’s actually like beyond the DSM symptoms. It’s not meant to reflect anyone’s experience but my own, although I’m sure plenty of people will identify with it. If things were completely different for you and you feel comfortable sharing, the comments section’s all yours. Previous posts in the series are here.

The title of this post is “Living With Depression: Hope,” but because of the bit before the colon, the part after it is hard to come by.

One of the main ways in which depression differs from sadness or “the blues” is the pervasive loss of hope that its sufferers experience. When you’re depressed, you don’t merely feel bad; you know beyond a doubt that you will always feel bad. You don’t have evidence for this, but the strength of your conviction is so great that you automatically attribute it to accuracy. After all, if it weren’t absolutely true that you will always feel this bad, why else would you be so certain of it?

That’s one of many ways in which the depressed brain tricks you.

Unfortunately, the hopelessness of depression isn’t limited to big-picture questions like whether or not you will eventually feel better. It affects every little thing. You will never make friends. You will never find a partner. You will never have sex again. You will never get a job. You will never get into graduate school. You will never find a place to live that you like. You will never reconcile with your family. You will never get in shape. You will never get these damn errands finished.

(This also means that it’s impossible to tell the difference between what’s actually unattainable and what merely feels that way. I recently told my mother that one of the reasons I chose not to go for a PhD was because there’s absolutely no way I could’ve made it into a doctoral program given my lack of research experience. My mother pointed out that I’d said the same thing about the master’s program to which I will soon be merrily on my way. It’s true. I did say that. I also said that I will never get into Northwestern and never get any summer internships and never find a partner and never find a way to move to New York City. Sometimes I think that I’ll never get married or never be able to get a fulltime job. Which of these are based on a skeptical assessment of the evidence, and which are not? Who knows.)

This is going to sound ridiculous when I say it this way, but imagine knowing for certain that every little bit of your life will always be bad. Imagine if someone traveled back in time from the future and told you that you are going to fail at everything and you will never be happy and nobody will ever like you. Got it? Now try to live out the rest of that life.

That is depression.

When you look at it that way, suicide becomes a little easier to understand. One of the many things healthy people don’t get about suicide is how you could want to end your life for good just because of a “temporary setback” or “when things might get better” or “without knowing how life will turn out.” People call suicide a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Sure, that’s how it looks to a healthy person. But to a depressed person, it’s not a temporary problem. It’s a permanent problem. You do know exactly how life will turn out and it will turn out terribly.

This is why it’s so patently ridiculous to me when people start going on about “Yeah well how can you really know if it’s depression or just sadness I mean aren’t we sort of medicalizing a normal emotion.” This is why it’s so clear that these people have no clue what they’re talking about. I’ve spent a lot of time being depressed and I’ve also spent a lot of time being sad. When I’m sad, my thought process goes like this: “Blah, it’s really fucking sad to be leaving behind my life in Chicago with all these friends I have and all the places I like to go. I will never have these things in my life in this way again. This is really fucking sad. I can’t wait till the move to NYC is over because then I’ll get to acclimate to a new life and it won’t feel as bad to have left this one behind.”

When I’m depressed, my thought process is more like this: “THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING GOOD ABOUT CHRISTMAS BREAK ENDING AND HAVING TO GO BACK TO CHICAGO. I HATE EVERYTHING THERE. Yeah, I guess I have friends there, but they probably don’t even like me. My classes will probably suck this quarter (yeah I picked them myself but whatever everything I choose for myself always ends up being shitty). The weather fucking sucks and I can’t stand it anymore. I’ll just sit in my apartment alone like a loser. Fuck my life.”

But here’s the thing: when Christmas break ended and I went back to Chicago, it was…fine. I adjusted, as I always do. But in the days leading up to break ending, I was absolutely unable to see that that would happen. It didn’t matter that I’d had the same thoughts at the end of every break. It didn’t matter that I had the same thoughts as I prepared to go home for break, from where I was now so reluctant to leave.

Nothing mattered. I had lost hope. Hopelessness was the default state in which I lived most of the time.

But without hope, there’s no way to be happy or even content. If things are going poorly for you right now, you’re convinced that they will always be that way. If things are going well, you’re convinced that it could all end at any time and your future seems grim.

Without hope, something as mundane as returning to school from Christmas break feels like an insurmountable obstacle. Without hope, my upcoming move to NYC would have me completely paralyzed with dread and anxiety (and I have to say, it’s pretty difficult even with hope).

Without hope, treating your depression feels pointless. Why make the effort when you already “know” it’s not going to help? Without hope, platitudes about “looking on the bright side” are pointless, because depression is an illness that literally prevents you from ever looking on the bright side. Telling a person with depression to try to be hopeful or to try to believe that things will get better is like telling a person with diabetes to consider trying to produce more insulin.

