10 Things they don’t tell you about depression


10 Things they don’t tell you about depression

From a seasoned battler of the blues

By Deepa Menon  September 4th, 2014

Nobody wants to read about depression. We want to read about the specifics of a celebrity’s spiral into the black, so we can assure ourselves that money and fame cannot fix everything. We want to know how they killed themselves, which drugs they were taking, what was happening in their personal life, what their last tweet was.

But as a fellow depressive, I am also curious about other details. Like, did Robin Williams find that antidepressants dulled his edge on screen? Did Philip Seymour Hoffman live with the fear of relapse for the two decades that he remained sober? Does that fear ever recede and should you be worried that it might? Is it possible to find a decent counsellor when you are Whitney Houston and everyone thinks they already know your story?

There is a boring, beige sameness in the way that depression strikes you down, whether you’re a star or a nobody. For a while, before I was diagnosed, I felt like a depression impostor. Who did I think I was, being depressed? What was I, some tortured genius? I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t try to kill myself, I didn’t even get a drastic haircut. I was just an average twenty-something with her life ahead of her.

Only, I didn’t want to get out of bed.

Here’s what I learned from that time, and what I hope will help anyone planning to be a depressive (not the best career choice, but I won’t judge).

You are permanently on power-save mode

When someone commits suicide, the refrain goes up: she should have reached out, asked for help. This is like saying, when you’re having a stroke, just get in the car and drive yourself to a hospital. It is incredibly difficult to ask for help when you need it most. Telling your life story in a linear way to a stranger who is taking down notes requires massive amounts of energy. But even before that, finding a good shrink takes energy. Making the appointment takes energy. People who are depressed, meanwhile, are focused on conserving energy in order to be able to get out of bed. Which brings us to…

Your bed > anywhere else on the planet

Depressives love their beds. Mainly because they’re so sleepy all the time, but also for the relaxed dress code. During the worst of it, I wouldn’t make my bed. In the rare event that I went out, I would leave the sheets crumpled and pillows indented. This made me feel like I had a sanctuary to return to, one that smelled comfortingly like me and occasionally contained a large black dog that I loved more than anything. (Churchill personified his depression as a black dog. Mine was an actual Labrador called Mac and he was one of the few reasons I got out of that bed every day.)

Your parents are worried, but also annoyed

I had a routine, and avoided anything new that might accidentally expand my mind. Since I was in my early twenties and my friends were all gainfully occupied, my stubborn refusal to get it together frustrated my parents. They sensed and feared I could remain like this indefinitely, so they would nudge, poke and eventually rage at me to get a job, get some exercise, leave the house. My father was apprehensive about the antidepressants I was taking or why
I needed to see a psychiatrist and not just a GP, like a normal person. My hours spent sleeping, watching TV and playing Solitaire filled him with such equal measures of anger, annoyance and anxiety that we couldn’t really have a conversation without it dissolving into tears (me) and defeated silence (him). We both felt like we’d failed the other. All told, it was a good time to be unemployed and financially dependent on my parents.

You want to die, for which weekdays are preferable

Depression to me was just the ceaseless rattle of pleasurelessness. Nothing felt good. I didn’t know what was wrong and people do like to hear something concrete in response to the question: ‘What’s wrong?’ I had no valid reason for being such a bummer. Nothing particularly terrible had happened in my life. Sure, I had just had my heart broken, I was floundering career-wise, and my closest friends had either moved away or were too busy with lives alien to me. But my life had not changed drastically. I was still living with my parents, watching Friends reruns and taking the dog on long walks. But I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to be anywhere.

The first, and only, time I called a suicide hotline, I realised how little stood between me and death. I called at least partly out of curiosity and partly because I had exhausted the patience of everyone else I knew. A kindly older woman picked up the phone and listened to me. Afterwards, I asked if I could call her again if I felt the need. “Of course, we’re open weekdays from 11.00am to 7.00pm.” But hey, what if I felt suicide-y on the weekend or at night, usually my lowest point? “Don’t act on your feelings. Just wait till it’s 11.00am and then call.” Best to keep that in mind.

You’re the queen of TMI

I volunteered a lot of information to a lot of people who had no interest in my life at all. I knew it made them uncomfortable but I could not stop. All those little lies you say to people – “I’m fine”, “Much better, thank you”, “Just have a cold” – suddenly you don’t have the imagination to summon up even one little lie. You’re all about the big, honking truths. When I went to ask for a day off work, I would mention to my boss that I needed to see my doctor because I was beginning to self-harm again (I got as much leave as I wanted).

