The Depression Chart – Helping Others Understand Depression

*Ever since I created my Anxiety Chart, I have been asked by readers to create a similar chart for depression.  After much thought and consideration, this is the chart and accompanying graph that I designed.

Many people do not understand depression, assuming it is just random bouts of sadness and crying.  Unless someone has suffered through their own struggle with depression, it is near-impossible for them to truly understand how debilitating it can be to live with that diagnosis.

One of the hardest parts of explaining depression is that it is neither rational nor is it predictable.  It is hard to provide relatable examples because the feelings connected with depression would feel wildly irrational to anyone not experiencing them at that moment.  It is also impossible to predict or predetermine depression because it often comes unexpectedly in waves.

Therefore, instead of providing a chart with relatable examples, the chart I devised shows the increasing intensity of this mental illness.  My hope is that the statements provided at each level, combined with the descriptions included, will help those who have never struggled with depression understand how our frame of mind is magnified as our condition worsens.

It is also important to note that depression is not all sadness and hopelessness.  Instead of providing a chart listing levels 1-9, I have split this chart in half.  There is a 1-4N to designate worsening stages of numbness and a 1-4D to describe stages of downward spiral.  This chart is extremely simplified, yet illustrates how, as depression worsens, the intensity of the condition increases.  However, unlike conditions like anxiety that worsen in one direction, depression can and does frequently occur in both the realms of numbness and hopelessness to varying extents.

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It is also important to note that depression is not linear.  It comes in waves and spikes.  It is not uncommon to struggle with days of increasing numbness, only to wake up the following day in the midst of a downward spiral.  Depression randomly alternates between the two, with no rhyme or reason to the length or intensity on any given day.  Some days you feel nothing at all, other days you feel everything too strongly.  There’s no way to predict when you will be pulled in either direction or how long either will last.

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There will be days when someone might even feel fine, or even just more functional.  On other days, you might be unable to pull yourself out of bed or might seem to cry over everything.  There are days that feel like a struggle and others that feel completely impossible, days where you find yourself crying a little bit more and days you just want to give up.

When describing increased emotional pain, the best example I can think of is to compare it to the pain of loss.  Milder stages of depression might be akin to losing something that matters to you, perhaps something of sentimental value.  As depression increases, imagine the pain of losing a beloved pet, your parents, your spouse or your child.  Imagine the ache and the pain, the feeling in that moment of things never being okay again, of wanting to give up, to crumble under the weight of that pain.

Except the person you are mourning is yourself.  Your happiness and who you used to be.  And the loss comes again and again in waves, sometimes mild, other times so severe that the tears and the pain feel like they will never stop.

At the same time, you loathe and disgust yourself.  You feel worthless, a waste of space.  Your own mind lies to you, convincing you that the world would be better off without you in it.  That is where rationality parts ways.  Everyone can understand loss, pain and grieving.  But it is hard to wrap your head around losing yourself, let alone hating yourself, unless you have spiraled down to those depths yourself.

Yet those feelings are there, along with a tremendous amount of guilt.  You feel guilty that you are such a mess.  You feel guilty for subjecting everyone else to your mess, as well.  Often, you are also ashamed of your illness because you feel you should be stronger, more capable, better than you are.  That shame often leads you to lie or minimize the intensity of your suffering for fear of being judged.  Depression makes you feel like a failure just for being sick.

When someone is struggling with depression, their very perceptions become distorted.  It is common for everything to feel much worse than it actually is.  Think back to when you were a little child.  Things on the counter felt up way too high, the door knob out of reach.  Even simple things like tying your shoes were a struggle and felt like a monumental task that took maximum effort and concentration.  That is how everyday tasks feel when you have depression.  Everything feels harder.  Every problem feels bigger.  You feel small and helpless.

Think back, too, to when you were a young child and were upset with your parents, when you felt completely misunderstood and all alone in the world.  Think back on the time when your four or five year old self was convinced you should run away, that nobody would care if you were gone. Think back to any other point in your life, as well, when you felt completely alone, when you had no help, nobody there.  With depression, those feelings are ever-present.  Your mind tells you that nobody understands, that you are alone in the world.  Depression isolates you by telling lies that you do not matter.

Think back to the last time you were sick, laid up in bed with a bad flu or stomach bug.  Remember how physically and mentally exhausting it felt to even move or pull yourself out of bed?  How easily you found yourself worn out, just wanting to lay back down and sleep?  How you put off going to the bathroom for hours because you didn’t even want to move?  How you ate frozen waffles or canned soup for three days because you just did not have the energy or the desire to cook a real meal?  That is what depression is like, too.

