What depression does and doesn’t feel like, to me
It may seem strange, or even offensive, to post a blog about depression so close to Christmas. But it’s my understanding that a significant portion of people (perhaps yourself, dear reader) actually feel heightened melancholy, sadness, anxiety, or depression around the holidays. Jolly cheer is not universal. Today is the winter solstice, and in honor of this darkest day of the year in which we celebrate the coming light, I want to offer some empathy, understanding, and hope to others who feel the darkness more deeply than they’d like.
I’ve actually been jotting down notes for months about how depression makes me feel at various times (seven pages worth, of which I only share a fraction here). Ironically, I didn’t have the energy to put this blog together until I started feeling less depressed. Still, I figured that there are so many of us suffering from depression that feel like they cannot reach out to others, can’t explain what they are going through, or feel unworthy of support or sympathy. So, I’m writing to them, and to you, about how depression has felt like for me over the past two years, in case it makes them, or you, feel more seen and less alone.
For me, the word itself has a somewhat onomatopoeiaic air about it. I feel pressed in, like I’m wearing a weighted wetsuit and the pressure of hundreds of feet of water is pushing upon me. Except, when I’m actually diving in the ocean the weightless feeling is soothing. Depression, conversely, feels like wearing a weighted suit with added gravity. At its worst, the depression makes me feel like I’m struggling to keep my head above water. It’s not the same pressure I feel from anxiety, which is more like someone is standing on my chest.
Some days I smile. I laugh. I feel a twinge of joy in my heart. Like when I feel a moment of true connection with an animal or human being. But the depression is still there, lurking in the shadows. Most people wouldn’t know that there is a weight upon my chest more days than not, and that for the last few years that weight has oozed outward from my chest and into all of my limbs, making them want to curl up in a ball under piles of blankets. Some days, I give in to the ball and the blankets. Other days, I push through. Lately, it’s been easier, thanks to the palliative effects of time, self-kindness, and small doses of medication.
I don’t know how ‘mild’ or ‘severe’ my depression is compared to others, or whether it is ‘clinical’, or how much it is intertwined with general sadness about the world, or with anxiety, or whether it is more chemical or emotional (if there is any difference). But I know that it feels different than acute sadness that is brought about by one particular event or trauma. It is an accumulation, an overflowing drain that is clogged and weeping out onto the bathroom floor, pooling with nowhere to go. It’s existential dread, deep sadness, and overwhelming exhaustion combined.
Sometimes it feels like deep sorrow bubbling up beneath my skin, wanting to burst open and rip me apart. A buzzing throughout my body, an aching like the flu that weighs down my body and mind. A haze.
Once in a while, I have moments where I feel like the depression has temporarily gone on vacation, and the weight lifts. I realize in those moments that this must be what “normal” people feel like most of the time, and it blows my mind. What must it be like to walk through the world feeling like gravity is in balance, like you can take a deep breath without struggling to expand your chest, like you can lift your feet without feeling like you have lead chains wrapped around them?
I don’t feel the same level of sadness every second of every day. It’s like the waves and tides—it cycles, flows, gets more and less intense throughout the day, mixes with anxiety, fear, regret, and worry, but also with laughter and hope. There are moments of complete calm that are abruptly interrupted by another wave of sadness. It continues to seep into my sandy soul and fill the light and airy spaces in between with salty water, weighing me down. I still feel the sun hitting the surface, I feel the gentle eddies swirling beneath my skin, but the undertow is strong and repeatedly threatens to pull me under. Under the covers for another hour, under the weight of my thoughts that won’t line up in any orderly way, under the brief relief of sleep (with constant dreams that don’t allow fruitful rest).
On the worst days, I want more than anything to sleep. I already feel half asleep. Fuzzy. Buried. Slow, like in a dream where you can’t run because you are a weight stuck to the ground. I ask myself, what is wrong with me that I can’t feel happier and more carefree about existence? Where did my motivation and energy go? I want to vacuum out my brain, rinse, wash, and hang to dry so that I feel clear headed again.
Sometimes my mind dwells on the irrational hypothesis that I ended up in the wrong parallel universe, like I’ve gotten off track somewhere in my life, made the wrong decision, and this isn’t where I was supposed to be or WHO I was supposed to be. But I can’t go back. I know intellectually that this thought is ridiculous and unhelpful, but my mind doesn’t want to let go of the manufactured regret. Even if a healthier attitude would make me feel better (there are no bad decisions, every decision is a lesson, a new opportunity, you are right where you are supposed to be, blah, blah, blah) I don’t know how to make myself believe that mindset yet. It takes energy to restructure brain neurons, and I don’t have much energy to spare. I want to nap. But I’m slowly working on it through kind self-talk, gentle healing.