What heroin can do, so can Haldiram’s

Substance abuse is also common among the depressed. Since I lived a sheltered life devoid of hard drugs, I used rum (pilfered from my dad’s stash), cigarettes and carbohydrates. I’m over the first two, but the last one still has a hold on me. I would go through phases, eat certain foods obsessively, spend hours planning what I’d snack on. When a close friend offered to cook me a meal at her place, I realised with horror that what I really wanted was for her to fix me a plate and leave, so I could read my book and eat in peace.

Spare a friend, see a shrink

The story of how I met my doctor is unusual and beautiful. One day, I told my mother, “I think I need to see a shrink” – and she found me one. I went for a few sessions and felt better. This story is unusual because it could have gone so wrong. My mother could have freaked out or told me to snap out of it or just flat-out denied that I needed help. Or I might have squandered my motivation and money on a parade of indifferent doctors before I found the right one, like a friend struggling with OCD did. Or I might have decided that I could talk to a friend so why go see a doctor. I was luckier than most. But it was still hard to talk to a stranger. My doctor was patient, sweet and funny, so we spent many sessions just chatting. And despite all this, it took a long while before I opened up. Therapy is hard – sometimes you have to do homework, which came as a rude shock. I was hoping to whine without interruption whilst lying on a comfy couch. But actually, it is a very demanding form of communication because you have to first identify and then grapple with the things that really terrify you. And, in my experience, therapy is only effective if it’s continuous and you go even on good days. It can help you spot an upcoming storm so you can start paddling for shore. It can help you stay afloat even while everything’s pitching and heaving dangerously. It holds out hope even after you – and this waterlogged metaphor – have washed up on the sand.

Modern medicine is your good friend

A staggering number of people, including health care professionals and yoga teachers, told me to stop taking antidepressants. (“You’re pumping your body full of harmful chemicals.”) But I needed those harmful chemicals so I didn’t harm myself. See how that works? I went to counselling for nearly two years before I accepted the need for antidepressants. Once I started taking them, the fog lifted, energy surged through me and I lost tons of weight. Just kidding, none of that happened.
I didn’t feel different at all, even after a couple of months.

The effect antidepressants had on my life was benign and pervasive at the same time. They didn’t change how I felt but gave me a few seconds’ grace before I reacted to a situation. Sometimes, a few seconds can be the difference between the Incredible Hulk and Efficient Human. About six months in, I realised that I had missed fewer days of work, had fewer meltdowns, and was generally a more functional person than I was before. I was putting one foot in front of the other.

You are a leading expert on normal behaviour

Depressives feel like outsiders most of the time, so they develop the best camouflage techniques. The point is to appear normal, that’s the gold standard. And you have to fake it till you feel it. My first way of maintaining that illusion was to show up at work every day. If I could put aside how I was feeling and complete a list of tasks, that’s another day salvaged from the blues. Second, I would make an effort with how I looked. Getting a pedicure, seeing to various forms of hair removal, wearing clean, ironed clothes – these are all markers that I’m okay. Third, I would seek out people, because we all need people. In my own way, I connected with other humans. One word: WhatsApp.

You’re a fully paid-up lifetime member

Depression never fully leaves you; it’s always around, like lactose intolerance. But with some kindness and grace, you will get better at managing it. It is natural and normal (normal!) to feel all the things you felt when you were depressed: overwhelmed, underwhelmed, distressed, hyper-active, adrift. I would only start to worry when there’s no trigger and this blackness gets in the driver’s seat and just cruises for days or weeks. This has not happened yet, but it’s probably waiting for me.

When I tapered off my pills after eight years of taking them, I felt like the training wheels had come off and now I had to learn to stay upright on my own. We have a complicated relationship with the things that help us – they grant us independence while also stealing a little bit of that freedom with their presence in our lives. I was and still am a vocal proponent of counselling and medication. But the minute I could envision a life for myself without both, I was seized with the fear that I would slip up and end up needing them again. I was like a diabetic kid in a candy store, mortally afraid of what I desired. I finally learned to set that fear down. If I need medication again, I’ll take it. And that’s okay. Because I can’t be sure I won’t ever return to the bad place, but I know my way around now. And I hope the exit signs will light up for me again. 

