Well, now, that’s a nice intellectual sounding title, isn’t it? Unfortunately, I’m not sure this post will live up to it. What I want to do is write about the actual experience of depression, specifically what it seems to do to my thought processes.
I’m going to try and avoid, if I can, writing about this in an emotive way. I already know what depression feels like, and I have a good enough emotional memory that I can make a reasonable fist of describing it when I’m not depressed. What I’m much less good at doing is recognising the cognitive patterns of depression, and I think it would be useful to set them down because I actually have a fairly strong sense that it’s the cognitive aspects of depression that affect me more than the emotional ones. As to why I’m doing this in a public blog post, well, partly it’s because I’m a blogger, so blogging’s what I do, and partly because I hope what I write might be useful to someone. I know I find it useful when I read someone else describing something and can think – yes, that applies to me too.
First of all, in the interests of full scientific disclosure (lol) a bit about my mood as it is at the moment. I would say I’m moderately depressed just now, but I say that in the context of being someone who suffers from pretty severe depression a lot of the time. In fact, to try and make this a little less subjective, I just ran myself through the Beck Inventory Questionnaire and I scored 45, which apparently puts me more or less bang in the middle of the severely depressed bracket. (Summary of score brackets here.)
Still, for me, this is relatively moderate – this blog post isn’t flowing as easily as I’d like it to, but I’m not yet at the stage where I stare blankly at the screen or out of the window and fail to write anything at all. I am, more or less, keeping up with my little day-to-day routines, which involve sleeping, eating, washing, dishwashing, and laundry. (Although, come to think of it, insomnia is gradually putting paid to the sleeping part, and the eating part has been slipping in recent days – in fact, I’ve eaten very little except crisps, chocolate and oven chips, none of which are exactly known for their nutritive goodness. Oh, and the dishwashing’s getting erratic too. Bugger.)
Anyway, on with these cognitive signs.
First of all, my sense of time is definitely up the creek. Usually when I wake up in the morning I have absolutely no idea what day it is. Sometimes, if I think very hard, it comes to me, but often I have to check the date on my clock, and then check the day on the calendar in order to know. I also loose track of time during the day. Earlier today I had a bath, and I thought I’d spent about 20 minutes heaving my blubbery carcass in and out of the water, but it was actually more like 90. I started trying to write this post about 2½ hours ago, and given that this is only the fifth full paragraph, I would have estimated I’d been at it for no longer than 30 minutes.
This maybe doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it kind of is for me. I’ve always had a very accurate sense of time. Except for things like railway journeys with lots of connections and job interviews I’ve never worn a watch. No-one is ever totally accurate, of course, but assuming I’ve checked a clock within the last three hours or so, I would expect my time estimates to be accurate to within a quarter of an hour, give or take. (I discovered I had this ability, by the way, because it took me so bloody long to learn to tell the time – people tend to get pissed off being asked what the time is every 5 seconds for years on end…) That’s not really the bit that worries me, though.
What I’m more bothered about is what the hell I was doing during the missing 2 hours when I thought I was thinking about and writing this post. I can’t be certain – because, by definition, I have no memory of what I’ve been up to in these ‘blanks’ – but I think I get so distracted by my thoughts that I don’t pay attention to the fact that time is passing. Well, at least I hope that’s all it is. I haven’t noticed any reports of unexplained axe murders in the local news so far… ;o)
The next thing I notice about the way my thinking changes, and which is possibly related, is that I lose all sense of a future. I don’t mean that in a ‘losing hope’ kind of way – lots of people say that their bouts of depression rob them of their future, and some of them seem to mean by that losing any possibility of hope in the future. That’s not exactly what it’s like for me. When I say that I don’t have any sense of the future I don’t mean that I feel nothing will ever get better so much as I mean that I don’t believe that anything will happen to me, good or bad.
A few days ago – well, maybe more like a couple of weeks – I had vague, half-thought-out plans for the future. Not grandiose planning – ‘I’ll be completely recovered in 6 months, back at work in 1 year, and sorting out the guest list for my civil partnership ceremony in 2′ – but mediocre, achievable ones – ‘I might take myself on a daytrip to [insert name of local geographic feature here] sometime soonish’. Now I don’t think that there will be a ‘me’ available to do those things. (I don’t mean by that I’m suicidal – I’m not.) I’ve got an appointment to see a psychiatrist in a couple of weeks, and while I know that someone with the same name as me has that appointment, I can’t in any way connect that with me. I’m sure someone will go to the appointment, and, in fact I do have a sense that I’ll be there, somehow, observing it, but I just can’t believe it will be me actually at the appointment. This is quite a weird one, I have to admit.
The next symptom of depression I notice is creeping a bit nearer the emotional stuff I said I would try to avoid for now, but it’s still relevant to this post, I think. Lots of people, when they talk about their depression, seem to talk about awful black moods, a dark cloud descending etc. Sometimes there even seems to be an almost exuberant edge to what they describe – no pleasure in the mood itself, but still a sense of experiencing a significant, substantial event. That’s just not what it’s like for me. Most of the time when I’m depressed I don’t even feel especially sad.
What I do feel very acutely is my inability to feel anything. Watching a comedy show on TV doesn’t make me feel happy (although it might make me laugh – laughter and happiness don’t seem to be especially connected for me). But, at the same time, a sad programme doesn’t make me feel sad. I might respond to it intellectually – ‘that’s a really terrible situation’ – but I don’t feel it. I read or heard somewhere another description of depression which likened it to gradually turning down the colour on a TV set, and that comes the closest of any description I’m aware of. This flattening of emotional response is what I think gets described as ‘loss of affect’ by MH professionals.
But, for me, the terrible thing about depression is the way that, when I’m depressed, nothing matters. There’s no point turning the lights on when it gets dark because it doesn’t matter if I sit in the dark. There’s no point in cooking a meal because it doesn’t matter if I get hungry. And so on. This feeling is definitely connected to the sense of having no future – whatever I do will have no consequences, so there’s no reason to do anything.
This is, probably, the most debilitating aspect of depression for me, and it’s as a bulwark against it that I’ve built my daily routines. So I had a bath earlier, not because I don’t want to stink – as far as I’m concerned there’s no real connection between me having or not having a bath and the possibility of stinking, and even if there was, it wouldn’t matter – but because I last had a bath on Tuesday, and my routine tells me I have to have a bath at least every other day. Really I ought to bathe every day, but I find I don’t have the energy. That sounds ridiculous, and the truth is it’s not a problem of lacking physical energy, although that’s what it feels like. The issue is actually that I lack the resources to make a sufficient effort of will.
To a non-depressed person (and to me when I’m not depressed) the idea of willpower seems like it doesn’t really apply to day-to-day life. Willpower is what you need when you give up smoking, or go on a diet, it’s not something you need just to be able to pop to the supermarket. But to a depressed person, that’s exactly what it takes. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why that is, although I do think it’s related to the fact that, for everyone, reserves of willpower are limited.
Sometimes I think depression creates a huge weight of apathy that has to be overcome in order to achieve anything, and so the same amount of willpower doesn’t stretch as far as it used to. Other times I think the major effect depression has is to massively reduce the available reserves of willpower. On balance, I think it’s probably a combination of the two – that more willpower is required at exactly the same time that willpower is getting harder to find. I guess the analogy would be a car that needs to draw more petrol to climb a hill at the exact same moment that it springs a leak in the fuel line.
I certainly think mental apathy is a significant feature of my depressions. I have a very strong sense that thinking gets noticeably harder when I’m depressed. This is going to be very difficult to describe, but here goes anyway.
Normally I’m aware, in a dim kind of way, of having lots of thoughts all the time. They’re not exactly conscious, but certainly not unconscious either – a bit like things in your peripheral vision which you can see enough to know they’re there, but not in any kind of detail. With depression I lose that sense of having a busy, active mind. Instead every thought seems to arrive incredibly slowly, as though it’s emerging out of a thick, cotton wool cloud, and I have a sense of a kind of cognitive tunnel vision. The thoughts I concentrate on are still there, and I know from experience that they can even be quite good thoughts – I’ve managed to write university essays that have scored reasonable marks even in the midst of really horrible depressions. But the subjective sense is that it all occurs in the middle of an empty field instead of the normal busy street.
Sorry, this post has been getting very metaphorical, but that’s because I’m trying to come up with ways of expressing things that are very difficult to describe in any other way. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk about the final point, the effect depression has on my memory, in a more straightforward way. This is probably the aspect of my thinking that seems to be the most sensitive to changes in mood, to the extent that I use it as a kind of early-warning system that a period of depression might be in the offing.
My memory is affected in two ways. The change that happens first is in the quality of recall. I have a slightly odd, magpie, memory at the best of times, in that some things will stick in there very easily, while in other cases I won’t be able to drum up more than an uneasy feeling that I’ve forgotten something that seemed to be pretty important. But, when I’m getting depressed, even things which I know I ought to be able to remember I forget.
Often it’ll be something very trivial, like forgetting the address of a website I go to regularly. Earlier today, for example, when I was looking for the depression inventory test, I couldn’t remember the name ‘Google’. I knew I needed a search engine, I knew there was a search engine I use several times a day, and that if I could remember even what letter it started with it would appear in the address bar dropdown, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember it. Eventually I was reduced to bringing up my history of recently visited sites and looking through them until I saw it. And, of course, once I saw it I couldn’t believe I’d ever managed to forget it.
At the moment, my problems with recall are at the level of annoyance rather than anything more serious (another reason I don’t class my current level of depression as all that severe). In the grip of more serious depression I find myself doing things like getting something ready to put in the oven, then opening the door and finding that there’s already one in there. I’m not 100% sure if this is a problem with recalling a memory as it is with laying down the memory in the first place. What I do know is that, for the periods of time when I’ve been most particularly depressed, I have almost no memory of them. I can, for example, only recall scattered details for the whole of last winter, and certainly a whole lot less detail than I can remember for the winter before. To some extent that’s perfectly normal – when I’m in the grip of a major depression I do very little, so there’s less to remember. But, on the other hand, my sister tells me that we spoke on the phone several times during the period, while I honestly was convinced I’d spoken to her once or, maybe, twice.
So, anyway, there you have it. My guide to the more intellectual symptoms of depression as I experience it. I hope I won’t be getting any more familiar than I currently am with any of these, but I guess I’ll have to wait for time to tell one way or the other.
As an aside, I made some minor adjustments to my blogroll & links page yesterday. I’ve added links to a couple of new blogs (well, they’re newish to me), and removed links to a couple that seem, sadly, to have gone dead.