How Living With Depression Changes Your Reality
The Lens of Mental Illness Distorts Your Vision
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2016, 10.3 million American adults were estimated to have had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment. That means that 4.3% of adults in the U.S. had at least one depressive episode that resulted in calling off work, going to the hospital or otherwise having difficulty living their normal daily lives. According to the Center for Disease Control, that number hasn't moved since 2016 and is projected to increase.
When you live with depression, you see the entire world differently. Small adverse events can seem like cataclysmic disasters. You end up crying at a random thing in a movie or on television. I remember sobbing during Toy Story 2 when the penguin Wheezy is found behind the character Andy's books on a shelf. He was put there because his squeaker didn't work anymore. Woody says, "I thought Andy's mom was going to get you fixed." Wheezy replies, "No, she only told him that to calm him down. She just stuck me up here."
This immediately sent me back to a whirlwind of memories about my mom telling me things to placate me, or plain not listening. The wheezing aspect of the character made me remember how expressing myself felt like I was drowning. As if I could never get enough air, or tread water long enough to speak. And if I did, who wanted or cared to listen? To this day, the scene makes me tear up. But it used to be a great deal more impactful.
Depression makes you see things like these and immediately set them to negative memories you have. It brings up all manner of events or situations that may not have been harmful or strange, but that's how you recall them. Perception of reality is distorted to the point that the world you're living in is completely different from the one everyone else is living in. This disconnect between reality and perception is where a lot of the communication breaks down.
Down the Neverending Staircase
Before I continue, I should clarify what I mean when I say "depression". I don't mean the occasional 'blues' or feeling 'down' that everyone goes through. I don't mean seasonal affective disorder, though that is classified as such, that tends to only happen during the winter or seasonal changes.
What I mean is chronic, ongoing depressive states. The sort that can strike out of nowhere and last for days or weeks. A complete drain on your energy that makes it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, shower, or take care of yourself any other way. The thought of going to work or functioning socially becomes laughable. Driving is out of the question because caring to keep yourself safe is just gone. Not that you are specifically suicidal, you just don't have the energy to put forth any effort.
It feels like your mind is an empty pit, a staircase continuously descending into darkness. Or sometimes, you have millions of voices like demons in your head, screaming at you about how horrible you are. About how you could 'suck it up' if you wanted to and because you don't (you really can't), you're a worthless sack of filth. These episodes can go on for days and only get worse in intensity.
“No one realizes how strong someone with depression has to be just to do daily stuff like shower, brush hair or get out of bed.”— HealthyPlace.com, original author unknown
Your Reality is Not Reality
The loss of a great relationship was what finally dropped the shoe for me. It was painful enough to make me realize that I needed consistent, ongoing help. My partner was incredibly supportive, helpful and understanding. He had his own issues too, such as anxiety, but he still found it in himself to help me when I was struggling.
But at the time I was unmedicated, ignorant and thought my reality was as it was for everyone. So it was normal when I blew small offenses out of proportion. It was normal not to speak to him for days at a time after a fight. It was normal to drive him to cry in a bathroom on the floor.
This was my normal, this was my homeostasis, this was my equilibrium. It was only after three years, that he'd taken enough and left, that I finally realized that I had truly caused someone I cared about grievous pain and sadness. And I felt nothing while I was doing it, just as if it was run of the mill. That was the day I finally realized that if you feel nothing for your loved one being hurt by you, there is a serious, serious thing wrong.
“I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”— Robin Williams
The Mind is a Self-Sabotaging Machine
When you break down enough to be able to see your mental illness for what it is - a hard struggle that you'll carry around for the rest of your life - it becomes that much easier to despair. It's easy to say, "This isn't fair, I didn't ask for this, why do I have to struggle more than anyone else, life is hard enough." Those sorts of thoughts are the gateway to much darker images that can fill your mind without warning.
"Intrusive thoughts" is a term given to depression and anxiety survivors for times when images from the past, or fabricated thoughts, show up at all times of a day. I still remember things from twenty years ago that I'm fairly sure everyone else who was involved forgot the next day. But because they were embarrassing, painful or awkward, they keep being brought up in my mind. Anxiety feeds on these events and it's hard to shake them loose sometimes. They also like to compound, one picture leads to this other memory and before you know it, you've spent fifteen minutes agonizing about events that haven't been relevant for decades.
The Clouds Do Part
Getting medicated and staying on it was the first step to getting myself healthy. Medication is not for everyone but I will sing its praises forever because it helped save my life. Therapy was the next step. Having someone to talk to who didn't judge, who didn't look down and who understood what I was going through, finally, let me get some clarity to the distorted reality I was living in. And once I was able to see, I was able to improve.
You're only as good as the information you have and the more informed you are, the better you are. Education is the key to fighting stigma, to fighting mental illness and above all, taking care of yourself. I strive to learn something new every day and when I can, do my best to take care of others. Offering a sincere, nonjudgemental shoulder can be the single thing that helps a depression survivor. The clouds never fade entirely, but they do part enough to let the sunshine in. It may take time, but there are good days you can grab for yourself, and those breaths of air make treading that water so much easier.
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© 2018 Jamie Showalter