I don’t talk a lot about my experiences with depression. I tell myself that I don’t talk about it because I don’t want to make people uncomfortable. But that’s just an excuse. Really, I don’t talk about it because I’m ashamed of it. There’s still a part of me that doesn’t want to admit that I struggled with depression, and that I still struggle with it. There’s still a part of me that feels like talking about it will cause people to look at me differently. To pull away from me. To keep their distance.
The terrible truth, though, is that not talking about it forces people away from me. It keeps them at arm’s length. Not talking about depression makes depression worse. It causes the thing that I’m most afraid of.
So today, I’m going to share a little bit. To be vulnerable. Because, as I’ve learned from Brené Brown, vulnerability is what connects us to people. And that’s what today’s supposed to be about.
My depression came suddenly, when I was an adult. Though I was never a positive, happy, optimistic youth, I think managed to weather my good and bad moods fairly well. In my twenties, I did everything I thought I was supposed to do, tried to make the best life I could with the circumstances I had. And then, just after I turned thirty it all fell apart. And I fell apart too.
I spent six months depressed and not admitting it to myself. Everyone around me knew I was depressed. They told me that maybe I should talk to someone about it, but I thought I knew it all. I thought I knew better. After all, I had a psychology degree; I knew the tricks that therapists would try to pull on me, because I’d seen therapists before and I trapped them in logic circles and I danced around their questions and they never managed to fix me. I didn’t see how this would be any different. This was just the way I was going to be from now on.
What I didn’t know at the time was that during those six months that I couldn’t admit to myself that anything was wrong, my brain was changing. It was stewing in poison, rewiring itself and changing the way it processed information. All of my new memories were tinged with the depression, and all my past memories were painted with it too.
Because memories aren’t recalled perfectly like finding a photo on a hard drive; every time you remember something, you reconstruct it, and part of the reconstruction involves the mindset you’re in at the time you “remember.” So every old memory got reinterpreted negatively. That’s one of the worst things about depression, in my experience. It makes it hard to form new good memories and it blots out old good memories. It makes everything grey. It numbs you out.
There have been a number of times in the past few years where my mind would go into what I called “sleep mode” when I was alone. I would just wander my apartment, or go for a walk, and I wouldn’t feel anything. I’d just be numb. When people were around, my brain would go out of sleep mode, and I could feel things again, but when people went away, it was time to power down. Use what little energy I had for basic functions and otherwise just zone out.
Depression can also hide. A number of studies have shown that once someone suffers an episode of depression, they are very likely to suffer a relapse or recurrence at some point. When things in life change, circumstances get better, and it becomes easier to cope, a little positivity can seep in, and the depression seems like it’s gone. But often it’s not. Often it’s just hiding. And it just needs a little push to come back, and then it’s like being smothered. Except this time, you know what depression feels like, and it all comes back on you.
In the past, it was all I could do to just cope with it. I spent months in survival mode, barely able to get through the workday before collapsing in my bed. I spent weeks where every time I looked in the mirror I said, out loud, “I hate you.” There were years that I frittered away because my only goal in life was “make it to Friday.” On Friday, I had two whole days where I wouldn’t have to do anything if I didn’t want to.
Sure, there were days where things felt okay. I don’t mean to imply that my life has been a grey cloud for five years. There have been great things, wonderful things that have happened to me in that time, things that even the depression couldn’t completely suck all the colour from. But they always felt like anomalies. Eventually, I knew, things would go back to “normal,” and I’d be struggling again.
Depression is insidious because it makes itself feel like the default mode. It makes working to keep it at bay seem like an insurmountable battle. All the work I’ve put into trying to work against depression in the past few years often seemed worthless, because I knew it was all going to fall apart again eventually. But I kept at it, because I got to the point where I decided that literally any change would be better than what I’d been feeling. Through a contact at work I found a new therapist, a good therapist, a therapist that costs a lot of money but I am fortunate that I can afford the rates. And I’m putting in the work.
In fact, by interesting coincidence, this January has been the first time in over four months where I haven’t felt tired and sad all the time. And, because depression tricks the brain into thinking it’s normal, my reaction to not feeling tired and sad all the time has been to ask myself, “Oh man. I feel weird. Am I sick?” That’s what depression did: it made feeling alive seem wrong.
I know I still have work to put in. I know that statistically there’s a very good chance that if I get over this bout, another will eventually occur. But talking about it, with my therapist and my friends and my family, and putting in a hell of a lot of work, has made a difference. And it makes me feel like the next big bout will be survivable.
So I guess the reason I wrote this is to share what I’ve learned in the past five years. To speak to maybe one person out there who will identify with one small part of this and take one small step to talking about it. So if that’s you, here’s what I’ve learned:
Depression will trick you. It will hide, and it will lie to you, and it will convince you that living tired and sad and numb and without hope is your normal now. And you will have to fight back against it, and you won’t always win. But you can be strong enough to keep fighting, and the way to get that strength is by talking to people. Talk to professionals if you can. I know that good help is often hard to find, through a lack of resources or income or qualified therapists, but I encourage you to try. And if you do find one and they’re not a good fit then keep looking until you find one that works for you. Talk to the people who love you, because they want to understand, and if they walk away from you then you can take comfort in the fact that you just discovered someone you didn’t actually need in your life anyhow.
Just don’t keep it to yourself. That’s what it wants.