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.

Living With Depression: Strength

[Content note: depression]

Half a year ago I started a series of posts about living with depression in order to help people understand what it’s like to have it beyond just the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. Then I moved to FtB and got super intimidated and didn’t want to write it anymore. But now I have writer’s block and I’m feeling too overwhelmed by everything going on in the world so I’m going to write about myself.

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.

The two previous posts, if you’re curious, were about trust and openness.

For many people, both sufferers and non-, depression is primarily a lack of strength.

Emotional strength, that is. When you hear people call depression a “weakness,” consider the fact that the opposite of “weakness” is “strength,” and you’ll see exactly what they think is lacking in those who suffer from it. Of course, enlightened as depression sufferers supposedly are about their own illness, most of us fall into the same trap at some point.

Because on the surface, depression really can look like a lack of strength. For many years, at the slightest sign of misfortune or difficulty–a bad grade, a rude remark from someone–my entire mental composure would crumple like a dry leaf you crush in your hand. Imagine going to the gym and trying to lift one of the lightest weights they have, but you drop it and collapse in a heap on the floor. That’s approximately the physical equivalent of how it feels, with all the humiliation and self-blame involved.

In reality, of course, it has nothing to do with weakness or strength. It’s an illness. It’s not your fault. (It’s not a “chemical imbalance,” by the way, as someone would usually say right about now, but it’s not a weakness either.)

But, honestly, most days I can’t internalize that knowledge, no matter how many courses I take and articles I read. I feel weak.

Anyway, my solution to this for a while was to try to present a false persona that is strong, competent, and detached. I spent a lot of time furiously pretending not to care about things, because that’s what I thought strength was. It never worked. I’m sure people saw through it, and besides, the thing with depression is that often you can’t fake your way out of it. The pain and emotions it causes are too powerful to hide. It’s like the difference between not letting it show on your face when you’ve stubbed your toe, and not letting it show on your face when you’ve fractured your leg in three places. People are gonna be able to tell. No matter what.

And that inability to hide what I felt was private, shameful, and weak was probably the worst way I’d ever felt like I failed myself. Worse than not liking college, worse than having to drop journalism, worse than not getting (or having to decline) a slew of coveted internships and other opportunities. In the endless parade of personal failures to which I am a constant, unwilling spectator, failing to be “mentally strong” is the absolute worst.

So what about physical strength, then?

It’ll probably come as no surprise (as I’m sure I’m far from the only person who does this) that I use physical strength and competence as a way to distract from and make up for the emotional strength that, despite everything I know about depression, I still feel I do not have.

I’ve been doing that for as long as I can remember. I used ballet that way when I used to dance, from when I was 6 years old until I was 15. Then I switched to marching band, which you may think isn’t hard until you’ve done it. During the off-season I’d bike or walk pretty long distances or go to the gym or exercise at home. Of course, all that was irrevocably tainted by the fact that I had massive body image issues and eating habits that at times were very unhealthy, but I do remember the difference between wanting to lose weight and wanting to be strong. I haven’t always wanted to lose weight, but I’ve always, always wanted to be strong.

(Of course, physical strength is a gendered trait, and the gender that we usually associate it with is male. That means that we think of physical strength as being able to lift a whole lot of pounds–with your arms, that is–and it means that my male friends scoff at how pathetically I compare to them in that department. Of course, I just smile and roll my eyes, because I’d love to see them sit calmly in the splits for 15 minutes while reading a book, or twirl on the toes of one foot. Whatever.)

Partially, I like being strong for the same reasons anyone else does–it feels good, it’s useful, it keeps you healthier. But also, it allows me to shape my body in the way I’ve never managed to shape my mind. Getting physically strong requires a lot of effort, sure, but everyone knows exactly how it’s done. I don’t know how to stop being so emotionally nonresilient. I only know that sometimes I go months without any problems, and then suddenly, for no reason, I start crumpling again.

Muscles don’t work that way. You work them out, and they get stronger. You don’t work them out, and they eventually get weaker. You know which exercises work out which muscles. You know that if muscles are sore, you gave them a good workout. (I say this as I can barely walk for the third day in a row because of this thing I did with my calves, so there ya go).

