Depression cannot be summed up in one image. It looks different in everyone. The commercials for antidepressants show sad middle-aged women who gaze with empty longing at pottery or their husbands and children, faking smiles and taking walks alone in the woods. In a lot of these commercials, the subject spends almost all of his or her time in bed. This isn’t unrealistic – it’s just one version of the illness, but many people misunderstand it to be the only version.
Numbness is common for those with depression. For many people, including myself, depression isn’t being overwhelmingly sad all the time. Most of the time, it’s about feeling nothing, not caring about anything, including your own well-being, an indifference to life and not understanding how to live and enjoy it.
It’s hard to care about things you once loved when dealing with mental illness. You feel like your mind is tuned to a television channel that is just static, and concentrating on anything is difficult. Being numb is sometimes just existing, waiting for a day to end. Then you feel guilty about it and repeat the cycle the next day.
In many people with depression and anxiety, mental illness manifests itself in a very different way from what the commercials would have you believe. I’ve experienced the numbness, the indifference and many other difficult symptoms of depression and anxiety since age 12, but instead of staying in bed for days or walking around in a daze, I hid my symptoms behind a high-functioning facade.
Just like the cliche that the funniest people are also the saddest, the most high-achieving people are sometimes the most depressed and anxious. Constant distraction is sometimes the only way to forget about mental illness for a few hours. I have spent countless days going nonstop all day, forgetting about my mental illness only to have it creep into bed with me around 11 p.m. when my mind finally gets a moment to breathe and be alone.
My depression and anxiety sit on either shoulder, telling me I don’t work hard enough, I’m not a good enough daughter/sister/friend, I don’t deserve to be where I am. Anxiety tells me I’m eventually going to mess something up, and when I do, everyone will see that I’m a fraud and a waste of time. Depression tells me to give up and stop caring because no one cares about me. It tells me that completing an assignment doesn’t matter because I can never do enough or be enough. Depression wants me to ditch anxiety so I can stop worrying and shut off completely. The anxiety fights back and tells me to overload my schedule, to make lists and take on responsibilities and just keeping going until I run on empty and burn out. I’m allowed to go back to depression for a few days after I burn out, but then anxiety wants me back on the hamster wheel, pleasing everyone but myself. “Do whatever you can so they will like you and think you matter,” it whispers. I always oblige.
Even with medication, depression and anxiety are a daily battle. Just because I’m taking 18 credits and have a job doesn’t mean I have it all together. It usually means I’m inches from falling apart.
Mental illnesses are not treated like physical illnesses and they should be. I experience physical symptoms of anxiety and depression regularly, and those are the only times I feel have a valid excuse to not show up to an event or class. The stigma of mental illness makes it difficult to be upfront about suffering. How do you explain that you’re sad and empty for no reason or that you can have a panic attack out of the blue? I barely understand how my mental illnesses work, so how do I explain it to others without them thinking I’m unstable and incapable of basic activities? Mental illnesses are hard to understand because they are, for the most part, invisible.
Even though I think it should be treated just like a disability or physical illness, I never check “yes” when applications for internships ask if I have a disability. I keep it to myself until I absolutely need to disclose it to a professor or classmate. I know I shouldn’t be ashamed, but it’s a reflex I can’t yet kick. Whenever friends tell me they feel sad, worthless, numb or depressed, I assure them that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and that they should seek help or consider medication. I seldom take my own advice, which is pretty messed up.