Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Does Depression Feel Like?

  • Everyone, will at some time in their life be affected by depression -- their own or someone else's, according to Australian Government statistics. (Depression statistics in Australia are comparable to those of the US and UK.)

When I was in my mid twenties, I read a novel called "Smart Women" by author Judy Blume. I don't remember, now, much of the plot. Something about three divorced women who became friends, the adventures and misadventures that resulted. Here's what I do remember: one of the characters, one of the women, had a complete and total nervous breakdown (as they called them then. Today, the preferred term seems to be "major depressive episode.")

At the time, I was divorced, living in a small town with three small children, juggling dating and parenting and career. I had a bright, shiny new bachelor's degree, and was working as a junior accountant in a public accounting firm, pursuing the CPA designation for all I was worth. From within that context, I read about this character's breakdown.

  • 30% of women are depressed. Men's figures were previously thought to be half that of women, but new estimates are higher.
In the story, as I remember it, she was sitting in her car at a stoplight. The light changed to green, and she couldn't move. She just stopped. She was, quite literally (the author tells us) unable to drive away. She had shut down.

Bullshit, I thought. I couldn't work up even a dram of sympathy for the character. That just doesn't happen.

You don't just STOP.

I saw the character as weak, wimpy even, melodramatic, attention seeking, manipulative. I certainly didn't envisage someone who was ill, as I would have had she not been able to drive away because, she was, say, having chest pains. For example.

  • Depression will be the second largest killer after heart disease by 2020 -- and studies show depression is a contributory factor to fatal coronary disease.
After all, I was living an intense, high powered, stressful life myself. Somewhere along the line I had been poisoned with the lie, so rampant in our society, that your value is based on your achievements, and dramatically enhanced by the amount of money you make. It was the eighties, and we were still, my age mates and friends and I, carrying the burden of thinking we could have it all:  children, education, career, lovers, active social lives, fit and toned bodies, immaculate houses, political, cultural and community involvement, and satisfaction.Oh, and self-actualization, too, if you read Maslow.

  • 80% of depressed people are not currently having any treatment.
We were young, and we had no idea how tired we were, or what toll we were exacting from our psyches and from our bodies, not to mention the costs to the lives of our children, who lived through this era with us, dependent on us. We were young. We had no idea what our limits were.

So BB's breakdown (BB was the character in the book) left me cold. After all, as I said, I was juggling a lot more stress than she was, and I was holding it together. Pah. Another weak woman making the rest of us look bad. I was brutal in my judgment.

Several of my friends read the book; none of us were sympathetic.

"Who has time for a nervous breakdown?" one of us jibed. We laughed. That pretty much summed it up for us.

In the years that followed, it became a sort of joke, code-speak among  women of my age and demographic, still working hard as the years rolled by. When one of us would be feeling particularly tired, particularly overwhelmed, we might joke:  "I think it's about time for me to have my nervous breakdown." We would laugh, nodding in sympathy. "Let's all schedule ours together, and take them in the Bahamas!" We sensed we were getting tired, but we were still poking fun. No one really knew how to make the roller coaster stop.

One day, a brave woman shared a story with me, though I didn't know at the time how brave she was. She told me about her breakdown, and the slow, slow crawl back from depression.

"There were days," she said, "when I just couldn't get out of bed."

I listened, because that's what we women do, when a friend talks. We let her talk; we listen.

  • 15% of depressed people will commit suicide.
She told me of the slow return of sensation. How she learned to focus on the smallest of pleasures: the warmth of her favorite mug, full of hot tea, in her hands, the pattern the sunlight made on her breakfast room tablecloth. It had been like moving through molasses, she said, or mud, or drowning, but not caring that you were drowning, not having the will to fight for breath.

Outwardly, I made all the appropriate sounds of sympathy; inwardly, I wasn't buying it. I asked her how she had managed to pay her bills, in the long long months after she had lost her job, because of all those days she couldn't get out of bed. I envisioned the terror of looming destitution.

She waved it off as inconsequential. "I was lucky," she told me. "I have a trust fund. I don't actually have to work."

