Welcome to Part I of BCC’s mini-series about depression. If you haven’t already read the series overview, please do so before proceeding.
In this post, our group members introduce themselves by describing how they came to recognize depression as a problem in their life. Depression is an untidy concept, and our semantics reflect that. We use the term to describe a vast spectrum of emotional and mental states, from mild and temporary situational distress to severe and abiding pathology, and even with the help of diagnostic parameters it can be tricky to distinguish between the “normal” depression of human experience and the mood disorder called clinical depression.
“There are many grey states between full-blown depression and a mild ache unaccompanied by changes of sleep, appetite, energy, or interest,” writes Andrew Solomon. “In an era in which we are increasingly alienated from our feelings, we might be comforted by the idea that a doctor could take a blood test or a brain scan and tell us whether we had depression and what kind we had. But depression is an emotion that exists in all people, fluctuating in and out of control; depression the illness is an excess of something common, not the introduction of something exotic.”
The definition of “excess” can vary from individual to individual, and presenting symptoms for depression differ from case to case. This variation shows in our group’s responses to the question, When did you realize depression was an issue for you?
Beatrice: I was thirteen the first time I had suicidal thoughts, but in retrospect I think I was depressed even earlier than that. I was not a happy child. My parents will testify to that. Puberty just made things worse, though. It was probably the hormones, but I never had anything like PMS when I was younger. All times of the month were the same (i.e. crappy).
I didn’t really think of it as depression at the time, though–as in an illness. I thought of it as moral failings and loserdom. Which is actually kind of how I think of it now, too, only this time I (should) know better. I’ve found that it doesn’t help to know better, though. I tell myself it is an illness and I need to take my pills or get new pills or do something else, and my self just says, “Shut up, you’re a loser. Nothing’s going to help.”
On the other hand, I’m no longer 13, so at least there’s that.
Ophelia: I realized I had an issue after the birth of my third child when I simply could not pull myself together and was so over my head I could not figure out why. I never felt what I thought were the classic depressive symptoms—instead I felt angry and full of fury all the time, and would then destroy myself with guilt and shame about my anger.
My OB suggested I try an SSRI when I called him in a panic because I was so angry with my boys and my new baby. It was completely irrational, and I didn’t want to take meds. He said to try them for two weeks, and if they didn’t help, we could try something else. Within 3 days I felt normal again. Not drugged, not loopy, not high—just normal. I had patience again. Little things did not make me feel like the sky was caving in anymore.
And from there I was able to look back on my life and see patterns of pain and sorrow I hadn’t recognized before.
Rosencrantz: In my experience, a mild depression appears to be normal. I remember reading an article about depression in my early 20s which listed 9 symptoms of depression and realizing that I was 9 for 9. I think I became pretty adept at coping with persistent, low-level depression, but it wasn’t until later in life when events put me into a tailspin that I was forced to begin to deal with it.
The breakdown was a combination of pressures from 1. Inability to function at my job as I had done for 20 years, 2. Resulting lowering of income, 3. Intense pain as a result of feeling that God had played me for a fool (with subsequent almost complete loss of testimony) and 4. pressures from church job. Not to even mention the stress that all of the above puts on a marriage and family life.
Wow, this is hard. The tears just start flowing as I type this.
Mistress Quickly: It’s amazing how vivid this kind of experience can be, even decades later.
I’ll never forget the time I realized I had a problem with depression. I was partway through college, and living on my own. I’d always been a melancholy person, even as a little kid–I’d say my depression started around age 10, but it was mild enough that nobody noticed, and I just thought it was normal. But when I was 20 I started having these daily episodes where I’d feel this harrowing black despair engulfing me. I’d cry for hours every evening.
At the time I’d returned to church activity after a pronounced lapse. One night I knelt down and prayed more sincerely than I’d ever prayed. I just kept saying (out loud) “I’m sad; I’m sad” and wordlessly pleading for relief, but none came. I crawled into bed feeling utterly alone and bereft. I was already in therapy and my counselor had been wanting me to try an SSRI but I’d been resisting because I was embarrassed by the thought of needing medication. But soon after this particular night, I began treatment. I realized something was happening to me that was beyond my control.
Rosencrantz: In my case, we were at a family reunion, and my brother-in-law whom I see only once or twice a year walked over to me at an outdoor dinner. He just walked up and asked if I had talked to a therapist, because it was obvious that I needed one. It sounds funny now, and I think I even laughed then, but I honestly thought that it was normal to feel/act that way. I just assumed that I could limp along on my own until things got better by themselves. I’m still in the process of realizing that that hardly every happens.
