This is a revision of an article I wrote a few years ago — and honestly as hard as it would be for me to believe back then it’s probably even more relevant now than ever.
I know my journey with depression isn’t over, no matter how much I want it to be, but it stems from the fact that at the very tail end of May 2014 I came out of a devastating depression that had stolen the last 6 years of my life, and the more I think about it, there were signs it was trying to but in for even longer than that.
So first of all, if you’re going through depression I want you to know: You’re not alone out there!
Please read on, please find anything in my story that helps you through, but above all else when you’re going through your own endless gray desert of depression, please remember you have people all around you going on the same journey. You’re not alone.
For me, that long 6 year depression was a living hell I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been through it can ever fully understand, and if you’ve had depression for any amount of time you know just how utterly devastating a full-blown depressive episode that long can be.
But even with knowing how many people don’t understand, or struggle to help but have their hearts in the right place, I think it’s so important to try to do my part so those people who want to at least try to understand get a little bit closer to doing so — because often it’s all too rare to find even that much openness, especially talking about depression.
Stories Have Power
As more and more people are coming forward with their stories, I found that a mention of depression here and there among friends, co-workers, or even sympathetic strangers would lead to incredible stories.
Beyond that it led to maybe the most important realization to me and so many of us in those conversations: we were not alone.
This wasn’t enough to break my depression, but sometimes that little bit of relief that came from knowing there were others struggling like me, going hour by hour or minute by minute like me, that we weren’t alone and there were those who understood cheering for us, sometimes that was the only thing that kept me going, that kept me alive.
The fact that others felt comfort from knowing they weren’t alone was also something that helped me through.
I don’t know how to teach what depression is like, all I can do is share my story, share my experience, and tell the lessons I’ve learned from that horrific experience that, God willing, will be the absolute worst I ever experience.
If you’re depressed, I hope something in here helps you. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t suffer and wants to better understand so you can be more supportive and helpful to those you love, hopefully my story will help you see inside the depressed mind a little bit better and be there for your loved ones who are silently suffering in the darkest parts of their minds.
In a way it’s simple. I know I’ve had a pretty amazing life with plenty of adventures and joy and a lot of amazing friends to boot, but my name is Shane and I suffer from depression.
And I won’t suffer in shame or silence anymore.
Lesson 1: Depression Is a Disease
Depression is absolutely a disease, and it shouldn’t be stigmatized. You wouldn’t guilt trip someone for having cancer or not walking off a broken leg, and not treating depression as a disease is costing lives (over 47,000 a year in 2017). In addition to this, shaming someone for being depressed is going to really push them towards that final tragic “solution.”
Understanding this is just so important for talking about depression in a larger societal context, as a general philosophical problem, but it was important to me as an individual, as well.
One of the hardest things about dealing with depression was the obvious stigma that comes with it, and the shame. If I hit my head really hard, friends would want me to go to the hospital to check for a concussion. The many times I hurt my leg, friends would jump on my case if I tried to limp without crutches, and they wanted to know how to help out.
But that wasn’t the response that came when I was depressed. It turns out that the reaction to my depression, was often nearly as bad (or in some cases worse) than the depression itself.
People were uncomfortable around me. Instead of support I’d hear, “Don’t be so moody,” “You need to get over it,” or “What’s wrong with you?” There was also the classic “You don’t have any reason to be depressed,” as if it was a logical choice and just “deciding” to not be depressed was all I had to do.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be really depressed,” or “Do you know how hard it is to deal with you?” were especially devastating.
So I led the dual life, putting on as much as a mask as I could in public, when I could get up the energy to go out in public, did my best, and died more and more inside with each passing day.
Until I just didn’t feel anything which was somehow worse than being sad. Just a hard to describe daily “deadness” and yet somehow I just kept on drowning.
I could go on for pages on this comparison, but depression needs to be treated like a serious disease.