As of a few days ago, my depression has been subclinical for about a year. This means that I don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I do not have major depression. I have recovered.

I do have many of its symptoms, some in mild forms and some a little stronger. So to say that I’m not at all depressed is probably inaccurate. In any case, though, the past year has been an experiment in learning to have hope again–hope that I will adjust just fine to my move in a few weeks (!!!!!!!!), hope that I’ll like my new graduate program, hope that I’ll be able to pay my bills, hope that I’ll get a job when this is all over, hope that my life will slowly start to resemble, however crudely, the vision I have had for it.

This means trying to see clearly through the fog that has hung like a curtain in front of my eyes since childhood, and occasionally getting a peak behind that curtain. We are all, of course, largely ignorant when it comes to predicting our own futures, but the important thing is to have the ability to make predictions that don’t make us want to curl up under the covers and cry.

Comments

  1. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    When you’re depressed, you don’t merely feel bad; you know beyond a doubt that you will always feel bad.

    Yup.

  2. CaitieCat says

    Exactly. EXACTLY.

    For me, it’s not just the lack of hope: it’s the distance from my body for all emotions and feelings.

    I lose interest in sex, almost completely. I often can’t tell if I’m hungry until I get a headache from being hungry. I have a hard time remembering what I like about being with my friends, so I just don’t see them. I have ideas for things I want to do, but I never feel the old enthusiasm to paint, or write, or compose music, or pretty much anything. Making blog posts, even.

    It’s like being outside my body a lot, trying to get back in, but feeling the distance, the numb foggy gap between me and the place where my emotions are.

    The only ones that seem to get through are sad, afraid, stressed, and desperate. They seem to have the golden ticket to get into my head and play with the Oompa-Loompas there, singing unpleasant songs in my head. Actually, they’re more like the Grunka-Lunkas from that episode of Futurama. This leads to bad things, of course, because “dealing with life” when you’re poor tends to be all about the afraid and desperate and stressed, and the inability to cope with those leads to procrastination of dealing with things that cause them, which in general leads to more of them as your life falls apart.

    I really appreciate you writing this series, because it really helps hearing that other people know that same awfulness, and the total impossibility of “just cheering up”, or “do something fun that you love”, or all the other well-meaning advice from people who don’t know.

    • Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

      I often can’t tell if I’m hungry until I get a headache from being hungry.

      Oh, this too. I’ll literally pass out from hunger because it won’t have occurred to me to eat something – I’ll just stand up and *whump* I wake up a few minutes later on the floor. Or I’ll get nauseous and headachey from thirst – I keep bottles of water around my desk and bed for this one.

      • CaitieCat says

        Been there, totally. My only defence against starvation and dehydration both is Coke, where my addiction is strong enough that I will usually remember to have one open.

        It’s kind of astonishing, honestly, that given my weight and Coke consumption, I’m not diabetic.

        The number of people answering this is also, in its way, helpful, because it helps to know that if I’m full of teh crazy, at least I’m not the only one. Thank you, everyone.

      • nightside says

        Huh! I have the opposite, I used to go on eating binges, just to do something and because it made me feel a bit better. This feeling lasted until the last bite was gone, after which I felt bad again, because I was going to get fatter & uglier now. Stupid thing was, sometimes I’d have gone to the cupboard with the snacks and stuffed myself, with only after being conscious of what I’d just done.

        • Snebo says

          Unfortunately I am with you on this one. I can gauge the depth of a depressive swing pretty accurately by counting trips to the fridge. And exactly like you it has a snowball effect. Each snack makes me feel worse about myself and therefore hungrier. It really sucks.

          @Miri I haven’t commented on FTB in a year or so and never on your blog but you described the problem so perfectly that I had to take the time to respond. I get frustrated with people that don’t understand (or worse, denigrate) my actions and I’ve never been able to describe what I go through in a way that they can grasp. Whether or not this will help me communicate my dilemma remains to be seen but it has helped me understand myself a bit better and for that I can not thank you enough.

  3. keri says

    The “temporary problem” thing…thank you so much for stating that.

    I know people mean well, but when I see platitudes like that on blogs or tweets or wherever of folks trying to help, well…I feel more like it’s “help” and “trying” with scarequotes, and that they really have no idea what they’re talking about. For example, The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, is very popular and she often tweets or blogs about depression and anxiety, and it was a big theme in her book. But I had to stop reading anything she writes after a month of it, because her constant It Gets Better! platitudes just made me feel worse.

    The other thing people always say that upsets me is that suicide is ultimately one of the most selfish acts. And that just makes me cry, because when I’m considering suicide, it’s because I’m tired of being such a horrible drain on my family and friends, and making their lives worse for being in it.