If I were able to afford a therapist who could actually help (as opposed to the ones that I’ve had, who did not), maybe I’d eventually become emotionally strong. But for now I’ve mostly given up. The only thing that works when I feel weak is simple distraction, but the more tired and overwhelmed I am and the more mental effort I’ve already exerted on other things, the harder distraction gets.

But when I feel strong physically, it makes up for not feeling strong emotionally. Just a little bit.

Living With Depression: Openness

Earlier I decided to write a series of posts about depression beyond the DSM diagnosis. The first post was about trust. Here’s the second.

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to two diametrically opposed views on openness–how much people should share with their partners, friends, and acquaintances about themselves.

The first view, which my family taught me and which various traditional views on interpersonal relationships tend to promote, is that people should reveal as little of themselves to others as possible. Openness is at best a sign of naiveté because ultimately people will misuse any personal information you give them if they have the opportunity.

Furthermore, people should not “burden” their friends and partners by telling them about their problems. Until a partner has literally married you, they may leave you at any moment if you talk about your feelings too much, so it’s best to avoid it until you’ve got them safely ensnared in matrimony. If you must tell someone, tell your family.

The other view was the one I discovered among my progressive friends. In this view, openness is a virtue. You don’t merely have the option of being open about your feelings–in fact, you should be.

You should tell your friends when they accidentally do something that hurts you. You should be open with your partner(s) about how they make you feel. You should use “I” statements. You should, as Captain Awkward wisely advises, “use your words.”

Of course, I agree with this second view, not the first one. Or, at least, I agree with it in theory.

The truth is that when you have depression, your feelings don’t fit into the boxes they’re supposed to fit in. Sometimes, with enough patience on your part and enough openmindness on your friend’s part, you can bridge that gap of understanding, but it’s hard. I’ve been able to do it to some extent because I happen to be a great writer. But not everybody is, and neither are we always able to relegate these things to writing. Sometimes you have to have these difficult conversations in person, and in those situations, trust me–I flail and grasp at words just as much as anyone else.

What happens when you try to be open about your feelings, but your feelings are so alien and “wrong” that they don’t make sense to anyone?

Lots of frustration.

When my feelings involve only myself, it’s not so bad. I don’t think my friends truly understand what I mean when I say that seeing pictures of my family frequently makes me extremely upset (not in the trigger-y way, but more in the “fuck, I haven’t seen these people for months but I don’t want to go home and see them I am a terrible person fuck fuck” kind of way? See, it’s hard.). They probably wouldn’t understand if I told them that sometimes I grieve for random old memories as if they were people, even though I didn’t even enjoy those moments at the time, and that sometimes I feel as though I would give up years of my life just to go back in time and relive a single day of high school, even though I hated high school.

But that’s not such a big deal, because ultimately those feelings involve only me, or people that my friends will likely never meet. I can talk about them without feeling like my current relationships hinge on my ability to make myself understood.

Where my feelings involve the people currently in my life is where things get difficult. Sometimes–generally when I’m already having a bad day–something someone says bothers me a lot for no apparent reason. Sometimes I get jealous of things I shouldn’t. Sometimes someone gets a bit snappy with me and rather than assuming that they’re just stressed, I assume that they hate me. Sometimes I get another “sup” IM and I get furious because I’m already so busy and stressed and why can’t people just leave me alone unless they want to have a real conversation. (Welcome to introversion.)

I am aware that the Correct Thing to do in our sort of crowd is to Talk About It and be open about my Needs and all those other cliches. I am quite aware.

If I were a neurotypical person, maybe I would feel like I have that option.

But the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.

For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.

Furthermore, the more I talk about Feelings That Don’t Make Sense, the more I make myself sound like, well, a crazy person. Most people aren’t used to the idea that you don’t need to understand something to respect it. (Damn, I link to that article a lot.) They want to know about my feelings, but they also need to understand them. Sometimes I can’t explain them. Sometimes they can’t understand them.

So, more often than not, I choose not to disclose my negative feelings, not even when they involve another person I’m very close to. The likelihood of being understood is so low and the likelihood of starting an argument is so high that it’s not worth it, even though I feel like I “should” be open about how I feel.