Depression makes you feel selfish and lazy. You feel guilty about not doing enough, about not feeling enough, and like you should be more grateful for the life you have. At the same time, it feels like you are viewing your life through a dusty, dirty window that you just can’t get clean.
But it’s not always hopeless. Some things help.
Being outdoors helps. Skating helps too. Spending time learning how to work with horses helps bring my mind into the present moment, so that helps noticeably as well. Animals are ever-present, beautiful souls. Writing helps too.
Speaking to others, particularly professionals, hasn’t helped very much so far, because I self-judge and undermine my feelings, and I don’t want to appear selfish or vulnerable or ‘sick’. It feels weird to pay someone to listen to my whine about my sad brain while I have so many wonderful things in my life. I want to be my old strong, driven, and ‘successful’ self, the one with the PhD and the academic job offers and the things all figured out like a real adult. But I also just want to be a child without responsibilities and with the freedom to live creatively and naively and believe that anything is possible and that time is infinite. I get exhausted just thinking about trying to explain myself to someone I don’t know, even if they are a professional. This isn’t to say I don’t believe in the power of therapy; it’s just that traditional talk therapy hasn’t been a big help for me. Other guidance, in the form of grounding and mindfulness, has been more beneficial, though I haven’t put these methods into daily disciplined practice.
Most importantly, while I’m a hermit-inclined introvert, I’ve noticed that spending time with close friends significantly lifts my spirits. Authentic connection with other human beings matters. I feel joy and gratitude break through the dread and heaviness when I am with my dear friends. Spending time with others I’m comfortable with gets me out of my own head, and let’s me enjoy moments of interaction and shared experience.
Practicing yoga and meditation can help, at times, when I can subdue my mind enough to feel a bit of piece, rather than anxiousness and judgement. I’m still learning how to gently impose self-discipline, but I do believe in the power of mindfulness. I believe in the power of having faith in oneself, and respecting the magic of the universe (or God, or Gaia, or whatever greater power seems to infuse us with life and meaning). I still cannot fully reconcile the beauty of our world with its suffering, but I know it is all one, all facets of the same universal experience. I’m hoping that my life path will lead me toward more fully feeling this truth in my heart.
Other characteristics of depression (in my experience):
Depression feels like:
Caring so much about the world, feeling sad about all of the suffering, wanting to be a force for good, but then feeling so overwhelmed and exhausted that you end up in bed under the covers.
Crying in sorrow one minute then laughing at a sitcom on Netflix or stupid meme on Instagram the next.
There’s a constant pit in your stomach as if you’ve done something wrong, or as if something bad is about to happen, even when there is no evidence for either of these things.
Enjoying the beauty of a sunset or starry sky before a wave of dread washes over and the anxiety gains footing again, or seeing the beautiful sunset but feeling too weighed down to feel its magic. You SEE beauty but can’t fully imbibe or appreciate it; you can’t just relax into the moment.
Laughing with friends, dancing, then wanting to curl up right there in the middle of a get-together and sleep and avoid human contact.
Having countless passions and goals but no energy to pursue them.
Feeling guilty because there is so much worse going on in the world and in the grand scheme of the universe each of our lives is a blink of the eye, so why should I be so self-focused?
Having the ability to laugh heartily, to love profoundly, but also to cry deeply and drown in numbness.
Like you want to rip your body inside out because your nervous system is in overdrive and you can’t relax or focus.
Being so tired that you can’t finish reading an article you’ve had bookmarked for ages (or a blog you’ve been writing for months).
Wondering how other people do this ‘adulting’ thing day in and day out, without naps.
Not getting a good night’s sleep more than once or twice per year.
Wanting to let people know why you are struggling (or even that you are struggling) but not wanting to burden them, have them judge you differently, or judge yourself for feeling lazy or past your prime. Even though mental health is so front and center these days, it still feels like a sharp stab to the stomach when you have to talk about your depression, a paper cut to the ego and the self you have built up for others that feigns resilience, calmness, and energy.
Wondering if you are maladapted for the modern world, with your overly sensitive nervous system that flinches at loud noises or crude jokes, that cries in the face of the slightest suffering or violence.