    I’m nearly 30 and was first diagnosed when I was 12, but likely have been depressed since I was quite small (though it’s so hard to pinpoint for little kids). There have hardly been two months together in the last 18 years when I have not been depressed. A year and a half ago I started a new SNRI that isn’t even approved for depression, and at first it worked really well, but I seem to be developing resistance to it. I’m worried that the little bit of energy and hope I’ve gained with it will go away again, permanently. I don’t want to be actively desiring death again, because I don’t think I’ll be able to convince myself to fight it anymore, and it doesn’t feel like I have many chances left, now that I’m at a “grown-up” age. (Though, really, I haven’t understood the need to fight it for a long, long time. When I do, it’s usually because it’s too much effort to do it right and not just end up in the hospital.) (As a teenager, I never expected to live past my 27th summer, though I don’t know why I fixated on that number.)

    Thank you, Miri, for posting this series and this one about hope in particular. It feels so rare to have anyone actually saying stuff like this upfront.

    • says

      The other thing people always say that upsets me is that suicide is ultimately one of the most selfish acts. And that just makes me cry, because when I’m considering suicide, it’s because I’m tired of being such a horrible drain on my family and friends, and making their lives worse for being in it.

      As far as I can tell, it’s those who say shit like that who are selfish: they want the person who’s clearly in ridiculous amounts of pain to continue living with that pain for no other reason than they don’t want to suffer a fraction of that as ppl who have someone they know commit suicide (basically, they’re the people of Omelas)

  4. AMM says

    Thanks for posting this. I think it’s the first time in my life that I’ve had the feeling that anyone else knows what I go through.

    I’m almost 60, and have AFAIK been depressed all my life. You are so right with the “it’s never going to get better” feeling. I’ve gotten by, actually accomplished quite a bit in my life by setting a goal and emotionally abusing myself until I get it done, or at least get into the right rut that leads to getting it done. But no matter what, the despair is always, always there, I just try real hard not to look at it and when things are going well, I can sort of succeed at that.

    Unfortunately, now that the end of my life is no longer lost in the foggy future, it seems even less realistic than ever to imagine that things could get any better before I’m dead anyway.

    I did 25+ years of talk therapy, which helped me with a lot of things, but didn’t change the depression. I went to a psychiatrist who tried me (serially!) on various meds. The most they ever did was to anaesthetize me emotionally so I could Do What Needs To Be Done. And the side effects were not fun. The only real relief I feel is when I’m doing music (or dancing) at an intensity that takes me outside of my self for a few minutes. But it’s only for those few minutes and it really takes it out of me.

  5. nightside says

    >Without hope, treating your depression feels pointless. Why make the effort when you already “know” it’s not going to help?<

    Entirely recognizable. I eventually went for treatment to be done with people nagging at me to go for treatment.
    I absolutely knew for certain that it wouldn't fix anything, but then at least I could say:" hey, I tried it, didn't work, now leave me alone forever".
    Now, 5 years later, I absolutely love them for "nagging" me into it.

    Still, I refuse to do the hope thing. Just having low to no expectations helps me through my life better than hope ever could. Hope leads to expectations, expectations lead to disappointment. (Imagine this being said in a Yoda voice to make it come across more cheery )

    Where suicide is concerned, I just wanted the sadness and the pain to stop. It wasn't wanting to die, but more wanting to stop living. When you feel it's all useless anyway, with no end in sight, it seems better to just end it yourself and stop draining the energy of those around you.

    Thanks for putting this out there, Miri and commenters. The more people can try to understand it, the more that can be done.

  6. rilian says

    In the spring 2009 semester, I signed up for 4 classes, again, even though I’d failed 3/4 of my classes the previous semester. I was sure I could do it this time. The first week went great. None of the assignments seemed too hard. The classes weren’t too boring.

    Then on saturday morning, when I woke up, I suddenly out of nowhere felt completely hopeless, and I started doing that screaming/crying/sobbing thing, really loudly. (I’m sure my roommates could hear me, but they never knocked on my door.) I thought about finishing the semester, but I knew that would be terrible. I thought about going back to community college and getting an associate’s degree, but I knew that would be terrible. I thought about going back to the school my mom was working at, but I knew that would be terrible. I thought about quitting college completely and working at wendy’s again, but I knew that would be terrible. I kept trying and trying to think of options, things I could try to do in my life that would not be awful and that I could succeed at, but every option led to misery, and this voice, a voice that was not my own, sounded nothing like me, and it was like it was coming from a few feet away instead of from inside my own head, it kept saying “You’re just going to have to kill yourself.” It was speaking so matter-of-factly, so calmly, like what it was saying was just the reasonable conclusion. But every time it did, I screamed NO! and I tried to think of more options, and eventually I just accepted the fact that I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life, and I laid in my bed and cried until I fell asleep.

    When I woke up the next day, I felt better and I realized that I would not be miserable forever, and my classes weren’t that bad. But then half-way through the semester, I decided to quit college anyway, and I failed all my classes because I stopped going to them.

