The stigma around depression is stubbornly pervasive. No matter that depression affects 350 million people worldwide. Chances are that someone in your office or your circle of friends or even your immediate family suffers from depression – and you don’t know about it. Most likely, they suffer in silence.
I am one of those.
I was deeply depressed for much of August. I don’t mean “down” or “feeling blue.” I mean clinically depressed. But I’m feeling better as I write. Depression (the kind I experience) is like the fog: it slips in quietly when I am not expecting it. And then evaporates when I’m not looking. Let me offer a bit of perspective on this debilitating disease.
Depression is an excruciatingly difficult condition to live with. But it’s also a disease that is very hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it.
I am cringing as I write this post. There is great shame in admitting that you struggle with something that makes you deeply, inexplicably unhappy when your life by all outwards appearances is a good one. And that turns you into a cranky, negative, critical person. Before putting pen to paper on this topic, I asked Sam how he felt about me writing about depression. “It’s fine,” he responded. “But only if you tell the truth. No sugar coating.”
Depression is not logical
So here goes. Depression, even mild depression, makes you feel disconnected, lonely, hopeless and worthless. The feelings are intense and intractable. The self-loathing translates into shame.
There are no answers, although you look for them every moment of the day. Why can’t I shake it off, you ask yourself. Why am I depressed when I have a wonderful life (substitute husband/children/friends)? Depression is not logical. It is insidious.
If you suffer from chronic low-level depression (also known as dysthymia), as I do, it comes and goes. With medication and psychotherapy you can usually keep it under control for months or years at a time. But sometimes, inexplicably, it comes roaring back.
For me, this month, it translated into feelings of inertia, procrastination and confusion. It was hard to make decisions. Should I write something for the blog? Yes? No? It wouldn’t be good enough. Why bother? And the intention would slip away.
I lost my sense of self. Why had we moved to the coast of Maine? Perhaps we are too far away from our children and grandchildren, making it difficult for them to visit. Was it the right decision? Why wasn’t our house in D.C. selling? I felt grief and loss over leaving D.C. and our home in Georgetown.
I found it hard to reach out to friends or to potential new clients. I did not, in case you are wondering, stay in bed under the covers. That is a false image of depression and one of the reasons it is hard to understand. Like most high-functioning individuals, I continued to work. I helped my current clients with their book projects, reviewing their drafts and strategizing with them how to get around obstacles and move forward. I’m good at what I do and being depressed does not change that. (See article below, My Battle With Depression.)
But I still felt hopeless. It was painful. I was negative about everything. And yes, it drives Sam crazy, even if he is reasonably understanding.
Why am I telling you this now?
Because I know you’ve read about Robin Williams’ recent suicide due to depression. It is so very, very sad. But it gives the rest of us a tiny crack, an opening to talk publicly about depression and to help shatter the stigma surrounding it. And to ask for your understanding and acceptance. Not your sympathy. Please, no sympathy. That doesn’t help. It worsens the shame.
What you can do to help
If you have a friend or family member who is not returning emails or phone calls, or who is oddly uncommunicative or terse when they do communicate, they might be depressed. Ask them about it. You probably have a suspicion. Make an extra effort to reach out to them.
Don’t tell them to “snap out of it” or “look on the bright side.” They probably can’t, at least not right now.
Tell them that you love them, that you appreciate their sense of humor (or whatever quirk you like). Invite them to go on a walk. Send them a written note. Make a lunch date. Reach out in any way you can think of that will make them feel connected and valued.
And reassure them that you are there for them now and will still be there when the fog of depression lifts.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig (Penguin Books, 2015). This is a marvelous little book. The author, a Brit, writes with stunning clarity about his experience of severe depression when he was in his early 20s. An easy, accessible read. Best thing I’ve run across that really explains what depression feels like.
My Battle With Depression – a Disease Too Many Suffer in Silence by Bill Davis (Aug. 22, 2014 in the Bangor Daily News)
Robin Williams, Connectedness, and the Need to End the Stigma Around Mental Illness by Arianna Huffington (Aug. 18, 2014)
There’s Nothing Selfish About Suicide by Katie Hurley (Oct. 12, 2014, Huffington Post)
Depression Can Be Treated But It Takes Competence by Kay Redfield Jamison (Aug. 15, 2014 in The New York Times)
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (Vintage, 1992)