When I was quite young I can remember feeling ‘off’, or ‘weird’. That may seem like an odd statement to many, but it’s really the best way I can describe it. I would actually use those exact words when talking to my mom. “I don’t know why mom, but I just feel weird.” The response I often got was, “It’s your hormones”, or “Just go play and you’ll feel better”. So I would cry a lot, alone in my room. I don’t think my mom was necessarily being mean. Looking back now, I think she just didn’t understand. The feelings would sometimes get so bad I would literally run around my room and rip everything off my shelves and scream at the top of my lungs. I was so frustrated! I just wanted to feel better!…and I would…eventually…but I never knew when! After these events, I usually got in trouble for making such a mess of my room, felt unbelievably guilty, and embarrassed, and then forced myself to put my stuff back (perfectly). I needed my room to look a certain way at all times. I could tell if my little sister had been playing with my Barbie’s because one wouldn’t be sitting exactly the way I had left it. In my out of control world, the way my room looked was the only thing I could control, so I kept it perfect. My ‘stuff’ was tangible, easy to ‘fix’. I thought if my outside was perfect, my inside would be too…but that belief would only last for so long.
I now believe that those younger years were likely displaying my first layer of depression. Yes it’s reasonable to think that my hormones also contributed to the feelings and outbursts. But now that I am much older, I can recall that feeling perfectly, and it duplicates the feeling I get when my depression starts to descend on me to this day…it’s very ‘weird’.
People who know I have depression, and feel comfortable enough to ask, often question what it feels like. Sigh…where do I begin? First of all, there are very little ‘symptom’ words I can use from the english language to describe it…it starts off more like a heaviness and a sixth sense. Now don’t start thinking I’m an alien or something…bear with me…its taken me 37 years to publicly talk about my depression, putting it into words in one blog is going to be tricky. The first layer feels how I had mentioned earlier…’off’. I still function throughout my day, but the world starts to feel very different to me. It doesn’t seem real. I’m more conscious of my actions. I REALLY notice every move I’m making. On a normal day I can go grocery shopping, and just feel my usual frustration when people park their carts in the middle of the aisle, or when they stand too close to me in the line up, but when I start to feel this ‘off’ feeling, my brain becomes VERY attentive to everything I do. I pick up items, put them in my cart, and feel like I’m in slow motion. I hate this feeling. It just lingers there, taunting me, and I always try to will it away! I don’t want it to turn into another layer, so I ignore it with all my might! I’m just grocery shopping like everyone else. I’m just like everyone here, right? Well I suppose theoretically I may have been walking past a person experiencing the same ‘off’ feeling, but the horrible part about depression is that YOU CAN’T SEE IT. It would be greatly appreciated if everyone feeling the same way could wear their “I have depression today” t-shirt to the store…but oh wait…no one has that shirt…nor would they WANT to wear it. It’s a secret life, a secret feeling, and it’s very, very lonely.
I never know when, or if, that feeling will just go away, or if it will progress to the next layer. I DREAD it. Many people who don’t suffer from depression believe if I just go do something fun, or take a walk outside on a beautiful day, that the feeling will vanish…Wrong!. Oh, God I WISH it were that easy! I would never have depression again! Nor would anyone! Getting out to do something can sometimes lessen this layer, but the depression seems to be an entity of its own that does what IT wants to do. If it does progress, the world becomes very dark. My senses are heightened even more. I feel uncomfortable in my own skin. Which is probably part of the reason why I just want to sleep it off or drink it away; I just feel gross. When I do get to this layer, I’m pretty certain there’s no turning back…my depression cloud will be with me for days. How I deal with it depends on what I NEED to do that day. For example, the kids NEED to go to school…Ok, smile on, try not to be irritable. Lunches NEED to get made, and teeth NEED to be brushed…so I manage. But all I can think about is getting home! I have anxiety in the car because I can’t drive to school and back fast enough! But I hide it, hide it, hide it…that’s just what I have to do; I don’t want to ruin my kids day by making them worry about me. As soon as I get home, I go to bed. No housework will get done, and I definitely don’t care. On a good day I will sleep this layer away; but that’s rare.
When the next layer appears I am at the point of barely functioning. I rely on other people’s help me get stuff done. I will say “I have a migraine”, or “I’m sure I have the flu”, so that people don’t worry…so that it seems like I just have a ‘normal’ sickness. God I wish depression could be normal! People can relate to a ‘migraine’ or the ‘flu’, which by default makes me not a ‘crazy’ person. But as soon as I’m alone I feel frustrated, sad, mad, self-pity and nausea all at the same time. I WANT to go outside and rake the leaves, but I simply can’t get myself to do anything but breathe. I don’t eat, I forget to drink, and I sleep, sleep, sleep.
