The Experience of Depression

I’m having a bad day today. It started yesterday, maybe even as early as Sunday night. I thought I was just tired. I went to bed early (earlier than usual) last night, and when I woke up this morning, I thought today would be better. It took a period of sitting on the couch crying for me to realise that it wasn’t.

Last night, I wanted to blog about how I felt, all the icky things going through my head. But I didn’t want to make those things public, because of their overwhelming negativity. Because of the fear of being judged as whiny. Because I’m trying to attract readers to my books, and I didn’t want to put them off. Because agents and editors (and yes, I still am concerned about what they think, even though I am an independent author) check you out on the internet, and I didn’t want to come across as difficult or over-morose.

But now I think presenting a picture of what happens to me when I have an episode of depression might be helpful to some people, both to those who experience it themselves and those who don’t and have no idea. Maybe the fact that I can think this way signals that I’m on the upswing. Or maybe I turn to writing as a form of self-soothing, and I have finally figured out a relatively acceptable way to do it. I don’t know.

Biochemical depression is a chicken-and-egg thing. I don’t know whether issues in my personal life set the chemistry in motion, or whether the chemistry of depression causes me to see and feel the issues in a different way than I would otherwise. It’s true I have some difficult things going on right now. My books aren’t selling, despite my doing everything in my power to attract readers. I saw a family with two daughters, whom I remember being born, who are now teenagers. We don’t have enough money to pay our mortgage this month, let alone the other bills we’re behind on, and I can’t think of a single thing we can do to better our circumstances. All these things are causing me significant pain, guilt, and feelings of helplessness. But I also know that when my brain chemistry is different, when I’m in a better place, I am more able to have hope, believe that things will improve. The problems of everyday life don’t seem so insurmountable.

This is one reason I am not a great proponent of cognitive therapies. The techniques are helpful sometimes, and I believe it’s good for depression-prone people to learn then. But I am fairly certain that severe depression of the kind I experience is not a thought disorder. It’s not like I woke up one day and decided to see the world in a negative light. Rather, my ability to experience positivity was compromised. So when mental health professionals focus on a person’s ability to change their thought processes, when my therapist has said, “But think of all you HAVE achieved!” it DOESN’T HELP. Sure, I can turn my mind to the fact that I’ve published a number of books. That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t seem to be able to sell them, and this causes me frustration and pain. I can look at my marriage and know it’s a good marriage and many people would give an arm and a leg to have a marriage as good as mine. That doesn’t change my feelings of isolation and loneliness. Maybe it helps to be able to distance myself from the emotional component a bit, to be able to place those positive things in the balance against self-doubt and despair and worthlessness. But no amount of positive thinking has any affect on the actual feelings. Feelings aren’t thoughts. No one can convince me otherwise.

The last time I was in the hospital, I mentioned this to one of the staff. I told her that I don’t start thinking bad things and then spiral down into bad feelings (which is the basic philosophy behind cognitive therapies), but that I feel bad FIRST and that causes the bad thoughts to have more prominence. She’d never heard of such a thing.

When I am in a depressive cycle, every action becomes more complicated and every decision is loaded. The voices in my head challenge me at every turn. I’ve mentioned these voices in other posts. Time and time again, mental health professionals have asked me if I hear voices. And I’ve had to say “No,” because I don’t have an auditory experience.  Not long ago, I read an article about how “new research” has determined that hearing voices doesn’t have to have an auditory component (I wanted to link to the article, but a Google search didn’t turn it up and I spent about half an hour going through my Facebook feed and couldn’t find it). So I’m gonna go ahead and say what I’ve always believed: Yeah, I hear voices, and Yeah, my ability to perceive and interact with so-called “objective” reality is impaired. It isn’t just negative self-talk or the repetition of stuff I’ve been taught to think. It’s as real as hearing the same phrase of the same damn song OVER AND OVER when I have a migraine–which, incidentally, my neurologist said is a brain function problem. So there.

Anyway. Here’s a thing that happened this morning. Since the new year, I’ve been trying to work on becoming more fit. This involves doing yoga every other day, with hopes of gradually increasing my activity as I get used to it (trying to be active every day right off gives me migraines). I was sick in February, so I had to start over in March, which is why I’m still doing it every other day. (And FYI, I felt huge internal pressure to justify the fact that I hadn’t made any progress yet. Hence the last explanation.)

Today was supposed to be a yoga day. A couple hours into it, I realised I simply didn’t feel up to doing it, and I was trying to decide whether or not to push myself into it. This exchange happened:

Me: I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t feel well.

