I’ve written a lot about my personal experience with bi-polar depression in the past, more on Facebook than this fairly dormant blog. Today however, I want to write specifically about general depression. I think it’s important to understand the difference between the less common bi-polar version of depression and what is the more often observed “general” depression.
First, I want to make clear that I am no expert on this topic, no degrees, letters after my name, or other stuff that would make me qualified to write. It’s just a subject I’m passionate about, because understanding it better has helped me in my life personally. Also, conversations with others make me realize this topic is often misunderstood and something many people are not comfortable discussing whether it affects them or those they love.
Bi-polar depression is characterized by mood swings from very low such as feeling worthless, hopeless, unable or unwilling to get out of bed, abnormal quietness and withdrawing from social circles as examples. The high mood swings can involve such things as rapid thoughts and communication, grandiose plans, believing you can do anything, talking all the time and poor judgment in financial or sexual decisions. As someone who considers faith an important part of who I am, I’ve often likened the low cycles to “Wondering where God is” and the high cycles to “Believing I am God” – that sounds extreme, but mood swings often are.
Sometimes I feel we often try to be too specific and precise on defining mental health conditions, when there’s a lot we still do not understand. I have come to view depression related illness more as a continuum. Even people that are severely depressed often feel fine, even good. Bi-polar is the good times becoming extreme, to the point that they often harm your life and those around you, generally at least as much as the depressive episodes. There is not always a clear distinction where things might be “ok but difficult” and serious enough that the condition needs to be addressed more directly.
I’ve thought some about the what is “normal life” or what is depression? First, I think we should recognize that all of us at various times often feel depressed based on events in life. Maybe we made some mistakes and it’s something really major; like we find ourselves in jail or having our kids taken away. Maybe we’ve watched a close friend or family member struggle with something, we’ve lost everything from a weather disaster or life is just hard. Maybe someone we are close to has betrayed us or there is no money to pay the bills, many of these can be summed up by saying our expectations have not been met. All of that can be depressing – if you read the symptoms I list earlier, or other common lists of depression symptoms I suspect each person reading this can find examples of those times in their lives. Most of the time we “get over it”, life moves on, things return to a “new normal”, and everything is ok. However, it is often my experience that the onset of depression stems from something that gives us legitimate reason to feel down and out, where what we had hoped for and the cards we have been dealt don’t match, and for whatever reason (something researchers are still trying to understand) we don’t “snap out of it” and the depressive feelings persist, usually getting worse.
A couple of personal tests I have for someone’s level of depression is when they feel they need to make a major life change (such as a job, relationship, moving, etc.) but yet when pressed there really is no hope that the change will bring any kind of improvement, just a feeling that what is going on now isn’t working. Another is a difficulty in see anything positive in life, especially when presented with clearly positive information. I believe the human mind has an incredible ability to “turn lemons into lemonade” and when that skill is almost completely lacking it can be a strong sign of depression.
One of the hardest aspects of someone who is depressed is the feeling of hopelessness that makes it difficult to get the help that is often readily available. Understanding of depression in the last few decades has increased tremendously and there are numerous medical options available. Knowing exactly what works and the interactions involved can be difficult though, and often the first med or two tried is not effective, which can increase the despair that the situation truly is hopeless. Professional counseling is also available, and can be a very helpful thing. Space does not allow me to write about this in more detail, especially because there is one final “treatment” that I think it most helpful, yet can be the hardest to implement.
Much research verifies that as people, we are “relational” – we desire relationships with others at various levels (family, significant others, friends, co-workers). It’s those relationships that I believe tend to make us human, and bring out the best in us. Depression not only makes us personally pull away from those relationships, but there’s also the sad reality that most of us don’t want to be around a “downer” – we want to be around people that are fun, that smile and laugh, that make life enjoyable.. and that is the polar opposite of someone struggling with depression. So we tend to not include them, to stay away, to tell them to get over it. Unfortunately, that can just make the cycle worse.
If your reading this and your depressed, I can’t tell you to “get over it”. I absolutely get that doesn’t fix anything, and you might not even be willing to acknowledge that you are. The people I want to speak to here are those who know someone who may be depressed and are wondering what to do. It’s really simple – overlook the negatives, ignore the temptation to try to “fix” anything.. the best fix is just to love, to care, to continue to treat someone, as down and out as they may be, as the incredible person they really are. So simple, yet sometimes so hard to do.
(And for those that want to know.. after approximately year-long struggle in my battle to return to “normalcy” after a needed med change, my condition is mostly stable. However, I still experience enough completely unexplained mood swings that it’s easy to write about this from a very personal perspective.)