People who have never had depression think they know what it feels like. It’s sad; it’s the blues; it’s, well, depressing, right? It is but it is so, so much more than that.
My family tree is a weeping willow and as such, depression runs in my blood. And I’m not talking about the occasional blues or Eeyore-ish personality. I’m talking about the major depressive disorder that has caused two of my close family members to attempt suicide and three others to be hospitalized, extensively. While I don’t struggle quite on that level, I do definitely have depression and have had plenty of my own dark days.
I am generally a pretty optimistic, happy person, so the revelation that I have depression often takes people by surprise. “But you don’t seem sad,” they say. And that’s because depression is so much more than a case of the blues. It changes you in unexpected ways that go far beyond “just sad.” It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it, but you can have depression and not look sad all the time.
Remember Kristen Bell’s essay for Motto, in which she described how depression stole her “bubbly, positive personality” and transformed her into someone she didn’t recognize?
“For me, depression is not sadness,” she writes. “It’s not having a bad day and needing a hug. It gave me a complete and utter sense of isolation and loneliness. Its debilitation was all-consuming, and it shut down my mental circuit board. I felt worthless, like I had nothing to offer, like I was a failure.”
I mean, this is the woman who voiced Anna in Frozen, arguably the perkiest of all perky cartoon characters. This is the actress who played Veronica Mars and was the funniest part of Zootopia. She married Dax Shepard, for Pete’s sake. If her life isn’t a laugh a minute then whose is? But of course, depression isn’t something that can be conquered by sheer will, erased by playing a character or even eclipsed by true love. It’s a mental illness.
More: Thank you, Kristen Bell, for flipping the script on mental illness
And that’s what I wish people understood more about it. Depression isn’t about being sad; it’s about being sick. So on that note, here are 11 things that depression feels like for me — that aren’t sadness at all:
1. Lonely. I’ve never felt more alone in my life, even in a room filled with people. Depression steals the ability to reach out to people and, even worse, to feel them reaching out to you.
2. Disconnected. Depression is this strange combination of heaviness and lightness. I feel crushed under the weight of my feelings, but also like I’m floating away from my body. I’m watching people from a long, long ways away — even when they’re right in front of me.
3. Guilt. If there’s one emotion I’ve discovered all people with depression really struggle with, it’s guilt. We don’t like what this illness does to us or how it hurts those around us. We feel terrible about how it impacts our ability to do our jobs, care for our kids, be a good friend, enjoy our hobbies, take care of ourselves and love our loved ones. From the outside, it may seem like we don’t care at all, but in reality, most of us care too much. We feel those losses keenly.
4. Pain. There’s a reason that depression often occurs along with conditions that cause or are the result of chronic pain. The mind and the body aren’t as separate as we’d like to think they are, and pain in one often translates to pain in the other. Depression is pain on a mental, spiritual and physical level.
5. Too, too much. This one is hard to describe, but I know this feeling of being “too much” all the time isn’t unique to just me. I feel too much, in general — every sensation, all day, every day, and I can’t turn it off. Some people call it being a “highly sensitive person,” but no matter what label you put on it, feeling everything all the time is overwhelming and consuming.
6. Numb. This may seem contradictory to the last one, but I think they go hand in hand. Eventually your body shuts down from feeling all the feelings, all the time. And then? You’re just… numb, like being wrapped in gauze.
7. Happy. Oh yes, you can be happy and depressed! At the same time even. Happy and sad are two sides of the same coin and you can’t feel one without the other. For me, extreme happiness can be so joyful my heart feels like it will break, similarly to how sorrow can be so devastating my heart aches. And a hurt heart is a hurt heart, regardless of how you get it.
8. Exhausted. Depression causes physical tiredness for sure, but it also causes a unique type of existential exhaustion. Fighting yourself and your feelings and the world all the time is terribly exhausting, to the point where even the little things like getting dressed or brushing teeth feel too difficult. And if left untreated long enough, this exhaustion, I believe, can lead to the sadly common wish that people with depression sometimes express: To “lie down and never wake up.”
9. Mute. I’m a talker and a writer. I love communicating with people, but when I’m depressed, that ability to speak in any form is the first thing to go; I just don’t have the words anymore.
10. Overwhelmed. One of the first outward signs that I’m relapsing into depression is my total and utter inability to make decisions. Everything just feels too hard, and deciding what socks to wear that day feels just as overwhelming as deciding whether or not to move across the country. I can’t prioritize or categorize; everything feels like an emergency, so I end up doing nothing.
11. Angry. This one doesn’t get enough attention because I think people often expect those of us with depression to be meek, weepy and inert. But for me anyhow, there is always an undercurrent of straight-up rage. Mostly, I’m angry at myself. Often, I’m angry at the world. In my more rational moments, I’m angry at my illness. Sometimes my anger has no direction. But when it’s bad? I lash out at those around me. And I think this is what I hate the worst about my depression.
If reading this list depressed you, I am sorry. But I’m guessing that for those of you who’ve ever had depression it feels like relief. Too many of us feel like there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to be depressed, but there isn’t. However it feels to you is your experience and denying it will only make the depression worse.
What depression really feels like shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. As Bell so astutely pointed out, depression isn’t something that can be cured with a hug or an admonition to “smile more!”. I don’t know that it can ever be totally cured. But it can be helped. I believe that with all my heart and I live that every day. Depression isn’t the end of the story, it’s just a part of it and that starts with more of us talking about it. Because if it can happen to Kristen Bell, it can happen to anyone!
If you struggle with depression too, please know there is help available. For a list of resources, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health. If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call or visit the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255.