The Difference between Being Depressed and Having Depression

Sad Man_flickrLike many people around the world, I was shocked and heartbroken over the news that Robin Williams was found dead in his home yesterday, probably as the result of suicide. It’s well-known that this brilliant actor and comic genius had battled substance abuse problems and severe depression for most of his life, and yet the news still stunned. It was as though someone punched you in the gut and you’re struggling to take the next breath as you process what just happened.

The outpouring of sympathy has been huge. Robin Williams’s work has touched the lives of so many people and nearly everyone I know had something to share about a favorite memory. One of the things many people have said was how sad it was that a man who brought so much laughter to so many people was in such pain he felt he had to end his life. Many people expressed stunned disbelief that a man who had accomplished so much and was beloved by many could take his own life. For many others, this was not as senseless as it would appear, however. Not for anyone who has ever truly suffered from clinical depression.

I make that distinction here because I truly believe there is a world of difference between being depressed and dealing with depression. They are two entirely different beasts. I’ve posted about this before, and discussed it a bit further last night on Facebook, too. For many years, I’ve lived with depressing circumstances, but 99% of the time, I would not consider myself as having depression. Being discouraged, yes. Disheartened, disillusioned, frightened for my future, exhausted by my present–all of these things. But there have been times when I slip into real depression, and believe me, it’s completely different. You can have a fantastic life–a successful career, people who love you, the respect of your peers–but when you are depressed, it is all dust and ashes. Not only does it feel like nothing you do matters, but it feels as though nothing will ever matter again. You look at everything you’ve achieved and think it is utter shit. People tell you otherwise–they tell you how brilliant you are and how much they love your work, and you simply don’t believe them. You don’t believe them because you know your work is crap and that everyone around you is so much better at what you want to do. All you can think of is the times you’ve failed:as a professional in the workplace, as an artist, as a lover, as a human being.

You look at the people who love you and you think they are only there out of pity. You can’t enjoy the things you love–just looking at them brings you to the brink of tears. You mourn the loss of things YEARS before that loss actually occurs. You beat yourself up for every failing, real or imaginary. You truly see no point in continuing to try. You can’t muster the energy to connect with friends who love you no matter what. You know you should get help but you can’t overcome the inertia of your depression. Why?  Because it tells you that nothing will make a difference, and that you will always feel this way, and worse, that you probably *deserve* to feel this way.

But here’s the important thing: DEPRESSION LIES TO YOU. You cannot, must never, ever listen to the lies it tells you when you are in the darkest moments. You aren’t utter shit. The people who love you do so because you are YOU–the person they love. And this black cloud hanging over your head, constantly misting lightly with misery, won’t last forever. Depression is as ephemeral as Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol, and could just as easily be a bit of bad beef or a transitory biochemical imbalance.

For many people it is completely biochemical, for some it is deeply ingrained self-loathing reinforced by negative life experiences; for others it is a combination thereof. I’ve seen it onset as a result of trauma, due to illness or surgery, due to birth control pills, or just simply just because. I lived with people who were depressed and I thought I got it–but I didn’t *really* understand it until one day I slipped off the tightrope myself. The important part is to recognize it for what it is (as J. K. Rowing so aptly depicted them): A Dementor that will suck all the joy right out of you. You need to find your own Patronus spell to combat it–and it’s different for every person.

Many artists struggle with depression, and I think it may be more common in the creative/artistic personalities because the very thing that allows our imagination to take flight in wondrous, marvelous ways is the same that can bind ourselves with chains that drag us down.

Fellow author Elin Gregory had this to say about depression on Facebook (reposted with permission):

I feel it’s like having a broken leg in your brain. If someone put a lovely cuddly puppy in your arms you’d smile sadly and think “best not get too attached, they only live about 12 years” and you feel that’s perfectly reasonable. Then there’s also an internal commentary that’s saying ‘could you be any more pathetic?’ and piling on the guilt and self loathing. But unlike a broken leg with a nice big cast covered in drawings of dicks, if you’ve got the right sort of friends, so nobody will expect you to run upstairs or a marathon or whatever, depression doesn’t show. There’s nothing to indicate that the barista who smiles as she gives you your coffee woke up this morning and thought ‘dammit I didn’t die in my sleep’. The only thing to do with it is to keep on carrying on because one day you hope it will go away and you can start enjoying life again.

