In the movies, depression is larger than life. It’s those dark moods that look almost romantic. Those dramatic displays of sadness with lots and lots of angst and tears. But depression symptoms in real life can be much less camera-worthy, and much harder to spot.
Picture a giant blob of heavy gray Jell-O sitting on top of you. You can try to push up on it, or poke into it, but it just oozes itself back into all the space you made. That is how depression often feels to me. It’s heavy, it’s flattening, and nothing I do while I’m in it seems to matter. When nothing matters, it’s almost impossible to have hopes, desires, cares, or opinions. And without those things, life is the opposite of dramatic. In fact it’s not very lifelike at all.
On the outside, I might look like a tired, bored, unengaged person who is very fond of my couch. Since I work hard and it’s natural to need downtime, you might just see a person who needs a weekend or a vacation – not red flags. If you and I are interacting, chances are I’m trying to smile my way through it and hide my gray blobbiness until I’m alone, so you’d never know anything was wrong. Some depressed people – especially women – are very good at keeping up appearances. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves, or make you feel badly, too.
Depression is deceptive by nature. One of the lies it tells is that there’s nothing really wrong with you. Except you’re just lazy, or bad at things, and undeserving of good things. It lets you believe those little, normalish things, until those things pile up and become so overwhelming that you’re stuck under them.
The movies depict depression in black and white extremes: either you are unbearably sad, or you are ok. But in real life, depression looks more like a slowly growing blob of gray. My depression is much more likely to appear as growing piles of unwashed dishes and unanswered texts than a growing puddle of off-the-chain tears.
If I can spot my depression before it gets too heavy, sometimes I can keep it from getting worse. I can reach out to friends, enact some self-care like sleep schedules and sun exposure, or check in with my therapist. I can’t always see the signs, and I can’t always stop the depression when I do, but it’s a relief every time it works.
Your depression might look like mine. It might look like the movies. It might look entirely unique. Here are some of my depression signs. Maybe you will see yourself or a loved one in them and will be able to help stop a depression spiral, too:
Sign: The voice in your head just got meaner.
Everyone is their own worst critic, but when depression is lurking, my critic becomes increasingly harsh and pessimistic. “You can’t do that, you’re no good,” it says, taking aim especially at the things I love and that bring me joy.
Sign: Regular, everyday care and maintenance starts to drop off.
Little daily habits that you normally do without much thought can really suffer when things feel pointless. Sometimes my dishes pile up in the sink to the extent that I start ordering all my meals out so I don’t have to wash them. Sometimes I don’t even bother with that, I just eat slices of cheese (and sometimes – I can’t believe I’m saying this – I have the cheese slices delivered). Feeling like you can’t manage basic upkeep like cleaning or keeping food around makes it easy to slip into isolation – who wants to have friends over when you have a tower of dirty dishes in the sink ?
Sign: You’re not keeping up with your tooth-brushing or showering, either.
Hygiene seems like a simple thing, but depression can make taking care of things – especially yourself – feel like an exercise in futility. If you notice that you just can’t bother with getting clean and dressed, you may need to ask yourself if you’re dealing with depression.
Sign: You’re unable to do that one thing, no matter how simple it seems like it should be.
I switched my antidepressants to mail order for this reason. I needed a refill during a bout of depression, but could not get myself to go the pharmacy. Just getting into the car felt like a Herculean feat. Add the prospect of going into a store and speaking to another human, and this became the thing I could not accomplish day after day, no matter how much I knew I needed to.
Sign: You feel guilty.
Ok, laugh if you must, but one of the ways I can tell I’m definitely depressed is when I suspect my cats are disappointed in me. I mean, never mind that this may be the natural state of cats. The fact that I feel guilty about treating my spoiled pets the way I do any other day signals that my brain’s gone a bit wonky.
Sign: You’re really, really tired all the time, but you can’t get a good night’s sleep.
Lots of people associate depression with not being able to get out of bed – and for me, that’s often true. But that doesn’t mean the whole time in bed is spent sleeping, or when I do sleep, I feel rested. The more likely scenario is I can’t sleep when I’m supposed to, I can’t stay awake when I want to, or I just lie there in a daze not really caring about the difference.
Sign: You stop answering texts and other messages.
When I can’t even muster the oomph to go out and buy my own cheese slices, I’m probably not going to feel up to managing a conversation. This is one of the worst parts of depression – my relationships with people often just stop until I can function again.
Sign: You’re super touchy and every little thing annoys you.
This is a big one. Many people experience depression in the form of irritability instead of, or in addition to, numbness or sadness. Sometimes my edginess and impatience is the hallmark sign of a depressive episode. If other people would only stop chewing, walking too slowly, breathing, and/or existing, everything would be fine! FINE!
Sign: It’s really hard for you to focus.
I can’t read much when I’m depressed, and I can’t really finish movies. I’m lucky if I can get through a normally very engaging episode of Game of Thrones. Most things that require more than a glancing interest are too much for me. Bring on the RuPaul’s Drag Race reruns.
Sign: You’re drinking more.
It’s common to look to alcohol for a pick-me-up or a numb-me-out. Every once in a while, I find this helpful in the moment, but usually drinking just prolongs my depression and makes it harder to do the healthier things that will help make me better in the long run.