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5 Times My Depression Was Nothing Like the Movies

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I am depressed. Or I struggle with depression. Or I have depression. Doesn’t really matter what you call it, the short version is that my brain is different from most brains. It does not work the same way as other, “healthy” brains might. On a good day, it will behave like a regular brain. Doing brainy things. On bad days, it seems hellbent on consuming itself. And before experiencing it, I had no idea what to look for.

I was first diagnosed five years ago. After a bumpy start, the diagnosis they gave me was severe depression with borderline personality disorder (BPD). After starting treatment, like most people being treated for mental health issues, I started to understand more and more about not just my own brain, but the afflictions that plagued it. I started to recognize patterns, behavior, even the way certain moods interacted. And looking back on my life, I realized I had experienced depressive episodes before.

In fact, many incidents during my teen and adolescent years were reminiscent of my current experiences. So why is it I never recognized them as such? Why is it I never went to my mom, or a friend, and said the words, “I think I am depressed?”

It’s easy to throw around words like “depression” because of what many people perceive depression to be. Boyfriend didn’t text for two days? Depressed. Sports team missed the play-offs? Depressed. Hell, we even refer to the weather as depressing. Though, living in the Netherlands, I can attest to that last one being at least somewhat true.

“Depressed,” for most people, is the opposite of happy. Something similar to sad. Sometimes, people will tell you it’s more than just sad. That it’s like super-sad, or sad 2.0. Sad, but also melancholy. Like playing “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. more than once in a single day. Or wearing black T-shirts two days in a row.

None of these things are true — though I’m sure some depressed bastard has played R.E.M. more than once in a day —but nonetheless, they are commonly held beliefs. Depressed, for the majority of people, is a state that exists opposite of something that is fun or desirable.

The reality is that unless you’ve experienced it for yourself, depression is almost inexplicable. A friend once told me “I’m glad I don’t understand it, because that would mean I had to live it at some point.” It seemed like a harsh statement at the time, but now I realize he meant that he saw the unimaginable amount of hurt I was going through. And like I said: it took me years of therapy to realize what the hell was going on. So, why did it take me so long to recognize a thing that was literally happening to me over and over during the course of my life?

I blame TV and movies… sort of. Because before I went neck-deep into mental health treatment programs, my only experience with depression was from what I had seen in entertainment.

Media — TV and movies especially — has a tendency to display depression in a certain way. There are certain tropes that keep coming back. The angsty teenager. The hyper-sexualized manic-depressive. The list is endless. And while it has gotten better over the years – for instance, Gretchen’s storyline on the show “You’re the Worst” is amazing – that wasn’t always the case. My exposure to depression was limited to what pop-culture deemed it to be at the time. So when it finally came down to it, I was looking for all the wrong things. I simply didn’t know any better.

To illustrate my point, here are some of the ways movie-depression wildly differed from my own:

1. It is always beautiful.

It’s a pretty actor or actress, staring out a window as a soundtrack enhances the mood we’re supposed to be feeling. It’s someone crying in their car, tears streaming as hard as the rain outside it, without smudging even the tiniest bit of makeup. It’s pain that’s made to look pretty. It’s beautiful, all-consuming, hurt. You almost wish you could experience something like this at least once in your life.

Me? I stopped shaving. I wore clothes that I didn’t wash more than once a month. I ate a lot of Cheetos as an alternative to cooking. I didn’t open the curtains for a year, and I took the battery out of the doorbell. I’m pretty sure at one point I wore the same underwear for a week. It was a lot of things, but beautiful it was not.

2. It’s always something that happens to someone who’s an “outcast.”

It’s the Winona Ryder, or the Angelina Jolie, with a bunch of tattoos and a crooked haircut, who doesn’t really fit in. Artistic, creative types. Always toeing the line between brilliance and depression. It’s never the guy doing reasonably well at his accounting firm, or the lady who owns that shop on Main Street. Never the kids who listen to their parents, or who go to church every Sunday. In movies, people with depression are already “damaged.”

I was a pretty regular guy. Had friends. Co-workers. I had a family who loved me. I was social, I played sports and I had lots of opportunities and support. The most extraordinary thing about me was that I had a cat that played fetch. Guys like me don’t get depressed in movies; they don’t even show up at all. I didn’t even know people like me could get depressed. Depression was something that happened to other people. Imagine my surprise.

3. There’s always a cause and effect situation.

Some trigger-event that sets things off. A break-up. Intense pressure to perform. A death. Something. In movies, there always has to be something, because “normal” people don’t just get depressed.

I woke up one morning and sat on the edge of the bed for an hour. My brain couldn’t process the idea of picking out a pair of socks for the day. That’s it. I just sat there and realized something wasn’t OK. I could see myself sitting there, like an out-of-body experience. Internally screaming at myself to do something. But all my brain and body could do was ask “how?” I saw myself. I saw the socks. I understood the concept of hands picking up objects. But my brain didn’t know how. Seemingly overnight I went from being someone who got dressed in the morning, to someone who didn’t know how to. Try explaining not being able to put on socks to people; I guarantee they will look at you funny.

Of course, there can be events leading up to a depressive episode, but it’s almost never as simple as a single cause. No defining moment. A lot of the time, it just happens. My brain just decided it was done with doing regular brain things, like picking out socks. Or bathing. Or feeding myself a vegetable.

4. Not only is it attractive to other people, but that resulting love will fix you.

In movies, depression is always attractive. The brooding hunk. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Whenever somebody is depressed, the literal embodiment of their soulmate will see them for the Tragically Beautiful Person™ they are and whisk them away on adventures. They will ignite a spark within them, encouraging them to be more creative in their art, or help them stand up against some mean parental figure who dared insinuate they needed therapy. Clearly, what people need to snap out of their depression is a good, long bone-sesh.

I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t get to meet my soulmate when I was depressed. Could be because I couldn’t find the energy to bathe or wear anything other than sweatpants. Or maybe it was because the antidepressants I was taking were destroying my sex drive. Perhaps it was because I was constantly irritable, or self-soothing through drugs and alcohol. Or maybe, just maybe, it was because I was inside 24-hours a day, watching the same eight seasons of NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service on an endless loop. I guess we’ll never know.

5. People always look depressed.

It’s easy to spot depressed people in movies. They’re the ones who are not enjoying whatever it is the rest of the pretty people are enjoying. A concert. Hanging out at the bar. Hiking. Depressed people always look depressed and miserable and that’s usually the sign for other people to offer all of their help. Because nothing screams depression like turning down a night of Gin-Tonics and fun, and movie people are super perceptive.

Ever wonder why it seems “sudden” whenever your friend, co-worker, or partner tells you they’ve been dealing with depression? It’s because they either didn’t know it was happening, or they were hiding it. Either way, you didn’t notice any of it.

At the height of my depression, I was a mess. Three-month-old beard, lifeless look in my eyes, Cheetos-stained shirt hanging over jeans that hadn’t been washed in months. I’m sure people noticed that. But the months leading up to it, nobody noticed a thing.

Depressed people are great at telling people they’re fine. Hell, they’re great at telling themselves they’re fine. They put on a mask every morning, and they wear it well. It’s like a second skin. People with depression often already feel they are a bother to others. They don’t want to be seen as weak. And a lot of the time, they’re trying to keep some sense of normalcy. The last thing I wanted to do was tell people how I was really feeling. That’s why it’s important to have open, and honest conversations about mental health. So that people can feel safe about asking for help.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Felipe P. Lima Rizo on Unsplash

Originally published: September 6, 2018
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