Jack Cade: The line between depression in the colloquial sense (feeling down, or frustrated or gloomy or whatever) and depression as a clinical, neurochemical disorder was difficult for me to discern. My wife started to tell me that she thought I was probably suffering from mild-to-moderate depression (having once suffered a fairly serious but short-lived bout of PPD, for which she took medication for roughly 8 months) a few years back. I was under a tremendous amount of stress and had recently received a bit of devastating personal/professional news which totally compounded it. I dismissed her concerns because I felt like it couldn’t be an actual neurochemical problem if there were real, external forces that could account for the symptoms. I figured, being depressed when depressing shit happens to you is a fairly normal, even healthy response. The professional problem was something that I knew, in time, I could fix. I told her that I assumed that as soon as everything had formally worked itself, as soon as my external sources of serious stress were reduced, I expected my mood/disposition/frustration/sadness to work itself out as well.
Well, the working-out came and went — I successfully took care of the problem and got back on track and everything was mind. But no change. My symptoms — all the horrible mood stuff plus more introverted behaviors, ranging from mindless time in front of the computer to the occasional flirtation with porn and all the self-loathing it induces — were still there. I even tried to do things to manipulate my mood, but always seemed to return to the same dull and dreary baseline. After about a week of introspection and self-analysis, I concluded that the prolonged period under the weight of stress had in fact altered my neurochemical baseline. It seemed to me like I was past feeling — like I was experiencing emotions or at least aware of them but not really feeling them, a weird kind of numbness.
I phoned a woman in a neighboring ward — a licensed social worker whose research has focused on depression in families with conservative religious backgrounds — and began treatment. So the long and short is, I realized I had depression when I came to an awareness that my persistently shitty mood was not, in fact, a mere reaction to shitty externalities.
Portia: I’m pretty sure I was depressed by the time I was 8 or 9, and I knew I was by the time I was 11 or 12, though I don’t think I had a name for it. I wrote in my journal when I was 11 1/2 “It’s spring, and I know I should be happy about the flowers and the warm air and the sun, but I’m not happy at all. I’m not anything.”
As it turns out, Spring has often been a trigger for me–that feeling that I should be happy, should feel something at least. That my heart remains frozen long past the time of daffodils is often a crushing grief. That sense of being somehow beyond or outside of the realm of human feeling is the most difficult thing. “Triggers” or external crises that generate something like sadness are a relief. Depression is more absence than real pain for me; it’s the disconnect between life and feeling. I vividly remember walking home from a college class one day in April or so. It was just getting warm enough to shed coats, and everything was muddy and fecund-smelling. I had just gotten a paper back, with glowing comments from the professor (who was a scarily eminent scholar in his field, from whom anyone (well, anyone except me, probably) would have been ecstatic to get a B, and I’d gotten an A with copious praise). It was like I was watching myself, and thinking “look at that girl–young, smart, privileged, full of potential” and I just couldn’t feel my way into that life at all.
There have definitely been times when some external trigger has set off hideous bouts of pain–but the “when you know you are crazy” moments are the ones where I’m just dead to my own experience.
Falstaff: It’s hard for me to know when depression started. I don’t think I had the vocabulary to recognize it when I was growing up. I felt sorry for myself often and had imaginary friends that understood and liked me. The Sioux have a prayer that begs for pity from the heavens. Part of their seeking the pity was to cut off a finger to make the God’s feel sorry for them, and this was me as a child. I wanted God to feel sorry for me. To an extent I suppose I felt emotionally a wreck and wanted that to be recognized by someone somewhere. I did not, or could not couch this as depression, but maybe it was. Memory is a strange thing, and I really don’t know.
The first time I ever had recognizable depression was at a time I had fairly recently become active in the church and in so doing had lost my old friends. I was made the young adult rep and there was a list of 50+ inactive young men and I was running around trying to contact them all, mostly on an Army base, no one wanted the Church. I felt endlessly guilty, as if this were my fault somehow that I was not successful. In December, when I was alone for Christmas I fell into a deep depression. I was shocked at the numbness and emptiness and I could look at myself from some rational part of my mind and see it. There was nothing to be done that I knew of. This was not something you would bring up with a doctor–these feelings were part of a moral weakness and inability to shake it off. It never even occurred to me that there might be medicines to help. As I saw it, the Church taught that we were responsible for our moods. Feelings of worthlessness where just the whisperings of Satan to be thrown off by strength of will and focus. In becoming active the church, I had lost friends and habits and I missed them. I missed the culture I had been a part of and missed the sense of belonging. Interestingly, there was an upcoming Young Adult Conference and it required enormous work to arrange going. Somehow in finding a focus and something to work for I came out of it. But that was the beginning and this was going to reappear again and again over the next few years.
