Depression ≠ Sadness

Not too long ago, one of my friends, who reads many of my blog posts, said to me that she was always, “reading about how sad you always are”.  Her words rocked me back on my heels for a second, catching me off guard, for a number of reasons (it also made me think that all of those truly anonymous bloggers are really smart cookies). Even though I have a decent number of posts about depression and mental health, here’s the thing:  I’m not always sad.

Not even close.  

If you ask me how life is going or how I’m doing, I’d (honestly) say that life is AMAZING! WONDERFUL! and that I am SO GRATEFUL for all of the good things I’ve got going on. Life is so good, folks! I think I express this on the blog as evidenced here and here and here. But, that’s the misconception surrounding depression, that the term is synonymous with sadness.  I suppose the misunderstanding exists because everyone grasps sadness, but not very many seem to get what depression is all about.  Today I heard two people discussing a recent suicide, “I think she’d been depressed for a while”, one person said, and the other person responded with, “What did she have to be sad about anyway?  She had kids!” I wanted to jump in and clarify some terms for them: She wasn’t sad.  She was depressed.

There’s a big difference.

Chronic depression doesn’t go away like sadness does.  And it doesn’t necessarily feel like sadness does either, even if we are feeling “down”. That’s part of the issue – it’s hard to explain what it feels like. Even when life is at its best, and there is nothing to be sad about, and we’re on an upswing, we are never “cured”.  The depression is still there, a part of us, though it might be barely noticeable, or easy to forget about, temporarily.

I usually use the analogy of treading water, but another way to think of depression is like carrying an added weight around all the time.

For many of us functionally depressive people, who can maintain relationships and hold a job and engage in fun activities, depression can be thought of like a heavy backpack. Most of the time, the weight of the backpack is relatively stable, so we’re able to remain relatively even-keeled.  We can still do everything that everyone else does, backpacks are pretty ergonomic and carrying an extra twenty-five pounds isn’t too hard.  During the good times, the weight is easily managed, and a lot of us make it look effortless.  The bags are hardly noticed.

Sometimes, the backpack gets heavier. This could be due to some sad occurrence it could be due to increased stress or it could be due to nothing.  Either way, instead of twenty-five pounds, the bag weight multiplies, turns into forty.  Or more. And instead of just the backpack, sometimes we’ve also got ankle weights on and a million grocery bags on our arms. You know how you don’t want to make one more trip back to the car, so you load up six bags on the left arm and five bags on the right?  It’s sort of like that, except we are carrying them around constantly, not just from the car to the house. And of course, the bags are invisible, so no one else can see why the hell we are struggling to just walk from the car to the house.  We just look like weaklings.

During big dips, it’s like having to carry all those extra bags around when you have the flu. Same bags, but so much harder to manage.  We fumble over seemingly easy tasks and we can’t hold on to one more thing, so when we’re asked to do so, even if it is something we’ve held before, we might protest and it might look like we’re overreacting. “Just hold it. It isn’t even heavy,” you might think. And it’s not, by itself, but it is too much when you factor in our compromised immune systems and the combined weight of the invisible bags. We can’t just drop the bags, that isn’t possible, so when we’re at our weakest, we just can’t move.  We might not be able to talk to our friends or family, we might not be able to leave the house, or even to get out of bed.  We can’t. We’re too tired.  We don’t make very good load-bearing animals.  Since the bags are invisible, people really get pissy about this one.  “Just get up!” they say, wondering why the hell we are just laying there or why we are being so lazy.

Sometimes when we feel an impending depressive episode coming on, we try tactics to prevent getting pinned down, because we don’t want to be immobilized by the weight. Maybe it’s a med change. Maybe it’s meditation or therapy, maybe it’s drinking, maybe it’s exercise.  Maybe it’s continuously moving, doing All The Things!

Continuous movement is a strategy I employ from time to time.  Sometimes it’s easier to just keep moving because stopping to rest means that getting started again would require dead-lifting the invisible heavy load, and that would just be too much.

For a lot of us, this land of functional-depressiveness is where we live most of our lives. And, it’s where many of us hope to stay, knowing that with just a bit too much weight piled on we could lose the “functional” tag at the beginning.

But, remember this: if expressing the depressive part of ourselves makes you think we’re constantly morose, know that you’re still not getting it. Keep in mind that the other parts of ourselves laugh and enjoy and are grateful for all in our life that is amazingly good.  We’re not always sad.

Even when we’re depressed.

There’s a difference.

So for those of you who are sick of hearing the sad-sounding posts – stop reading them. They really aren’t for you, anyway.  But, for those of you carrying around invisible baggage of your own, they are for you. Because I know that just realizing you aren’t the only one with a heavy load can make your backpack feel a little bit lighter.