Monday, 14 January 2013

What is it like to be depressed?

An aside.  Having started this blog yesterday I already feel a bit of a fraud.  I'm not that depressed, and never have been.  On the other hand I was diagnosed with depression some years ago and given cognitive behavioural therapy (which I found very useful), and I'm still taking the tablets.  So maybe I'm not such a fraud.  But I thought you'd enjoy this kind of negative thinking which I think depressed people are prone to (well I am anyway).

Being diagnosed with depression happened like this.  I went to the doctor a few times with being generally under the weather and poorly without any major symptoms.  After a couple of goes he said something like "You know, you don't seem very lively.  Maybe you're depressed."  I came home and said to my wife "You won't believe what the doctor thinks".  She said "Well, duh!"

I'm sometimes asked what it's like to be depressed.  Apparently I didn't know until my wife enlightened me: that is I was having those feelings but didn't know it.

If you've never been depressed it's great that somebody wants to find out what it's like. And for my next trick, I'll explain the colour akbanoii that only I can see.   And just like colours, even if we agree that this object is green, how do we know we experience the same thing when we see it?

It also doesn't help that depressed is an ambiguous word.  This was a problem I had when talking with my doctor or therapist.   Much of the news is depressing, and everybody might say "I got my paper rejected, that was depressing."   So in a medical depression sense a day with lots of depressing world and personal news may be a good day, while a day with purely good news might be a depressed and a very bad day.

Finally on to the question.  What is it like to be depressed?

For me only, the best I've come up with is this.   I imagine an old fashioned bathroom scales, the analogue kind with an arrow and a rotating wheel.     When you get off it, the arrow flies around like crazy and eventually settles close to zero.   But almost never at zero, because these scales never seem that accurate.  Sometimes the arrow is at a negative number, sometimes at a positive.   If it settles at a positive number, plus 3, that's bad, right? Because you're going to think you are 3 pounds heavier than you are.   If it's negative, that's good, because you'll think you are lighter than you are.

I find depression is like that in the sense that my mood varies a lot through the day, depending on rest, outside influences, enjoyment of work or life, many many factors.  But if the arrow on my mental scales starts off on a positive number, then I'll tend to be a bit miserable when nothing else is happening.  If the number gets large enough, I'll start to become less able to function well.  For example, I was thinking this before Christmas, and one day felt miserable all day and felt that the arrow was at 5.  But I was just about able to function.   The next day it seemed to be at 6 and it really became a struggle.  I managed to get through the day, but had to let some things go and just focus on getting through the day and not letting my daughter down.  But I had to let my wife down in a small way to get through.

When that pointer is zero or close to zero, I'm pretty happy overall.   That is to say, I'm neutral but - to be honest - my life is good in many ways so I'm delighted to have that pointer at zero.  I don't particularly want it to be negative to make me artificially high.

The goal of my life is to have that arrow on the scales settle to zero more often than not.

Sorry this post was so long.  I didn't have time to write a short one.


  1. For me, diagnosis came after external pressure too. My wife, after we had just met, pointed out that the moods I was having are nowhere near natural, acceptable, or good for me or anyone else. Urged me to seek help. Helped me actually seek help.

    It didn't help my first therapeutical contacts that I have a hard time remembering what it is like to feel differently; I went to group therapy a few sessions, but everyone else there just needed to whine about their upcoming study deadlines, while all I could say was some variation of “Sometimes I feel upset. And I don't know why.”
    Eventually that therapist told me he couldn't really help me all that much.

    I regularly feel like a fraud as well. Impostor syndrome is alive and kicking. Why should I take up time at the public psych clinic, when I'm not even suicidal? When there are people so much worse off than me?

    At times, it takes my wife reminding me that just the other day, I was curled up in a ball, crying desperately, and unable to stop for me to remember that I actually do deserve help.

    It's been a week now with SSRI medication. I went from daily emotional crashes to complete stability (arrow at zero) almost instantly.