Nobody wants to read about depression. We want to read about the specifics of a celebrity’s spiral into the black, so we can assure ourselves that money and fame cannot fix everything. We want to know how they killed themselves, which drugs they were taking, what was happening in their personal life, what their last tweet was.

But as a fellow depressive, I am also curious about other details. Like, did Robin Williams find that antidepressants dulled his edge on screen? Did Philip Seymour Hoffman live with the fear of relapse for the two decades that he remained sober? Does that fear ever recede and should you be worried that it might? Is it possible to find a decent counsellor when you are Whitney Houston and everyone thinks they already know your story?

There is a boring, beige sameness in the way that depression strikes you down, whether you’re a star or a nobody. For a while, before I was diagnosed, I felt like a depression impostor. Who did I think I was, being depressed? What was I, some tortured genius? I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t try to kill myself, I didn’t even get a drastic haircut. I was just an average twenty-something with her life ahead of her.

Only, I didn’t want to get out of bed.

Here’s what I learned from that time, and what I hope will help anyone planning to be a depressive (not the best career choice, but I won’t judge).

You are permanently on power-save mode

When someone commits suicide, the refrain goes up: she should have reached out, asked for help. This is like saying, when you’re having a stroke, just get in the car and drive yourself to a hospital. It is incredibly difficult to ask for help when you need it most. Telling your life story in a linear way to a stranger who is taking down notes requires massive amounts of energy. But even before that, finding a good shrink takes energy. Making the appointment takes energy. People who are depressed, meanwhile, are focused on conserving energy in order to be able to get out of bed. Which brings us to…

Your bed > anywhere else on the planet

Depressives love their beds. Mainly because they’re so sleepy all the time, but also for the relaxed dress code. During the worst of it, I wouldn’t make my bed. In the rare event that I went out, I would leave the sheets crumpled and pillows indented. This made me feel like I had a sanctuary to return to, one that smelled comfortingly like me and occasionally contained a large black dog that I loved more than anything. (Churchill personified his depression as a black dog. Mine was an actual Labrador called Mac and he was one of the few reasons I got out of that bed every day.)

Your parents are worried, but also annoyed

I had a routine, and avoided anything new that might accidentally expand my mind. Since I was in my early twenties and my friends were all gainfully occupied, my stubborn refusal to get it together frustrated my parents. They sensed and feared I could remain like this indefinitely, so they would nudge, poke and eventually rage at me to get a job, get some exercise, leave the house. My father was apprehensive about the antidepressants I was taking or why
I needed to see a psychiatrist and not just a GP, like a normal person. My hours spent sleeping, watching TV and playing Solitaire filled him with such equal measures of anger, annoyance and anxiety that we couldn’t really have a conversation without it dissolving into tears (me) and defeated silence (him). We both felt like we’d failed the other. All told, it was a good time to be unemployed and financially dependent on my parents.

You want to die, for which weekdays are preferable

Depression to me was just the ceaseless rattle of pleasurelessness. Nothing felt good. I didn’t know what was wrong and people do like to hear something concrete in response to the question: ‘What’s wrong?’ I had no valid reason for being such a bummer. Nothing particularly terrible had happened in my life. Sure, I had just had my heart broken, I was floundering career-wise, and my closest friends had either moved away or were too busy with lives alien to me. But my life had not changed drastically. I was still living with my parents, watching Friends reruns and taking the dog on long walks. But I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to be anywhere.

The first, and only, time I called a suicide hotline, I realised how little stood between me and death. I called at least partly out of curiosity and partly because I had exhausted the patience of everyone else I knew. A kindly older woman picked up the phone and listened to me. Afterwards, I asked if I could call her again if I felt the need. “Of course, we’re open weekdays from 11.00am to 7.00pm.” But hey, what if I felt suicide-y on the weekend or at night, usually my lowest point? “Don’t act on your feelings. Just wait till it’s 11.00am and then call.” Best to keep that in mind.

You’re the queen of TMI

I volunteered a lot of information to a lot of people who had no interest in my life at all. I knew it made them uncomfortable but I could not stop. All those little lies you say to people – “I’m fine”, “Much better, thank you”, “Just have a cold” – suddenly you don’t have the imagination to summon up even one little lie. You’re all about the big, honking truths. When I went to ask for a day off work, I would mention to my boss that I needed to see my doctor because I was beginning to self-harm again (I got as much leave as I wanted).