Autumn H_resizedI can completely sympathize with her words here. I find myself saying, “This will be my last horse. This will be my last big dog. When the cats go, I won’t get any more.” In part because I’m conscious that I am getting older and I need to be thinking of scaling back but in part because I’m not sure I can take the heartbreak of little losses anymore. Of wasting the years that I have with my beloved pet right there in front of me crying over the losses to come. My dog doesn’t say, “Hey, my muzzle is turning gray and I’ve got cataracts, I’ve only got a short time left with you.” He says, “Can we go on a walk now? It’s stopped raining! Well, okay, maybe it hasn’t stopped raining but we can walk in the rain, so can we go on a walk now? It will be fun!” But that isn’t how I see things sometimes.

I would highly encourage everyone to read The Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino. This blog post isn’t about depression per se, but it is about having an invisible illness and having to choose how much energy to expend on specific tasks on any given day. “You don’t look sick” is something many people with depression hear all the time, and I’ve found the post to be an excellent explanation of what living with a chronic illness is like.

My good friend Finn Wightman, the author of such insightful pieces as A Letter To My Son on Consent, had some illuminating things to say on the subject of depression when soccer phenomenon Gary Speed committed suicide in 2011.

I was on twitter when the news broke, and his name became the top trend almost instantly. In the first hour, when no cause of death was known, the tributes were fulsome (as well they should be). Then the confirmation came that he had taken his own life. Tweets took the expected turn: “we saw him yesterday afternoon – he wasn’t depressed!” “He didn’t look ill!” And of course, the perennial favourite, “he had everything, why would he take his own life.”

He did, he had everything you would think a person could want in life. Everything. So if that’s true, how much uncontrolled despair must have overwhelmed his mind that night for him to decide the world would be better off without him?

We think we’ve come so far in the way society understands mental illness, and then we see the open, honest, unfiltered thoughts of individuals and realise we haven’t come far at all. Why can’t we see that something desperate must have been going on in his mind that night? As someone who lives with unipolar disorder, takes medication to control it every day, and has suffered through suicidal thoughts and desires in the past, the comments that failed to understand were deeply upsetting. Then came the abusive, critical comments calling him a coward and a fool. That was the point that I decided it was better if I turned off the tv and got off twitter. I felt triggered, and was shaky and weepy for most of the next 24 hours. In fact, it’s upset me so much that I had to let it out of my head somewhere.

It’s scary enough to see how cruel and quick to judge the public are when they’ve never been there themselves. It’s worrying that there have been a plethora of campaigns, newspaper articles, books and TV programmes aimed at expanding the public’s understanding of mental illness, and yet so many can’t grasp that mental states are still physical states, and that the illness part of mental illness is not something to be shrugged off by an act of will. Asking what a person ‘has to be depressed about’ makes as much sense as asking a diabetic what they have to ‘be diabetic about’. It’s not something we chose; it’s something we manage.

So why did Gary Speed’s tragic death shake me (and a number of fellow sufferers) up so much? It’s because he had ‘everything to live for’. It’s because he smiled and laughed and joked on my TV screen and then went home to his family and their beautiful house – and then the black dog came in the night and not one jot of the everything-he-had-to-live-for could fight it off.

It’s the chill of recognition that shivers across you. You’ve come home at the end of a day that was soft with smiles only to find yourself suddenly in the dark. You’ve sat under the same roof as everyone you love and wondered if the world wouldn’t be better of without you. So far you’ve fought the black dog off by daylight –  although some nights it’s been a close run thing.

Then you wake up one morning, turn on the news,  and you’re confronted with the awful truth of living with a mental illness: a lot of us don’t survive. And you can’t help but wonder what was the final straw? And you can’t help but think ‘will the night come when that voice inside that says, “the world would be a better place without you” will be too loud to ignore’? And most of all, you feel a leaden dread in the pit of your stomach.

Because if it can happen to Gary Speed, with Everything To Live For, then why not you?”

Sad Silouette_pixaby public domainAt the time that she wrote this, I was one of the people shaking my head and saying, “But he had everything to live for!” After I read her post, I got it intellectually, but not emotionally. Not until someone I care deeply about looked at me with all expression removed from his face and said, “You don’t understand. It’s not about what you have. It  doesn’t work like that.”

Even then, I didn’t really get it until I found myself in that dark pit for the first time. I get it now. I wish I didn’t. Moreover, I wish with all my heart that the people I love didn’t have to struggle daily with battle not to give in to the voice that lies to them. I don’t want to lose anyone else.

14 thoughts on “The Difference between Being Depressed and Having Depression

  1. I suffered from clinical depression when I was in my twenties. There were plenty of times I wished I was dead before morning, and I even asked a couple different people to kill me to put me out of my misery.

    Yeah, I asked them to do me in because I didn’t have the courage to do it myself. I sought professional help and didn’t get it. I struggled through it on my own.