  • 54% of people believe depression is a personal weakness.
Well, I thought, must be nice. Must be nice to have a trust fund and to be able to take a year off life to reboot.  I was disgusted with her. I thought proudly of the wolf at my own door, and of my skill in outwitting him for so many years.

I was reminded of Judy Blume's character, and of my previous judgment, those many years ago.

You don't just STOP.

Twenty odd years after I had first read "Smart Women," there came a day when I sat at the top of my own stairs, weeping and shaking, willing myself to get up, to move, to get out the door, to get to work. A day when I couldn't move.

A day when I shut down. A day when I just stopped.

Mentally, I poked and prodded and screamed at myself, inside my head. Get up get up get up get up get up.

This is RIDICULOUS, I told myself. I exerted my considerable force of will. Nothing happened. I still couldn't get up, get going, get out the door, get to work. It was if my mind was the operator inside some huge machinery that was my body, and the circuitry connecting the control room to the wheels and pulleys and levers had somehow become fried. I was sending all the right commands, but nothing was  happening.

It is the most frightening thing I have ever experienced. And it was very, very, very real.

So what does depression feel like?

It feels like trying to breathe molasses. For me, it felt like utter and complete exhaustion, like your body has become to0 heavy to move. Everything feels like too much trouble, even the things you know, you know,  that you dearly love to do. You learn to break things down into the minutest of components. First, you throw off the covers; there, that's done. Now you can rest a bit, gather energy for the next step. In a few minutes, maybe an hour, you can sit up in bed. That's huge. The days you can sit up in bed are huge.

There were more days than I could count where, making it downstairs to the kitchen table was all I could do. You lose time. Hours and hours and hours would pass, as I stared out my kitchen window. Me, the super-achiever. Me, the go-getter, who gave no quarter and asked none, reduced to this. It was astonishing.

It was embarrassing.

  • 41% of depressed women are too embarrassed to seek help.
One of the most horrible things about living with depression is living with the shame, or, as one friend puts it, the scorn. Remember my reaction to BB's breakdown in Judy Blume's "Smart Women"? Things have changed a bit since the mid 1980's, but not much. There are people who will say to you, "Gosh, I wish I had time to fall apart." My friend who talks about "the scorn", can tell of people who advise him, "just pull yourself together." I had one medical professional tell me, "you just need to get your mojo back."

They don't get it. But how could they?

I was lucky. The Spousal Unit is a compassionate, understanding, and loyal man, who, for some unaccountable reason, gives every indication of loving me dearly.
  • Depression results in more absenteeism than almost any other physical disorder and costs employers more than US$51 billion per year in absenteeism and lost productivity, not including high medical and pharmaceutical bills.
Because I could no longer teach (or think), I lost my graduate stipend which made up a third of our income. He rolled with the punches. He tightened his belt. He helped me get the help of a gifted therapist, and paid her bills when my insurance went away right along with the stipend. He listened and did his best to understand and never judged. He has been a bastion of faith and encouragement. He has truly exemplified "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health." (With such a Spousal Unit, who needs a trust fund?)

I had the cats, our own four housecats and the feral colony, to care for. Some days, all I could do was to get up and feed the cats, but the cats had to be fed, and that was that. They piled in bed with me, and they loved me even though I wasn't bringing home a paycheck.

I had friends who came by, week after week, month after month, when I wouldn't even -- couldn't even--answer the door. And I had friends, when things began to get better, who were still there, still waiting, still willing to try to understand and to accept this new me with her new way of being.

Because it does get better. There came a day when I stood on my back deck, in the autumn sunshine, and felt myself to be myself again. It didn't last, that time, but I had felt it, and that feeling gave me hope. Where there is hope, there is life. I remembered the long ago brave sharing of my friend with the trust fund. I learned to recognize and to hold onto the most minuscule of joys, the tiniest of pleasures. The warmth of my favorite coffee mug, cradled in my hands. The play of southern sunlight across my kitchen table.