- I’m not weak because I’m depressed, I’m sick because my brain doesn’t work the way it should
- Depression needs to be recognized and treated early. The sooner, the better, just like any disease before it gets to the point of suicide
- I think the term “remission” is dead on. I’m not “cured” of anything — the struggle will always be there. Maybe the depression will never come back for more than a few days here or there or maybe it’ll come back for months and years. All I can do is take one hour at a time the best I can.
- Parents, family, and friends who have never experienced this need to understand real depression is a disease, it’s not anyone’s fault. I’m not depressed because Mom, Dad, grandparents, teachers, or friends failed me. They didn’t. And even if that wasn’t true, it has nothing to do with it. I’m depressed because my mind isn’t well. That’s it.
- It’s okay to be depressed. I wasn’t a freak, a weakling, an abomination, a failure, a loser, a disappointment. It certainly didn’t make me less worthy of living. I was depressed, and that’s okay.
That last point especially can be a very freeing understanding. If something’s just “wrong with me” or if I’m depressed because I’m just too weak — there’s nothing that can be done about that because I’m just saying I’m broken.
But sickness can be treated, and I can work to make myself, and keep myself, well.
If you’re depressed I want to emphasize that one more time: that’s okay. There’s no shame or failure on your part there — embrace that until you begin to believe it and fight to get better because you are worth it.
Lesson 2: Attempts At Support, When You Even Get Them, Often Suck
Most supposedly supportive comments will come off as insulting/infuriating, and that’s assuming you get any at all.
It wasn’t that I didn’t try to reach out at times — I did, at least at first. The problem is a lot of advice won’t necessarily be wrong or shallow, but it comes across as shallow and condescending.
Phrases like “I’ll pray for you,” “You shouldn’t be depressed because you have a lot to be happy about,” or “You need to change your thinking to be more positive,” are all well-intentioned pieces of advice, but they all often come across (at best) as ignorant and condescending. Let’s be honest — many times they are.
We won’t even get into how utterly stupid the “Have you tried not being depressed?” comment is (but I guarantee virtually every depressed person has heard this one at least once).
Yeah, if you’re dealing with someone who is suffering from depression you should be there for them…but think about what you say. Anything that can be seen as patronizing, condescending, or as a blow off and minimization of what we’re going through — that’s exactly how we will end up reading it.
The other side to stay away from “tough love.” I know several people close to me meant the best, but I loathe this approach to snapping someone out of it.
In my experience the problem is simple: there was a non-stop narrative in my head that would never turn off about how terrible, stupid, embarrassing, and useless I was, and I HATED myself more than anyone else could ever hate me, and the only thing I despised more than myself were the people too stupid to see how worthless I really was.
Which means “tough love” only confirmed those lies I believed about myself all along.
Several friends who I’ve talked to about depression have admitted having really similar stories or reactions. You can’t shame someone already too ashamed.
You can’t shame us into taking action because our brains have already declared all-out war on us.
That’s the personal struggle with depression — it’s our brains going all out against the rest of our body/mind/thoughts and that also means our own mind knows every button to push, every secret shame, every bit of guilt we just can’t let go of and that makes the illusion of being alone devastating.
Lesson 3: You’re Right — No One Understands What You’re Going Through
You’re right, no one understands exactly what you’re going through — because you don’t either. Most of us can’t give reasons for why we are always depressed, why some days are good and then why you can’t turn that into being normal again.
Personally, I still can’t tell you why my depression broke, though I clearly remember the exact moment it happened. It makes no sense at all.
- Renewal of faith? No.
- Throwing off the bonds and oppressions of past memories or teachings? No.
- Joy from being surrounded by family? No.
- Did you just miss fishing that much? It was fun — but no.
- Any sudden revelation, realization, or philosophical insight? No, not at all.
All I can say is that in the morning I was beyond depressed and felt like I had to use every bit of willpower in my body to not throw myself into the boat motors and sink into Lake Erie. At 7 a.m. I gave up. I was tired of fighting to find a reason to live after three year of not being able to come up with any answer to that question.
