What depression is actually like




I’m normally quite a placid person, but this article still seems to be making steam rise from my ears, even a few days after I first read it.


The article itself is all about how depression is really a good thing, and how those of us who are lucky enough to experience it end up wonderfully well-adjusted, boundlessly compassionate, and working in deeply satisfying jobs. That’s irritating enough in its own right, you might think.


But what really got me is one of the commenters (Flora from London), who says, “I fell into a deep depression two years ago when the love of my life died.”  Well, I’m sorry, but you didn’t.  You fell into grief – it’s normal to feel sad when your partner dies.


Flora’s experience of grief was obviously worse than it is for most people, and her mood was no doubt affected by the material problems she faced (she talks about losing her house).  I have great sympathy for Flora, and I’m really glad she’s feeling better.  (Must be all that compassion we depressives feel…)


Still, all her experiences can be explained with a simple formula: negative life experience = feelings of sadness.  Real depression isn’t like that.


My current episode of depression began roundabout mid-March last year.  The routine I followed to help stave off the recurrence of depression – regular exercise, a healthy diet, making time to chat with friends and family – was taking place against a backdrop of lighter evenings, flowers popping up everywhere, and rabbits skittering playfully in the local park.  I was continuing to take, without fail, my heavy dose of preventative anti-depressants.  I was looking forward to my birthday, and had two events planned to celebrate it: a night out with friends (some of who were coming from abroad to be there), and a quiet home meal with my family.


And then one evening coming out of the bathroom I caught sight of myself in the mirror and felt myself think, out of the blue: god, you’re ugly.  And fat.  Now, I knew rationally that I wasn’t actually any fatter or uglier than I had been the day before.  Unfortunately, I also knew from previous experiences that this was a sign my mood was beginning a downwards spiral.


So, I did what I could.  The very next day I made an appointment with my GP, who explained that she couldn’t increase my medication as I was already on the maximum dose.  She referred me for CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and to a psychiatrist for assessment with regards to medication – waiting times were around 3 and 4 months, respectively – and told me to come back again if I felt myself to be getting worse.


I did go back, several times, but there was little she could do except listen sympathetically to what I told her and tell me to hang on for the referral appointments to come through.  She prescribed diazepam for the panic attacks I’d started having, but I chose not to take it – better to be anxious and depressed, I thought, than anxious, depressed and addicted.  She asked if I was feeling actively suicidal, offering to refer me to the CMHT (community mental health team) if necessary.  I lied and said no – by then, the thought of meeting a stranger was scarier than the thought I might kill myself.


No doubt that was the wrong decision, but I’d pretty much lost the ability to think clearly by then.  I’d gone in a matter of weeks from scoring distinction-level marks in my postgraduate English degree to being unable to form a three-letter word from the nine-letter selection on Countdown.  My mind ended up so addled I’d walk away from cash points without collecting the money I’d gone there to take out.


Pretty soon I was isolated from everyone, and alone in my flat.  I missed an appointment with my GP.  My family got so worried about me they reported me as a missing person to the police.  It was kind of them to worry about me, and I can see why they were concerned, but in the state I’d reached a policeman banging on the door and peering through the letter box really didn’t help.  I started keeping the curtains closed all the time.  I stopped turning the lights on so nobody would be able to tell if I was in or out.


I only left my flat in the middle of the night, walking miles to the 24 hour supermarket and using the self service tills so I wouldn’t have to have any contact with anybody.  I reckon I spent about a third of my time in a state of abject terror (the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘panic attack’ don’t come anywhere near describing the depth of fear I felt). I spent another third alternately thinking of ways to kill myself (the power lines above the railway?  the bridge over the motorway?  or just a simple step off my tower-block windowsill?) and criticising myself as the worst kind of coward for lacking the courage and energy to carry them through.  The final third I spent sitting quietly, staring at nothing.  That doesn’t sound too bad, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say the terror and suicidal thoughts were actually preferable.


I’m climbing slowly out of that state now.  I’ve started making contact with friends again, although so far only by email.  My thoughts are logical and connected enough that it’s only taken me about 10 hours of writing and re-writing in three separate sessions to get this laid out in a way that kind of makes sense.


Contrary to what it said in that BBC article, no part of my depression was a response to a negative situation.  It arrived literally out of nowhere.  And, contrary to popular belief, my recovery is continuing in spite of a major negative event, the kind of thing most people seem to think causes depression.


You see, my mum died fairly unexpectedly in mid-January.  I miss her every day, but I’m not “falling into a depression” over it.  Am I sad?  Absolutely.  Grieving?  For sure.  Regretful that my illness meant I saw very little of my mum in the last few months of her life?  Definitely.


But there’s also no question that my depression is lifting, even if it is a painfully slow process with lots of relapses along the way.  I can’t think of any more powerful evidence that depression is utterly unconnected to the feelings of sadness that follow a negative experience.


Depression is fundamentally irrational.  It’s not, as the article argues, a way of stimulating an individual to escape a negative situation.  The article uses for evidence a woman who was suffering domestic abuse.   They say the abuse caused her to become depressed, that this in turn led to her leaving the abusive relationship, and as a result both her life situation and her depression have improved.


I don’t want to minimise the suffering of this woman, or that of anyone else who is the victim of domestic abuse.  As with Flora, I have every sympathy for her, and the horrific situation she endured.  I think it’s great that, with professional help, she came to recognise that her relationship was wildly dysfunctional, and was able to escape it. But she never suffered from true depression.


The feelings she experienced were an understandable response to an appalling situation, and ultimately they were rational – life with an abusive partner should make you unhappy.  It’s because her feelings were fundamentally rational that they got better once the situation was resolved.  (Somebody could of course suffer from both depression and domestic abuse, but in that case the depression wouldn’t resolve when the abusive relationship ended.)  Real depression isn’t caused by external events or life experiences, and it’s fundamentally irrational.


Sorry this has been such a long post.  I guess most of you will have given up or fallen asleep by now.  And so, with that in mind, I’d like to end by saying just one more thing:



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7 Responses to What depression is actually like

  1. Rob N. says:

    “Real depression isn’t caused by external events or life experiences, and it’s fundamentally irrational.”

    I’m not so sure. At the very least outside events can fuel depression. I do agree, though, that for the most part there is no rhyme or reason for its coming and going. It just sucks.

    Glad you’re getting better. And I love the title of your blog! The unfortunate incident at his baptism cracks me up every time I think about it.


  2. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi Rob,
    Thanks for your comment – my very first! lol I’d agree that bad experiences can make an already-existing depression worse, but i don’t think they cause depression. The post probably comes across as more definite than i’d normally be because i was reacting to the comments on that bbc article.

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