    So uh…. WTF was that? I’ve never been diagnosed with depression or anything. And btw, I have 160 college credits. I’ve failed a lot, too. My pass rate is around 60%. But I’ve tended to do better over time and I might graduate next year.

  7. great1american1satan says

    Neurotypical asshole who is sole emotional support of a depressive here. When he’s totally hopeless, what should I say or do? I know this. It is IMPOSSIBLE to convince him of anything positive or hopeful. He’ll ask me point blank “What do I do?,” after three hours of “I can do nothing,” with which I can’t argue. Why is he even asking me that? The best I can come up with is some old “Dr.” Phil bullshit, and we know that doesn’t work.

    I know what to do for a neurotypical person feeling sad. The list of suggestions lines up pretty neatly with the totally useless shit people always suggest to depressives – go for a stroll, consider the lilies of the field, think about something nice, have some hope whydoncha? But I don’t know what to say to a depressive. I called the fucking emergency helpline and the dude didn’t have a clue.

    The best I’ve come up with is to talk about the issues that are most bothersome to him at the moment (financial stuff, eating disorder, whatever) in some oblique way that isn’t directly personal. That way he’ll be talking about something he’s capable of focusing on, but hopefully not square on himself. Then after an hour or so, transition into something more positive. This works like 20% of the time.

    After over a hundred years of the science of psychology and we don’t have something better for this? As for pharmacology, he’s on something for epilepsy at four times the dose they use for depression and it has had zero effect on the depression. Good times, y’all.

  8. says

    @great1american1satan, #9:

    When I found myself in the depths of depression, Mrs Avenger tried to help. I resisted, because that was all I was capable of doing. On the (rare) occasions she stopped trying to help due to my constant negativity, I actually missed it. I was pushing her away with all my might but I dreaded success at pushing her away. That’s how fucked up depression can be.

    Every situation is different, but even interacting enough to shoot down every possible thing that she could think of to make me feel better was an improvement over not interacting at all. You have found something that works 20% of the time, that’s an astounding success that you should be proud of. I had to have the participation of a therapist to achieve that kind of progress.

    All I can really say is to hang in there, and don’t think because you’re not depressed you don’t get help. Get whatever help you need – You may not suffer from depression, but depression is making you suffer. We ended up having three separate therapy schedules – one for me, one for her, one together, because of what I was putting her through. We credit it with saving our marriage. We’re stronger than ever now, but only because both of us got the help we needed.

  9. great1american1satan says

    Thanks for the encouragement, Zinc. Also for mentioning a similar experience from the other side. Honestly, I think 20% may be partly attributable to the lamotrigine, but it’s subtle and hard to tell. I just wish I could do better.

  10. nightside says

    @9 As far as antidepressants are concerned, what works for one person, may not work for the next. When I got my meds prescribed, it was with being warned that somewhere on the line we might have to adjust dosage or even switch to another one. The first one worked for about 1,5 years, then stopped working. I switched meds and now have one that seems to hold. So the “four times the dose” meds might just not be working, despite the high dosage.

    Another thing to know, for most (if not all) depressive people, the depression, or at least the feelings it brings, becomes something familiar and safe. This of course stands in the way of trying to get help, because it changes things and change is scary. The thing that helps me when feeling down (even people on good working antidepressants can feel down, just like any “normal” person can) and also when the first set of meds stopped working, is the knowledge that I can feel better than I do at that point. And even then, it is hard to push myself to do something about it.

    I don’t have any hard and fast advice to give you. But Zinc Avenger has the right of it. Living with or trying to help someone who is depressed is an incredible drain on yourself. Don’t lose sight of your own health and happiness.

  11. great1american1satan says

    You ever notice how you can have a song in your head at work, go home and forget it, then immediately have it in your head on coming back to work? It seems like thoughts and feelings can become associated with environments or circumstances like that, to where you can have separate lives that run in continuous streams of their own. Which I think has something to do with the hopelessness.

    When the circumstance of being super low comes back, it’s a separate life that doesn’t overlap with the better parts. You can tell someone they’ll feel better later and just needs to get through the bad time, but they can’t imagine feeling different in that moment. I used to think of that as the “teenage” view of time, but these days I’m thinking it’s more universal than that.

    I’m intentionally leaving personal situation stuff out of this comment to get things back to the topic generally instead of my situation, but thanks for concern and advice. :)

  12. jabes says

    The “temporary problem” bromide about suicide enrages me. With my depression, I know that I will probably feel better at some point, but it does not help me with the here and now because I just. can’t. function. in the period of depression.

    I also know that I will be super depressed and suicidal over and over again throughout my life, that the cycle will never stop, and that the period of time between those troughs may only last a few weeks. Frankly, the thought of living with this for several more decades exhausts me.