Then sometime between 1 pm and 4 pm when the fish stopped biting I went from giving up on my long struggle fighting the idea of suicide to “cured.”
That was it. I felt a physical weight lift off my shoulders, I literally felt changes in my head, and that foreboding hopelessness was gone. For no reason it was just like someone had somehow hit a hard RESET button.
By the time we docked I wasn’t happy, but I was content because the depression was gone. Years later I still remember the day incredibly vividly, and I’ve thought about it frequently since then, but I have no more insight or thought on it now then when it happened.
The depression just broke. And again, this is also a normal experience for many people, especially those with incredibly severe depressions that span years.
Sometimes there is no reason, but that doesn’t make empathy any less important.
Lesson 4: Suicide Stops Being Scary In Depression
The scariest time comes when you realize suicidal thoughts are so constant that you don’t feel any fear or anxiousness about them at all anymore. Depression isn’t just sadness. Sadness is at least something.
The worst comes when it’s right out nothingness — an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness, of “gray” and the utter certainty that absolutely nothing will get better, nothing will ever change again, and nothing can make it better.
The fear during depression isn’t another great calamity — it’s going through yet another day in the same desolate emotional wasteland. Imagine looking up and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, but gray desert sand in every single direction, with nothing but hundreds of more days of the same in any given direction no matter what you do or where you go.
That’s what it was like for me, that was what hurt the most, the epitome of hopelessness, and why I refer to my deep depression as “The Gray Desert.”
Depression became a dullness, a nothingness. I wanted to feel, then I didn’t care, then the dullness just became heavier and heavier — and I even got to the point where I was upset because I felt pressure from myself to not want to die because of what it would do to my family, and that was upsetting because I just wanted the dullness and nothingness to stop.
I couldn’t feel any passion, couldn’t get behind any old interests of dreams, couldn’t “pick myself up” or “fire myself up” over anything. Everything that had always meant something to me, gave me reason or strength or motivation to push on — it meant nothing to me anymore.
Suicide stopped being scary. It stopped being scary as something to even talk about, although there was that need/desire to talk to someone about how it wasn’t scary for me anymore, without the person freaking out on me.
Good luck on that one. It’s such a taboo subject I just never could find that person I felt like I could talk to about it so I felt alone and kept it to myself. The worst thing you can do.
But what else could I do? How do you tell people you care about that you know you’ve thought about suicide at least in passing almost every day for several years? And usually every single hour?
This blog post talks about this in better words than I can manage, and is one of the best descriptions of depression I’ve ever read. If you want to understand depression more, read this post (preferably after the end of this page): http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html
Lesson 5: Hard Lesson — Seasonal People, Seasonal Friends
Some people only belong in your life for a season. This one can be very hard for me because in true deep introvert fashion, when I want to know someone I want to skip over the small talk and get right to actually learning about the person.
Deep conversations, philosophy, you know the kind of conversations that create memories and instant deep bonds.
People can be fascinating, after all, as long as they’re not too normal. This also means I tend to be able to make really deep connections really quickly, or have friendships that go from acquaintance to hanging out all the time in a matter of weeks. Sometimes these last. Sometimes they fade.
Some people are just seasonal people — they’re meant to be in your life for a short time and hopefully you’re both better off for the other having been there, and then sometimes it’s time to move on.
Being able to accept this, and not try to keep a seasonal friendship in your life when it’s obviously past that time, is one of the hardest lessons for me to accept. For someone with depression an easy thing to cling on to when I want to dive further into misery.
The hardest part of the lesson? Sometimes they’re seasonal friends just because of neglect or bad decisions and not because the friendship has just come to that point naturally.
Regardless of reason, being able to appreciate what each person brought to your life without holding on too tightly to what was or what could have been, that’s a hard one to swallow. But it’s important to understand because it’s the first step to lessening that loss and the grip it has on you and depression.
