What Depression Is & Isn’t

[Content Note: anxiety, depression, suicide]

So as I mentioned in my first post, I’m finishing up my M.A. in German. My final project is translating a set of travel essays from an Austrian author, who is also a guest lecturer at my university this semester. We’re reading a book of his that is set in post-WWII Vienna, an interesting glimpse into the society of the time. Last week in class, we were talking about one of the main characters of the book, a Jewish businessman who returned to Vienna after being in a concentration camp during the war. He’s unhappy, despite being very wealthy at this point in the story (a couple decades post-war), in part because the experiences he had during the war were so traumatic for him. So we were discussing this character, and one of my classmates stated that she really identified with a particular passage where he talks about this dark period and his feelings about it, because she suffers from depression and it reminds her of her own feelings. I agreed with her, saying that I think he might even have PTSD from the experience, but I also see the depression aspect because of my own depression.

At this point, the author made an analogy which really illustrated the misunderstanding that many people have of depression. He said that one’s emotions are like water, turning a water wheel. It doesn’t matter if the water is clear (positive emotions) or full of weeds and garbage and pollution (negative emotions), they will still spin the water wheel, so it’s important to make them work for you either way.

Now, I don’t know if he has ever dealt with depression himself, but I would hazard a guess that he hasn’t, based on that analogy. Because that’s not what depression is. So I want to expand on that point a bit in this blog post, and talk about what depression is and isn’t.

First of all, depression is not some gentle, poetic melancholy. It is not always a temporary affliction, and it does not manifest simply as feeling sad. It isn’t something that can be cured by one sunny day or the smile of a loved one or a cute puppy.

Depression is not something that can just be gotten over, or powered through. It is not something that just requires willpower, that can be ignored or made to work for you. It isn’t a tool to attract lovers, or enhance creativity.

Depression is a very real, very debilitating disease. It can manifest in a number of ways, but it is not something with a simple cure, or even a cure at all for some people. Depression requires a great deal of effort simply to live with. Depression saps your energy and sometimes makes it impossible to do anything.

The analogy above is flawed. The real analogy would be that a person without depression may have clear water or dirty water, but their water wheel keeps running either way. A person with depression is dealing with toxic waste that erodes their water wheel and sometimes stops it from running altogether, while they fight constantly to repair it or at least keep it running. And that doesn’t even take into account the many other things that can interact with depression, like anxiety, where the person may have a working wheel today but they live in constant fear of what could happen to the wheel tomorrow. Or a person who has a chronic illness, where sometimes their wheel stops working and they don’t have the ability to even try to fix it.

I have lived with depression my entire adult life. I have tried numerous things to help me deal with my depression. I have spent days in bed because I wasn’t emotionally capable of getting up to do more than pee. I have gone without food because making it or ordering it or going out to buy groceries was too hard. I have gone months without cleaning my house, or even taking out the trash, because I felt so awful I just wanted to die. I’ve contemplated suicide just to make the pain stop. I’ve cried and cried, I’ve felt absolutely numb, I’ve felt so awful I couldn’t even put the pain into words. I’ve tried using a sun lamp in the winter to help my Season Affective Disorder (SAD), I’ve tried taking Vitamin D, I’ve tried changing my diet. I’ve tried numerous combinations of prescription drugs.

These days, I manage. I take anti-depressants daily, I have emergency anti-anxiety meds that can help stave off panic attacks, I go to therapy every two weeks. I have good days and bad days. But my depression is always with me. It isn’t something I can easily dismiss with a wave of my hand. It isn’t some poetic melancholy that enhances my creative senses. It is a disease that I expect to live with for the rest of my life. It is something I have to fight against every day. It is toxic waste trying to destroy my water wheel.

I know that the author didn’t mean anything by his comments. But I think it’s important to push back against the narrative that depression is just something to get through, or something to use as a tool. Maybe some people have found a way to do that. But most of the people I know with depression can’t use it as a tool. It’s a disease, and it can kill us just as easily as cancer, or HIV, or Ebola, or any other disease.

There isn’t a shiny happy ending to this post, because depression doesn’t always give us a shiny happy ending. I am not in any danger right now of hurting myself, but that could change in the future. The truth is that I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. I could try a new anti-depressant that will seem to cure all of my symptoms and make me happier and more functional than I’ve ever been before. Or I could continue limping along with my current cocktail, happy to be mostly functional rather than risk rocking the boat. Because that’s how my depression is for me.

This is what depression is.

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