Depression is not the same as being sad

It’s time to try and increase the frequency with which I post to this blog. Today’s post fits more into the “life” theme than religious or political comment…

I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. Not enough of one particular chemical is produced, and as a result my positive moods and feelings don’t last as long as they should (and would, in a “normal” person), whereas negative moods and feelings persist far longer and their intensity is magnified completely out of proportion to their significance.

I’m not absolutely certain, but I think I can say with some confidence that in my case this is an inherited condition, from which both my father and paternal grandmother suffered. That’s not true for everyone, and there can be many different causes.

This condition is, of course, called clinical depression. And it’s no joke.

Brain activity in a depressed person

Right now I’m slowly recovering from a short period of severe depression, and in the interests of science (and because it’s good to get it off my chest), I’m going to try and describe how the worst days felt.

One of the most intense feelings was one of isolation. And I mean total isolation. Though I was in a social situation, I felt that I was looking at the people around me through frosted glass – I could see them but they couldn’t affect me. I could hear what they were saying but none of it made any real sense to me. Someone could ask me to do something, and I might say yes, but I would have no real comprehension of what they were asking or what I should do. A fellow sufferer said to me recently that felt like what was going on around them wasn’t real, but instead was a foreign film with no subtitles.

Another feeling was the loss of any sense of past and future. All hopes, dreams, plans and achievements disappear from my consciousness and anything that happened more than a few minutes ago is blurred in my mind. Any present fears, however, remain.

Then there is the short term memory loss and mental impairment. I lose the ability to count (so that gym workouts, which are always helpful in general when I’m depressed, become a bit chaotic because I can’t remember how many of each exercise I’ve done). I forget what someone said to me within a few seconds, unless I reply straight away.

And finally there is the complete and overwhelming sadness – I mean the kind of sadness where you know you’re crying, you don’t really know why, but you simply can’t stop it. And it’s accompanied by a feeling of such wretchedness, guilt and worthlessness that it leaves you literally gasping for breath. This comes and goes for hours at a time over a period of several days.

As well as these core symptoms, for me there are also secondary symptoms. For a period of 4 or 5 days leading up to a severe depressive episode, my mood becomes gradually more and more irritable and irrationally intolerant, causing me to react harshly to other people and “act out” recklessly. Each depressive episode normally costs me €100+ in driving offences. I can do nothing about this, because by this time my brain is treating this mood as “normal” and won’t let me understand that I’m changing. It’s only once the anger gives way to the despair that something “clicks” and I suddenly realise I’m in the middle of another episode.

And all the while there is a constant headache and mild dizzyness or disorientation, which makes me slightly nauseated all the time. A bit like a migraine though not as intense. My appetite comes and goes, and although I sleep at night, I wake up either very early or miss the alarm completely.

I have no idea whether any of this will make sense to someone who does not suffer from depression, but I’m hoping that you can see how different it is from just “feeling down” or “getting the blues”.

The next time you encounter someone who tells you that they’re depressed and you’re tempted to say something like “cheer up” or “pull yourself together”, please try to understand that this is just about the worst thing you can do. A far more sympathetic option is just to say that you’re sorry to hear that, ask them whether they want company or to be left alone, and take it from there.

Originally posted on my blog ‘Reasoned Rants’

1 thought on “Depression is not the same as being sad

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