The numbness, however, is hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced it firsthand.  If you’ve ever had someone or something upset you so much that you no longer cared, magnify that lack of concern tenfold.  It is similar to that catatonic shock following an accident or trauma.  You feel nothing, lost, blank, numb.  Eventually, you mentally shut down.  You are immobile, held hostage, trapped in your own mind.  You have no interest or motivation to do anything.  You see no point in even trying.

I wish there were more relatable examples I could give but it is impossible to rationalize the irrational.  There are some examples that are somewhat similar in one way or another, but even those don’t quite equate.  The best I can do is to illustrate the directions depression can go and to quantify how bad it can get.

When trying to explain depression, the best someone who is struggling can do is to explain how close we are at the given moment to either shutting down or wanting to give up.  The worst part is that the status can change in a moment’s notice on any given day.  There is no way to predict when it will veer off in either direction, let alone the severity of the bout.  You cannot even predict what will cause your condition to worsen, or whether it will even be something large or small.  Something as tragic as a great loss is just as likely to cause a period of numbness as a simple broken plate is to cause a severe downward spiral.  There are times we are honestly not even sure why we are feeling the way we do, only that the depression is there.  There is no rhyme, reason or rationality to any of it.

It is not something that a person can control in any way, either, let alone simply snap out of on their own accord.  Depression is a mental illness.  It is a medically-diagnosed condition that severely affects the ability to cope with life, negatively impacting and impairing both thoughts and behaviors.  Having a mental illness is no different than having any other type of illness.  Much like a diabetic has a pancreas that is malfunctioning, when a person has a mental illness, their brain is not working correctly.  The only difference is the organ affected.  Both conditions need medical treatment.

I understand how difficult it must be for someone who has never suffered from depression themselves to understand. Depression seems irrational because it is.  It doesn’t make sense, even to those of us struggling with it every day.  We find ourselves on a roller coaster ride that is speeding out of control, flying up and down every which way, with no way to stop or slow down.  Nobody asks for a mental illness.  Depression is not something anyone has done to themselves or is causing because they are not trying hard enough.  We don’t understand how we even ended up on this ride, let alone how to get off.  How can we adequately explain something we don’t even understand ourselves?

The confusion surrounding depression is also in part due to the stigma attached to mental illness in general.  For years, anyone with a mental illness was labeled as lazy, crazy, dangerous or a joke.  Either way, they were not taken seriously.  Mental illness was a dirty word that wasn’t discussed openly.  People fear or mock what they don’t understand.  The lack of education about medical conditions like depression led to wide-spread ignorance and misinformation.  Unfortunately, once that cat is out of the bag, the damage is done and it will take much longer to properly educate people about mental illness than it took to originally spread the falsehoods and misconceptions.

I understand fully that depression makes no sense to someone who has never experienced it themselves.  It honestly makes no sense to us, either.  But please know that depression is much more than just merely feeling sad from time to time.  With depression, you sometimes feel everything so strongly that it is completely overwhelming, the emotions feel agonizingly painful and never-ending, and the world feels utterly hopeless.  Other times, someone with depression is completely numb, feeling absolutely nothing at all.  Either way, everything feels much harder, more intense.  Depression is exhausting, both physically and mentally.  Perhaps worst of all, you feel helpless to do anything, like you have no control over your own mind.  And depression is not linear.  It goes up and down, every which way, changing direction and intensity on the drop of a dime.

I wish I could provide a chart that was more relatable for those who have never experienced depression, but, as I have stated before, there really is no way to rationalize the irrational.  The best I can do is to lay out what depression is like in a very simplified form and hope for your empathy, compassion, understanding and patience.

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Anxiety is Often Completely Irrational

Anxiety is often irrational but the fact that it does not always readily make sense does not stop it from rearing its ugly head.

Sometimes all it takes is something going badly once.  Every single time I’m in a similar situation afterwards, my anxiety is heightened and part of me fears that something bad will inevitably occur again.  Other times, I can have something bad occur repeatedly and nothing is ever triggered.  Each new time something bad happens again, I find myself honestly surprised at the outcome.

There’s no rhyme or reason to which will occur.  It is not based on the severity of the bad result.  It is not based on how pivotal the event was to my life.  Though I have struggled for years to understand my anxiety and pinpoint what causes it, I have not been able to discern any common factors to make it easier to predict my anxiety in the future.

