(Mental Health) What The Chemicals Feel Like

Myth 150I have dealt with depression for my entire life. I suffered from it before I even knew what it was; some of my earliest memories are staring at the ground, feeling empty and sad for no reason. My first suicidal ideation happened when I was in 6th or 7th grade and before that I imagined running away from home or beating people up with such vicious and satisfying fervor that thinking back on it makes me cringe. If I wasn’t sad, I was angry, and if I wasn’t either of those I was wishing that I could be someone I wasn’t or some place that didn’t exist. Up until I was 13 or so, schoolwork was my one refuge.

The reason I say this is to give a sense of how long I’ve been living with this. Knowing what I know now, I can look back at moments that have always stuck with me and determine exactly what was going on. When bad things happened, the emotional response I had to them was borne out of a persistent and deep depression. I would either feel a knowing, exhausted acceptance (Of course this bad thing happened to me, what else would?) or a sudden and intense anger at the world. There were times where I felt too depressed to move or think, so I would simply sit and stare at the back of a couch for a few hours. Anything to pass the time without having to exist.

Over time, through high school, college and afterward, I learned to develop a vocabulary for my experience. Learning more about other people’s experiences helped me to shape my own in a more solid way. Even still, depression is as difficult to talk about as any other emotional state, perhaps more so. Everyone experiences joy in a slightly different way, but everyone has experienced joy. Trying to explain depression to someone who has never been depressed is trying to communicate something with no common frame of reference.

But here, I’ll try anyway.

For me, depressive states are marked by three things — a lack of energy; a sad and hollow feeling; and an irrational anxiety about consequences, especially social ones. I become hyper-aware of small facial expressions and vocal inflections that might indicate someone feeling negative towards me, and discard anything that might offer a counter-narrative. If someone has anything good to say about me, they’re either lying because they’re nice people who want to spare my feelings or they don’t truly know me yet.

Depression shrinks my world until I’m the only thing in it. Everything that happens contributes to the story I tell myself about how I’m a terrible and broken person, or how the world is cruel and unfair, or how the burden of being alive is simply too great to bear. I recognize that when I’m really depressed I get really narcissistic. I can’t stop thinking about myself or my lot in life. Even when I realize it’s an irrational line of thinking, I can’t help it — everything is about me.

The lack of energy is maybe the worst part. It’s like you have this bank of willpower or ability, and for most people the basic stuff doesn’t cost much of anything. Getting out of bed? That’s like, one energy point. Taking a shower? Three, maybe five, depending on how sleepy I am. Getting dressed and going outside? Well, anywhere from two to ten energy points. If you have a bank of 100 every day that you need to use until you sleep, your day is generally filled with activities that maybe use 75 of them.

But when I’m depressed, everything is so much more expensive. Waking up and having a thought costs energy, so going down the list of things I have to do is enough to drain me. Getting out of bed can cost 75 energy points; it’s all I can do at that point to shuffle to a couch, turn on the television, and lie back down. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.

The neurotransmitters in your brain are the chemicals that help regulate your internal cycles, and when they’re unbalanced it can throw your whole energy system out of whack. Depression severely limits your energy budget, so you just don’t have a lot to spend. It can seem like a mystifying thing to most people if someone spends a week in bed, or can’t actually make a can of soup for themselves. But in those instances, just interacting with someone — telling them I’m hungry — is a Herculean effort that exhausts me enough to bring me to tears.

For a while, I went through this cycle where I would dip into a mild depression for a few days to a couple of weeks, then come out of it. When I came out of it, I felt like I could do anything. I’d make plans and set goals because I didn’t want to waste any more time, but that level of energy is not permanent. It’s like winning $500 in the lottery. You’re flush for a while, but you’re back where you started a lot sooner than you would think.

The lack of energy is often accompanied by a worsening sadness that bottoms out into this numbness where feeling anything happens at a distance. Anything that tries to shake me out of that is met with anger. I think a lot of depressed people have this reaction, too; when you try to work with me on solving the things that are wrong I am really not interested in hearing it. Anything I could do would be way too much work (because I have no energy) and probably not yield results anyway (because my brain will chemically not let me be optimistic). I’ve been in a room full of people trying to cheer me up or offer a way out of what’s going on, and I’ve batted down every platitude or piece of advice. And I’ve been part of that concerned group of friends, getting increasingly desperate, confused or angry about why my friend just won’t TRY to make things better. It’s easy to forget in that situation that just having this conversation might be taking all the energy this friend has. It’s difficult for everyone involved.

As I grew up, I knew that the way I feel sometimes is not “normal”, and that the people who stuck out their necks for me would eventually run out of patience and understanding. That made me feel worse. No one wants to be the person who drains the emotional energy out of everyone they meet, and there are a lot of times where it feels like social interactions are this out-of-body experience. The sane part of me is watching the rest simply stand there like an immovable wall while friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances try to chip away at the fog that surrounds me. Knowing that I make other people sad and worried is an awful feeling, and it burdens me further during those times when I’m least capable of carrying that weight.

I don’t mean to make this sound like being concerned or trying to help a depressed friend is something that never helps and shouldn’t be done. I am trying to explain why I’ve responded (and will respond) to those attempts in a particular way. In the depths of depression, everything gets twisted through a filter into its worst possible shape. Worse, we can see it happening in real time, but can be powerless to stop the process.

So in really bad depressions, I would vacillate between reaching out to people and pushing them away. I would have to express the way I felt to someone, anyone who would listen, but I resented any attempts to make me feel better. In those terrible days and nights, what I wanted more than anything is someone to just let me be understood, but would let me know that they loved and cared for me. At the same time, I fully understand how hard it is to sit with someone who is suffering deeply and intensely. The people who are often best equipped to help someone out of their depression are often the same people who are devastated by being in its proximity.

Symptoms of depression vary widely. Some people have physical aches or pains; others get irritable or agitated. Some withdraw into silence or isolation, and others cry, scream and throw things. We each suffer in our own ways, and each of us have learned to deal with these senseless feelings in various helpful and not-so-helpful ways. To those of us on the outside, the actions make little sense. We know, and chances are they’ll make little sense to us when we’re through that rough patch. But in the moment, it’s an inarticulate, clumsy reach for something to get us through the next hour, or minute, or several seconds. Those moments when our brain chemistry goes wrong can feel like an eternity, and the crushing weight of that can make it impossible to regain any sense of perspective.

I know this was a little rambling, but I hope it was at least a little helpful. If you would like to share your personal experience of depression, or have questions about the behaviors or feelings of others, please do so in the comments. And if you’d like to know more about what it’s like to live with depression, here are a few links:

Depression Quest — This is an interactive story game by Zoe Quinn (yes, that Zoe Quinn), and it struck me as one of the absolute truest expressions of depression ever. I…can’t play that game for long.

Depression Comix — This is a series of comics that illustrate the weird rabbit-trails of thought depressed people stumble down all the time. It can come across as a little pithy, but I can relate so much to so many of these.

Adventures in Depression — Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half fame penned this two-part comic essay about her bout of severe depression, and it’s really illuminating, funny and heartbreaking.

I’ll try to have fiction posted on Friday; next week, I’ll talk about a few things that have helped me cope with my own depression and a few more things that might help friends and loved ones who want to care for a depressed person in their lives.

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