    And then I turned thirty and things changed. Maybe the bad head wiring went away, but while I’ve had a depressed day now and again, and I often look at my writing and think it’s shit, I have not wanted to be dead for the last thirty plus years. I hope like hell I never experience clinical depression again, because I’m very much afraid this time, I won’t be able to deal with it (though treatment drugs are much improved since then, so who knows?) Back then, six months of my life vanished into a black hole. I barely remember any of that time, and I heard it was one of the most glorious summers we’d ever had.

    If you haven’t experienced it, you have no idea what it feels like. None.
    Theo Fenraven recently posted..Butterfly and BugMy Profile

    • It truly is a night-and-day difference, Theo. Before I experienced it myself, I would have said that I did understand it, but it would be like saying I knew what it was like to experience the Grand Canyon because I’d seen pictures of it.

      I’m one of those people that medication makes things much, much worse. If I can have a bad reaction to meds, I will, so I am very cautious about what I take, even supplements. I know that I probably need more help than I’m getting right now, but I also know I can handle what I’m dealing with at the moment. As you said, it’s the future episodes that are scary to contemplate.

      And it’s why I wanted to share a little. Needing help isn’t wrong, or bad, or makes you a weaker person.*hugs*
      Sarah Madison recently posted..The Difference between Being Depressed and Having DepressionMy Profile

  2. I am incredibly lucky that I have never experienced this. Sadness, yes of course. Who hasn’t when faced with a loss of some kind? But never this.

    My only experience of it is second hand. My brother-in-law’s depression (long term and deep seated) imploded a couple of years ago, and it’s taken until now for the medics to get his medication to the point where he’s on a more even keel. Of course, he still has bad days. I love BIL, and I’ve been worried and concerned about how best the extended family can support him; but my main concern has been for my sister. She’s held the family together, kept on working fulltime in a very stressful job (she’s a radiographer in a heart-transplant hospital) and tried to be cheerful and supportive while hiding her own anxieties and fears. Which is a roundabout way of saying that as well as giving the person with a depressive illness understanding and support, all those impacted by it need support and love too.

    Your words, and Elin’s and Finn’s will be kept by me. Because I am, in this case, just an ally and not in there myself, they will remind me of what I need to understand both intellectually and viscerally. Thank you for putting it all so clearly.
    Anna Butler recently posted..Gnat Bites and Button ThievesMy Profile

  3. as you’ve noted, one of the things that always stands out to me is how people say “But he didn’t SEEM depressed” – and in teh case of a celebrity, I’m constantly surprised by the public stating this. Most celebrities put on a show when in public – that is their job. and we see them for a very small fraction of thier life and have NO IDEA what goes on after their 2 hr show, or 12 min movie interview or 2 week flurry of promo before their next hit comes out. Even in our daily lives, I bet we are hard pressed to name a significant number of people that we are SO CLOSE to that we can say we know them intimiately. And knowing someone’s depression is to generally know them intimately. While some people are able to be vocal about their depression and discuss it, I would argue that most people who suffer do so in silence- carefully constructing an outside personna so that the world doesn’t know. Personally, I will discuss my depression with people I think may benefit from my experience. I’ll talk about it but ONLY WHEN I’m NOT SUFFERING FROM IT, or I discuss it in the abstract – something I deal with but maybe leave the listener the impression I’m not dealing with it RIGHT NOW.
    When I’m in the middle of it? I can’t talk about it. I don’t have the energy, I don’t have the drive. I DEFINITELY don’t want people to ‘help’ me. At that point, I just want the world to go away and I burn up all my energy doing daily things – work, laundry, grocery. I’ve got nothing left to work with, and certainly not to deal with well meaning people who offer advice, but for the most part, don’t get it. It’s only after I’ve come out the other side that I’m able to talk about it.

    I would guess a lot of Clinically depressed people are the same. We don’t talk about it. So the catch phrase “But he/she didn’t seem depressed!” will sadly likely always be true.

    • Personally, I will discuss my depression with people I think may benefit from my experience. I’ll talk about it but ONLY WHEN I’m NOT SUFFERING FROM IT, or I discuss it in the abstract – something I deal with but maybe leave the listener the impression I’m not dealing with it RIGHT NOW.

      THIS. WORD. Same here. I can talk about these things when I’m safe on the bank, even while I’m still covered in hot, sulfurous tar, but not when I am sinking in the tar pit itself. I told someone this morning that when I don’t have anything good to say, I feel that I don’t have anything *worthwhile* to say, and that’s not necessarily true.

