It’s difficult to describe exactly what depression is because everyone’s experience of depression is unique to everyone else’s.
People have described depression as:
Being inside a glass jar looking at the world outside
A feeling of wearing a concrete overcoat
A nothing, numbing blankness
As if I’m an endless, black, bottomless well
Caught in a whirlpool of negative energy, being sucked right down
No point to being alive
Zero value and would be better off dead.
One woman shared with me that the depression affected her....
“…as if my head from inside shakes, I feel so depressed I’m crying a lot and it gets worse during panic attacks when I can’t breath and my heart starts racing too so I think I’m going to die.”
Everyone has a different and complex depression journey. Trying to get that across to our doctor can come as quite a challenge.
Have You Felt As Though Your Doctor Doesn’t Understand Your Depression? Here’s Four Reasons Why This Might Happen
1. How The Medical Profession Describes Depression
The medical profession describes depression as “…feeling sad, hopeless and losing interest in things you used to enjoy especially when these symptoms interfere with your work, family and social lives”.
But, as we already know, that doesn’t even scrape the surface. And what makes getting a fair diagnosis so difficult is that we have to attempt to communicate our personal experience to our doctor without feeling patronized but holding ourselves up.
2. Doctors Assume They Know What Depression Is
Often the doctors will assume they know exactly what depression is and much of this assumption is because they are given a series of tick box questions which ask us, the patient, questions which often bear no relevance to what we’re actually experiencing.
These questions will probably be preceded by - in the last two weeks how often have you been bothered by any of these problems:
Do you have little pleasure in doing things?
Do you feel depressed or hopeless?
Do you have sleeping problems?
Do you feel lethargic?
Have you been Overeating or under eating?
Do you feel like a failure?
Do you have trouble concentrating whilst watching television?
Are you agitated?
Do you move or speak slowly?
Whilst these questions are relevant, they don’t really get to the core of what it feels like to suffer from long term depression. Trying to describe what the depression is like to a doctor can be frustrating for us but also for our doctor who really wants to help us.
3. When Assumptions Turn Into Misunderstandings
The doctor’s assumptions can turn into misunderstandings as they try to determine the best course of treatment. These misunderstandings may create problems between us and the doctors as they fail to really know what our depression feels like, how badly we want to get better and how serious it is.
For those of us who’ve suffered severe depression, trying to explain how it has affected our whole life to a doctor leaves us with conflicting feelings because the very nature of depression makes us believe we’re not worth it and that’s what we may, inadvertently, communicate to our doctor.
4. How Difficult It Is For Us To Communicate When We Feel Trapped Inside?
We may also give the impression we’re ‘fine’ because we’re used to behaving in a way that ensures we seem ‘normal’ on the outside and that we’re functioning like other people.
We don’t want people to know we’re depressed because of the enormous shame attached to this type of emotional disorder.
We may, for example:
Display apathy (because we feel we’re beyond help)
Become withdrawn (because we’ve given up on ourselves)
Experience blocked anger (a nod to our inner turmoil)
Drown in tears (as we acknowledge what we’ve lost)
Be unfocused (due to lack of sleep).
How Can I Explain To My Doctor About My Depression? Might Be Better To Explain What Depression ISN’T
So when we go to the doctor for help, it’s good to be aware of what depression isn’t so that we can better take care of ourselves and stand a better chance of getting the care we need.
Even though everybody suffers depression in different ways, there are five black and white principles that always apply.
We can’t I just ‘snap out of it’? Here’s why
If we could we would but when depression takes a hold on a person it becomes impossible to simply snap out of it. Recovery from depression doesn’t happen with the click of a finger, it takes the touch of knowing which is the right recovery path for each of us and having the courage to stay headed in that direction.
No one gets depressed overnight and for as long as it takes to become depressed, we must give ourselves that same time to heal. It may be quicker but placing a high expectation on our self to ‘snap out of it’ will only derail the recovery process.
Others may think they are helping when they tell us to ‘snap out of it’ or give other advice:
It’ll pass with time
What have you got to be depressed about?
Just brush yourself down and get on with it
However, these suggestions will only send us scurrying for cover and silently swear we will never discuss our emotions with that person ever again.
Being told to ‘snap out of it’ can create a sense of shame because there’s a judgement that comes with it. It could be read as “why don’t you ‘snap out of it’ and be more like me because I am on the straight and narrow but there’s clearly something wrong with you.”
Whichever way you look at it, there’s no winner. If you are talking to someone who is depressed please know they would snap out of it if they could.
2. Is depression a weakness? No.
It’s often assumed that when you suffer from depression, you are a weak person. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are not wimps, lightheaded, incapable, faint hearted or pathetic.
