Portrait of a Depressed Woman

I wade through the topography of my depression, empty wrappers and clothes and dishes thrown about with little care. It feels almost too appropriate that this is the state of my bedroom because it is such a direct reflection of my mind. My room being in a state of complete disarray usually points to one thing: I’m depressed.

Depression seems to creep in at moments that feel unexpected at the time, but in hindsight, make total sense. After all, there was that two-week period where I was eating like crap, or when I got too drunk too often and threw my brain chemistry off, or when I skipped a few workouts. There is the threat of nuclear war and white supremacists marching in the streets and the ever-looming feeling of impending doom to consider. Plus, I am 27 and single and okay with it, but is it okay that I am okay with it? And am I really okay with it, or am I just telling myself that I am okay with it so I don’t have to deal with my true feelings? Time passes and life gets more complicated and sad as I get older, and I am only in my twenties; I have yet to experience so much heartbreak and loss and trauma. I only have so much time on this planet and will never be able to read all the books I want to read or hear all the music that I want to hear or go all the places I want to go or experience everything I want to experience. I have so many regrets that I just have to live with because time travel isn’t a thing yet (get on it, science). And I said this horribly awkward thing and I cannot stop obsessing about it. I am not perfect, and this is feeling more and more unforgivable as my desperation to hide all my faults heightens.

I can usually trace my depression back to one or more of these factors soon after my symptoms begin. After all, I have more than a decade of experience with depression; these themes have come up enough times by now that I can look back and reflect with more knowledge than ever before. As I grow older, my depression comes back again and again, and in a way, it feels like an old friend now. While it gets easier to determine the source and prevent major episodes, depression is inevitable sometimes, and these periods have never gotten easier to weather.

Often, it feels like I am battling my own mind. For a while, I’ll feel just fine. I will be happy with my life, making healthy choices, and feeling great. I might hear murmurs from my anxiety (another old friend who is in a codependent relationship with my depression), but when I’m doing well, I can shut anxious thoughts down pretty fast. The problem is that life is unpredictable. I have a degree of control over my symptoms; they tend to get worse if I am not taking good care of my physical health, for example. But other times, rejection or loss or fear come crashing into my life, and there is little I can do to stop depression from consuming me.

When I am depressed, it feels like a shameful secret I need to hide. It feels like no one will understand, even though 350 million people can relate, including several close friends. I get so scared that if I do reach out and open up, they will say the wrong thing or I will disappoint them. I feel so sensitive and fear disappointing people so much, I pretend that everything is fine. I spend more of my time inside my own brain, where the depression gets louder and more real. The horrible irony is that reaching out always helps; it makes the burden a little lighter because my friends and family actually want to share the load. The thoughts quiet because they are met with love, empathy, and validation. Suddenly, I can see how someone who loves me sees me, and I think, hey, maybe I am not so bad. But the depressed mind doesn’t want to get better so it shit-talks this option and fills the empty parts of me with shame to encourage my isolation.

I hate my depressed self. She’s bitter and boring. She is oversensitive and easily offended. She’s angry and irritable and has a short fuse. And she will not stop telling me to kill myself. Before I knew that I was experiencing it myself, I thought suicidal ideation looked like a scene from an angsty teen drama featuring a character who struggles with mental illness for one episode cutting themselves with a straight razor because their dad is an alcoholic and their boyfriend cheated on them. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that just because my experience wasn’t like an episode of Degrassi, doesn’t mean it was normal or healthy.

In my experience, suicidal thoughts are more like my brain just decides to pipe up when I am trying to solve a problem with this helpful suggestion: why don’t you just kill yourself? OKAY THANKS, GREAT IDEA, BRAIN. NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT PLAN. It’s not often that these thoughts carry any real weight for me anymore because I have spent plenty of time thinking about how much I love my life and don’t want to die, but they get quite intrusive and annoying. Can’t you think of a better solution, brain? But no, my depressed self has very few ideas other than suicide and sleep. It feels like I have lived a thousand lives in one day, and I crawl into bed at 4:30 PM.

Right now, I’m the healthiest I have ever been in my life, but I live with a lifelong condition that means that sometimes, I am just not myself. I am learning how to care for this person who takes over my body occasionally. It’s attributed to several different people, but there is a quote that says, “People need love the most when they deserve it the least.” I may hate my depressed self, but I need to learn to love her. She is imperfect and irrational and mean, but she needs my love.

I climb through my room, stuffing the remnants of my dissipating depression into a trash bag. I do six loads of laundry, hanging my multitude of dresses in my closet with care. I make my bed, enjoying how neat it looks when I am not lying in its rumpled covers. I vacuum, wipe the dust away, and organize my shelves as the cat anxiously looks on. When I am done, I observe my accomplishment and deeply exhale. It looks and feels like control, and I can see the other side.

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I Think I’m Depressed. What Do I Do About It?

