Depression is different for different people. Writer and author Therese Borchard once told me it feels like “being encased in a glass table in the middle of your living room, able to see what is going on, but claustrophobic and suffocating, wanting so desperately to get out, but being locked inside.”
Author Graeme Cowan described depression as “terminal numbness.”
For some people, depression is draining and exhausting. They feel their sadness on a cellular level. For others, like Cowan, they feel nothing, not a neutral nothing, but a lack of feeling that terrifies them. For still others, it’s none of these things.
But whatever the specific symptoms, and like any chronic illness, depression is difficult to live with. We asked individuals to share how they navigate the hardest parts about living with depression—and how you might, too.
Not Feeling Like Yourself
For Theodora Blanchfield, a health and fitness writer and blogger, the hardest part is not feeling like herself. Which manifests in many different ways: She feels foggy and acts detached. She doesn’t have the same amount of energy for her workouts, and she can’t work as much as she usually does.
When this happens, what helps is being gentle with herself. “I always remember something my therapist told me: Treat yourself like you’d treat a four-year-old. You won’t berate a four-year-old for having a hard time getting through work. You’d be patient with them. (I also usually interpret this as I need a cookie, too.)”
The Loss of Hope
Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in mood disorders, finds that the hardest part of her depression is the hopelessness and despair. Depression has a way of making you feel like things will never get better, that you’ll stay inside the darkness forever.
“Time has shown me that I always, always, feel better, but when those really tough moments hit, it can be a real struggle.”
Sometimes, Serani knows what’s exacerbating her depression—a loss, stress, seasonal changes—and other times there’s no recognizable reason. “It just is what it is, and I have to deal with it.”
She relies on several skills she learned years ago in her own therapy, skills she also teaches to her patients today. For instance, she uses supportive self-talk, such as: “Don’t let a bad day make you feel like it’s a bad life.” “Baby steps get the job done.” “I will feel better soon.” “This is part of my illness, it’s not the whole of who I am.” “Shower. Dress. Go.”
She supports her body by taking a bath or a nap, sitting outside, and if she’s not sidelined by fatigue, taking a walk.
“I also tell my loved ones that I’m having a bad day or two, and ask for their help, sometimes to check in on me or give me some added TLC,” said Serani, also author of three books on depression.
The last component focuses on soul-care. Serani feeds her senses with music, comedies, uplifting stories, aromatherapy and comfort food. “[O]ne of my go-to’s is watching videos of babies or animals on the internet. I know it sounds a bit goofy, but it gets me laughing, and it really helps shift my mood. A good cuteness-overload does wonders for me.”
The Allure of Isolation
“I think the hardest part for me is the constant desire to isolate myself, not talk to anyone, stay in bed, sort of shut everyone and everything out of my life,” said Caroline Kaufman, author of the poetry collection Light Filters In.
Initially, she thinks closing the blinds and being alone will help her to feel better. But it usually does the opposite, sparking a toxic cycle: “The more I stay in bed or isolate from my friends, the worse I feel, and then the stronger the desire gets to continue doing it. And then the next thing I know, it’s been three days and I’ve barely eaten or left my room.”
This is why she tries to make plans to do something or go somewhere with a friend, like a lunch date. Knowing that someone is waiting for her motivates her to get up. “And then after, even if we only talked for half an hour, I’m already out of bed and in the world, already out of that cycle and I will feel so, so much better for the rest of the day.”
Fiona Thomas, a writer who shares her honest account of living with depression and anxiety, said that the unpredictable nature of the illness is especially difficult for her. “Even though I’ve become quite good at recognizing my triggers and symptoms, it doesn’t make it any easier when it pops up out of nowhere.”
It’s even worse when she feels depressed during a “happy” occasion such as Christmas or a beach vacation. “It can make you feel like you’re a party pooper and ruining it for everyone else, or that you have no right to be feeling sad when you’re doing something so lovely,” said Thomas, author of the forthcoming book Depression in a Digital Age: The Highs and Lows of Perfectionism.
A real comfort for Thomas is being around people who truly understand her and understand her depression. She schedules some alone time, too, to recharge. She also reduces her stress, and tries to get more sleep. She takes walks and practices yoga.
Handling the Everyday
Candace Ganger, a writer and author of the YA novel The Inevitable Collison of Birdie & Bash, has lived with depression her entire life. For her, the hardest part is getting through everything she needs to do each day. “As a working mother of two, I don’t have the luxury of sinking into a dark hole.”
When Ganger feels overwhelmed, she asks for help. “The biggest realization I’ve had is knowing I can’t get through these periods alone. No matter how difficult, I have to find a way to reach out or it’ll only worsen the symptoms.” Talking to anyone about how she’s feeling is hugely beneficial.
Sometimes, she’ll tell her husband she isn’t feeling like herself—and he knows this is a cry for help. When she’s in a full-blown depression and can’t tell anyone else, she tries to find a person online who truly understands. “Even if it’s a simple Tweet or email, a blog post or article from someone who’s been through it, I find a way to stay connected.” She also finds it helpful to take a day or two off to decompress.
You Are Not Alone
“Depression likes to make us feel like we are isolated and that no one else could possibly feel the same way we do, but it’s exactly the opposite,” Kaufman said.
Ganger agrees. “It sounds cliché, but you’re not alone. A lot of people live with depression in a high-functioning way—like myself—so you may never know what’s going on beneath the mask.”
Stigma keeps many silent. As Kaufman said, it’s easy to believe that no one else struggles with depression, because no one talks about it.
“On the outside, you can still be high-performing and smiling but in so much pain on the inside,” added Blanchfield, who said she shares her mental health struggles openly in hopes of beginning to chip away at that stigma.
Ganger encouraged readers to share how you’re feeling, even if it’s in an email. “Depression is lie-based. It wants you to believe you’re all alone and no one cares. It’s wrong.”
Serani also encouraged readers to reach out, so others can “help you move from the dark to the light again.” And she stressed the importance of learning the when and why of your depression: “Is it situational? Is it related to family? Work? School? Is there an anniversary event on the calendar that is particularly painful? Are you taking your medication regularly? Are you skipping or missing doses? Are you eating well? How’s your sleep?”
This helps you to tailor treatment and techniques to your specific symptoms and triggers. Sometimes, you can answer these questions on your own, and sometimes you need therapy, she said.
If you’re feeling frustrated and having a tough time, Blanchfield wants you to know there’s always hope. There’s always “another medication, a different kind of therapy, a differently lifestyle change you hadn’t thought of. You won’t always feel the same dire way you do now.”
“Every time you relapse and recover, you need to remember that this is proof you’ll continue to do so as time goes on,” Thomas said.