I can’t say what depression feels like. I’m not sure anyone can. Can you develop the theory of depression if you’ve never felt it yourself? At that point it’s like describing a place without ever having lived there before. Except this time it’s much more dire. I can, however, provide a description of experiences that have felt lowest.
So, what do I think depression feels like? I think it’s characterized by the general mood that nothing matters, that all efforts are fruitless, and there is no point in trying anything. Along with this mood comes a heaviness. I literally feel a weight in brain, specifically the front half feels exceptionally heavy. I compare it to what you feel after a large meal. It’s like when you feel slow, heavy, and tired, except in this one part of your bain. In contrast, when life is going well, this part of my brain feels light and agile. You can relate it to a time when you’ve felt fit and agile (if you’ve every felt like this).
The last time I felt this heaviness in my brain, was on an overcast Saturday afternoon. I recently finished another semester of Grad School and summer had just begun. Without the structure of school and the consistent supply of assignments to keep me busy, the freedom from work and, what feels like, a limitless supply of free time, increases the likelihood that I feel this burden. So here it was, 3 pm on a gloomy Saturday. In theory, I could’ve done nothing for the rest of the day and there’d be no consequences. Faced with the option of being able to do nothing, my brain has a tendency to shut down. With the shutdown, the heaviness returns. I hadn’t felt this in a long time. I couldn’t remember how to tackle it. I wanted to do nothing. I wanted to scroll through my phone and let the day fade, with no evidence of my presence anywhere. No words written, no drawings hung, no conversations recalled, no fatigue and tire from physical, emotional, and intellectual exertion.
No evidence of existence. I think that statement captures something special. My view of depression is characterized by the thought that nothing I do matters. It makes any exertion feel extra difficult. It makes my body feel heavier. It makes me feel like I’m underwater, and with every movement I must overcome the viscosity of water. It makes thought come slowly. Instead of a stream of thoughts, it feels like every word must pass through a fine-meshed filter.
So, again, here I am. It’s 3pm on a gloomy Saturday. With neither plans nor pressing deadlines I was free to make of the day whatever I wanted. But the freedom was crippling. Was it the sheer number of choices I could’ve made? At this point in my life, my choice of activities was pretty simple. I would either research, read, draw, write, see a friend, or play tennis. In sum, not many choices. Perhaps doing anything was difficult because once I made a decision I couldn’t do anything else. One fact I’ve had trouble handling was how little I can accomplish in a day. In one day, if I proceeded full force, I can maybe do one thing well and thoroughly. Often, this idea has paralyzed me. My solution to this thought lies in a reasoning often espoused by (controversial) psychologist Jordan Peterson. To put his words into my own, the solution an existence of inactivity, to days filled with zero accomplishments, is to start in manageable, small pieces. Perhaps a few minutes a day. And to keep this up consistently. And what people often don’t realize is that your efforts compound — with each day not only will you be able to accomplish more, but you’ll be able to accomplish more within the same period of time. Then, eventually, you’ll have accomplished something you could have never imagined when you first started. After being reminded of this, suddenly my accomplishments don’t feel so small and I’m filled with hope that I’ll be able reach goals I can’t at the moment imagine.
Although I haven’t read the popular book, Atomic Habits, I’ve heard that its premise is to start small, and to keep doing whatever it is you’re interested in everyday. For inspiration and reassurance of the validity of this theory, I look at the stories of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama. Each of these people have accomplished great things. But their successes seem overnight, mostly because we haven’t heard of them until they’ve achieved something great. We don’t see the years it took to accomplish these few things they have. In Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, she mentions how, while people saw Obama’s success as overnight after his speech at the 2006 Democratic Convention, they don’t see that he’d been reading about public policy, housing, and a whole host of political issues at night as a 28 year-old intern. Or, look at Elon Musk, now a national headliner and the topic of numerous articles every single day. But, I had not heard of him until 5 years ago. He was 45 years old when I heard of him. To me, he seemed like an overnight success, but for 20+ years he’d been working non-stop trying to build several companies. Add to the fact that he’s exceptionally intelligent and hard-working and it was only until 45 years old that he’d start making major headlines reinforces how long the journey is to make national news.
Finally, what did I do on that gloomy Saturday afternoon, after feeling consumed by the feeling that nothing I did mattered? After an hour and a half of scrolling through online things and trying to draw up some game plan of how, by the time I go to bed, I could feel okay with myself, the thought occurred, “Maybe this feeling will go away if I string together a few days of activity”. So, the solution, rather simple, was to engage in activity and to have hope that both the small things I did would add up to something I could be proud of in a few days time (or something that would provide deep satisfaction after years) and that through activity this feeling will go away.
After two 45-minute sessions of research I had felt better. My mind no longer felt dull and heavy. This morning, the next day, I barely feel the remnants of dullness from the previous afternoon. I look forward to drawing, reading, research, learning, and tennis with my friends. Previously, this feeling would last days and weekends. I’d go to work, fighting this heaviness or, rather, accepting it and letting it consume me and guide my actions. I’d spend my work days fighting any calling for me to take action, turn my brain on, and challenge myself.
I’m better at handling it now, in this moment. For now, I have school and research to push me and snap me out of the stupor. I worry that after I graduate this feeling will return more consistently, more constantly, and with increased vigor. Partly, in fear, I’m preparing for that moment when it will only be up to me to guide me forward. It’s why I read, draw, write, and socialize. I hope that if I have at least one thing driving me forward, exciting me, that keeps me looking forward to the years ahead, I’ll never fall back into what I believe is depression. Ironically, it’s shadow guides me forward, threatening to take hold if I don’t take action.
I read an article that in the US depression will have affected 16% of the US population at some point in their lives. Further, around the world it will have affected 8–10% of the population. Many times, people talk about depression as something that happens to them. They were living their lives, when, all of a sudden, depression struck. They talk about depression as if it were inevitable and it was not their own responsibility to take care of it. I don’t think this is the case. I believe depression is the cause of the environment we are in and the way we live our lives. In passivity, in no attempt to connect and share with the people around you, in no effort to find an activity that drives you forward, depression waits to pounce. It is a threat, an outcome, forever in the background. But, in a twisted way it may be essential; its presence is a reminder that we must keep moving forward, connect, and find activities to love. Its existence reminds us to make the most of our lives.