I sometimes try to explain what depression feels like to people who have no personal experience with it whatsoever. Not often, but it happens. I feel like I did a decent job in my «On Depression» blog post back in the day, but I recently found a new way to describe it that I think might be understandable.
So imagine, if you will, that you have a firewall inside your head. Like the one you (hopefully) have on your computer. Everyone has one from birth, and you probably don’t even know it’s there because it works so amazingly well. It makes sure you feel the appropriate amount of feelings most of the time. People’s firewalls are all calibrated a little bit differently, which explains the differences in our sensitivities and temperaments, but generally they all run like invisible, undetectable clockwork. When you watch the news you might get sad or frustrated or angry, but generally it doesn’t affect your day-to-day life too much. When a friend or family member is sick or in trouble you worry and help them if you can, but you don’t adopt their every trouble and worry as if it were your own. You remember your past, both good and bad, but you don’t go around thinking about every bad or sad or embarrassing thing that ever happened to you, because that would be exhausting. The firewall takes care of it, without you ever noticing. Bzzz. Amazing.
When I’m depressed the firewall is weakened. It can even feel like it stops working completely. Every worry (real or imagined) gets through. The worries and troubles of my friends and family become my own troubles and worries, as if I carried the sole responsibility of fixing them. Every sad or hurtful or embarrassing thing that my brain can remember will pop back up into my consciousness and run in a loop, day in and day out. I will interpret the words and actions of people around me in the worst possible way, even if there’s not really any reason to do so, and I will ruminate on them endlessly. And the insidious thing is that you might interpret this as a new normal instead of as an illness. After all, you’re not making things up – you’re just suddenly viewing the world through very gray-tinted glasses.
Does this sound exhausting to you? Bingo! But you see, this doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly and gradually. In the beginning I have to spend some extra energy keeping up with my day-to-day life, but it’s manageable. I might feel more tired than usual, but hey, I’ve got shit going on so it’s understandable. I work out less, because even the simplest workouts make me feel like my legs are made of lead, and I take more naps. Life continues, somehow. But after a while it gets more difficult. Everything takes more energy, because I’m trying so very hard to do the tasks that were previously done automatically and effortlessly by my firewall. It’s like a 24/7 unavoidable job that I have to do on top of my normal life. After weeks (or months) of trying and failing to be my own manual firewall and always being on high alert I can’t concentrate on even the simplest things, and I’m always exhausted. I have trouble following conversations. I forget things, like people’s names or what I did two days ago. There’s a lot of «you know, the thing in the place with the.. ugh, fuck it».
You see, this is the thing that is the hardest to articulate: the actual physical things that happen to you during a depression. The way you don’t have the energy to go check your mailbox, even though it will literally take you 3 minutes. You spent it all at work, trying to appear normal for 8 hours. The way you can sit at your desk and stare at your computer screen for an hour trying to articulate an email that you could have normally written with your eyes closed. That sometimes crying happens not because of something sad, but like an involuntary physical thing, like a sneeze or the hiccups. The way that you try to follow a meeting but can’t no matter how hard you try, and end up seeming lazy or dumb or unmotivated because of it. All because you’re so mentally exhausted from trying to live your day-to-day life despite of that completely failing firewall.
Am I making sense? I hope I am, and that I’m not sounding too dramatic. You see, it’s not about feeling sad. Sad I can handle, sad is natural. During a depression I lose the ability to brain good. I gradually become really bad at braining. Not because the brain stops working, but because it works super duper hard on completely pointless shit that the firewall should have taken care of. And this takes up so much energy that there’s very little left for my body, so in the end I don’t body very good either. And that’s when my doctor sternly tells me to just watch Poirot for a few weeks and cuddle my dog and go for more walks.
He doesn’t use those exact words, but that’s how interpret him.
Oh and also medication and a smartass therapist.
Of course, this is how I experience depression. Yours or your loved ones or your colleague’s depression might be different. I can only speak from my own perspective on this one. But I feel like we all have a little idealistic activist inside of us, and mine wants the world to understand depression a little better.
So there you go.