I’m going to do a series of posts on what it’s like to live with chronic depression, beyond the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. I want to help people understand.
I’m in a particularly good position to do this now because my depression is technically in remission, which means that I no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I’m fine. I’m even sort of happy. However, the complex effects that nine years of depression has had on my thinking style, beliefs, and personality are still there, as are (probably) whichever genetic and neurological risk factors caused this whole mess to begin with.
However, not having a depressive episode means that my thinking is clearer and it’s easier for me to talk about this calmly.
A caveat–none of this is meant to generalize to everyone with depression. Don’t read this and apply it to your friends and loved ones who have it. Instead, perhaps, use it to start a conversation.
So, trust. In one way or another, it’s the backbone of all human interaction. You have to trust that your friends won’t share your secrets, that your partner won’t cheat on you, that your colleagues will pull their weight on the project, that your babysitter will take good care of your kids, that the clerk will give you the correct amount of change, and so on.
People who haven’t studied much psychology might think that trust is based on a conscious, logical appraisal of the person you’re interacting with. But in fact, trust is based on emotional responses to others, and a lot of the time we’re not even aware of those responses.
Although emotions get a bad rap for being “illogical” and for interfering with people’s lives, they–more so than conscious, “logical” cognition–are what help us make good decisions. Fear, of course, is the best example, since it helps people stay out of trouble. So does disgust.
But positive emotions are important in that way, too. For instance, we don’t really choose our partners based on how much money they make or how attractive they are or how many children they want to have; we choose them based on how they make us feel.
So, mood disorders like depression cause emotions to disconnect from experiences, so to speak. As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”
When I was depressed–and, to a much lesser extent, now–feelings happened to me in a completely arbitrary way. The changing leaves made me feel grief. Being unable to talk to my family made me feel shame. Relatively minor inconsiderate actions, which would merely annoy a healthy person, threw me into a rage.
I learned not to trust my feelings. Often people made me uncomfortable and I’d chalk that up to depression, forcing myself to keep them in my life. This led to continued discomfort at best and abuse at worst. Then, infuriated at the situation, I would overcompensate and kick people out of my life who had merely messed up, as everyone sometimes does.
I learned not to trust others. Even the most well-intentioned person could–completely accidentally–send me into a depressive funk with a single teasing comment. Once a guy misjudged his feelings for me and led me on for a few weeks, and I was depressed for a year and a half after that. And I can’t even count the number of people who argued with me a bit too forcefully for me to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they must hate me from the depths of their souls, and so I cut off contact.
I can’t trust people anymore because I know that anyone–even the most kind, considerate, good person–can unintentionally make me cry for hours or hate myself for months.
And not everyone I meet is a good person.
I learned not to trust myself. If my brain lies to me all the time, how can I? Cognitive distortions make it nearly impossible to know when I’m thinking clearly and when I’m not. I used to keep a list of the most common ones in my binder to remind myself, but it didn’t really help.
Without emotions that are more-or-less based on reality, trusting myself and others is nearly impossible. I can’t tell whether a certain situation is bothering me because it’s a bad situation or because I’m freaking out over nothing. I can’t tell if I don’t want to get a PhD because I really don’t want to get one, or because I feel like too much of a failure to even try. I can’t tell if someone is really lying to me, or if I’m just assuming the worst because that’s what you kind of do when you have depression.
Difficulty trusting others is usually considered a character flaw or weakness. For me, though, it’s a symptom of a mental illness. It’s also an adaptation, because I’ve been too trusting in the past and I’d rather be safe than sorry–that is, than risk a relapse because I let the wrong person in.
The important thing to remember is that people who experience depression this way aren’t distrustful because we’re cynical or misanthropic. It’s because without healthy and adaptive emotional responses, it’s nearly impossible to know who to trust. It is also impossible to trust ourselves.
This series is most excellent. I can’t wait for the next one!
Wow. You are describing me with this post. The changing leaves do make me feel over-the-top grief too. I also have the strong urge to cut off contact to people over things that might be rather minor. My options seem to be staying away from them, and feeling some relief but also feeling bad about being anti-social, or forcing myself to have contact with them and feeling really uncomfortable and often getting very offended over perhaps minor things they say. (Or perhaps they are really just idiots.) Unfortunately, this now applies to nearly everyone I know, including people that once seemed close to me.
So are you saying these things improved when your depression was lifting?
