Let me begin by clarifying, mild to moderate depression can very much have a strong element of feeling sad. Severe depression too. But it is so different from what we consider to be ‘feeling sad’ that it’s worth making the distinction. I should also caveat that what I write here is my experience of depression and it may not be the same as yours or those you know.
When we ‘feel sad’, we usually have an answer to the question, “what’s up?” We can find a cause and even if we can’t we can say, “I feel a bit down today, I don’t know why”, and it’s an acceptable answer. We might have a mild form of depression and—thankfully nowadays—it’s generally becoming OK to tell people when we’re not feeling tip top.
But severe depression is another beast entirely. I’ve talked before about the suicidal ideation that can be a very serious symptom, so here I’ll talk about another aspect: the disorienting way we can become detached from our sense of self.
Severe depression shrouds everything in a veil of non-feeling. It’s like there’s a core part of you that has been locked in a safe to which you don’t know the combination. Like you’re observing the world from a room that, if your emotions were emitted like sound, is entirely sound-proof. Your body can still react in expected ways to stimuli—a friend or partner might crack a joke to try to cheer you up and you’ll laugh—but your reactions don’t feel part of you. Your laughter feels empty and because you sense that you’re not truly in your reacting body it reminds you of how bad/broken/a failed-human-being you are.
We’re taught from being kids to get a sense of self from our status in life. It may be implicit rather than explicit: while parents and teachers tell us that the most important thing is to be a good person, we absorb how those same people seem to have respected identities because of the job they do, or the actions they take. We go through our lives absorbing this more and more. But when hit with severe depression this worldview is disrupted. Suddenly we have to contend with the fact that we may not be able to do our job as well as we thought, in some cases we will not work or perhaps we weren’t working anyway. But we’re no longer able to do the ‘respectable actions’ that make us a functioning part of society. We’re sick, but our sickness is invisible and the automatic responses that our bodies give may give the impression that we’re still fully functional, until (in my case at least) we break down.
We may be sad about this. If anything this could be the answer to that question of “what’s up?”, but ‘sadness’ doesn’t describe the existential break that our minds, our spirits make. A veil has descended. Our self is trapped and we’re merely observers, seeing things happen with our bodies as they interact (or fail to react) in the world. We may sometimes cry, but the tears aren’t those of someone who knows why they’re crying. It’s a physical reaction to a mental disorientation: ‘Why am I like this?’
I think the most accurate word to describe the state of severe depression isn’t sadness but ‘numbness’. You are under some kind of anesthesia, one that not only numbs your physical sensations, but drains the colour from the world. Stories told by friends are no longer interesting, jokes no longer funny, films and novels can’t hold your interest. In a period of slight mania you may find this to be because your head is filled with your own thoughts, but in a depressed state there are no thoughts; your mind is blank.
This state can be so persistent that you lose a sense of who you are. Some people describe sensations of derealisation, you’re feeling as though you’re outside of your body, that the world is no longer real. As I said, you’re observing your body but it doesn’t seem to be your body at all. And if you make an effort to project yourself into that body, to engage with the world as you used to, it’s exhausting. So you spend the hours waiting for the day to end. You lie in bed alone because it’s the one place where you don’t have to use energy. You flick mindlessly through TV channels or the multitude of options on Netflix, unable to select something to watch because nothing is interesting enough to rip open the veil or strong enough to crack open the safe.
Depression is not feeling sad. Depression is not feeling. And this is why it can be so frustrating when people ask you to give a reason for your mental state. Although we may believe that to be human is to think with our heads, our understanding of the world includes feelings. Take away the feeling and our compass no longer works.
“I don’t know.”