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The Side of My Depression You Don't See

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Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Tuesday morning, 8 a.m. I’m having trouble distinguishing dreams from reality. That comes with the territory when you’re a drinker and can’t stay asleep for more than four hours. It takes a full 30 seconds for lucidity to creep into my eyes as I realize that’s my alarm.

Groggily, I slap the snooze button and roll back over. It’s 8:30 a.m. and any hope of an early start is gone, so I might as well sleep some more. By 9 a.m., all I can think about is what a waste of a human being I am. It takes until 9:15 a.m. to haul myself out of bed, and I do mean haul because my limbs feel like dead weight. I look over at the dresser to see a glass full of flat beer sitting there. I browned out again in my computer chair, came to around 5 and crawled into bed.

I look to my right and see the broken treadmill I haven’t gotten around to getting rid of. Now, it’s covered in a pile of clothes and other items I couldn’t be bothered to put away or toss. Walking into the bathroom, I can see the toilet needs to be scrubbed again. I felt like I just did that a week ago, or maybe it was a month ago. As I’m brushing my teeth, I catch sight of just how ungainly my stomach has become, mostly owing to alcohol. I used to care about my physical appearance, so much so I starved myself for years, but I’ve mostly given up on dating so that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

Getting in the shower now, I can see the beginnings of black mold in the corners of the stall and on the bottom of the shower curtain and sigh. After 20 minutes, I turn the water off and plunge my face into a towel, only to realize I’ve been using the same one for weeks now. I look over at the closet shelf and find I have no clean towels. I seem to be falling behind on simple tasks like laundry and recycling. I’ve got four recycling bins and they’re all overflowing because going to the recycling center requires interaction with people, which I’m finding fills me with more anxiety as time goes on.

As I get dressed, I review the supervisor’s group text from work to see what craziness I’m going to be walking into. Almost every weekday morning, without fail, somebody has called out, not shown up to work, is feuding with their partner and all manner of other stuff that is endemic in my industry. I can feel my jaw clenching and blood pressure rising as I check the clock, probably not going to be to the office until just before 10, late again. This is how most every day starts, I feel defeated before even making it to the front door.

Depression is something that’s hard to have an honest conversation about. These days, the most you may hear about it is when a commercial comes on pushing the latest prescription drug. Partly because, for many people, one of the symptoms is an overwhelming sense of shame. I feel shameful I have depression, what do I have to be depressed about? I live more comfortably now than the mightiest kings, sultans and pharaohs of old. I’m not exactly rich, but I’m sure not poor either. I’m white, educated and very much privileged. There are people who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from or where they’re going to sleep.

Still others live with terrible diseases and spend almost every waking moment in pain. There are countless millions so much worse off than me, so what the hell do I have to be depressed about? For so long, I told myself, “Why don’t you just shut up and keep your so-called problems to yourself?” Until recently, harmful thinking like that had kept me from asking for help, because I didn’t think I deserved it.

Now, when I start to think like that and feel self-destructive, I try to pause and remind myself depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain that has little regard for social or financial circumstances. Michael Phelps has given interviews over the past couple of years where he shared his struggles with depression and how it affects his family. He’s one of the most decorated Olympians to ever live, with a beautiful family and financial security, how could he possibly be depressed?

Bruce Springsteen wrote a wonderful autobiography where he details his struggles with depression and how it shaped his music and his life. This is “The Boss” we’re talking about, go watch any of his shows with the E-Street Band and tell me that is a man racked by self-doubt. And yet, if you turn the volume down and give his lyrics a read, you can really see it.

There are countless other examples (Kurt Cobain, Anthony Bourdain, Marvin Gaye), but the point is, anybody can live with depression, regardless of how successful they are.

Another aspect of depression that isn’t discussed as much is the havoc it reeks with your ability to concentrate. These days, concentrating on any one thing for a given time is proving nearly impossible for me. This can manifest in seemingly harmless ways, like taking four hours to watch a 90-minute movie because I keep getting distracted. It can also be harmful, like being unable to concentrate at work, knowing I need to prep tomorrow’s schedule or work on an estimate for a client, only to lose track of what I’m doing, forget to send the estimate or miss a deadline and then have to sheepishly explain to my boss what happened.

How can I explain it to my boss when I don’t fully understand why this happens myself? It’s even worse when I try to write. On the increasingly rare occasions when I’m in the right headspace to do so, I’ll get cooking for a paragraph or two and put on some music to keep the creative juices going, but then any given song could get me thinking about that artist and before I know it, I’m on Wikipedia.

