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This post was inspired by a blog post on the Mind website. You can read that post here:_surviving_the_physical_impossibilities_of_depression
Sometimes I mention to my husband that it feels like nobody understands what it's like for me, or that people don't seem to realise how hard insomnia, mental illness or both can be. I have been thinking about this tonight and my post may help with that.
I started to write out how I feel but find myself woefully unable. I've written and re-written this page several times over several nights. This is my attempt at describing, to the best of my ability, how I feel. I have tried not to make it sound too angry or self-pitying but I have however, told the truth and that may be hard to read.
To those of you who know me best these excerpts of my thoughts will not be a surprise. To others they may be, but I hope that they go some way toward a better understanding.
"... I feel like a defective model like I came off the assembly line flat-out f****d and my parents should have taken me back for repairs before the warranty ran out. But that was so long ago."
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Depression is like a weight in your chest. It drags you down no matter who you are, what you have to do or how many times you've been through it before. And it hurts more each time because of the knowledge that you still haven't beaten it. You've succumbed to it again. You thought you'd learnt to manage your life so that you didn't get so depressed anymore. You really thought it was working this time. You've gone a whole six months, possibly longer, without feeling too bad but now you're right back where you started. Where you've been before, where it seems inevitable that you will end up.
When you're well you can enjoy the "normal" things in life - your loved ones, your hobbies and - if you're lucky - your job. Even the little things like a great sunset, dappled sunshine through the trees in a forest, or an entertaining television show.
Depression takes it all away. Your loved ones don't understand or even if some of them do, your paranoia persuades you that they don't. Every look in their eyes, or tone in their voice becomes proof that they think you need to buck up your ideas or "just get on with it!" It doesn't even matter if they understand, you tell yourself, because they can't take it away, they can't make you feel right again.
The physical symptoms I'm sure most people know about but here they are from my perspective: tiredness/fatigue (you feel heavy, achey, clumsy with tiredness and no matter how much you sleep it doesn't shift). Anxiety often comes with depression and the physical symptoms of that are numerous. They include: palpitations, sweating even when you're not hot, shaking, difficulty breathing or a "tight chest", feeling faint. This list is not exhaustive but these are the ones that I suffer from.
The mental symptoms of depression and/or anxiety are arguably worse than the physical ones. Concentration is limited, memory is far worse than normal (I can take a pill and ten minutes later forget that I have taken it), thoughts can quite often be muddled, unclear, and not particularly coherent. Memory blanks can occur when somebody asks a question and the answer is there but you just can't think of it. Feelings of worthlessness, uselessness and pointlessness become common-place. They accompany you everywhere you go. All of this feeds into the general "low mood" that the GP asks about but they are not the total of it. Again this list is not exhaustive but it's what happens to me.
Here are some examples of thoughts that go through my head. Note: they're not usually this coherent but for the sake of clarity I have tried to give them some semblance of order.
"My hobbies are useless, pointless, worthless. Like my crafts. Everything I produce is mediocre, at best. Look at it! A twelve year old could do better than I've done. Why do I kid myself that I'm crafty or artistic? Give it up, at least that way I won't embarrass myself."
"And my job? I've worked there for two years and I still can't go more than one day without making a mistake or not remembering something I should know. My colleagues are so much better at it than me - why can't I just be like them?"
"I am weak. I can't take what other people can. I can't withstand what the world throws at me. Why can't I do it when most other people can? Why can't I achieve what other people can? I know deep down that I'm not stupid but my lack of stupidity is not helping me at all. It seems to make it all the more frustrating."
Being A Mother
"How many other mothers can't keep their house clean or their children neat and tidy? I should be able to too. Everyone around me seems to be able to do it. Why can't I? I can't because I'm not good enough at it. I need to try harder, ignore the tiredness and just try harder. I shouldn't have had children, they deserve a better mother than me, it was selfish of me to bring children into this world if I can't take care of them properly, and I'm too tired to play pretend or dance with them."
Achievements (or lack thereof)
"I should be able to drive without feeling scared. I passed my test in July but I'm at the point where the mere thought of getting into a car scares the crap out of me. My Dad paid for the lessons, paid for test and now all his money has been wasted because I'm not driving. It's just like university and college. I failed at those, I failed at them because I got so anxious in classes or on campus that I couldn't even go in anymore. I'm such a disappointment to my parents because I haven't achieved anything academic. I keep trying but I have failed every time."