Desdemona: I hesitated to join this conversation because I’ve never been professionally officially diagnosed with depression, and I’ve never been on medication. So I feel like a second-rate “me too” participant. But I thought that if I didn’t respond to Kathy’s call, I would be just continuing to deny that I have a problem.
Like others have said, I was a melancholy kid. I was deeply bothered by cosmic questions, injustices big and little, and daily problems. My high school years are a blur, but in retrospect I was badly depressed for much of the time. I did consider suicide in high school, but always ruled it out because of my theological belief that it wouldn’t end the misery. I had a sense of wanting to hurt myself physically–pinching or whatever, to distract from the emotional pain or because it seemed more tractable than emotional pain. Luckily it never progressed to cutting or anything that leaves a mark. It never occurred to me that I had a medical problem, because I thought that was just my personality, or that I was rightfully feeling bad about things I had done. It took a very kind bishop telling me that my guilt was way out of proportion and I needed to forgive myself to help me drag myself out of one episode. I think another reason I didn’t recognize it was that during depressed times I would hang around other depressed kids so it seemed normal. In retrospect, I had two sets of friends, one for depressed times and one for happy times.
Several times over the last 10+ years I’ve managed to get up enough courage to take an online self-quiz/screening for depression. I always score 100%, but I always find some excuse to ignore the suggestion to make an appointment. I thought everybody felt that way, that it was normal, and the test was just erring on the side of sending everyone in for an appointment. Plus it’s not depression if the guilt is due to me actually screwing up my life, right?
About 5-6 years ago I finally got the courage to act on the pleas of the survey results page to make an appt. The intake form at the office had a question, “Have you had thoughts of suicide?” and I remember that I left it blank. It’s not “thoughts of suicide” if I had ruled out the option, right? (because I believe in an afterlife where I’d be just as miserable) That doesn’t count. The counselor asked why I had left it blank, and all I could say was “I don’t know” over and over.
At that time I was experiencing a hormonal cycle-linked thing. Basically I was “normal” (probably mildly depressed) most of the time, but for 3 days a month the whole world would collapse. I couldn’t leave the house because I couldn’t think–that feeling of going into a room and forgetting what you were there to get/do, but so constant that I couldn’t drive or do anything. When I say whole world collapsing, I often felt like that was physically happening to everything in my surroundings, or that at any moment a great crack would open up in the ground and swallow me. Or that unseen somethings were following me. Then right when I’d be to the point of wanting to end it all, poof! back to normal without a trace of those feelings. It was all like a bad dream that lasts for 3 days. Luckily, I only endured that for a 3-6 months before I got pregnant, which ended the cyclical crazy.
I’m sure I also had post-partum depression but that first year is such a blur that it is hard to describe it.
Viola: I was a sad kid too and I kind of liked it. In books, movies, stories whatever. I liked sad things. I’ve often wondered if this is innate, my basic, long-time world view, or the way of validating all the sadness I saw around me–I decided to like it.
And depression was all around me. My dad had significant mental illness problems, my mom had a major depressive episode when I was about seven and our family really struggled under the weight of two depressed parents. One of my siblings manifested signs of severe depression pretty early on, too. All this to say, I felt intimately involved with depression but I never identified it in myself. I was the keeper of the depressed, but not the actual depressed person. With a few episodes under my belt, I think my first episode was as a late teenager. Or maybe once a month since I was 12 during PMS, I’m not sure which.
But the first time I knew it was my disease was when I was 24 at BYU. Teaching at the MTC, I had a panic attack as I was headed in to teach one of my districts, and though things had been rough for a while, it was from from then on that things went downhill. I couldn’t feel anything, I couldn’t wake up, I couldn’t care, I couldn’t taste, I couldn’t like what I normally loved, I couldn’t even feel guilty. I stopped going to work, stopped school, stopped eating (VERY unlike me), made a suicide plan, and wished that I would at least cry over my life stopping. It was a few months into the non-life living that I realized I was in an episode and that it was my problem, not my dad’s or my mom’s or my sibling’s or my grandpa’s. I got started on SSRIs (Celexa and then Celexa and Welbutrin also Xanax for the anxiety) and I started to pull out of it after a few months and felt back to mostly normal (which is still a sad normal) about a year later.
I still held out a lot hope that it would be an isolated episode. That it would be the major breakdown of my life. But then I had another one a few years later and maybe that’s when I really really knew that this thing was mine and here to stay.
Stay tuned for Part II of our conversation, which will focus on how depression affects daily life and family relationships. In the meantime, we welcome readers to share their insights about recognizing clinical depression.
Next in the series: Part II: Impact on Daily Life and Family Relationships