Depression is Not Sadness
When describing depression, it’s probably better to begin by describing what it isn’t: depression is not sadness.
This is probably the most common misconception people have whenever they try describing depression. They’ll confuse it with the emotion of feeling upset – when it’s pretty much the exact opposite. In many ways, depression can be considered as distinct from sadness as it is from happiness.
Depression, for me, represented an inability to feel anything at all. It was just overwhelming apathy, until eventually nothing was enjoyable to me anymore. It was absolutely paralyzing.
Back then, I would’ve actually welcomed sadness – because at least I would’ve felt something. The nights I cherished most were those when a picture or video of my parents or kids would cause me to collapse to the floor while crying uncontrollably – because for those rare few moments, I was actually experiencing emotion. Caring about something was such a welcomed relief, as well as a subtle reminder that I was still human.
Feeling sad never felt as good as it did then.
I didn’t need to be reminded that I was fortunate, or how great of a life I had. I was completely aware that I had everything I could’ve ever asked for – I was just unable to experience any of it.
And this can actually be far more frustrating. It might’ve been easier to have believed I was dealt a bad hand, because at least I would’ve had something to chase after; some attainable goal that might’ve ultimately alleviated my depression. Instead, there was nothing. It simply felt hopeless.
The only thing that ever provided me with any comfort was listening to other people talk about their experiences with depression – and realizing how similar there’s were to my own. Depression thrives on isolation, so getting to hear just how common my feelings actually were completely contradicted the idea that I was alone. And if I was alone, then a whole lot of us were alone, together.
“For me, depression is not sadness. It’s not having a bad day and needing a hug. It gave me a complete and utter sense of isolation and loneliness.” -Kristen Bell
“It’s so difficult to describe depression to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling…a numbness, and an inability to believe you will feel happy again.” -J.K. Rowling
“For me, a depression is not that I’m sad. It’s actually almost the opposite of that. I have absolutely no emotions.” -Jenny Lawson
As comforting as it was to know I wasn’t alone, I was still alone – at least among the people in my life.
The Thick Glass Wall
I can most accurately describe my experience with depression as being forced to watch my life through a thick glass wall. It’s like I had been reduced to nothing more than a spectator to my own experiences. A tourist, visiting my own body, and waiting to observe what it’ll do next.
And when I’d peek out of those eyeball-windows, I’d see everyone else enjoying the world, while I was unable to participate. I originally wrote this before seeing the film, but it’s probably something like how they described James Peele‘s sunken place in Get Out.
So, there I was, stuck behind that thick glass wall. I could hear the laughter spilling over from the other side, but couldn’t reciprocate. Anything I said or felt seemed to stay on my side of the wall, while all of the love and happiness was restricted to theirs.
And I kept trying to tell them, but they couldn’t hear me through the glass. Nobody could. It’s like the glass was not only clear, but completely invisible – and nobody else even knew it was there. So, even though I was screaming, everyone on the other side just assumed I was disengaged.
So, my response would be to yell louder, while vigorously banging on the wall. And when that didn’t work? I would get angry and ask myself “Why doesn’t anybody care?” The entire experience becomes a gradual, systemic practice in isolation.
Building a Wall (that Mexico won’t pay for)
That was my depression’s greatest strength – manipulating my thoughts until I started willing that previously-non-existent glass wall into existence, thus secluding any other rational outside views or perspectives.
I became incapable of deriving joy from even my own children. My love for them was as deep as ever, and I wanted nothing more than for us to genuinely laugh together again. I just couldn’t. Everything felt forced, and it took enormous effort just to fake even the faintest bit of joy. I would see my family smiling, but wouldn’t feel their elation – even though I was desperate to.
“I wanted to love the people in my life. I wanted to enjoy being a dad and having friends and just getting up in the morning. Because that was a struggle for me.” -Chester Bennington
This was, by far, the most crushing (yet, common) part of my experience.
The Spoon Theory
I won’t spend long on this, but the Spoon Theory is a very accurate way to describe what a typical day is like for someone experiencing depression.
Simply stated, spoons are a metaphor that serve as a visual representation of a person’s energy on any given day. Each activity requires a given number of spoons, which will only be replaced as the person “recharges” through rest. A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished.
This metaphor is used to describe the planning that many people have to do to conserve and ration their energy reserves to accomplish their activities of daily living. The planning and rationing of energy-consuming tasks has been described as being a major concern of those with chronic and fatigue-related diseases, illness, or conditions. The theory explains the difference between those who don’t seem to have energy limits and those that do.
So, if you ever hear anyone say that they’re “out of spoons” – this is what they’re likely referring to.
Meet Anxiety: The Cousin of Depression
The only emotion that I would feel back then was the constant fear of something tragic happening to one, or both, of my boys. The belief that they would eventually be taken from me began to feel almost inevitable; even overwhelming.
And here’s the tricky thing about depression – I had already felt isolated and ostracized, and part of what got me there was the feeling that I was failing at everything. So now, I get to feel like I’m failing at being a father, too.
I would watch them jump around, having the time of their lives, and all I wanted them to do was stop. Not because I didn’t want them to have fun, but more like ‘Okay, you had fun and nothing bad happened – let’s not push it.’ Every interaction where nothing terrible happened was a relief. It was one of the things that made not being home as often more attractive – because of the mounting anxiety I experienced when watching them.
Reasons & Excuses
Speaking of not being home, I resorted to a tactic that I would later find out was common among those battling depression – I kept myself busy. As long as I had something to do, I wouldn’t have to confront reality.
After being laid off due to a restructuring at my previous job, I had decided to finally attend college (a long-time goal of mine). Yet, during my second semester, I unexpectedly enrolled in 6 classes – despite the fact that I was already working a full-time job. This provided me with all the cover I would need to remain busy all day and night – and thus, alone.
Another tricky thing about depression – it’s rooted in truth. College was important to my career, and achieving a degree as quickly as possible would be a benefit for us. However, I was able to use those truths to explain away any anti-social behavior. To build taller walls; to isolate myself further from my family and friends.
Oh, yea – isolating myself from friends was vital. I had begun to dread having to associate with friends, at all. A once outgoing, funny, life-of-the-party guy – I found myself with very little to say around people. I didn’t have any jokes, didn’t know (or care) who the best team in baseball was, and was so afraid that people were going to see through my facade and ask what’s wrong?
And when people did ask what was wrong – I became a master of facial acrobatics, and would launch into a convincing smile and while confidently replying “Nothing – I’m good.” Eventually, I became completely disconnected from the world.
Insomnia: Anxiety’s Fraternal Twin
Most days, the only sense of relief I would feel was at night, after everybody else went to sleep and I could be alone in my home office and not have to pretend anymore. At least, not until morning. It was a brief reprieve from the exhausting challenge of existing to other people.
I would fend sleep off for as long as I could because I knew that once I gave in – my next conscious moment would be waking up and starting the grueling process of fake-smiling my way through another day all over again. My number one goal every day became to prolong each late-night reprieve for as long as possible.
I would later learn that my depression had been infecting me for nearly a decade – integrating itself methodically into my cognition until it was ultimately indistinguishable to what I believed to be true.
It wasn’t until after my therapeutic breakthrough – my experience with ART, where my therapist and I were able to identify and reprogram the primary memory which had served as the source of my depression – that I would even be able experience the world again. And what a deep appreciation I now have for even the simplest joys in life.
There’s a lot more that goes into describing depression – but hopefully, I’ll be able to address those in more detail through other posts.
If you’ve experienced anything similar, or maybe something completely different – or just want to share your view, please feel free to comment. Of course, you can always contact me directly.
And thanks for taking the time to read this – I appreciate you!