Depression is a really difficult condition to understand, which can make it hard for us to offer meaningful support if we have a friend or relative who’s facing it. Depression isn’t the same for everyone, so there’s no ‘one size fits all’ explanation. In order to help you better understand, I’ve explored some of the common themes and feelings experienced by people struggling with depression so that we can all be a better friend to people who are depressed.
1. Sometimes, you feel nothing at all
People who are struggling with depression will often talk about a complete lack of emotion and feeling:
“Nothing, that was what I felt. All day, every day, NOTHING.”
After a while they might even forget what it feels like to feel, leaving them unable to know how to respond to things that happen each day:
“I didn’t have the energy, empathy or motivation to feel happy for my friends. I vividly recall a friend telling me she’d got engaged and I felt nothing. I think I said ‘congratulations’ but in a dull, emotionless way that led her to believe I didn’t care. And I didn’t. But that wasn’t me talking, it was my depression. I really hurt her but I didn’t intend to, I’d just lost the ability to care for and be happy for her. You can see me in all of her wedding photos. The unsmiling bridesmaid. I wanted so much to be able to smile and feel happy for her but I just couldn’t remember how.”
2. Nothing feels real
Often, people who are struggling with depression will talk about their life as if they are living in a kind of dream (or nightmare) state where everything feels somewhat meaningless and surreal:
“When you’ve been devoid of feeling for a while, things take on a different meaning – well a lack of meaning really. Until you’ve lost all feeling, you don’t realise how important a part of the fabric of day to day life our thoughts, feelings and emotions are. I felt like I was kind of sleepwalking. Awake enough to interact with those around me, but never feeling fully present or real.”
Many people use analogies like being stuck under water or down a well to explain the feeling of distance from the rest of the world.
“Every minute of every day was lived as if I was almost at the point of drowning. The point after you’ve stopped struggling and you’re just lying there, watching the rest of the world as your lungs fill with water and the water envelopes you and you think ‘I don’t belong here anymore.’”
3. You can feel like an observer in your own life
It’s common for people to talk about feeling absent from their own lives. Depression can make you feel like an outsider looking in rather than an active participant:
“It was like watching a TV show of my life. I didn’t necessarily like all of the episodes but I felt incapable of changing them – like some producer had made the decisions, not me. It all just washed over me as I watched on.”
4. The future can feel inconceivable
Both the short and the long term future can feel hard to grasp. This doesn’t necessarily mean feeling suicidal or not wanting to live, but rather just not being able to imagine it.
“My Dad was talking to me about college choices and I just found myself thinking ‘college? is that even possible?’ – not in an ‘I’m stupid’ kinda way, more in a ‘that’s a thing people do, I’m not really ‘people’ I’m just this blob of….nothing…. how could college be for me?”
“My friend suggested that as I was managing a bit better now, perhaps we could get coffee next week. I said no. Not because I don’t like coffee, or didn’t want to be with my friend, but just because I couldn’t get my head around the idea of this afternoon, let alone next week”
5. Just occasionally, you have happy moments when it’s all okay
People who struggle with depression sometimes have minutes, hours, or days when things feel real again and they can see a glimpse of what it feels like not to be depressed.
“Every now and then the clouds would clear, and it was like I was alive again. It never lasted long. At first I would just feel so low knowing it would pass, but after a time I learned to grab these moments of respite and do all my living whilst they were with me.”
6. But you feel guilty if you feel okay
There’s a common misconception that if someone is depressed, they never feel okay and never smile. This can leave sufferers feeling confused and guilty during respite periods:
“I was signed off work for depression, but here I was walking through the park enjoying the sunshine and the bird song. I felt like a total shirker as I thought of my colleagues back at the office picking up my workload. The day before I had not left my bed and, as it turned out, that was also true of the day after too, but right then I felt okay – and I felt guilty for feeling okay.”
7. And sometimes you put on a brave face and everyone thinks it’s okay
It can be pretty easy to fool everyone if you want to:
“Before I leave the house, I check I’ve got my wallet, my keys, and my fake smile. If I’ve got those three things, I’m set.”
“After a while, you teach yourself how to act normal. It stops people getting upset and worried. It means that all day, every day is a lie and it’s kind of tiring but it does stop people from worrying so much.”
8. People want you to be fine, so they believe you if you try to fool them
We can all be guilty of not looking past the ‘happy mask’:
“When people say ‘how are you?’ they never mean it. The thing is just to say ‘I’m fine’ and plaster on a fake smile. Hardly anyone sees past it.”
9. It really helps when people reach out, but you don’t know how to thank them
When we’re struggling with depression, sometimes we need the friend who sees past the happy mask more than we need air. But we don’t know how to tell them “thank you” or to acknowledge the fact that we need them. We may even ignore them. But it doesn’t mean we’re not grateful:
“I had the most amazing friend. She stuck by me. Every day she would text or email. Every day I would ignore her but she continued. Just little messages that let me know in her kooky way that she cared. No one else persisted like she did. The rest all took my lack of response as a sign to stop. She, somehow, realised that I needed those messages. They were a lifeline, and the fact that they came without the expectation of a response made them all the more precious.”
10. It affects your friendships deeply–for better and worse
Depression is a tough illness to face. Many people who suffer from it will lose friends along the way. However, sometimes it’s also a time when someone really special steps forward, and we develop a lifelong friendship with them:
“It’s hard to be friends with someone who’s depressed. I get that. Most of my friends kind of drifted away.”
“Before I was depressed I had so many friends. Afterwards, I had just one true friend. But one true friend is worth more than a thousand friends who drop away when things get hard.”
I hope this helps you understand – or explain – this difficult illness just a little better. You’re a good friend for caring enough to read this far. Good luck.
These quotes all come from people who are currently suffering from or have recovered from depression and who have shared their experiences with Dr Pooky Knightsmith. All people quoted have given their permission for their words to be shared anonymously.
Featured photo credit: Shi Xuanru 4 by Jonathan Kos-Read via imcreator.com