  2. Unfortunately up to 20% of the general public and it is estimated about 1/3rd of academics suffer from some form of depression, sorry to mix my arithmetic there. We live and work in an environment where we are constantly criticised for our research or our teaching or our service. We always want to do more, because that is our nature as academics. Consequently we feel we haven't achieved all we wanted and ergo, we feel down, depressed, a failure. And the REF in the UK doesn't help.

    I decided that this year I wanted to make our University a happier place; to tell people how well they are doing, to tell people that they deserve congratulations for dealing with that class, that problem, that member of staff. My hypothesis is that if we all started being nice to each other, even when we are reviewing work, we might all start feeling more positive about being academics. There will always be those who rise to the surface because they are lightweight but good at networking and those that fall to the bottom with heavy admin and teaching loads, but let us try to acknowledge that universities need all sorts of people and be nice to those that are feeling a bit of a failure or who are under stress. It isn't that hard and a nice word or a bit of help goes a long way.

    However, we need to support our staff more and it doesn't help when members of HR tell people that depression isn't serious illness. Having once had clinical depression I am terrified of falling down that black well again and I know when someone tells me they are feeling down that it takes more than just listening. We need to be more conscious of networks, staff clubs, lunches out, anything that makes people get away from their desk and talk to others, even if the conversation is about nothing in particular. As academics we are not good at supporting each other, a generalised statement I know.

    So, let's start by being nice, talking to that guy that never comes out of his office, or the secretary who seems snowed under, or the TF who has a load on her plate.

    I would advise getting a dog and walking on the beach every evening - it works for me - but failing that then I would consider getting a departmental cat as physical contact is often the starting point to getting better.

    Cassandra in the Ivory Tower.

    1. I would advise getting a dog and walking on the beach every evening - it works for me - but failing that then I would consider getting a departmental cat as physical contact is often the starting point to getting better.

      Yikes! Talk about well-meaning, but stumbling over other issues. If my department gets a cat or a dog, I won't be able to work in the office any more: my allergies are too severe for that.

    2. Cassandra

      Thanks very much for this.

      It's quite an independent piece - would it be ok if we published this as a guest post? We are keen that this is a community where people's thoughts are front and centre, not just those of the blog owners. (to do this I could just copy and paste if you agree, you would not need to do anything, though of course I would credit you as Cassandra).

      A couple of reactions I had when reading it.

      I completely agree, I think academics are trained very well and long to be able to criticise. We almost never praise each other. I wish we could do better at that.

      It's shocking that an HR person would say depression is not a serious illness. It can sometimes be fatal, does that count as serious?? It shows what a long way to go there is, sadly.

  3. Ok course you are right that Michiexile that possible solutions have to not cause other issues. But then, my department in St Andrews had a very well known cat at one point and I never heard it cause problems. He was Oliver, died in 2003 (at that time we were in the Physics building.)

    1. Oops the comment meant to reply to Michiexile was not and the one that wasn't meant to be has come out that way. I'm not an expert blogger or commenter, very sorry everybody!

  4. This sort of jives with my experience: I had a hard time accepting that I was "depressed" because I wasn't sad. I just seemed to be turning into a progressively non-functional loser who couldn't get my work done. It was the attendant anxiety that finally because so pathologically debilitating that it finally drove me to seek help. (And, weirdly, the anxiety was one of the symptoms that responded most quickly and dramatically to the application of SSRIs.)

    And then there's the part where 2 years of major depression caused long-lasting cognitive damage. Which I'm still struggling to recover from a decade later.

    1. My work has usually been one of the last things to suffer, but I certainly have had periods where everything else has suffered, especially family. Though the things have of course been linked, e.g. maybe work wasn't going well and maybe that was because I was a bit depressed.

      I know what drug I'm on but oddly I don't particularly want to know what family it's in. It's not quite the academic approach I know, but I'm happy living in relative ignorance. (I did read the long list of side effects when I started it but I don't remember them.)

      But I was very sorry to hear about your major depression - again shocked to think of Cassandra's comments that HR thinks it's not a serious illness.


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