October 12, 2015

What depression feels like to me

(In which I go on and on trying to come up with lame metaphors for depression)
I’m not sure anyone has ever asked me what my “brand” of depression feels like.  Upon first reading that, I imagine it might sound lonesome or unbelievable, but there are two valid reasons.  First, I have frequently described it to those close to me.  Second, on a sad note, others who are close to me already know what depression feels like since they have experienced it firsthand (my mom, dad, and brother).
So what does depression feel like for me?  I think with any internal state there are limitations in communicating to someone who has never experienced it.  Not quite as difficult, but similar to describing to a blind person what the color red looks like.  The additional difficulty with depression is that it is an all-encompassing experience that frequently has no glimpse of relief “outside” of itself.  It often feels completely real and simply a reflection of the world.  The best I can do is to express it in a few cheesy metaphors.

The Invisible Lead Long Johns

Associated depression criteria - Fatigue and decreased energy, irritability, guilt, hopelessness
Imagine what it would be like to wake up to find out you are wearing lead long johns that no one else can see and which you cannot remove.  Your body feels heavier than ever.  Getting out of bed requires more effort than usual.  You decide to skip your shower so you can lay in bed longer.  You get dressed placing your regular clothes over your new infernal undergarments.  You skip breakfast as you’re already late.  Throughout the day simply moving around require more energy and makes you exhausted.  You feel the drain as you put one foot in front of another.  Your exhaustion grows to be nearly unbearable as the day progresses.  You’d rather just sit or lie down.  Of course you need to make it through your day. Even if you rest your body (perhaps failing to meet your obligations) you can still feel the oppressive weight.  Thus resting itself is impaired, restoring less of your strength than usual.  It’s distressing that no one can see why you are so sluggish and you can’t show them your newly acquired undergarments.  Due to the exhaustion you might decide to miss work, cancel appointments, and/or neglect your family.  Perhaps others will have to work harder to make up for things you fail to do.  Your friends and family are disappointed or even resentful.  You may suffer serious disruptions to your life with significant consequences.  Your reputation at work suffers.  If you do accomplish what you need to do, you might still be irritable and angry about how tired you are.  You might lash out at those around you.  These disruptions and behaviors can lead to feelings of guilt, sadness, anger, pity, and lonesomeness.  You may feel hopeless since you have no control of when your cursed pajamas will ever go away.  Of course, the thing about depression is that even you can’t see the long johns… you just feel them.  They can start out light, but as depression progresses, they get heavier, and possibly so heavy you don’t get out of bed.

The Grayscale Knob

Associated depression criteria - Empty feelings, pessimism, and hopelessness
When not depressed, you “see” your world in vibrant colors.  By see I mean both literally what you see as well as your feelings about the world.  Your brain is constantly judging, categorizing, and processing the world.  There is arguably no “objective” seeing without first being processed through our subjective inner filters.  Normally there is wide spectrum of both actual and figurative color.  Beautiful things are a joy to behold, stunning in their brilliance.  The sad elements of your life appear as dark shadows, highlighting their negativity.  Our world is rich and varied.

With depression your brain has found a hidden image processing knob that is able to slowly remove the varied richness of your “view”.  Slowly the varied colors of your emotional landscape are shifting from a broad contrast to a uniform grayscale.  The change is subtle.  The ups, downs, joys, pitfalls, loves, and hates are flattening out.  It all sort of looks the same to you.  As the highs and lows of the world slowly dissipate, things could get severe enough you don’t even appear to react to them.  You yourself have become flat and may exhibit flat affect or blunted affect.  It makes sense, how can there be emotional reactivity when the emotional color of your world is fading away?

The Burnt Oasis

Associated depression criteria - loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
This is very similar to the grayscale knob, but a more insidious aspect of the flattening.  We all should have some “oasis” that restores us and relieves our stress.  These are activities we engage in which vary from person to person such as reading, exercise, video games, meditation, or simply a slice of time spent alone not doing anything.  The oasis is what we seek when all other aspects of life may look like a desert.  Money problems, a tough job, a strained marriage… these things suck us dry.  And we’re thinking of running a mile that night to forget it all.  But depression has set our oasis on fire and it is slowly burning.  The only pool of water in the desert is drying up.  The activities we once enjoyed which gave us meaning and provided restoration are no longer helping.  It’s no longer enjoyable so we stop going to the oasis.

The Broken Crystal Ball

Associated depression criteria - Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
Here a crystal ball is a metaphor for all your thoughts, hopes, and fears about the future.  You consult your crystal ball to try to predict what is coming.  This becomes wrapped up in your emotions as some things you dread (that presentation at work) while others may help get through the day as they are things you are anticipating (that upcoming vacation).

Depression breaks the crystal ball in that only the negative is shown in the future.  Every upcoming event is something that will fail and give you grief.  You are going to look like an idiot during your presentation.  You’ll probably get fired.  The once exciting vacation now appears as an unaffordable opportunity for disaster.  Everything is going to go wrong.  It’s not going to be fun.  You don’t even want to go anymore.  Looking long enough into the broken crystal ball, you soon don’t want to get out of the bed because your future only contains misery.

The Memory Gremlin

Associated depression criteria – Low self-esteem and pessimism
A gremlin is defined as “an imaginary mischievous sprite regarded as responsible for an unexplained problem or fault, especially a mechanical or electronic one”.  The memory gremlin in this case is causing faults in your bio-chemical long-term memory.  While not linked to any specific symptom of depression it accompanies and worsens depression.  The memory gremlin works as a selective process that when you think of the past those memories that are painful or embarrassing are the ones on which you dwell.  You relive these uncomfortable moments where you perhaps said the wrong thing or failed at something.  Even though your memories of this are probably not entirely accurate, they are ‘negative loops’ that play in your mind and lower your self-esteem and confidence.

Image credit: Flickr

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