Educating People About Depression & Anxiety

Everything I have to say about depression and anxiety is a) from experience and b) nothing new. I find myself quite amazed that I even have to go about being an educator on these topics, since they seem so mainstream. Everyone is on, has been on, or knows someone who is/has been on antidepressants. Ditto therapy. And maybe in a way that’s one of the problems — some people seem to think depression is akin to the common cold. You get it, it’s mildly annoying, you take some drugs, it goes away.

Recently I was on short-term disability for depression and anxiety. Two people I know rather well said things that, quite frankly, offended me. Person 1 said: “But that isn’t real. I’d like to get off work for stress!” Person 2 said, “That’s considered a disability?”

After my blood pressure returned to normal, I went about explaining.

I pointed out to them that when your psychiatrist is worried about you, then yes, it’s considered a disability covered in the US under FMLA. For the days I had no sick or vacation time, I was paid state disability. Even in this country with its health industry issues and paltry leave provisions, officialdom thankfully didn’t have the attitudes of my friends. Granted, on state disability I made only 39% of my salary, but it was better than nothing.

After briefly outlining the reality of the situation I declined to talk anymore about it.

Perhaps because I had my first anxiety attack at 8,  have struggled with depression since high school (before there were SSRIs), have been in therapy, and have met people with similar and worse conditions, I feel like everything I say on the topic is so old-hat and obvious as to be almost embarrassing to point out. However, my recent experience leads me to believe that these things are not as glaringly obvious as they seem to me.

So here are some observations about depression and anxiety. If you’ve ever been depressed, been in therapy, known someone clinically depressed or taken psychology classes, this will all seem like no-brainer stuff, I know. But maybe I will just hand this over next time someone wants to tell me to snap out of it, be an adult, accept “that’s just how life is”; that my condition isn’t real and/or doesn’t warrant consideration, treatment, or even acknowledgement.

  • Yes, everyone gets blue sometimes, and often people say, “Oh, I’m depressed” when they mean “I’m sad.” It’s not the same thing. Sadness is more transitory and is usually connected to something — an event, an illness, stress, the weather, your hormones. Sadness is definitely not enjoyable and sad people need love and support; it’s just that it’s not the same thing as depression.
  • You can get depressed in the middle of doing something you  enjoy. All my life, I have experienced doing something fun and suddenly losing interest, all enjoyment stopping abruptly. When I was young (say, between 8 and 19) I would often think, “But what’s the use of this? We’re all going to die anyway.” Nowadays it’s not that — it’s just that all pleasure can snap off like a lightswitch.
  • Depression, depression sparked with anxiety or anxiety larded with depression, can make you want to die. It can make you plan when, where, and how to die, and to consider the viability of all these plans. This perhaps seems obvious, but given what some people say, maybe it isn’t.
  • It can make you feel like you have no options whatsoever, so death isn’t the best option, it’s really the only option. Which doesn’t make it much of an option.
  • It can also lead you to do, or want to do, other impetuous and ill-advised things to make the pain stop — quitting your job with no new job to go to, dropping out of school, drinking yourself into a stupor, things like that.
  • It often screws with your sleep — either sparking insomnia or, as in my case, making you want to do nothing but sleep. Many folks eat constantly or don’t eat at all. Taking care of yourself is not a priority; sometimes it doesn’t even occur to you.
  • Unfortunately, it can make you selfish, as you scramble to keep your head above water. If you do not have a supportive and close-knit group of friends and family, this can make you feel even more like you have no options and even more desperate.
  • Your world can narrow to your pain, which often manifests itself physically as well as emotionally. (I find this even truer about anxiety than about depression.  If I had to choose one or the other, I’d choose depression. When you’re anxious, you’re scared. I’d rather be in the depths of depression than in terror.) It’s hard to function, to keep your mind thinking clearly, to perform at work or school, to give a damn about anyone or anything including yourself, not to do things you may later regret.
  • In my case, I fake it well. I can be trembling and sweaty-palmed with anxiety, or I can be so depressed I can barely get out of bed, but because I am my sole support, something in me forces me to function. I also use humor to both get through the day and to deflect people. Consequently, people think I’m fine. Then, when I can’t hold it together anymore, they express  skepticism. Here’s a tip to all: Err on the side of compassion. You can’t know another’s mind and heart entirely. If someone tells you they’re deeply depressed, wracked with anxiety, that they can’t go on, or that a doctor has suggested treatment for a mental/emotional issue, acting as if you don’t believe the person, or telling them to simply grow up and stop whining, is rude at best and destructive at worst.
  • This is a comparison I’ve heard countless times, and actually had to use on someone once. If your friend has diabetes, would you lecture him on how this condition wasn’t real? Would you make him feel bad for his malfunctioning body? Would you say, “I hope you won’t be taking insulin for the rest of your life!”? A friend once said to me, “You’re not going to keep taking antidepressants, are you?” I asked her if she would ask the insulin question of a diabetic. She didn’t reply. (Perhaps I need new friends…)
  • Depression and anxiety are not the same as immaturity. Having a complete meltdown is not the same as a temper tantrum. Yes, a depressed or anxious person may also be immature and may throw a fit sometimes — I don’t know too many people who are ever so grown up they never do that. But they’re still different things.
  • This is how I described the disability issue recently: “It’s like having a badly broken leg and being a mail carrier. Yes, you can put some pins in and put the leg in a cast, but if the person doesn’t stay off their leg for a little while, it’s not going to heal properly or as quickly as it might. Therapy and meds are good, but if one’s job is a contributing factor to their depression or anxiety, or if it’s so stressful that it interferes with the therapy and the meds, then being away from it is a sensible thing.”

So people: It’s real. It’s horrible. It takes all enjoyment out of life. It ruins what is good in your life and makes what is bad seem even worse and insurmountable. It can crush marriages and other relationships, can cost you your job or your life. Drugs, therapy, and even sometimes disability leave, when you can get it in this country, can help. (Yes, I am bitter as hell that people I know with these problems in European countries get much, much, much  more generous leave without having to have their conditions get quite so bad. Why do you ask?) Try to be kind to people who suffer from these problems, and if you can’t be kind, be quiet.