Voices: Is that true? Do you REALLY not feel well? Or are you making excuses for yourself BECAUSE YOU’RE LAZY AND WORTHLESS?

Me: I really don’t feel well. I’m super tired.

Voices: Oh, you’re tired. So is everyone. You know, you could do it if you really wanted to. You could do it if you tried.

Me: I’m allowed not to want to.

Voices: No, you’re not. Not wanting to push yourself into activity because you don’t feel well MAKES YOU A LAZY AND WORTHLESS PERSON. AND BESIDES, YOU’RE FAT. FAT PEOPLE AREN’T ALLOWED TO DECIDE NOT TO BE ACTIVE IF THEY CAN POSSIBLY MOVE.

Me: I think I’m going to barf.

Voices: YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BARF. STOP MAKING THINGS UP. STOP MAKING EXCUSES FOR YOURSELF. NO WONDER YOU FAIL AT EVERYTHING. HOW ARE YOU EVER GOING TO BE SUCCESSFUL IF YOU DON’T APPLY YOURSELF? NO WONDER YOU DON’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS. WHO’D WANT TO BE AROUND YOU?

This went on for some time, and I ended up in tears. It is painful to have these uncontrollable thoughts berating me for trying to take care of myself in the best way I know how. I don’t know whom to trust. I don’t know if I can trust myself to know the reality. Am I sick? Am I not? Is it okay to be gentle to myself when I feel shitty? I mean, when I have a migraine so bad al I can do is lie down with the heating pad on my head and moan pitifully, that’s okay. But what about the in-between times” What about when I feel KIND OF sick? What about when I’m having a depressive episode? Is that even real? Or can I put my mind to it and overcome it somehow?

It’s confusing and disturbing. Sometimes I have made the choice to “push through,” and I always end up crying on my yoga mat because I feel so bad and the voices don’t let up even then. Sometimes I have walked down the back road sobbing, because the common wisdom is being active will help alleviate the depression. When I’m in the middle of an episode, it does no such thing, and I know this. But the voices in my head are like being beaten with a hammer. I don’t believe I have a right to make decisions or contradict them or say no. It doesn’t matter where they came from. Nothing I do is right.

Today I did make the choice not to do yoga, and it didn’t help much, either.

I’m running out of things I wanted to say at this point. I’m going to stop and maybe try to sleep a little. One good thing is, writing this–even as half-assed as it ended up–has taken some of the charge off. I hope if people who don’t experience clinical depression stumble upon this post, they’ll get a better understanding of what it’s like, and why we can’t simply wish or think it away.

ADDENDUM

After I published this, I was trying (obviously unsuccessfully) to take a nap. I kept thinking about trust, about the feeling of not knowing what part of myself to trust, the cognitive part or the Voices. About the struggle to do what I know on an intellectual level might be right or what I need in the face of the overwhelming pain those Voices inflict to…do whatever it is they do, get my attention, get their own way, whatever. About the feeling of being caught between these two realities and having no idea which one is correct.

Anyway, I realised that this is part of where the loneliness of depression comes from. There’s no one to guide you except maybe other people whop have been in the same place. I know mental health professionals mean well, or else they would not go into the field they do. BUT I DON’T TRUST THEM. My experience is even the best of them are married to an agenda about what my mental state is, how it can be defined, what will help, what I should do. They believe they know better than I do what is going on with me. They don’t listen except inasmuch as they need to to support their hypotheses. Even the best of my many therapists, the one I stayed with longest, did this. Every time I tried a new doctor or counselor, I hoped so much this would be the one who could hear me. And every time I was disappointed. I got into the habit of withholding stuff I knew they wouldn’t be able to cope with. Things that would challenge them. Because since I was a teenager, the agendas of mental health professionals have done actual damage to me. Whether it was deciding I was anorexic and threatening to force feed me when depression was the issue (which resulted in my becoming anorexic to please them) or dismissing my reality because I was able to articulate it (which lead to bad treatment), mental health professionals have taught me that the only person I can trust with finding a way out of this is myself.

If there are any mental health professionals reading this, I encourage you to do something radical: Listen to your clients. Believe them. Put yourself and your degree and your expectations aside. That’s the only way you can find a common ground, and the only way your profession remains meaningful.

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5 thoughts on “The Experience of Depression

  1. Yes, to all of this. Thank you for writing this. And as someone who is right now trying to find a therapist who will listen instead of trying to be The Expert, THANK YOU.

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