A recent example of how my anxiety presents itself occurred a couple weeks ago. While preparing to shave my legs in the shower, I found a tick on my leg just below my kneecap.  Thankfully, he didn’t appear to have been there for long. I was able to get him out fairly quickly and easily.  There have been no rashes or bullseye rings around the site since then to warn of conditions such as Lyme disease.  All in all, I was pretty lucky. The whole situation was resolved quickly and without further or lasting complications.

This was my first experience finding a tick on myself in my lifetime.  It obviously was an isolated occurrence, unlikely to be repeated again any time soon.  I don’t spend a lot of time in wooded areas or anything where I’d be likely to pick up another tick.  Yet every time I have stepped in the shower since then, my anxiety easily goes up two points.

Whenever I step into the shower now my heart starts to race.  Though I begin an inner monologue telling myself that I am just being silly and paranoid, I can feel my chest start to tighten.  I stand under the stream of water, close my eyes and practice my conscious breathing techniques trying to calm myself back down.  I struggle to fight the urge to scour every inch of my skin again and again looking for other ticks.

I know it is irrational.  I know my anxiety in this situation makes no sense.  I know that, logically, I am highly unlikely to find another tick even upon a thorough inspection.  I know it was an isolated incident.  But logic plays no part in how my mind and my body begin to react in these situations.

I don’t even know if my anxiety in this particular situation will fade somewhat over time or if it will continue to grow.  Sometimes my situational anxiety will dull somewhat over the course of time.  Other times, however, it remains consistent or even grows and expands upon itself, merging with other anxieties over time.  Again, I have never been able to find any rhyme, reason or pattern to how my anxiety presents itself.  There’s no way to predict what lies ahead.

All I know is that, thanks to one random, errant tick, I have become increasingly apprehensive about taking my showers over the last couple weeks.  And I know that as much as I try to be rational and reason with myself, I cannot rationalize with my anxiety.  It comes and goes as it pleases, always leaving a mess in its wake.

That has always been one of my biggest issues with explaining my anxiety to other people.  Everyone always attempts to apply logic to the situation to “help me see how ridiculous my anxiety is”.  You cannot rationalize the irrational.

Though sometimes portions of my anxiety will eventually fade over time, I have carried others with me for decades.  A good portion of my anxiety revolves around never truly feeling safe.  In this aspect, it has merged with my PTSD because in my head security equates to safety.  Due in a large part to the abuses of my past, I have noticed that I subconsciously react to my anxiety over not feeling safe in many ways. For example, I always leave my shower curtain somewhat ajar so I can see the pathway directly to the door.  I often find myself jumpy and apprehensive when seated with my back to doorways because I carry within myself an ever-present fear of someone approaching me unaware.  I check locks repeatedly, especially before going to bed, because I cannot  relax, get comfortable or fall asleep if I am even the slightest bit anxious about my safety.

I have not experienced anything in the scope of sexual abuse or physical abuse since I was a child that would warrant such anxiety.  There is no rational explanation for why I need to have a clear view of the door from my shower or why I must watch the pathways to my location like a hawk.  It has been decades since I have had anything happen and I am no longer that little child who cannot fend for herself.  But my body and mind will not accept that reality as fact.  To this day, whenever I am presented with certain situations, my anxiety is automatically heightened.  It doesn’t matter that it is irrational.  It doesn’t matter that I can even clearly see that the situation is irrational and call myself on it.  My mind and body still react as if there is something to fear.

I understand that others mean well when they try to reassure me that there really is nothing to worry about or make comments about my overreacting.  I’m aware of that fact myself.  But they might as well be telling me the sky is blue because I can see that, as well, yet I have as little control over that as I do over my anxiety.  There is nothing anyone else could say to me that I have not said to myself a hundred times over.  I know somewhere within myself that it is irrational.  But that does not stop my mind and my body from reacting as if it was the most rational thing in the world.

I don’t need anyone else to tell me that my anxiety is often irrational.  Trust me, I have those bases well covered.  What I need more than anything is compassion and understanding, along with acknowledgement that I am doing my best to use everything I possess in my mental wellness toolbox to soothe myself and bring myself back down out of a panic.  I know my anxiety is often irrational.  Please believe my when I say I am not doing it intentionally to make my own life or anyone else’s harder.  It is a mental illness.  I have virtually no control over how my mind and body react in certain situations.  The last thing I need is judgment or lectures about how I just need to be more rational and calm down.  Because let’s face it – You cannot reason with something that is unreasonable.  You cannot rationalize the irrational.  All the common sense in the world will not negate anxiety.  It is a medical condition.