Winter is a fickle bitch. A soul-sucking viper that takes its time to strangle the life from you in a slow, deliberate manner.
At least, that’s how my body sees it.
Like clockwork, seasonal depression lands on me like a cold, metal breastplate at the beginning of November and stubbornly clings there until around mid-April.
Over the years, as I’ve become more open about my seasonal affective disorder (SAD), I’ve been forced to face the sheer lack of understanding surrounding this disorder head on.
Truth be told, my fight with depression isn’t only seasonal, I battle a more "typical" version of depression, persistent depressive disorder (PDD), all year. It bobs like a buoy, quietly, but regularly, in my life and has since right before I hit puberty.
But one of the largest misconceptions that I’ve come across is that these two disorders are the same.
How can I suffer from seasonal depression if I’m already depressed? Am I just, like, super depressed?
No, and, at the same time, yes.
Depression isn’t a one-trick pony.
Each different type of clinical depression comes in its own flavor with its own specific aftertaste.
My PDD is unpredictable – it comes and goes throughout the years with no set intensity level, but never leaves me for more than a month at a time.
Caused by a Molotov cocktail of chemical imbalances in my brain, genetics and events in my life, I’ve been dealing with this form of depression for almost 15 years.
When you spend that kind of time dealing with a disorder, an illness, that no one else can see, you get to know it – understand it. It’s the imaginary friend that learned how to fight back.
It’s like an a dull, constant ache that can’t be identified in any particular part of the body.
There is one truth I’ve learned about clinical depression disorders (regardless of type), everyone is affected differently.
For me, on any given day, my PDD makes me...
- Have prolonged feelings of emotional numbness
- Feel extreme hopelessness
- Have Low No self-esteem
- Have trouble concentrating and/or making decisions
- Avoid social activities
- Have crippling anxiety
- Suffer from wild mood swings
On a good day, I only attempt to battle off two or three of these symptoms…the bad ones are a bastardized collection of them all.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is an entirely different beast.
For me, seasonal depression doesn’t come and go as it pleases, it carves a hole in my chest, burrows in and lives there for months – a heavy, dark cloak that tightens around my neck inch by inch each passing day.
Like my PDD, my battle with seasonal depression goes back to chemical imbalances in my brain – only this time it’s a different neurotransmitter.
For my PDD, my serotonin levels spike or plummet.
For SAD, it is a combination of my circadian rhythm and melatonin levels.
To this day, I’m not certain (and my doctors are not certain) what triggers my PDD at any given time.
Thankfully, SAD has a more recognizable culprit – sunlight.
Well, the lack-there-of to be exact.
In the winter, the drop-off in sunlight that we are exposed to has a pretty dramatic effect on the body.
Vitamin D levels plummet, it disrupts your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and it can suppress your melatonin levels (a neurotransmitter which effects your sleep pattern and mood).
For me, SAD makes me:
- Lose interest in daily activities (I call it my “fuck it” mode)
- Have sleep problems (either over sleeping or being unable to sleep)
- Suffer from excessive tiredness, never really feeling rested or “awake.”
- Have low energy
- Have a heavy, "leaden" feeling in my arms or legs
- Suffer from appetite changes
- Have weight fluctuations
The biggest distinctions I can make between the two, in my case, is that my SAD doesn’t technically make me “depressed.”
Not in clinical terms, at least.
Unlike PDD, which ricochets through my body emotionally, SAD targets my physical body – I feel rundown, numb – it’s like operating in a vacuum. There are days where I can go through my entire routine and it’s like everything around me is white noise. I can’t focus, I find it hard to have any emotions about anything, to be honest, because my body feels like it’s shutting down.
I still haven’t found the right way to explain my depression to my family and friends over the years….
And I’d like to say that I’ve always been able to manage these disorders in a way that didn’t, ultimately, lead to me losing some friendships.
Fighting off depression isn’t a simple task.
Truth is, if it was, me and the other 350 million sufferers worldwide would have done it already.
Depressive disorders are still one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses in the world.
And for all of those who don’t suffer from depression, or any other sort of mental illness...these are a few of the things us silent sufferers want you to know...
We’re Not Moody; We’re Depressed
There is a difference between situational sadness and clinical depression. Like the name suggests, situational sadness is triggered by events like a breakup or losing your job. Clinical depression is our minds literally altering themselves. We don’t need a trigger, a bad day, a stressful week, to slip in and out of depression. We will cry for no reason, isolate ourselves without being able to explain why. No, we don’t need more attention, a girl’s night out or a bottle of wine and some girl talk. We need patience. We need understanding. We need you to understand that the world looks different to us today than it did yesterday.
We Know You’re Trying to Help... But We Can’t Just Snap Out Of It...and That’s OK
Depression is a fact; not a state of mind. We can understand that hearing “it just doesn’t work that way” isn’t what you want to hear. We understand that it’s frustrating. But we wish you could understand that we’re not telling you we’re suffering from depression because we need you to fix us. We are telling you this because, even though we feel pretty horrible about ourselves, we would feel even worse if we lied to you.
We’re Sorry We Flaked Out...Again…
We wish there was a more eloquent way to say that it’s not you, it’s me...but there isn’t. We don’t have the energy it takes to be a terrific friend sometimes. Putting on a strong front and putting all my energy into making it through my day takes a lot out of us. When we cancel plans or say we just can’t today, it’s not because we don’t love you or want you in our life.
Being Depressed Doesn’t Mean We Won’t Have Good Days
It doesn’t mean we are “cured.” Depression, and other illnesses can come in waves. We might make some progress for a few days, weeks, even months, but even the most minute detail could send us back into a tailspin. Don’t fault us for not having any control. Relapsing is real.
The biggest truth that your friends or family suffering from depression need you to know is that we struggle everyday to function like a ‘normal’ human being.
We’re not lazy...just exhausted.
We are trying our best.
We know you might not understand.
We know we can be hard to be around sometimes.
But please remember that just because you found out that we suffer from depression doesn’t make us a different person.