Then, while I’m online, I might as well check Facebook. Whoops, looks like one of my exes posted something. Now I’m going to revisit everything that went wrong in the relationship. Cue the sad music and shame spiral. Any momentum goes completely out the window and I feel even worse about my inability to produce any good writing. That’s just one example; honestly, these days a stiff wind could distract me from writing. This article you are reading has gone through at least two dozen revisions and was supposed to be finished five weeks ago.

The inability to focus on much, particularly my writing, leads into another aspect of depression: anger at myself. I’m not talking about struggles with guilt and self-worth, though I deal with both, but the deep-seated anger I have toward myself. Most folks have things about themselves that frustrate them, physical attributes or aspects of their personality they wish they could change. Everybody makes mistakes they regret, or has said things they wish they could take back. That just makes you human.

What I’m talking about is a genuine and constant anger toward yourself. For example, I look at the people around me, people who have houses, marriages, families and some sense of financial security. Or somebody living in a big city or another country, seeing places and having enriching life experiences I will likely never know. The logical response is: Well, they chose different career trajectories, had different values, goals and ambitions. Or, they happened to be in the right place at the right time for things to work out as they did. There’s nothing particularly shameful about the path I chose. I’m able to live on my own and my apartment is comfortable, and yet I am almost 34 years old and still living in somebody’s renovated basement. I’ve been continuously employed since 2013 and make a decent wage (by Vermont standards anyway). But I don’t look at that with any sense of achievement.

When I got into scheduling, it was supposed to be a temporary gig. My novel was set to be published the following year and I fully intended to make a living as a writer. Well, the novel hardly sold a copy, and that temporary job has turned into eight years as a scheduling coordinator. I’m angry because I feel like I’ve accomplished little and lost the prime years of my life pursuing a pipe dream. You want to know what the worst thing is? Even if I had all of that — a house, a wife, enriching life experiences and a career as a successful writer — I’d still find a way to be unhappy, and that too makes me angry.

There are days when just the thought of living seems impossible. I feel exhausted by the time I get home, and then I wake up more tired than when I went to sleep. Good night’s rest and waking refreshed? What is that? I’m glad there are people who are capable of that, I’m sure they’re happier and healthier for it. At the other end of the spectrum is me, with my restless nights of tossing and turning, filled with vivid and distressing dreams. I have mornings where I wake up and think, “My God, there’s 30 to 40 more years of this?” On those days, even thinking about the future, let alone tangibly working toward it, seems impossible, so getting up becomes more perfunctory than anything else.

For me, depression is like an eggshell, things might appear to be calm and normal on the surface, but lingering beneath that fragile shell is a swirling mess threatening to come pouring out at the slightest crack. Almost my entire life, I’ve felt pressure to act like things are OK, to be of good humor and good cheer, regardless of how I really felt.

I was already a weird and awkward kid, I figured nobody would like me or want to be around me if I was sullen and miserable on top of that. I learned to smile and fake my way through an awful lot. It didn’t always work and I had my episodes, but I actually convinced myself this was happiness, that is, until I got old enough to know better. One of the few good things to come out of 2020 is the notion mental health is something we need to talk about. Isolation finally forced me to confront who I really was and decide that, regardless of the shame and guilt I felt about it, I needed help.

Since taking that step, life hasn’t exactly gotten easier, but I am starting to accept the person I really am and feel less inclined to put on an act for appearance’s sake. I’m being more honest with myself, realizing I am going to have bad days and trusting the people in my life will respect this and allow me to have the space I need to deal with it.

Maybe somebody in your life is struggling with depression, but you’re not exactly sure how to help them. One of the best things you can do is simply listen. You don’t need to solve their problems or feel like it’s down to you to save them, just acknowledging what they’re telling you and giving them some validation does more good than you could possibly imagine.

And if you yourself are living with depression, remember, it’s not selfish to consider your own feelings and needs, along with those of others. Thinking about yourself, taking care of yourself and doing what is best for you does not make you a self-centered person. And it’s OK to not be OK. Hard as it is to admit to ourselves and others we’re hurting, constantly putting on an act and forcing a smile or laugh takes a real toll after a while. Know you are not alone, and while it may seem unlikely, or even impossible, your life does make a difference.

Unsplash image by Mubariz Mehdizadeh

Originally published: May 11, 2021
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