Shedding tears after reading a beautiful sentence full of pathos, like the words of Rachel Carson or a blog by Mari Andrews, and feeling the pit in my stomach shift to a glowing orb of compassion for the few moments where I feel “seen” in those words on the page. It’s the opposite of my usual feeling of being weighed down with rocks; in these moments, I instead feel like I am going to be ripped apart in space in all directions, bursting with a feeling of inability to fully wrap my head around the beauty and wonder and absurd fortune of life in this universe, however fleeting and improbable.
During the depths of my depression, I wanted to feel joy and lightness, but I felt like I had an IV drip of sadness stuck in my arm, that I was dragging around everywhere. I think I’ve partially weaned myself off the IV, but not fully. I still don’t know what true lightness feels like, but the droplets of sadness cling to my insides stubbornly. It’s as if I would feel guilty to let go of the sadness, as if I don’t deserve to walk through life without feeling pain. It’s a strange feeling (and fortunately, I’ve never been prone to self-harm or suicidal thoughts), but its wrapped in guilt and sorrow about the state of the world and my place in it. Humans make things so complicated for ourselves.
I still feel a joyful thrill while riding a horse, seeing a beautiful tree while on a hike, or have a heart-warming interaction with a stranger. But soon, the sorrow and exhaustion creep back in, an existential exhaustion like vines of ivy wrapping around me and pulling me to the earth. In previous months, I felt so locked in that I could barely get out of bed at times, struggled to do laundry, take a shower, look at my computer. Thank God (thank universe, thank Gaia) I have an amazing pup, a constant encouragement to get outdoors on a daily basis. Thank God for family members who pushed me grow and participate in the world. Thank God for time to process and rest. These days, the struggle to do small tasks is much less heavy. I’m grateful for the present moment, because I never know when things will change again. I am grateful that I live close to my mom and can help her when she needs it, that I get to spend time with horses several times per week, that I have a positive work environment that allows flexibility, and that I have friends and family who love and support me (and my ever-present soul pup, Buttercup).
The depression still lingers, but right now it feels like I’ve chopped back the thickest stands of ivy, so that I can move a bit freer. My brain still feels like mashed potatoes on many days, but moments of clarity or peace shine through. My body still feels tired, but I have relied less on naps. I feel good about accomplishing small things, and about tackling pieces of larger things, even if I don’t get that far. I remind myself that everything is stardust. I remind myself that I am not the same person as I was as a child, with all my energy and idealism and confidence. I can mourn that child, but I shouldn’t cling to her.
I recently read a lovely blog about the idea that we often diagnose loneliness as a symptom to be cured, when it might actually be a character trait. If we can embrace loneliness (or depression, or anxiety), as a part of ourselves that we can work with, evolve with, and learn to love, perhaps we can have a better relationship with ourselves. We don’t need a cure, we just need understanding. We need acceptance.
I may never feel like I’ve found my life’s purpose, because there are so many different paths I want to take.
I may never feel like I truly fit in, because I am a wanderer.
I may always feel sorrow, because I am filled with empathy and wish our world was filled with peace and justice.
I may never feel like some nature Goddess surrounded by forest creatures and herbs, however much I love the natural world, because I am messy and tired and not a big fan of camping.
But the key, perhaps, is accepting all of this. Accepting ourselves, in all of our “trauma” states, depressive states, states of exhaustion or unworthiness. These are all human constructs used to describe our disassociation with a world that other humans created that does not match our needs. We may not be able to change the world at large, but we can love ourselves and those beside us, and know that we may not have been made for this fast-paced, capitalist-driven, materialistic society. We aren’t crazy. We just operate a little differently.
These days, when I feel depressed, I allow myself to pause and appreciate that my body is telling me that it doesn’t align with something external. It tells me to pause. To let emotions flow (or not). To not feel guilty for feeling numb to the cheeriness of Christmas lights, or for sobbing at the sight of a dead squirrel on the side of the road.
Admittedly, I sometimes still judge myself for past decisions, and wonder whether I could have made a “better” life for myself (by whatever rubric one measures such things—be more proficient in a particular skill? Have more money? Own a home? Have kids?), but I try to accept that judgment and allow myself to ponder what excitement lies ahead in the not knowing, in the openness of opportunities still to come. In the meantime, I’ve become an expert at taking things one day at a time.
If you are struggling, I’m here. If you have found ways to accept or grow through your depression or anxiety, feel free to share!