      I recognize when the people I care about sink into non-communication–I know what I’m seeing now. I keep sending messages anyway: LOL Cats, and fandom-related pictures, and silly jokes or stuffed animals. Sometimes it feels like I’m Noah on the deck of the Ark, releasing a dove in the hopes it will come back with evidence there is dry land out there. Many nights the dove comes back empty-beaked. But sometimes it brings back an olive branch, and I know I should keep sending out doves.

      The problem comes when my own Ark is sinking and I can’t find the energy to keep bailing. I don’t want to share my woes with anyone because I worry about bring them down. Then the lack of communication that I initiated begins to whisper to me that my friends don’t really care about my anyway. That they would be relieved if I disappeared altogether and that they are looking for a non-confrontational way to drop me from their social media pages. Yeah, depression is an ugly son-of-a-bitch.
      Sarah Madison recently posted..The Difference between Being Depressed and Having DepressionMy Profile

      • The other big issue we have is the lack of access to resources that help and there are a number of factors.
        1. Again, stigma – people aren’t always willing to admit they need help. They’re possibly afraid of being branded with a mental illness. They’re afraid people won’t understand, they’re afraid they’ll have to defend it. I have to defend it sometimes when people often comment I don’t seem depressed! Am I sure that’s what it is? Have I tried using a light? or maybe just getting more sleep? or working out?
        2. Also afraid of asking for help AND NOT GETTING IT. Hoo boy. When I finally admitted to needing help I had to pursue it like a dog with a bone. NOT an easy thing to do when you can barely function. Honestly, the only thing that kept me going was guilt – guilt thinking about everyone around me that was trying to help me when I just wanted them all to go away. The immense GUILT I felt and anticipated feeling if I had to tell them I wasn’t getting help was the only motivation that got me out of bed. It wasn’t a desire to live, it wasn’t a desire to get better. It was an overwhelming, crushing need to make the guilt go away
        3. COST – do you know how much my mental health has cost and still costs? and keep in mind, I live in Canada! So much money. So, so much money. therapy and medication AREN’T CHEAP. The financial burden of getting better can cripple some people. How’s that for a treatment?

        • Oh yes, I am well aware of the stigma and the costs. TBH, one of the main reasons I have not sought help in the past was because of both of those things. If it is bad in Canada, it is ten times worse in the US.

          When I decided to leave my job and go into business for myself, I had to get individual health insurance. Just before I relocated, I decided to get an exam. Long story short, after paying an outrageous ‘new client fee’ to go to the best practice in town, I still ended up being seen by an optometrist, who glibbly diagnosed me with posterior lens capsule cataracts and told me to be sure to pick up my new prescription in the optical shop on the way out. When I protested over his diagnosis and expressed a desire for more info, he waved me off by saying, “Oh, when they get bad enough, we’ll so surgery. Be sure to stop by the optical shop now!”

          I went to an ophthalmologist for a second opinion. He shook his head and said that it would be a real stretch to call the opacities on my lenses cataracts and that I’d probably had them all my life. He wrote a letter to the insurance company, but they refused to change the official diagnosis made by AN OPTOMETRIST. Between the ‘cataracts’ and the fact I regularly see a chiropractor, I was classified as a level four health risk. I was told this put me in the same high-risk category as someone with HIV. I have been terrified to go back and see help for any mental issues for fear my health insurance would go through the roof. Although I have coverage through my employer now, I still have to pay $350 a month out of pocket for it. I can’t afford a ‘new’ diagnosis. It took me four years to pay off the GI workup.

          A friend of mine was seen by a psychiatrist for chronic migraines. As a result, she was given an official diagnosis of a ‘dissociative’ disorder, as it was the closest thing that fit her symptoms. Apparently psychopaths and serial killers have dissociative disorders. Guess who can’t afford health insurance now?

          The health care reform in this country was supposed to make things better, but there are gaps in coverage. I can tell you, I simply cannot afford traditional therapy, so in many ways, it’s a good thing I don’t tolerate the medications. 🙁

          And yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head with the inability to fight your battles when you can barely function. Doctors who don’t listen. Medications that make things worse instead of better. Fear of not getting that promotion or staying in a job you hate because you’re afraid of losing your benefits. And yet every time someone loses the battle, the general reaction is ‘they just fell through the cracks’.
          Sarah Madison recently posted..The Difference between Being Depressed and Having DepressionMy Profile

  4. Great post, Sarah. We should never forget the friends and families of people who live with depression. Those podiums poor souls have to deal with loved ones who deliberately cut them off, draw away, distance themselves for no apparent reason. It’s a horrible situation to be in. My husband didn’t understand me at all until he was struck down by family bereavements and the damned dog got its teeth into him. Then I was so glad that I knew what he was feeling so I could, not help, but hang in there to show I understood.
    I can’t take medication – bloody wish I could – because it would trigger epileptic attacks so I use other coping strategies – quiet, solitude, exercise, dark chocolate, blueberry juice and copious amounts of reading do it for me but other people do other things. My husband refused to take medication and found peace in his shed making beautiful and complex items from wood. Just as every depression manifests differently, the sufferers find their way out of it in different ways. It does ease, but the really terrifying thing is the worry that it will sneak back again.