Depression is an illness but somehow people view it differently if it's not a physical illness. You find it hard to explain the difference in how they treat you but it is there. Sometimes you find yourself wishing for something physical because you know you won't be judged so harshly and people won't expect so much from you. Sometimes you think: "If I had a broken leg, I don't think I'd feel nearly so guilty about being signed off work for a month."
Sometimes (having been signed off for a month, locked in the house with nothing that you really have to do, back on the medication for only two days and your husband running himself ragged to help you out) you feel normal and it scares you. You think you're a fraud because you're feeling something other than despair for a few minutes.
"I'm feeling normal at the moment, but if I'm feeling normal how can I be depressed? Maybe I'm not depressed. Maybe those doctors who didn't believe there was anything wrong with me when I was seventeen were right. Maybe I'm a hypochondriac, maybe nobody believes me and they all think I'm a hypochondriac. Maybe they think that I have the doctors who treat me now and believe that I do have a psychiatric illness wrapped around my little finger."
My only consolation at those times is that people who didn't have depression wouldn't give "feeling normal" a second thought.
Maybe I don't feel normal. Maybe it's just that I'm so used to being depressed that it just feels normal. Maybe my normal is another person's "mild depression".
What people say and do when you have Depression.
Some people take the time to listen without making comments like "Oh for Goodness sake!" and "You just need to do this...". Some people do make comments like that and it really doesn't help all that much.
Another quote from Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel explains it nicely:
"Once again, I felt like my depression was a broken car and she was ordering me to just fucking fix it, as if my mind could be rewired like a faulty transmission or unresponsive brakes."
Mostly, I've found, they dismiss the solutions that work for you and/or your family and treat you like you're just lazy or that you're asking the world of your husband (or whoever helps you), not really considering that you know it's not perfect, you wish things could be different but you can't control your illness.
Sometimes people suggest ways to combat your depression or your insomnia. And you appreciate it, you really do: it shows that they care - at least a little. But deep down you take it as a suggestion that your problem is a minor one. That you just haven't bothered trying every potential solution yet or that you're just not trying to get better at all.
You feel like shouting: "I've suffered from depression for ten years and insomnia for four. I've googled it and re-googled it hundreds of times. I've seen doctors and nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists. I've tried medication, exercise, valerian, Nytol, Kalms, St. John's wort, counselling, a warm bath and a regular routine. Thank you for your suggestion of a warm, milky drink at bedtime, I've tried that before too but it seems as though my problem is a little bit more serious than that."
Then, one random night, you have a blissfully good sleep of seven hours ... and the comments come: "Oh, if you slept well on Christmas night it must mean that you need to work that hard everyday and then you'll be able to sleep at night!"
The only response in this situation is to smile and nod. They don't know that you've tried exercising really hard before and all it has achieved is you falling asleep at teatime, waking up at 9 pm and perpetuating the insomnia. They do know, however have seemingly chosen to ignore, that you did all the work on Christmas Eve and so if anything, it should've been that night you slept well.
The one thing you must resist is the temptation to remind them somewhat abruptly that you don't sit around on your ass all day and do nothing, expecting to sleep at night. Sometimes sleep just comes and you're so thankful for it.
And my opinion about sleeping well on Christmas night: I was worried about hosting my family and it all worked out well so I was relieved!
For those of you who do wonder how to negotiate the tricky path of speaking to someone who is depressed without saying the wrong thing, here is what works for me.
The nicest thing you can do is listen. Clarify that you're interpreting it right, making sure not to have an edge (that could be construed as sarcasm) to your voice.
Another thing I would really appreciate it if someone who knows I'm ill at the moment sent a text message wishing me well or offering to listen if I need it. Similarly a card sent via "snail mail" would make me smile.
Practical things to do would be: an offer to babysit, help with the housework or even making plans and then actually doing what it was you had planned with me. A friend I made recently offered to walk my daughter to school one morning so that I could sleep longer since I don't get enough sleep at night-time and I appreciated that immensely!
Hopes and dreams for the future.
I started out pretty ambitious. I wanted to go to university, get a degree, have a successful career in my chosen field, meet a nice guy, emigrate to a warmer country, have a big house and be well-off, maybe have children and live as happily as I could.
Having found myself only able to have done two of those things (I met a nice guy and had children with him) I'm gradually letting go of the rest, with the exception of the last one. I no longer feel the need to get a degree or to emigrate. Having lots of money would be lovely too. However, the only one that matters to me is that I live as happily as I can. I'll keep trying to get back to the good phases, when I'm in them I'll try to savour them and I'll do as much as I can to be a good wife and mother - I'll try my best. And I guess that's all anyone can ask of me.