And all of this is very confusing for me, because I obviously do feel that openness in close relationships is a good thing. And maybe someday I’ll discover the magic combination of words that will allow me to be open about how I feel without causing defensiveness, hurt feelings, and confusion.

But for now, living with the remnants of depression ensures that there is a sort of chasm between me and everyone else that can’t really be crossed no matter how open I am.

Living With Depression: Trust

I’m going to do a series of posts on what it’s like to live with chronic depression, beyond the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. I want to help people understand.

I’m in a particularly good position to do this now because my depression is technically in remission, which means that I no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I’m fine. I’m even sort of happy. However, the complex effects that nine years of depression has had on my thinking style, beliefs, and personality are still there, as are (probably) whichever genetic and neurological risk factors caused this whole mess to begin with.

However, not having a depressive episode means that my thinking is clearer and it’s easier for me to talk about this calmly.

A caveat–none of this is meant to generalize to everyone with depression. Don’t read this and apply it to your friends and loved ones who have it. Instead, perhaps, use it to start a conversation.

So, trust. In one way or another, it’s the backbone of all human interaction. You have to trust that your friends won’t share your secrets, that your partner won’t cheat on you, that your colleagues will pull their weight on the project, that your babysitter will take good care of your kids, that the clerk will give you the correct amount of change, and so on.

People who haven’t studied much psychology might think that trust is based on a conscious, logical appraisal of the person you’re interacting with. But in fact, trust is based on emotional responses to others, and a lot of the time we’re not even aware of those responses.

Although emotions get a bad rap for being “illogical” and for interfering with people’s lives, they–more so than conscious, “logical” cognition–are what help us make good decisions. Fear, of course, is the best example, since it helps people stay out of trouble. So does disgust.

But positive emotions are important in that way, too. For instance, we don’t really choose our partners based on how much money they make or how attractive they are or how many children they want to have; we choose them based on how they make us feel.

So, mood disorders like depression cause emotions to disconnect from experiences, so to speak. As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

When I was depressed–and, to a much lesser extent, now–feelings happened to me in a completely arbitrary way. The changing leaves made me feel grief. Being unable to talk to my family made me feel shame. Relatively minor inconsiderate actions, which would merely annoy a healthy person, threw me into a rage.

I learned not to trust my feelings. Often people made me uncomfortable and I’d chalk that up to depression, forcing myself to keep them in my life. This led to continued discomfort at best and abuse at worst. Then, infuriated at the situation, I would overcompensate and kick people out of my life who had merely messed up, as everyone sometimes does.

I learned not to trust others. Even the most well-intentioned person could–completely accidentally–send me into a depressive funk with a single teasing comment. Once a guy misjudged his feelings for me and led me on for a few weeks, and I was depressed for a year and a half after that. And I can’t even count the number of people who argued with me a bit too forcefully for me to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they must hate me from the depths of their souls, and so I cut off contact.

I can’t trust people anymore because I know that anyone–even the most kind, considerate, good person–can unintentionally make me cry for hours or hate myself for months.

And not everyone I meet is a good person.

I learned not to trust myself. If my brain lies to me all the time, how can I? Cognitive distortions make it nearly impossible to know when I’m thinking clearly and when I’m not. I used to keep a list of the most common ones in my binder to remind myself, but it didn’t really help.

Without emotions that are more-or-less based on reality, trusting myself and others is nearly impossible. I can’t tell whether a certain situation is bothering me because it’s a bad situation or because I’m freaking out over nothing. I can’t tell if I don’t want to get a PhD because I really don’t want to get one, or because I feel like too much of a failure to even try. I can’t tell if someone is really lying to me, or if I’m just assuming the worst because that’s what you kind of do when you have depression.

Difficulty trusting others is usually considered a character flaw or weakness. For me, though, it’s a symptom of a mental illness. It’s also an adaptation, because I’ve been too trusting in the past and I’d rather be safe than sorry–that is, than risk a relapse because I let the wrong person in.

The important thing to remember is that people who experience depression this way aren’t distrustful because we’re cynical or misanthropic. It’s because without healthy and adaptive emotional responses, it’s nearly impossible to know who to trust. It is also impossible to trust ourselves.