Lesson 6: You Might Need to Learn To Feel Again
This was a really weird lesson for me, because you could even argue it’s part of the post-depression recovery, and yet no one ever warned me about it at all. At first having the weight of depression and hopelessness lifted is more than enough.
That might not be happiness, but feeling “lighter” was enough to carry me for weeks afterwards with very little else.
But after a while I realized I didn’t “remember” how to feel happy. I didn’t feel sad, but even when having fun my brain wasn’t clicking with whatever chemicals are needed to be happy.
This was weird because you can’t learn to be happy right? This is just a natural thing, right?
Turns out the full answer can be a lot more complicated, and I really had to dig around online to find anything about this. I’m glad more people are talking about this now, because it was a weird stumbling block for me.
My depression broke in May of 2013, but I wouldn’t say I was really happy, I just wasn’t depressed. The month or two that followed was when I realized I was still struggling to feel anything. I knew when I felt sad because of the instant paranoia that a full blown depressive episode was fighting to break out again.
There would be glimpses of smiling or happiness, a touch of sympathy, but I still felt hollow and odd most of the time. Not empty…just clearly not right.
Once in a while I would feel a burst of something: suddenly I’d be crying without being sad, I would just feel an overwhelming need to sit down and cry.
Other times there would be a sudden burst of uncontrollable laughter without reason.
These did settle out over time, but what I found is that it took time to really feel normal again, for my brain to re-wire itself or do whatever it needed to do to overcome years of depression and start feeling normally again. And I really do think the sheer amount of time I was depressed had a lot to do with this.
Your body’s chemistry, like everything else, works on habit. If you haven’t “felt” some way in years, it can take time for the brain to rewire. This is a really strange time, and for many of us that is part of the recovery process.
The best way I could describe a lot of this time was a strange disconnect. I would know I should feel sympathetic. My face might show some sympathy, but the full emotion, the full feeling, would take so much longer to match up again.
This took a lot of time in my case. In fact because of how long my depression was, it took nearly 10 months for me to feel consistently normal once again. Sometimes, especially after coming out of the darkness of an insanely long depression, you have to actually learn to feel again. Don’t panic — your body, brain, or whatever other systems involved will get you back on track at some point.
Just stay the course and fight to avoid depression again.
Lesson 7: Time Doesn’t Heal By Itself
I could write pages and pages on this one: maybe even an entire book. I hate the “Time heals all,” quote because it doesn’t.
Some things can only heal over time, sometimes over a really long period of time, but I am an adamant believer that time doesn’t heal by itself. You still have to make a consistent effort to heal, to keep moving forward. It’s not always solid, it’s not always consistent.
There were months where I spent nearly every bit of energy I had trying to figure out a reason, any reason, just to get out of bed in the morning, and the only answer I could think of was “Well f**k you, that’s why.” That’s all I had.
Time can be an amazing healing process, but only if day after day, week after week, there is an effort to push forward. Time all by itself doesn’t mean anything. If it did, no one would still mourn a break up two years after the relationship ended, mourn a lost relative years after the fact, or still let one thing from the past cause them to spiral. Yet we all know real life examples of this.
Yes, time is powerful, but it doesn’t heal all by itself.
Lesson 8: Confess To Heal, But Prepare To Be Ostracized If You Do
You won’t get better without admitting it. You will probably suffer social stigma if you do. The feeling of absolute and complete loneliness because no one understands what you’re going through is terrible, but way too often so are the reactions when you try to share with someone.
The backlash is part because depression is in general such a taboo topic, and although this is definitely changing for the better, it is still an issue that is tinged with blame because it’s so misunderstood.
There’s no question some people will be hurt or very unsupportive because I end up publishing this. Or there will be a lot of questions about why and the answer is pretty simple: the more I hold it in and keep these burdens my own secret, the more likely they are to crush me.
That means I was far more likely to consider suicide again in the future at some point. These are things I desperately do not want. But the way I think when I’m in the throes of depression versus not are two such different places.
