Many people seem to think that depression is a kind of very intense, prolonged sadness. From my experience, this assumption is very widespread. You notice it when people talk about it, and it’s reflected in how depression is portrayed in fiction, or movies.
From my personal experience, and from what I have learned in observing depression in others, and from reading about the condition, I conclude that depression doesn’t have a lot to do with sadness at all. And I think it’s important that this distinction is understood.
To me, what depression really is about is a pronounced inability to perceive any kind of emotional state. When you’re depressed, you don’t feel particularly sad. You don’t particularly feel anything. You most likely don’t feel happy, let alone euphoric, and it is this state, this outwardly very faceless lack of emotion, which can easily be mistaken for a kind of sadness. After all, if you’re not smiling, if your body language doesn’t seem to convey that you’re feeling well, then you must be sad.
If you were to feel an intense sadness, if it even allowed you to cry a lot, I’d dare to say that you’re not depressed, but (at least emotionally) very healthy. You may be going through an emotional crisis; you’re possibly dealing with something traumatic that is producing these emotional outbreaks. But that would not be depression. It would not be a condition that needed treatment. It would be natural, healthy, welcome human behaviour.
In depression, there is nothing in you that produces anything. All emotions are subdued to the point of not feeling anything at all. You have no motivation, no urge to become active, to be productive, even to move at all. It is a kind of profound emptiness that, other than simple boredom, you don’t seem to be able to do anything about, as there is really nothing that you have an urge or even impulse to do. People who are seriously, clinically depressed may be unable to get out of bed for days or even weeks, and even just heading to the bathroom to take a shower may be an unmanageable task.
It’s not because they’re extremely sad. It’s because there is no life force flowing in them.
Yes, I said life force, and that’s exactly what I mean. I don’t know what that life force precisely is. It’s known as Qi, or Prana, in various ancient cultures. In modern Western cultures, the notion of some kind of life force isn’t generally accepted. We, as materialists, think in terms of biochemistry, of the molecular arrangement that is the physical machinery of our bodies. We can measure that there is a shortage of neurotransmitters (including serotonin, noradrenalin and dopamine), and we have pharmacological agents that counteract this shortage – and they do work to lessen the symptoms of depression, if not very well.
However, in contrast to the mainstream understanding of psychiatry, I don’t think that depression is caused by neurotransmitter inbalance. What I believe is that a state of depression is reflected (manifested) in an anomalous distribution of neurotransmitters – that this inbalance is a result, or measurable side-effect of the state, but not the cause. It doesn’t even make sense to begin with. If neurotransmitter inbalance was the cause of depression, then what caused that inbalance in the first place? It’s a trivial question that most psychiatrists don’t seem to ever ask.
If you treat depressive people with antidepressants only, they do get better, most of the time. If you then take the antidepressants away, depression is not unlikely to return. Antidepressants don’t cure depression. It’s no surprise to me, since antidepressant medication does affect the symptoms experienced in the depression, such as inability to feel emotions, anhedonia, lack of motivation, incitement and drive. But it does not (automatically) affect the psychological-emotional constitution of the patient, nor does it affect environmental (outside) factors – social relationships, living conditions, job and finance, etc.
I regard depression as a condition where life force – whatever it actually is or consists of; I’m happy to regard it simply as a metaphor at this point – cannot flow freely within the physical-mental-emotional system. It’s not sadness. Rather, it’s a state of being less-than-alive, of being somewhat of a zombie. You’re not dead, but you’re not really alive, either. I think that the »undead« state of major depression serves as a signal, a reminder, that something is amiss. If I’m experiencing depression, it’s a warning that I’m not living properly. I’m not aligned with the life I should be living.
I was fortunate to have understood this, if only fairly recently (about six months ago). I’m no longer trying to get rid of depression, to subdue its symptoms. I haven’t taken any antidepressant medication at all since March of this year (it is September now). I’ve learned that the symptoms are actually there to show me that something’s wrong. It’s no use getting rid of depressive symptoms just so that you can continue living the way you were. Depression is a sure sign that you’re on the wrong track. It’s this realisation, and the appropriate action – changing the track – that will eventually lead out of depression.
Depressive phases will probably return, as they do for me. Whenever that happens – if I manage to snap out of the familiar thinking loops of self-blame, feeling sorry for and judging myself (»Why I am depressed again? What did I do to deserve this now?«) – I remember that depression shows me that I’ve strayed off-track again, that I have relapsed into some kind of behaviour that was taking me away from the life that is »right« for me.
What exactly that »proper life« is, I don’t yet fully know. But I have some apprehensions about it, and they are becoming clearer as I am maturing and growing. One day, I’ll be there, and I don’t think this day is very far away now. But even if I find out my personal »secret« to a happy and fulfilled life, I can still always get off track, and then I’m hoping for depression to come and remind me of it.