What heroin can do, so can Haldiram’s

Substance abuse is also common among the depressed. Since I lived a sheltered life devoid of hard drugs, I used rum (pilfered from my dad’s stash), cigarettes and carbohydrates. I’m over the first two, but the last one still has a hold on me. I would go through phases, eat certain foods obsessively, spend hours planning what I’d snack on. When a close friend offered to cook me a meal at her place, I realised with horror that what I really wanted was for her to fix me a plate and leave, so I could read my book and eat in peace.

Spare a friend, see a shrink

The story of how I met my doctor is unusual and beautiful. One day, I told my mother, “I think I need to see a shrink” – and she found me one. I went for a few sessions and felt better. This story is unusual because it could have gone so wrong. My mother could have freaked out or told me to snap out of it or just flat-out denied that I needed help. Or I might have squandered my motivation and money on a parade of indifferent doctors before I found the right one, like a friend struggling with OCD did. Or I might have decided that I could talk to a friend so why go see a doctor. I was luckier than most. But it was still hard to talk to a stranger. My doctor was patient, sweet and funny, so we spent many sessions just chatting. And despite all this, it took a long while before I opened up. Therapy is hard – sometimes you have to do homework, which came as a rude shock. I was hoping to whine without interruption whilst lying on a comfy couch. But actually, it is a very demanding form of communication because you have to first identify and then grapple with the things that really terrify you. And, in my experience, therapy is only effective if it’s continuous and you go even on good days. It can help you spot an upcoming storm so you can start paddling for shore. It can help you stay afloat even while everything’s pitching and heaving dangerously. It holds out hope even after you – and this waterlogged metaphor – have washed up on the sand.

Modern medicine is your good friend

A staggering number of people, including health care professionals and yoga teachers, told me to stop taking antidepressants. (“You’re pumping your body full of harmful chemicals.”) But I needed those harmful chemicals so I didn’t harm myself. See how that works? I went to counselling for nearly two years before I accepted the need for antidepressants. Once I started taking them, the fog lifted, energy surged through me and I lost tons of weight. Just kidding, none of that happened.
I didn’t feel different at all, even after a couple of months.

The effect antidepressants had on my life was benign and pervasive at the same time. They didn’t change how I felt but gave me a few seconds’ grace before I reacted to a situation. Sometimes, a few seconds can be the difference between the Incredible Hulk and Efficient Human. About six months in, I realised that I had missed fewer days of work, had fewer meltdowns, and was generally a more functional person than I was before. I was putting one foot in front of the other.

You are a leading expert on normal behaviour

Depressives feel like outsiders most of the time, so they develop the best camouflage techniques. The point is to appear normal, that’s the gold standard. And you have to fake it till you feel it. My first way of maintaining that illusion was to show up at work every day. If I could put aside how I was feeling and complete a list of tasks, that’s another day salvaged from the blues. Second, I would make an effort with how I looked. Getting a pedicure, seeing to various forms of hair removal, wearing clean, ironed clothes – these are all markers that I’m okay. Third, I would seek out people, because we all need people. In my own way, I connected with other humans. One word: WhatsApp.

You’re a fully paid-up lifetime member

Depression never fully leaves you; it’s always around, like lactose intolerance. But with some kindness and grace, you will get better at managing it. It is natural and normal (normal!) to feel all the things you felt when you were depressed: overwhelmed, underwhelmed, distressed, hyper-active, adrift. I would only start to worry when there’s no trigger and this blackness gets in the driver’s seat and just cruises for days or weeks. This has not happened yet, but it’s probably waiting for me.

When I tapered off my pills after eight years of taking them, I felt like the training wheels had come off and now I had to learn to stay upright on my own. We have a complicated relationship with the things that help us – they grant us independence while also stealing a little bit of that freedom with their presence in our lives. I was and still am a vocal proponent of counselling and medication. But the minute I could envision a life for myself without both, I was seized with the fear that I would slip up and end up needing them again. I was like a diabetic kid in a candy store, mortally afraid of what I desired. I finally learned to set that fear down. If I need medication again, I’ll take it. And that’s okay. Because I can’t be sure I won’t ever return to the bad place, but I know my way around now. And I hope the exit signs will light up for me again.