If I am honest, and I feel that I must be, I am a bit disappointed to find myself once again writing about depression. When I decided to write a blog, I had planned specifically to avoid the topic entirely, partly because it felt a bit too much like work, and partly because I did not want to open myself up too deeply to the world. Writing about travel and yoga offered me the opportunity to present to the world a woman who was free, fun, funny, and adventurous. This seemed ideal. Writing about my experiences of mental illness threatened to reveal to the world the scarred person I try to run away from, and to open me up to a maelstrom of criticism about being self-indulgent, imperfect, and lazy. This didn’t seem as wise.
As usual, the universe had other plans for me, and my anger compelled me to to respond to some of the hateful comments about depression which surfaced in light of the German Wings tragedy a few months back. I feel equally compelled to write about depression again, in response to comments I have heard repeated more and more often recently, both to and about people who are suffering.
Three lines of thinking seem to form the foundation of antipathy towards people who are sick with depression, and I will respond to each in turn.
- “Everyone gets sad sometimes…that doesn’t mean they’re depressed”
Actually, this is not a myth. This is absolutely true. Everyone does feel sad sometimes. Perhaps they are bereaved, or are recovering from relationship breakdown, or have moved away from family and friends; they may feel sadness in response to these circumstances. This does not, in fact, mean they are depressed.
Depression is different. It is not sadness. It is relentless hopelessness, overwhelming bleakness, and emotional nothingness.When I feel depressed, I look into the future and see darkness. I spend time with the people I love, and feel nothing. I do something I enjoy, but my body feels so heavy and my mind feels so thick that nothing really registers. I stop planning, because the effort it would take me to do anything seems insurmountable. I long for sleep and dread waking up, because when I do, it feels like something it sitting on my chest and strangling my heart.
In short, I just don’t give a fuck, because really, what the fuck is the point of it all anyway?! Do not pertain to tell me that is sadness.
2. “People aren’t depressed, they are just lazy!”
The media has offered a discourse around depression that is harmful and manufactured: depressed people are lazy, depressed people are crazy, depressed people are making it up. This is a carefully manufactured fallacy which blurs the truth: that many people who suffer from depression are walking around seemingly healthy and well, whilst internally they are struggling to thrive.
In my own case, I have a Masters degree, I have travelled extensively, I have a good career and maintain a stressful job, and am usually fun to be around. In all likelihood, you wouldn’t know I was depressed until I told you. You wouldn’t know that when I am at my worst, it takes me over two hours to find the energy to get out of bed, get dressed, and get into work. You wouldn’t know how many nights I have stayed up, too tired to cry and too exhausted to sleep, wishing I could escape from the beast on top of me just long enough to get enough rest to function. You wouldn’t know when I smile and laugh to hide the loneliness and sense of isolation that is eating away at me, turning me into an emotional leper.
And, you wouldn’t know when I fail completely in my fight against depression, when I simply cannot do it and call in sick to the world. You wouldn’t know when I haven’t showered or changed my underwear for two days because I haven’t been out of bed, because I hide away until the worst of it passes and no one can judge me at my most vulnerable. Only my husband has seen me like that, and that is only because he lives with me and I am simply incapable of hiding from him. If I could, I’d call in sick to him, too.
When I am like this, I do not think “yes, I’m depressed, now I can sit around and do nothing for a week whilst everyone else goes to work”. No. I think of all the things I am missing and everything I’m not accomplishing, feel hopeless, and spiral even faster down towards the rock bottom of dismay. I may lay there for a while once I crash, but I promise you, it’s not because I am lazy. I just cannot get up.
3. “There’s so much support for people with depression, they should just get help and get better”.
This is the sentiment which makes me the angriest of all, I think because it implies that depression is unlike every other chronic illness, and because it overlooks the fact that treatment varies in effectiveness and that symptoms recur in cycles. It also implies that people with depression are fundamentally well enough to seek help; it overlooks the sad reality that many people who are experiencing depression feel so hopeless for so long, they no longer believe they can get better.
I think it also makes me angry because some part of me believes this too; when I have had a long time where depression hasn’t reared its ugly head, I believe I am ‘cured’. This unfortunately means that I am that much more despondent when I realise ‘it’ has returned, and I feel like I am starting the fight from scratch. Again. And again.
The reality for me, like for so many others, is that despite years of therapy, a healthy (ish!) diet, a good support network, being on anti-depressants, and finding ways to relieve stress, I will always suffer from depression. A depressed brain is fundamentally different to a non-depressed brain; some neural pathways are dulled and others simply do not function, there is a chronic lack of happy-making neurotransmitters and a chronic surplus of lethargy-making ones, and there is a history of irrational thoughts which pave the way for future thoughts of the same ilk.
Knowing this, it is decidedly unreasonable to assume that depression can be ‘cured’. Like all other chronic illnesses, symptoms can be managed and will abate at times and recur at others, but the illness will always be there. Accepting that is one of the hardest truths of all, and it is my hope that one day depression is understood as a chronic illness rather than as an individual failure to thrive.
In short, people who suffer from depression are not lazy, having the illness is not their fault, and they are not choosing to forego happiness for the sake of attention. They are ill, and usually, struggling to get well.