Hi Ginzo,

I think I’m maybe depressed. I like my life a lot: I have a great job, a great relationship, a great family, but I feel empty about it all recently. Sometimes I just don’t feel as lucky as I really am. I just feel sort of numb to it all. Sometimes I feel happy or just okay but most of the time I don’t feel anything or I feel vaguely sad. Nothing in particular happened to make me feel this way but for the last few weeks I just don’t really feel like myself, sort of like I am a shell most of the time. Writing this down makes me feel more and more like it is depression. So I guess what I am really asking is what do I do about it?

Probably Depressed

Dear Probably Depressed,

I am so sorry you are feeling this way. I hate that empty feeling. It’s almost worse than the sadness or the anger because it just feels like nothing can move you either way. That numbness can feel so paralyzing.

I am not a doctor and even if I was, I couldn’t diagnose you from a letter, but I will say that as a person with depression, I can relate to the symptoms you’re describing. It doesn’t matter if everything in my life is going wonderfully; if I don’t have enough serotonin and dopamine in my brain, a depressive episode is inevitable. This is one way I like to look at it that helps me; from a more clinical perspective. Maybe it is from my psychology degree, but breaking down my mental illness into a more removed, scientific explanation makes me feel better. It’s not that I am this horrible person who doesn’t deserve to feel happiness; it’s that my brain chemistry is a little wonky and I need to do what I can to rebalance it.

Depression has a way of telling you that you are stupid or wrong or weird for feeling the way that you do. You are not. And it’s okay if you can’t believe that right now, or if you don’t have it in you to do a single thing about it today, that’s okay. But if you feel capable of making some changes, here are some strategies I use when I am depressed.

Identify It

When you start to feel those feelings of numbness and sadness, it can help just to identify it. Knowing what you are feeling is the first step in changing it. Even if you can’t change it, identifying your emotions alone can be a good practice in emotional regulation. Every time you realize “I feel sad” or “I feel depressed” or “I feel numb,” you are gaining a greater understanding of your emotions, giving you the tools you need to better control them.

Talk to Someone

Honestly, this is the one I have the hardest time with. I am not one to be quick to reach out when I am depressed; it feels like an insurmountable task, and there is always that scary feeling of “What if they don’t respond the way I want them to?” While it’s true that even the most well-intentioned might not say what you wanted or needed to hear, it’s less about what they say and more about the act of saying it out loud. Talking about it makes it not a secret anymore. Both secrets and depression are big loads to carry by yourself. Give yourself a break from carrying such heaviness alone by leaning on someone for a moment, whether it’s a friend, family member, therapist, religious leader, or someone else you trust.

Do Something for Ten Minutes

This is a strategy I use even when I am not depressed, but am feeling unmotivated or lethargic and need to get something done. I commit to doing that something for ten minutes. I set a timer and if after ten minutes, I want to continue doing it, I can, but if I don’t want to, I can stop and do whatever I want. When you’re feeling numb, it can be hard to motivate yourself to do a damn thing, but letting your responsibilities pile up can be an anxiety nightmare that just makes things worse. If there is an obligation that is hanging over your head, whether it is writing a paper or cleaning your room, set a timer and give it ten minutes of your time. Even if you quit after ten minutes, at least you are ten minutes closer to finishing the task than you were before.

Write it Down

Awesome news: the fact that you feel like writing this letter made you think you might be depressed means that you would be a kickass journaler. If this is not something you already do, buy yourself a cool notebook to write in and try writing down your thoughts before you go to sleep at night or first thing when you wake up in the morning or really whenever, as long as you keep up with it. Journaling not only lets us process our feelings, as an added bonus, it gives us a log of all of our feels that we can then go back over to look for patterns. This can be a great way to figure out times when you are particularly vulnerable to feeling that numb or sad feeling.

Find Your Form of Meditation

Meditation is a really powerful tool for dealing with depression because it brings you back to the present moment. Instead of focusing on the intrusive negative thoughts or numbness you feel, you are aware of your breath or the way your skin feels or a certain sound. Some people find it impossible to sit still for just meditating (myself included) so they have to find other ways to recreate this same effect. Yoga has been really helpful for me because of its mind/body connection. By focusing on what I am doing with my body, I must stay present. Pretty much anything that calms you that you focus on entirely in the moment can help with this, though. For example, I like to deep clean my kitchen as another form of meditation. It makes me feel productive and in control while allowing me to kind of switch off my brain. You could also knit, color, draw, run, bike, cook a delicious meal, or any other activity that encourages mindfulness.

Seek Treatment

There are a lot of reasons why people avoid seeking professional help, and as someone who has avoided it in the past, I can understand it. That being said, going to therapy has been incredibly helpful in treating my depression, and I really believe it is something that everyone should experience at least once. Other people find medication way more helpful in managing their mental health. Regardless of your preferred treatment method, consider seeking professional help for the way you are feeling. A helpful tool for finding therapists is Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist search. Your health insurance should also have a database available online of therapists and psychiatrists that are covered by your plan.

I hope that you find a way to ease the numbness and sadness, or at least manage it in a way that it doesn’t intrude on your joy. Know that you are not alone, and even when it doesn’t feel like it, there is hope. Sending you solidarity and good vibes.

XOXO,
Ginzo