Being able to have someone, anyone, to talk to about topics this uncomfortable and know they will just love you, won’t judge you, and won’t go into a hysteria fit, well that’s an absolute critical part of healing and at times felt like the only thing that let me crawl forward for another week.
Honestly I think this, more than anything, is what has allowed me to keep bouts of depression since the “Big Break” to a few weeks or a couple months at most as opposed to drowning me all over again. Because there were friends I absolutely could be honest with and who want me to be honest with them when I feel this way.
People close to you who don’t understand depression will often be in denial, think you’re “just sad,” or feel judged like it’s somehow they’re fault.
That last one causes problems. I’m not depressed because I don’t have amazing friends and a good family. No life is perfect, but I have both incredible friends, a good life, and good family. It’s NOT their fault I suffer from depression — it’s brain chemistry. My brain is broken.
And that’s why the stigma needs to be removed. It’s not just for those of us suffering from depression to be able to get the help we need before depression becomes fatal in the form of direct suicide or intentionally bad habits leading to that result (I truly believe so many people morbidly obese because of eating or drug overdoses or reckless behavior patterns can be traced back to depression that just doesn’t get treated over the long-term).
But also so family can be there to support instead of unjustly feeling they’re guilty or being accused because our brains just don’t work like normal people’s brains do. Confession’s not just good for the soul, it’s helpful for the mind, too.
Lesson 9: Depression Aftershocks
Even after depression there are going to be times when waves of emotion flood you. The three most common for me personally were:
- Sudden short bursts of crying
- Sudden bouts of hysterical laughing
- Sudden small bursts of moodiness and grief
Almost like mini-episodes of depression. Sometimes I would go a couple of weeks without anything odd, and sometimes I would experience all three of these in one day, like my brain couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be and would just flush out any excess emotions with a sudden flush.
Some of this makes sense from a pure bio-chemistry level. It takes only weeks to ingrain a practice into a habit, and your body actually undergoes changes to reinforce those habits. I found myself depressed for years, and it took a lot to break from that habit.
Beyond that, it seems like every so often my brain would bring up old traumas or thoughts that my brain just wouldn’t deal with when I was too depressed…and now it was their turn to come out. My brain would often fight to bring me back into the depressed state it was used to after years of being this way.
They often passed within minutes or hours, as quickly as they first came. Those depression aftershocks are not fun, but knowing they’re coming make them much easier to deal with.
NOTE: This still does happen with some frequency, but generally only a few times a month and it is much easier to handle now.
Lesson 10: You Might Feel Lonelier After The Depression Breaks
This one really surprised me, but I guess in a weird way it kind of makes sense. Strangely enough, often times I felt more alone than ever after the depression broke than when I was actually depressed.
A large part of this could just be the fact that deep in the depression I just couldn’t feel anything other than numb. Even when I was “doing well” or “having fun” it was a muted, quiet, gray thing compared to my normal state of being.
Once I was feeling again I could actually have great times again and feel so happy while out with friends or doing something I was enjoying, and then I’d come home and feel a strong, heavy, and immediate crash. During those times I was more aware than ever of not being around friends at that moment, of everyone I knew who was not a night owl, of everyone in a relationship who wasn’t me.
At times this loneliness led to the emotional aftershocks where I found sudden irrational bursts of anger at the happy (or seemingly happy) people I imagined out there, and had to fight the feeling of being an outsider who was just kind of accepted.
Outside of the deep depression, I knew in my head this wasn’t true, it was the old depressive thinking again, but after years of thinking that way it was a habit of thinking that my brain was fighting to get back to.
Now that I could feel the highs of life again, I could also feel the crushing lows more acutely, and the loneliness that came with it whether after a good night out with friends, going back to an empty apartment, or thinking about friends who dropped away during the depression.
Just be aware this is a thing, and that helps make it easier to deal with.
Lesson 11: Re-Learning Things That Used To Be Natural
One of the largest parts of getting through post-depression recovery for me was having to re-learn things that I had already learned or known before.