Being ravaged by depression is like being kidnapped by a group of terrorists who shove a dark bag over your head and drag you into a blacked out cell, shove you in and lock the door. No amount of will power can overcome that initial highjack.
People who suffer from long-term depression are very strong. Nothing requires more courage than saying ‘I am depressed, can you help me?’ It takes a certain person with grace and humility to seek help to overcome something over which they have no control.
We have emotional grit born out of our quest for feeling better, delving deep and to keep going. When you have children, dependents or a job, you can’t always take yourself off to a dark place; you have to move forward in spite of feeling at your wit’s end.
3. Is depression an ‘illness’? Not at all.
We don’t like to be labeled with having an illness, being mentally ill or having mental health problems.
Depression isn’t an 'illness’; it's an emotional imbalance.
If you think of the word depression and break it down it would read de-press-ion. Depression happens when emotions have been suppressed or depressed.
This is usually a result of three things:
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Absolutely no idea why
Social conditioning is the process in which we’ve been trained to respond to life in a way that’s generally approved of by society. This may take place at home or in an institution e.g. schools. Social conditioning is influenced by cultural factors. In Britain, for example, we still live by the three rules ‘don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.’
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is when a past event has bared down on our life to such an extent that it’s left an indelible imprint, which interferes with daily life in an overwhelming way. This has often been thought as only affecting people who’ve been to war but it’s now realised that PTSD can affect those who’ve also witnessed a catastrophic event or have been the victim of some abuse.
If PTSD is not treated or accepted it usually transmutes into depression as the person who’s experienced trauma tries to continue to function in spite of overpowering fear and anxiety. The depression acts as a buffer to those extreme emotions by helping the sufferer to avoid going over the event/s that frightened them.
The third reason for depression is there’s always the type that can envelope someone without any reason or warning. People I’ve worked with who can’t identify any specific reasons for their suffering have the hardest time in finding the best recovery path. Often, for these people, anti-depressants have found to be of the most help.
4. Is depression sadness? Not really.
“Oh, I’m so depressed!” is something we might say when we feel sad or at a loss but this doesn’t mean that depression is sadness.
Whilst sadness maybe one of the emotional/cognitive states experienced when depressed, so are helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, shame, negativity, memory loss, fatigue, insomnia, indecisiveness and difficulty concentrating.
Sadness is a normal response to something that’s happened to us where we ‘ve experienced a loss: someone leaves, losing a job, loss of a home or even self-respect. We may have a cry and feel better afterwards as we release the painful emotions.
Depression, on the other hand, is different.
When we are depressed but sad, we often cry about being depressed because we’ve lost our joy bubble or because we’re so lost in the depression we can’t find our way home. But often we can’t release the sadness and it sits inside us like heavy bowling ball on our chest.
Many of us, however, don’t feel sad instead we feel numb.
Numbness is debilitating because it’s as if we’re suspended in jelly and we can’t move forward. This numbness acts as a buffer between us and our emotions with the big one being anger.
Many people I’ve spoken to share the feelings of futility or frustration at being frightened of their own anger. Their sadness often relates to how trapped they feel: numbingly depressed with anger but too scared to release it.
Finally, it would seem that sadness is the opposite to happiness and well meaning advisors might tell someone who’s depressed that you can ‘choose happiness’. Our overly unrealistic positive culture creates this knee jerk reaction with people telling us to ‘cheer up’.
Depression isn’t a happy vs. sad see saw and, the thing is, people who are depressed aren’t looking for happiness, they are looking for peace.
5. Is depression selfishness? Not even close.
The word ‘depression’ is bandied about lightheartedly. Like when your friend says ‘I’m so depressed’ whilst taking a selfie, it’s easy to wonder how depressed can that person be? Is it just a ploy for getting some attention? It can, from the outside, look as though someone talking about their depression is indulging themselves on their friends’ time.
On the other end of the scale, depression can affect someone where they are debilitated to the point that they can’t function and they become isolated. From the outside it can look like that person isn’t bothering to make an effort, help out or engage in things they once did and are wholly selfish. From the inside it can feel like you're drowning.
I have never met anyone who would wish to be depressed. Depression isn’t a choice and ‘snapping out of it’ isn’t a choice either. People are doing what they think is going to make them happy (even if we think they’re doing it wrong).
We are all simply trying to find the right path towards feeling good and it would be a mistake to assume that someone who is depressed is selfish. If only you knew what they would do to NOT be depressed, you’d be surprised.
So, how do I tell my doctor about my depression?
With this question in mind, it’s probably going to make it easier if you’re clear about what your depression isn’t.
It’s not selfishness, or sadness, you can’t snap out of it, it’s not an illness and it’s not a weakness.
You might then be better prepared to talk though what your depression means to you and, hopefully, the professionals can help you to get the best possible treatment.