As I’ve gotten older, this specific layer of depression doesn’t ‘just appear’ as often (Thank God!)…maybe once or twice a year. But over the years I have unfortunately developed ‘triggers’ that can drag me to this layer instead. This may sound confusing, but when it’s a trigger that causes my depression, I don’t mind it as much. I feel more so like a ‘normal person’ who just feels REALLY sad. I think to myself, I know for sure that ALL of my co-workers feel HORRIBLE after doing a bad ‘kid call‘. So when I do one, and it causes me to sink into my depression, I feel like the bad call ‘trigger’ set it off…I couldn’t control the trigger…so therefore I can’t control the depression. So I muscle my way through three horrible days of uncontrollable crying, sad thoughts and exhaustion, because it was all the ‘triggers’ fault. I don’t know how long my co-workers feel sad, whether or not it interrupts their daily lives, and whether or not they just feel a normal level of sadness (whatever that is), rather than my debilitating kind, but because it was the trigger’s fault, I more readily accept my inevitable dark world. The bad part (that I am just realizing lately), is that my triggered depression is much more possible for me to bury in the back of my mind (apparently NOT a good coping mechanism….lol). I can usually stop it in its tracks, if I don’t think about what is causing it. Is this healthy you ask?…Clearly not…But I JUST DON’T CARE. If I can trade a depression day for a relatively normal feeling day, I grasp on tightly to that option, healthy or not. Maybe I’m able to bury these thoughts caused by a trigger because I am so used to doing a bad call at work, talking about it for a few minutes while we do our paperwork and clean up, only to get called out to another call right away…there’s really no time to process it. I pray that we don’t get two back-back bad calls, because that makes it harder for me to bury those sad thoughts, but the likelihood of that is low, so I go on with my day, occupied and numb.
The last layer is where I find the stigma line is truly drawn. People either understand how this cold, haunted world filled with demons feels, or they don’t. Furthermore, people either accept other’s who experience this layer, or they leave because they don’t understand, or worse, they don’t even believe it exists. “They’re just looking for attention.”, “It can’t be THAT bad!”, “If they wanted to kill themselves they would have done it right the first time”, “They are just crazy”, “Just get on the stretcher, let’s go”, are all things I have heard as a Paramedic many times over the past 11 years. And to be honest, before I got really sick, I went along with these comments most of the time because you guessed it…it was easier; making me equally as guilty for letting the stigma flourish.
The depression at this stage is so elaborate, deep and complicated. That’s probably why its taken so long for us as a society to even start to unravel it. It’s been easier over the centuries to just know that it “didn’t happen to you”, so you “didn’t need to worry about it”. You couldn’t SEE the feelings people with major depressive disorder felt, so ignoring these people’s pain just made sense. It’s not a tangible thing. And as human beings, if we can’t see it, we often don’t believe it’s there. We can SEE cancer, fractures and kidney stones. We have sympathy for these people: we just want to help them! We hate when we can’t. We may NEVER have experienced those things before, therefore we have no way of feeling empathy, but sympathy is automatically there. So, as I stand in front of you and announce that “I have major depressive disorder’, well…you just have to believe me; I have no x-rays, blood work or MRI’s to prove it. Yes there are recent studies documenting physiological changes in patients with such mental illnesses, and that is very exciting progress. But, generally speaking, our society is accustomed to turning a blind eye to the presence of mental health illnesses …unless they’ve gone through it themselves.
My darkest depression layer goes far beyond fear. The whole world doesn’t make sense anymore. I constantly battle thoughts in my mind telling me I shouldn’t be here. Logic is non-existent! Trust me, I’m usually an intelligent, logical person. But when my mind is in this layer, distorted thinking prevails every time. I completely retreat from the outside world, because I don’t feel I belong in the ‘normal world’, and I don’t want to hurt the people that I love. I’m afraid I exhaust people and want to spare them … of me! Why should they have to shoulder or share my sadness when it’s not about them. I want to sit in darkness and stay there alone, forever. There is NO WAY anyone can ‘talk me out of it’…I need to let time elapse while my brain goes around this relentless cycle of turmoil. Being in this layer is like fighting a war … just me and my shield. Again, I can’t eat, I can’t drink. I believe whole heartedly that people are better off without me; and my brain… doesn’t… stop. When I’m in this layer, I need medication to sleep to get away from the banter that is so loud in my head. Then, when I am truly exhausted, I become numb. I can barely talk. But I know if I make it past this point, if I can somehow push through the enemy lines with my last broken and mangled shield, I will survive. But holding your shield up alone – constantly fighting against the enemy – I get so tired, especially because I know another war is somewhere around the corner! I think to myself, I can win THIS war… but there’s no celebration because my shield is more mangled and the enemy is always there.
So here is my last point. People with depression NEED an army of people behind them. They can’t fight it alone, but they often feel they have no choice because of the powerful stigma. Their pride and fear of ridicule keep them suffering in silence. I can tell you from personal experience, the first step is to have the willingness and courage to open up … to a counsellor, to an AB, to anyone you trust.
BUT, for people who fought their hardest battle, their weapons destroyed, or their shields too damaged to fight again, for people that didn’t have an army, and sadly lost their internal war … please remember they didn’t give up … the enemy simply won.
Thank you to everyone who has followed me on this journey so far. My army is getting stronger every day. And to anyone out there suffering in silence, please ask for help. Your broken shield can only last for so long, and if people don’t know you’re broken, they can’t help you win your battle. xo