Depression: What It’s Like For Me, Beyond the Symptom Checklist

what its like having depression

Trigger warning: This article discusses depression, anxiety and suicide.

I first knew that my brain wasn’t quite right when I was 12 or 13. It wasn’t hard to tell, I would take the family dog on walks that would last hours, crying, while blasting My Chemical Romance — that poor dog. 

In a classic, overemotional teen move, the louder I played the music, the better. It’d drown out my thoughts. During high school, after concerned parents had me meet with doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists, the problem with my brain was given a name: depression.

It didn’t end there though. After being put on Zoloft, it got worse before it got better. Do you know what a really fun side effect of anti-depressants for teens is? Suicidal thoughts. My attempt was (thankfully) thwarted by the fact all I could find was herbal tablets — may have made the toilet bowl green the next day, but I’m alive.

A decade on from that, and I’m alive. Anti-depressants disappeared through university — my depression in high school was apparently situational, I was convinced I was fine and I didn’t want to give up drinking (sorry parents). They reappeared in London; the winters were too challenging. Since my move back to Sydney last year, it’s Lexapro now. 

So that’s a basic summary of my last… 15 years of living with depression. For over half of my life I’ve been depressed. Reading back on that, you’re probably thinking “Oh wow, she’s depressing”. Reading back on it, I’m thinking, “Oh wow, she’s depressing”.

When you look up symptoms of depression or anxiety, it’s like a little shopping list of what’s wrong with your brain. Lots of one-word signs: sad, tired, irritable. Sometimes you’ll get little phrases like ‘unable to concentrate’, or ‘significant weight gain’.

Yes, I see myself in those bullet points. How could I not? But my experience of depression is so much more than one-word adjectives and short phrases.

When I’ve tried to explain it to people before — friends, family, mental health professionals — I’ve used the grey cloud metaphor. Your mood and persona could be a clear, blue sky with a warm, golden sun, and honestly, mine often is. But always, no matter how blue the sky and how bright the sun — there’s a grey cloud, just looming on the horizon.

No matter how good my life is, how happy I am, it’s sitting there, waiting for its moment to roll in. When I’m doing well, I’m going to the gym regularly, I’m eating well, I’m actually socialising with people. And then, with no warning, the cloud rolls in.

Then, a 1000kg rock just drops on me (not literally). It’s difficult to move. I understand that the shower is a few metres away, that getting dressed and making it to the gym will take about 15 minutes. I know that healthy food and sunshine makes me feel better. I know all this.

But I can’t do it. I can go days without showering. The effort, of leaving my bed and getting into the shower let alone the thought of cleaning myself and washing my hair — is overwhelming. I can’t do it. Hygiene leaves, and if I manage to brush my teeth once a day, it’s a win. I overeat. I can have two lunches, two dinners, dessert and junk food in between.

Do I know this will make me feel shit? Yes. Will I do anything about it? No. I can’t. I physically cannot. Then I’ll be angry at myself for overeating. I’ll loathe my body. The fat on my stomach or hips, my thighs rubbing against one another. I can’t bring myself to make food, it’s too much effort. I’ll order something. Then I’ll hate myself for wasting money on ordering food.

Days are spent on the verge of tears, or anger. I sleep because it’s easier than being awake, having thoughts go round and round in my head. Intrusive thoughts, often suicidal in nature, make their way into my brain. Healthy me knows they’re intrusive and bats them away. Depressed me contemplates it before batting them away.

Then you add my anxiety. My anxiety isn’t often physical — I’ve had two panic attacks in my life, and both were at university. But it’s mental.

I’ll have a conversation with a loved one, and will overanalyse everything I said after. I over-apologise for the most minuscule thing. I still worry and get angry over things that happened years ago, involving people no longer in my life. Playing the “why did I do or say that” “what could I have done or said differently” game for hours on end is a common game occurring in my head.

I will, and I have, cut friends out of my life because I’m worried that I’ve told them too much about myself and they’ll use it against me. I’ll go to sleep worrying — which will often take hours and will dream about things my brain actively tries to avoid thinking about during the day.

But it’s not always like this. If you meet me in real life, you’ll probably get dazzled and/or blinded by my colourful, maximalist outfits. I smile a lot, get passionate, and gesticulate a bunch when I talk, and I’ve got an incredibly loud laugh — which occurs often, sometimes accompanied by a snort. I dole affection upon friends and family (especially my niece and nephew) lavishly.

So why am I telling you this? Why have I told you all this, and let a bunch of strangers delve into the weird corners of my mind?

Well, maybe you have a loud-laughing friend or colleague who is actually depressed. Maybe you know someone who is depressed but you treat them as a check-list, with symptoms that can be solved if they just try enough. Maybe you are the depressed person, wanting to be seen as something else, wanting to explain just how your brain works.

Maybe it’s because every time I share something like this, the response is overwhelming and gives me hope. I get lovely messages from old co-workers, friend’s parents, strangers who follow me on Instagram. Ones that I screenshot, and read over when I need to.

Maybe it’ll crack just a little bit more of the taboo around mental health. Honestly, if it inspires just one person who reads it to talk about their mental health, openly, then it’s worth it.

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.

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