I talked to a psychiatrist at some point and he thought what I had was “just” social anxiety and high sensitivity, not depression, because I am still functioning well and I am able to enjoy things. I am now on an anti-anxiety meds for several months but they did not change any of the things you are describing…
What I would like to ask is: Are you saying that anti-depressants helped you against those kind of things, like distrust of people and being “over”sensitive and these constant doubts if my negative emotions are ‘real’ nor not?
So, what both anti-depressants (which eventually stopped helping) and my actual recovery (which happened once I’d been off of them for a while) did wasn’t stop me from having these feelings altogether, but make it easier to accept and move on from them.
As in, while I was still “actively” depressed, I couldn’t keep myself from ruminating on every negative thing that passed through my mind. Now I can feel these things and kind of just let them go, either by distracting myself or by convincing myself that it’s not true.
This is why therapy is still very important. Antidepressants won’t teach you coping skills or better thought patterns. I’ve still not been able to find a good therapist so I’m kind of self-taught in this regard, but that’s not ideal and doesn’t work for everyone. Reading about mental health has helped a LOT.
It’s possible that with good therapy I’d learn not to have these feelings and thoughts at all, but I don’t know yet.
Thank you for the extra explanation.
“Now I can feel these things and kind of just let them go, either by distracting myself or by convincing myself that it’s not true.”
I am happy for you. I agree that this is probably the most important thing, more important than not having these thoughts and feelings in the first place. This entire “why do I think that/what’s wrong with me/why do I feel like this” is certainly not helping.
I have been to therapy for a while, and while the therapist was very good, I am more and more convinced that changing basic patterns, like how much I trust others, is really difficult or impossible to change by therapy.
I can just learn to handle my distrust better, forgive myself for it, and maybe make experiences in life that will make it a little better.
Have I ever told you how awesome you are? You are so awesome. This whole post put into words something that I’ve never been able to properly articulate. Thank you.
Thank you so much! 🙂
This… I can’t even tell you how perfect those words are. The entire section on trusting others is precisely how I feel all the time, and why people don’t understand why I seem to have so many friends, but feel to have so few. Or, better yet, why I hide in my room all the time because making friends on the internet is easier… you can build that level of trust so much more quickly when you see a person bare their soul as you just did. And I’m glad you put it here instead of just seeing this in person. Thank you for baring your soul, and for giving many some peace in the process.
You’re welcome, dear. Thank you for reading.
I had all of these, too, although for me some of them were complicated by my also being autistic. For instance, trusting other people: that’s never been a simple matter for me. Because I am so different from most people, and because of the way I perceive things (i.e., people don’t really “stand out” to me as being more interesting, or more full of information, than everything else in my field of view, if that makes any sense), other people’s minds are kind of like black boxes to me. I did not even really think of other people as *having* intentions of their own until rather late in childhood. So for me, I don’t usually have enough information about another person even to spur an emotional reaction, so I have defaulted to trusting everyone, mostly because it was too much work to think about rules for what sort of things to tell what sort of people.
That’s only one kind of trust, though. The other is, do you actually trust people to help you with your problems? I haven’t, most of the time, because 1) for so much of my life I was not really able to tell people what was wrong, or what kind of help I needed; and 2) I have a weird psychological block against asking for help anyway, where I expect to be refused and all the emotional labor that has gone into preparing myself to ask for it is wasted (if that makes any sense). And, you might imagine, the onset of my depressive episodes made me even less disposed to trust people in this way, because there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. Sometimes a friend’s presence could help avert one that was coming, or bring me out of one earlier, but no one could be with me 24/7.
The business about not being able to trust your own feelings, thoughts, judgments etc. was absolutely the same for me, though.
I might have to post about this on my own blog, if I can make better sense of what I’ve tried to explain in my first two paragraphs.
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I just wanted to say thank you as well for this and the subsequent posts for the series. I came across this webpage after it was recommended in another skeptic site, and am much comforted and relieved to hear of other people in this predicament who are working through it. I have spent at least the past fifteen years in almost constant struggle with depression, and alienated almost everyone i know and love in the process. It has been extremely difficult for me to find people i can talk to and relate to about this, and feel so much frustration over my inability to communicate, or make myself understood. It does really help to hear from another woman who understands. Must admit, tend to feel like a failure and worthless b/c of the depression, angry with myself for feeling this way, and angering others who seem to think this is how i’m choosing to be. i am glad to hear times are clearer for you lately! and it is wonderful of you to use this clearmindedness towards insight into the condition and sharing with others. i’ll keep trying too…