But although it does get better, it never truly goes away. The old coping mechanisms, the tricks and techniques that once kept you upright and fighting long after you should have lain down, they don't do what they used to do, back in the day. New coping mechanisms must be found, developed. I've learned that there are good days and bad days. I've learned to recognize a bad day, and to ride it out. I don't try to will it or berate it into being a good day. It is what it is. On those days, I try to identify the bare minimum that must be accomplished, and let the rest go. It'll all still be there tomorrow. And there will be tomorrow, God willing. Many tomorrows.

I've also learned to celebrate, to relish and to revel in the good days. There are good days, and we mustn't ignore them, mustn't let them slip by, mustn't waste them. They are to be savored. When possible, they are to be shared.

The greatest thing I've learned is to let go of judgment, or to do my best to do so. I've learned that I really can't, in the final analysis, evaluate another person's experience, another person's truth. I can only listen, when they choose to honor me with the sharing of their stories. Listen and learn. And open the heart to love.

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!

The statistics quoted on this page were taken from "Depression Facts and Stats".


  1. I too know of this. HUGS! After "rebooting" my life, I am earning about 1/3 as much as before, working two jogs, but I am much happier. There are still days were it is hard to get up and get going, but all in all, they are becoming fewer and farther between.

  2. Exactly. Sometimes depression can come when everyone else thinks you should be happy. It doesn't make sense. It just is. It has taken me years to get it under control and retrain my brain to change the things I was telling myself. I'm a perfectionist and I kept telling myself that I wasn't doing enough to be successful, that I'd never be successful. Depression reminds me of the commercial with people swimming in caramel. It takes more effort than it should to do anything.

  3. Glad you're back on here. I too suffer from my own form of depression. I did have some of the shut down when I was unemployed for so long, but keeping a roof over my head and food on the table (no spousal unit or trust fund) kept me in somewhat of a functioning mode. There are times I want people and others when I can't fathom talking to anyone, times when riding the metro home on a Friday night and having no plans with anyone really takes me donw, and then others, I'm just fine if I don't have to talk to anyone, better even (I guess). Who knows, I guess I'll keep plunging on......

  4. Beautiful post. I'm book marking it when I need the words to tell someone my experience. For me depression leaped to my throat when I was traveling down an incompatible path. I was damaging my inner life. Thank goodness my inner programming made me stop, before something else did.

  5. M says she's never been through serious depression, but has friends who have been. So terrible and such a misunderstood disease. Your heart just has to go out to people suffering from it.

  6. Thank you for writing this. It is so true to my experience, it brought tears to my eyes.

  7. Very well said and completely relatable.

  8. I have had depression for over seven years. Quite a few times, my counselors insisted on sending me to a hospital instead letting me go home. What does the depression feel like? To me, it is like I fell into a universe alone. There it was dark, cold , and terribly silent; and the more I struggled to get out of it, the faster it kept shrinking---- making me suffocated day in and day out. The difficult time is nights: Staring at the ceiling in the midnight, quite a few times, I terrifyingly and evidently heard sighs right beside my pillow; tears dropped out of the corner of my eyes falling down to the pillow, making big sounds, but I did not even sense it. The first moment when I woke up my mind was blank; but immediately the tide of depression overwhelmed my mind, soul and whole body: one more day started.

    Perhaps, the worst thing of depression is that I had been diagnosed by people with different "diseases". My friends thought I am too weak, or have too many negative attitudes; my christian friends believed my depression rooted from my pride, from not being willing to surrender myself to God. Eventually I isolated myself from everyone, for I know I've got a modern leprosy and I don't want my people get infected. Every morning on bed, I repeated the same to myself: give me a reason why I should start this day.

    Thanks to God, my PhD program eventually finished before I kill myself. Whenever people address me "Dr. ", I have an impulse to wipe out that sound in the air. It almost costs my whole life. Is it worthy? Not at all. I hope I had not started that irresponsible PhD program. Perhaps because I am single and am a foreigner, I suffered more than my painful classmates. Depression is a long term battle. I would not say I have completely walked out of it. Though I eventually get out of the endless dark tunnel, it comes back and forth still.

    When I read your blog, my tears welled up to my eyes. I found another soul with similar pain. Will stop by here often.