Even though the symptoms had been getting worse for months, my diagnosis of severe post-partum depression really caught me off guard. Sure I didn’t enjoy cooking anymore, but surely that’s because it’s so much harder with a one-year-old underfoot. The anxiety I felt about disappointing my family and friends was because I wasn’t sleeping well. I cried all the time because my son was weaning, right? And I felt so worthless because I was a failure as a mother.
To an experienced eye I was depressed—big time. But even though I had read up on post-partum depression and knew all the warning signs, I didn’t recognize them in myself. I hope that sharing with you what my depression looked and felt like I might be abe to help you rescue a friend, a family member, or yourself.
What Does Depression Feel Like?
A Loss of Interest in the Things You Enjoy
You may find perfectly reasonable explanations for missing the fun in old habits and hobbies. Or you might not notice that you’ve lost it at all. You can find out if you’ve lost interest by looking for patterns. Maybe, as in my case, you blow your food budget on last-minute take-out, even though you love to cook. The more things you suddenly realize you don’t enjoy or simply don’t do anymore, the more likely it is you may have a problem. (My lost joys included cooking, reading, playing board games, hosting dinner parties, and, eventually, playing with my son.)
Everyone is sad sometimes—and that’s okay. Depressed sadness is different. It comes frequently and suddenly with no clear cause or over something as simple as breaking a dish. In my case, the crying was different too. Instead of letting fall a few tears about a minor setback, I sobbed hysterically for fifteen to thirty minutes, and then at random intervals for the rest of the day. At my worst, I was spending hours a day sobbing.
A baby always makes concentration difficult because you frequently have to divide your attention. But even when Thomas was napping, I couldn’t concentrate on a chore for more than five minutes, watch a whole TV episode, or read a magazine article.
Again, a baby makes you tired, physically and emotionally. The sleep women lose before their children sleep through the night makes them much more vulnerable to depression. That said, difficulty falling or staying asleep is both an important effect—and cause—of depression. Even if you can get to sleep, you can’t sleep away depression tiredness. It’s more like a weariness that goes to the very core of your being and makes the simple act of getting our of bed a major feat. Daily tasks eventually become completely overwhelming.
Difficulty Making Decisions
I’ve never been a decisive person, my depression made making decisions next to impossible. I couldn’t tell Adam what movie I’d like to see because I truly didn’t know. Even when a situation demanded a quick, unimportant decision, I froze or, worse, started crying.
Irritability is a lesser-known symptom of depression but it is, to me, the worst. I’m normally a reasonably calm and compassionate person. Depressed, I would erupt over the smallest, most trivial things. I started swearing and slamming cabinets closed because my husband didn’t come upstairs for dinner at my first summons. It was almost like an out-of-body experience; the part of me that knew I was too angry over something unimportant could only watch what I was doing with horror and couldn’t do anything to stop it. I blamed myself for every single moment I was irritable, especially with my husband or son, and all that built-up guilt made the depression worse.
Depression distorts your perception of everything, but most of all yourself. It makes you vulnerable to thinking only of your bad qualities and actions, forgetting the good ones. (In fact, depression has been shown to shrink the area of the brain responsible for long-term memory.) In my case, I became firmly convinced I was a terrible mother, an incompetent wife, and a nuisance to everyone I cared about. There was no reason to love me or help me because I simply wasn’t worth it. I felt so worthless I didn’t think I deserved to ask for help, even though, by the time I felt this bad, I suspected something was seriously wrong.
A Desire to Die or Commit Suicide
Depression has been described as one of the few diseases so painful that people would rather die than live with it. The suffering of depression may or may not compare to the suffering of someone with cancer or AIDS, but it makes life feel unbearable. Feelings of worthlessness quickly turn into the idea the world would be better off without you.
If you find yourself, as I did, vaguely wishing you were gone, or fixating on how much better off your friends and family would be without you, remember that it is not normal to feel that way. It’s called “passive death wish” and it is a potential symptom of depression that shouldn’t be ignored. Too often, passive death wish leads to passing suicidal thoughts, which lead to planning a suicide, which lead to a suicide attempt—or death.
1 out of 10 people suffering from depression eventually kill themselves. If you want to harm yourself, tell someone and seriously consider going to the hospital emergency room. (Yes, suicidal thoughts, even if you haven’t acted on them, are an emergency!) You can also call 1-800-SUICIDE, a national hotline for people who need help.
What if Someone I Know Feels Depressed?
Depression is a serious illness caused by a real chemical imbalance in the brain that needs attention. The more of these symptoms a person has, the more likely something is seriously wrong. A psychiatrist or therapist can help evaluate the severity of someone’s depression and help plot a course to recovery. Keep close tabs on anyone who seems to be suffering from depression and refuses to seek medical attention. Make sure she has a supportive group of friends and family members—together, you can help reduce the stress by making her feel loved and helping her with the chores that are just too hard for her at the moment.
Have you ever felt depressed? We’d love to hear your story in the comments. As always, I’m happy to share my experiences and provide a listening ear in private via Facebook, Twitter, or firstname.lastname@example.org.