- The difference between being alone and being lonely
- Being happy with myself first and foremost
- Learning to be happy, learning to be comfortable with not being depressed
Some of these things seem purely instinctual while others were lessons I had felt like I mastered at various times in my life, and for whatever reason just no longer held close.
Getting through depression meant I had a steep learning curve in front of me once again for things that often times are thought of as instinctual or normal. It’s been a hard process, and one I’m still dealing with, especially with the being okay with being alone and not immediately lonely.
Lesson 12: Breaking “Permanent” Habits
Permanent is a little bit of a red herring here, but depending who you talk to it only takes 4–6 weeks for a practice to become a thoroughly ingrained as a habit. The longer you keep a habit, the more ingrained it is and the harder it is to break.
Science has even shown that they can see new “brain paths” being created by this process, and strengthened over time as the habit continues, which is part of the reason there is such a mental aspect to many addictions.
This meant I had to actually re-learn how to live & how to be happy. This is especially hard not only because of learning to feel again, but after that many years of depression, I ended up with a lot of bad ingrained day to day habits. Living with depression is beyond exhausting so to keep going you save energy wherever you can.
Good general survival tactic when in the middle of it, but that means coming out of depression you still have those bad habits that don’t serve you when you’re no longer depressed.
In fact there are a lot of these. That means I, and anyone else who has been through this, further struggle and need support after the fact because aside from learning to feel again, fighting depression, and working to put the life back together they also have to tackle heavily ingrained bad habits and break them.
For too many people, that’s enough to go back into a depression. But the cost of not changing these habits is a slow gradual slide back to that dark state once again.
The habits have to be broken, and it was freaking hard to do.
Lesson 13: You Will Never Be The Same Again
This is subtle in a lot of ways, and might even seem like semantics to someone who hasn’t been through this, but you really won’t be the same again. After my depression broke I kept trying to get “fully back to normal” but the problem is there is no going back to normal .
I’m a new person. There’s no way the old me could exist again, because the old me didn’t experience the severe trauma (and yes, a 6-year depression is definitely a trauma) of that long depression.
This is scary, and it’s not easy, but facing up to it at least starts that long scary process to figuring out not only who the hell I am, but who I’m still capable of becoming.
I’m a bit stubborn at times, so it really took me months to realize this, to understand I was never going to be that same person again. Instead of falling back to tried & true answers, I needed to figure out things all over again.
What hobbies did I really care about? What were my passions? Did I really care about/obsess about the things I used to, or if I was being honest did I not care about those things that were a part of my identity for so long?
Goals, dreams, motivation — all changed. And it was scary as hell. Honestly, even now years later I still feel like I’m occasionally working off repercussions of this.
But the thing is if you’re going through the same the best advice I can give is don’t fight it. Embrace it. The core is still you, and don’t waste any more time on things you don’t care about — discover the new things that will bring excitement to your life again.
If you’re trying to support someone coming out of depression, invite them out. Be patient, they may tend to say no when they want to go, but get anxiety when the time closes in. Or if you’re a good enough friend, consider telling them you’re taking them out. In the long run they will be thankful.
The core might stay the same, but that leaves a lot of room to change and facing that is scary, but the sooner it’s done, the sooner really deep lasting healing can begin.
So Does It Get Easier?
So does it get easier? The heart breaking question everyone with depression wants to know. I’m not a psychologist or a professional, but based on my experience I can give one answer. I believe in being honest so I’ll give the same answer I’ve given half a dozen times in what I consider to easily be among my dozen most important conversations I’ve ever had.
Does it get easier?
In my experience: no, it doesn’t. But it does get better, AND that’s what truly matters.
If you find yourself in that endless wasteland, and you know every single person telling you to things get easier is lying to your face, just hold on to the fact that things do get better, and they will get better.
Even if you have to do it minute by minute, day by day, whatever it takes, keep fighting forward because when you get to the other side it WILL be completely worth it.
Even if I don’t know you, I’m cheering for you. So are all of us who have been through it before.