It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day so I thought I’d share a few things this week about my own struggles with depression and anxiety in hopes that they may shed some light on what it’s like living with this debilitating condition.
Ten years ago, I wouldn’t dare speak of my clinical depression diagnosis. I felt I had to keep it a secret because people wouldn’t understand the condition and would judge me for it. I was afraid they wouldn’t believe that I could function normally with treatment, and treat me differently. I was worried they’d think I was “psycho” or “losing it” or “crazy”.
Today thanks to social media, we have various mental health awareness campaigns and initiatives that have catapulted mental health disorders into the spotlight, allowing for more people to feel comfortable enough to talk openly about their struggles. Thankfully, the stigma I was always so afraid of, is diminishing though there is still work to do.
Those who have never experienced living or knowing someone who has depression can’t quite understand the full scope of the disorder. It’s common to hear people say “why is he/she depressed?”
“She looks so happy!”
“He’s so successful and seems to have it all”
Unfortunately depression, like any other physical disorder, condition or disease, does not discriminate. Depression is an extremely complex disease and so much more than simply being unhappy. There are many factors involved which can include brain chemistry, genetic predisposition, personality, stress and much more.
Mental health awareness days are lovely – they really are. They put depression and other mood disorders into the forefront with positive, supportive messages like “it’s okay to not be okay” and “end the stigma”. But we need to dive a little deeper in truly understand what it’s like for someone who lives with depression (and people who can’t get the treatment they need).
What does depression really feel like?
The best way to describe how depression feels is simply this: a dark cloud is permanently hanging over your head.
Why you try to look up, you can’t see clearly as there is a veil covering your vision and purpose. You’re stuck in a “brain fog” where you can’t seem to think straight, focus or concentrate. You view the world as hopeless and only see the pain and suffering. You may question life and what is the whole point of it all. All you feel is utter dread. You may experience any or all of these feelings: sad, irritable, emotional, hopeless, helpless, unworthy, lonely, numb, empty.
When you’re depressed, you no longer enjoy the things you used to give you joy. Simple tasks like making the bed, taking a shower, or cooking a meal can seem like a huge chore. You’d much rather stay in your safe cocoon and not face the outside world. So you avoid friends, conversations, and even social situations like the grocery store clerk (thank you self-serve checkout). You don’t have the energy to carry on a conversation or engage in small talk.
You may also avoid friends and family because you’re too exhausted to fake a smile and that all is okay because you’re afraid you’ll burst into tears if they ask you how you’re really doing. You can’t explain why you’re crying because nothing specific happened. While you might have plans to socialize and you’re really looking forward to seeing your friends, you end up cancelling because it’s all too much to handle.
There are also physical symptoms of depression people might feel including headaches, muscle pain, digestive issues, fatigue, sleeping issues. I’ve suffered all of the above at various times, but the one constant is the sense of heaviness in your body. Your body feels so tired and sore like you ran a marathon. You know you should get up and move around but you’re in such a state that you simply can’t move.
First and foremost, if you’re feeling constantly sad, hopeless, helpless, full of dread, please visit your doctor. Medication and therapy together will help. Some people need to try different medications to find the right one.
I tried several medications before finding the one that helped ease my symptoms. I always say my meds take the edge off. They are not “happy pills”; to me, they balance out my brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). I become stabby when people suggest that depression can be treated with diet and exercise. Would you say that to someone with diabetes or a heart condition? Just as you would take medication for any other physical ailment, so should you take for your brain.
Someone who is being treated for depression with medication can function fully but still have “bad” days. Being on meds can treat the symptoms of depression and make them feel “normal”. The proper dosage should help to make you feel like yourself. And it is possible with the right treatment to live with depression and lead a fulfilling, happy life.
Next time, I’ll share how to cope living with depression and the daily practices and tools I use to keep my mental health in check.
Mental health resources: