How I met depression
I spent my 17th year like many other young women: obsessed with a young man. Unfortunately, the guy was showing no interest. At all.
At the time, I still believed that I could change someone else’s feelings with unlimited love, patience, and sheer persistence – I’m sighting as I’m writing this, but well, you know, I was 17.
And then, the inevitable happened: nothing. The guy continued showing no interest. But my obsession turned into a nighmare, and I was getting worse. At some point, I had the distinct impression I was going crazy.
After a while of this insanity, I unwillingly pulled the stops.
I went to bed one night feeling desperately in love. But I had a dream I was in a middle of a crowd, shouting “I don’t love him anymore! I don’t love him anymore!”. And indeed, once woken up, I was not feeling a thing for this young man.
Overnight, he had returned to his status of “just another guy”.
What I dearly wanted, for months, had happened ! I did not care anymore! Overnight! It was so cool…
But something was wrong. Yes, there was no more pain of being rejected: I was not asking for anything and besides, I could not care less.
The problem was precisely that I did not care anymore. Obsession had disappeared. Pain, jalousy, anxiety, ruminations, had vanished. But all other emotions had disappeared as well: anger, joy, fear, pleasure, hope. And above all, there was no desire. I did not have any for the guy, but I did not have any for anything, and that did not feel good.
Everyone around me thought I was depressed because of my unrequited love. The irony was that I became depressed the moment I wasn’t in love anymore. My adolescent story is a good illustration of the fact that being depressed is not feeling difficult feelings. Rather, it is the absence of feelings.
Welcome in the wonderful land of nothing, the land of depression. I was crying a lot, sleeping a lot, eating almost nothing, and feeling my life was a big, hopeless, void. I needed a full year to get out of that pit, and this is an experience that I do not whish to anyone.
The only good thing it brought me is the understanding of what it’s like to be depressed. Which means I can understand a lot of people indeed.
My definition of being depressed: hopeless, and undeserving
Before this first encounter with depression, I thought being depressed meant being sad. And there is an element of truth to that; sadness, it seemed, was the only emotion that had survived.
But I had felt sadness for months before: deep down, I knew already that the guy did not love me and that it would not change. What was new, and devastating, was an absence: no desire, no pleasure, no energy, no fun, and above all, no hope.
Depression is when we don’t even see why we should do something to feel better, to improve our life, or to enjoy something. We have no motivation to do what it takes to get out of there. Worse still: we don’t feel we deserve to get better. Depression is like a maze, without an exit in sight.
That’s why common sense advice is not useful; yes of course, if we eat better, start exercising, and seek contact with people who do love us, we would get better.
The problem is, we do not see us being able to get better, or deserving to get better. The energy and the drive to do all these things are gone. That’s why telling a depressed person to take things positively and engage in pleasant activities is futile. It would be like asking a paralytic to move in order to heal from his paralysis. That’s precisely the point: we can’t.
The official definition of major depression (and quiz)
Here are the DSM 5 criteria of a major depression, somewhat simplified:
- Feelings of sadness, emptyness, hopelessness
- Loss of interest/pleasure in all activities
- Weight loss or gain
- Disturbed sleep: too little or too much
- Restlessness or on the contrary being very slow
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive/inappropriate guilt
- Decreased concentration
- Thoughts of death/suicide
In order to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, you need to have at least 5 of the symptoms above for more than two weeks; in addition, your symptoms have to trigger significant distress, and not be attributable to another mental health condition such as schizophrenia or substance abuse.
Again, the list above is a simplified version; in order to go through the real test, you can go here.
I just went throught it with in mind the way I felt at 17: it was definitely a major depressive disorder, with all symptoms described except thoughts of death or suicide. And indeed, I was diagnosed as depressed at the time, with my GP prescribing meds (that I did not take) and a sick leave of one month.
This list of criteria does not give you an indication of the severity of your depression. You can assess this severity with for example this test (the Major Depression Index). Again, going through it from that 17 years old space as I remember it gave me the diagnostic of “severe depression”. I agree with this assessment.
The official definition of a persistent depressive disorder
Sometimes we are not depressed enough to be seen as suffering from a major depressive disorder. Still, we are clearly feeling low. What we can look at then are the symptoms of what is called a persistent depressive disorder, listed here.
Basically, a persistent depressive disorder is like a major depressive disorder, with less intensity: for example, we do not have thoughts about death or suicide. On the other hand, it lasts longer: at least two years.
Throughout my life, I suffered only one episode of major depressive disorder. In hindsight though, I went through patches of persistent depressive disorder for a few years after that. It was not horrible, but frankly, there is more to life than going trough the motions as I did. We all deserve better than a life without desire and pleasure.
What to do we do if we are depressed ?
We get help
If we suspect we are depressed, or if one of the tests above states that we are, we should do ourselves a favor and seek professional help. Depression is a serious mental health condition, leading to 850 000 deaths worldwide in a year.
If it’s not possible to have access to professional help, for whatever reason, please learn as much as you can, and talk as much as you can. Secrecy around how you feel will only make it worse. And learning about his disease can help you feel less alone and give you hints at solutions. I will provide in following posts as much information and encouragements as I can.
We normalize the experience
When we are trapped in a depression, we feel defective in a terminal and unique way.
The truth is, it is a very common experience. The probability of suffering of major depression at least once in a lifetime is of 7 to 12% for men, and 20 to 25% for women. If you add persistent depressive disorder, the percentage of people suffering from depressive disorders at any given time is 20%.
What this means is that as we speak, one person out of five is depressed. You may feel uniquely defective, but the truth is, you are in good company. On top of it, indications are depression is more and more frequent, happens earlier in life, and lasts longer than before.
Depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide.Worldwide Health Organization (WHO)
We don’t loose hope
Most professionals agree that depression is a highly treatable condition, usually with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
And for what it’s worth, I can provide my own example: I went through a major depressive episode at 17. I now believe I was depressed as a child. I’m convinced I suffered from persistent depressive disorders until my late twenties – which is the time I started psychotherapy.
When I do take the test of the Major Depression Index now, the result I get is “no depression”. And I bet the result would have been identical for the last twenty years.
I am not saying that I felt great all along: sometimes I did, and sometimes life was difficult. But being in pain, sad, or stressed out, is definitely not the same as being depressed.
We all go through bad times – if you don’t, we may not be living on the same planet. But even in difficult times, I did not loose sight of the fact that it was temporary, and that I deserved to feel good. That’s a hell of a difference.
Depression is treatable. There is no fatality. None. Don’t ever loose hope, don’t give up: there is help available, and you will get out of this.