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What It Feels Like to Have 'Chronic Depression Fatigue'

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I’ve had friends tell me they’ve felt the extreme fatigue of depression long after they began feeling better, even when their depression was in remission. At the time I didn’t think much of this because I was in the midst of a many-years-long, serious depressive episode and couldn’t really imagine the depression being “in remission.” Why did I care if the exhaustion stuck around?

It’s been the better part of two years since I’ve really felt crushed under depression. I have my feet under me these days, and most symptoms have disappeared entirely (ask me about how miraculous it feels not to always feel afraid). But despite all the progress I’ve made, there’s one thing that sticks around, and nothing I do can shift it. I’m talking about the fatigue. The exhaustion. My ability to sleep 10 hours a night and still get worn out. The way I have to pass out for a day every few months just to start feeling human again.

This is what I like to call “chronic depression fatigue.” In my experience, it’s the longest lasting of all my depressive symptoms, and unfortunately it’s one that affects my ability to do the things I want and need to do in a pretty serious way. No matter how much distance I put between myself and the more obvious symptoms of depression (anhedonia, listlessness, negative self talk, black and white thinking, isolation), I find that my energy remains low, and my body just can’t keep up with other people.

I’m a relatively young, physically healthy person. There is no reason I should wake up every morning feeling miserably tired. There is no reason I should regularly find myself so tired at work that I’m fighting my eyelids closing. There is no reason I should have to down cups of coffee to stay aware enough to make it through the day.

It’s frustrating to realize there may be no end to struggling with energy and sleep. I feel less intelligent than I used to be because I always feel as if I’m barely awake. Am I going to be stuck as a subpar version of myself forever? Especially as someone with a history of an eating disorder, exhaustion can really screw up my self-care routines, as it makes exercise and balanced food difficult. Exercise is a good preventative measure for me, and having to skip out on the gym to go take a nap feels awful, even when it’s necessary.

More than anything, the fatigue makes me feel helpless. I’ve tried so many things to pin down exactly what’s going on. I got a sleep study and was probably the only person to be disappointed that I sleep perfectly. I gave up vegetarianism in the hope that more protein would improve my energy levels. I’ve adjusted my exercise to be more regular but less intense. I’ve taken vitamins. It does not matter what I do, the exhaustion remains. No matter how much or how little I sleep (trust me, I’ve heard I’m oversleeping. I’ve also heard I should drink more water, exercise more or less, take on more or less responsibilities, eat more or less meat… I’ve heard it all), I spend most of my life wishing I could be taking a nap.

I’ve heard from others that they have this long-lasting fatigue, even when the depression is in remission. And yet I’ve never heard a therapist or doctor mention it or potential solutions other than treating it like any other exhaustion. I feel bad even bringing it up because I know compared to being in the midst of depression, this is a cake walk. But even in recovery, I think we can advocate for improved quality of life, and helping those with mental illness manage energy is huge to keeping us on our feet and fighting our brain demons.

I hope we can start talking about a nuanced version of recovery. I’m so much happier than I used to be, and my life is infinitely better. But my mental illness still has an impact on me. Depression lingers, leaving little imprints through your life to remind you that you can’t let your guard down. I don’t ever expect to be the same person I was before, but there are things I miss so deeply. I just want to have energy again. I want my excitement back. I want my verve back. Depression took so much of it from me.

Originally published: July 5, 2016
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