Depression, in its various forms, affects nearly 19 million Americans each year according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). With prolonged major depression, shortages or imbalances of mood-influencing chemicals in the brain usually play a role.
Studies show that depressive illness can and often does run in families. The genetic connection is beyond controversy. Another proven fact is that women, as a group, are twice as likely to experience depression.
Up until the age of 46, I had gone through my entire life feeling blue, never feeling quite right. I was missing a dimension, a dimension of joy. I don’t remember ever experiencing real happiness until I was successfully in recovery from alcoholism. By then, I was already in my mid-forties. My life had looked all right, but my quality of life was severely compromised by my low-grade blue moods.
There was rarely any reason for my dark moods, but they transcended everything I did. My internal outlook diminished all peak experiences. I envied other people’s rosy perspectives, and often wondered how they could feel so good. I felt deprived. I felt like I was missing out on something very basic.
There was a sad undertone lurking beneath even my happiest events. I’d wake up not really wanting to get out of bed. I could never quite shake the awful, all-encompassing feeling of “What was the use of it all.” At times, I merely went through the motions of living. I remember thinking that everybody couldn’t feel like this, or it would be the topic of conversation on the news, talk shows and amongst my friends. I don’t know how many times I asked myself, “Am I the only person who feels like this?” Somehow, I knew that I couldn’t be the only person who felt so low.
Because I usually put on a happy face, nobody seemed aware or showed concern that I had this constant drag pulling me down. I subconsciously thought that if I acted normal, I might feel normal. I knew something was wrong, but I felt that I couldn’t describe it to anybody without them telling me to just get over it. I do remember my husband giving me pep talks from time to time, but the way I felt just wasn’t pronounced enough to seek professional help, or so I thought.
I figured I was different, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t think there was anything legitimate that could ever relieve my cheerlessness. I always thought psychiatry was for crazy people, and the only way to feel better was to pick myself up by my bootstraps and do something on my own to alleviate my sadness.
The best I ever hoped to feel occurred when I was totally distracted, immersed in something that diverted my attention or completely consumed me. So, I worked hard at staying busy, achieving and excelling in whatever I did, in spite of the way I felt.
I now know that all those years I was suffering from chronic, low-grade depression. This condition, called dysthymic disorder, is a long-term, less severe form of depression that is rarely detected, recognized or talked about.
I spent the majority of my waking hours battling a constant smothering, confining hopelessness, until my depression manifested itself in a more outwardly visible debilitating condition.
Why hadn’t I recognized that I had a treatable disorder sooner? Besides, how could I say that I wasn’t happy when I didn’t know what happy was? And sure enough, when researching this mood disorder, I found that the majority of people suffering from depression don’t understand what they are experiencing. With most people, clinical depression goes unnoticed and untreated.
I never knew there was such a thing as chronic low-grade depression, but I was far from alone in not recognizing my depression for what it was. According to NIMH, only 20% of people with mild depression recognize what it is and seek help, and only 50% of people with severe, incapacitating depression ever receive medical advice.
There are a number of reasons why many people are reluctant to seek professional help. In this great nation of ours, there still exists a general feeling that seeing a psychiatrist represents some sort of personal failure. A psychiatric problem is no more a personal failure than diabetes or heart disease, but we don’t want to be classified as ‘abnormal.’ We truly want to believe that everything is ‘fine,’ but no problem has ever been solved by denial.
Because I hadn’t experienced any of the more blatant manifestations of depression such as insomnia, loss of appetite, or even thoughts of suicide, I had decided that what I felt couldn’t be depression, and that I was just not as happy as most people. I was able to function, but I felt bad much more often than I felt good (instead of the other way around—the way most people feel).
At times, getting through my daily life was difficult for me, but I always talked myself out of having a serious condition. With few outward manifestations, chronic low-grade depression doesn’t always escalate into a crisis (thank God it did for me), therefore it seems as though there is nothing to address. It is an insidious disease in that it exists, but nobody else knows about it other than the sufferer. You feel terrible but, essentially, it’s a non-issue.
The bottom line is that if the depression doesn’t result in some other more blatant negative condition, such as substance abuse, many of us are likely to suffer our entire lives. When I was finally given an anti-depressant, I felt like an incredible weight had been lifted, one that I had been carrying all of my life.
Vivian Eisenecher, author of Recovering Me, Discovering Joy / Uplifting Wisdom for Everyday Greatness. Please visit my blog for more information: recoveringme.com/blog