    • Exactly, Elin. Thank you for sharing your insight from your personal experience with us. That’s why Rowling’s Dementor/Patronus theme works so well, because she understands the connection between the Dementor making it impossible to see anything good or happy-making while you are in its thrall–and how each of us must come up with our own method of dealing with it–our own Patronus spell. (And why chocolate seems to work, too, for that matter!) 😉

      I can’t take medication myself, but I understand how it can absolutely be a life-saving call for some people. But medication alone isn’t necessarily the answer, and can come fraught with its own issues. No one should *ever* stop taking their meds cold-turkey, but if you aren’t getting the results you want, you shouldn’t assume there are no other options out there. There is a reason why there are so many different types of medications and therapies. Some work better for some people than others.

      Honestly, what works best for me is a cleaner diet and long walks in the woods. That and letting go of the things I cannot control or change. I’m so pleased you let me share your experiences though. I found myself nodding along as I read them.
      Sarah Madison recently posted..The Difference between Being Depressed and Having DepressionMy Profile

  5. Thanks for posting this. Depression/PTSD is my own personal nemesis and I totally get why Mr. Williams did it. Fortunately, I still have hope, and I also hope that other sufferers will hold onto that precious jewel and believe it can, and will, get better.

    • Some days I get it, too, Finn, though I would have to say 99% of the time I don’t. That fact right there tells me just how *wrong* and distorted the mindset of depression can be. How one day I can recognize that I’m struggling but have no thought of not continuing on and another I don’t see the point of trying. I’m fortunate that I’ve only dealt with the real deal for very limited periods of my life. It makes me worry that much more for all my friends who battle this problem though, and wish I could do more for them.

      It’s like a switch flips–and suddenly you aren’t walking under that black cloud anymore. You were cold, wet and miserable just a few moments before, and now the sun is out and you can’t believe how warm it is. But as long as you’re walking in the cloud that seems to follow you and only you, it is difficult to believe you’ll ever be dry again.

      Hang in there. *hugs*
      Sarah Madison recently posted..The Difference between Being Depressed and Having DepressionMy Profile

  6. Robin Williams didn’t just have depression. He had bipolar disorder. People tend to discount the mania part of bipolar disorder. The common misconception is that the mania part is fun. A lot of people hear the word “mania” and think it just means “exceedingly happy”. Mania is not fun. It’s not easy to deal with. It doesn’t make you happy. It is not in any way enjoyable. In fact, a manic state can be equally as hellish as a depressive state.
    From the outside, you may just look like someone who is “wired” and energetic. On the inside, you are suffering. You go days or even weeks without being able to sleep. No matter what you do, you can’t get rid of the nervous energy. Your body hurts because it is screaming for rest, but your mind won’t let you sleep. You can’t even sit down for more than a few minutes. You can become obsessed with something seemingly random, and that obsession can be to a dangerous level. You can easily become addicted to something, whether it is a chemical addiction like drugs or alcohol, or something like a gambling addiction or shopping addiction. You can have auditory and/or visual hallucinations. You can be extremely irritable so that the smallest thing sets you off. You can’t concentrate on anything because of all the constant deafening noise of the rapidly racing thoughts. It’s like being alone in a massive electronics store, turning every radio to a different station and turning the volume all the way up, turning on every TV to a different channel and turning the volumes all the way up, trying to play two different songs simultaneously on two different instruments, all while trying to maintain several detailed phone conversations with several people. All of this is going on at once.
    Sometimes, you have periods of stability in between manic and depressive states. Other times, you free fall from severe mania to severe depression, which hits you that much harder. It’s like hitting a wall at 100 miles an hour.

    • Yes, I remember that he was bipolar, and remember too, how manic some of his early performances were. I have some friends and family members that suffer from the same, and have witnessed it from the sidelines, but have never heard it described quite so eloquently before. Thank you for sharing that. As someone who finds being in a shopping mall an exhausting exercise in sensory overload, I can only read this description with horror. No wonder someone might want to turn the noise off. It makes more sense, too, why the depressive state must feel like going off a drug cold-turkey. Your explanation here makes a lot of sense, and increases the heartache for all who suffer from that, too.

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