What It’s Like: Major Depressive Disorder

Hello and welcome to the final installment of the What It’s Like series! Previous posts 1, 2, 3, and 4. Today I’ll be trying to talk about the most amorphous of my diagnoses, Major Depressive Disorder. Once again, the disclaimer that these are my experiences. I am not a mental health professional, I don’t speak for all people with depression, and depression can look vastly different for different people. If you know someone who has depression and want to know what it’s like for them or how to help, I strongly suggest talking to them.

Onwards, to depression!

I cry a lot. I mean a lot a lot. I cry more than any other human being I’ve ever met. Sometimes out of absolutely nowhere a wall of just straight out pain hits me and my eyes get all watery and even if I hate it I can’t stop myself from crying. Depression is like having enough sad/bad/scared/aaah feelings that they start leaking out of your face at random times.

I can always tell when my brain is falling into depression or anxiety based on my sleep patterns. Anxiety means insomnia, which in turn comes with day after exhaustion. Depression means just being tired all the time, sleeping for 12 or 13 hours at a time, never feeling rested, never having energy. It’s the times when it’s sheer struggle just to stay awake through the day and my eyes start going out of focus every few minutes. Depression is down, anxiety is up.

Depression for me also tends to be whole world focused. Anxiety usually revolves around me and how horrible I am and what I’ve done wrong. It’s all the nasty little voices at the back of your head that tear you down. Depression is more along the lines of despairing hopelessness. I’m pretty far into nihilist territory in terms of my philosophical beliefs, and it’s also easy for me to fall into solipsism. These are the kinds of things that will trigger a deep depression for me. There’s a lot of evidence that the world is fairly purposeless, that most of our lives will be spent doing basically the same things, and that if you’re not satisfied with that you’re going to be miserable. Those are the sorts of thoughts that are quick to send me into a depressive spiral.

So what does it actually look like when I’m depressed? I get quiet. The whole world starts to feel overwhelming, too loud, too big, too bright. Basic tasks feel insurmountable, possibly because I just don’t care. Things feel heavy or thick, and it takes too much effort to remember or focus or smile. I feel tender and broken, and I curl into myself, physically and emotionally, to try to keep myself safe. My appetite goes wonky: sometimes I feel empty inside and just want to eat all the time, sometimes food sounds terrifying. More often than not depression is a feeling of having no idea what your emotions and your body are going to do next (but a strong conviction that it won’t be good).

The thing that I dislike the most about depression is anhedonia. I get anhedonia like nobody’s business. For those who don’t know, anhedonia is a loss of interest or enjoyment of things that used to be fun or engaging. I’m typically someone who enjoys a lot of things. I’m a joiner, and most of the time I’m trying new hobbies or filling every second of every day with things that make my brain feel engaged. So when those things stop holding any interest, it impacts me in a big way. I’ll try to go do something fun to pull up my mood, but it will feel pointless and joyless, which pushes my mood down even further. There is nothing that will make me smile, never ever ever again, everything will always feel like a struggle, and I’ve become utterly broken because the things that used to be awesome aren’t anymore.

It’s really easy for my brain to turn everything into the worst thing in the world when I’m in a down period. Something goes wrong and I’m inconsolable for days. It’s not a plea for attention or an attempt at drama. My feelings just won’t turn off, they won’t stop hurting. It feels like someone’s ripping my throat out through my stomach. I’ll cry so hard my whole body starts spasming. I feel it in my body. I get aches and pains, I can’t make it through a work out. I get sick.

And I get mean. When I’m depressed the whole world revolves around me. I want to make some allowances to myself and others for the fact that you get to be a little self absorbed when everything hurts, but it’s true that I ask for a lot and can’t give much back when I’m down. Being alone feels impossible because my brain won’t stop telling me bad things, but I don’t know how to do anything but complain since my brain also won’t let me see anything interesting or happy. So I end up compulsively texting and chatting, going on and on about how much I hate myself and my life and the world. I can see myself doing it and I can’t stop myself. It hurts to feel so dependent.

Depression for me also tends to come in long, ridiculous bouts. The worst was probably during my sophomore year of college, fall semester. I spent the entire semester so hopeless, lonely, and bored that I had to talk myself through each hour, promise myself that I could get to the next one. I spent a lot of time trying to numb myself to everything through starvation, mindless games, or any form of escapism I could use. Most seconds were spent wondering why I was still alive, what it was doing for me or for anyone, why it had to hurt so much. Sometimes it felt like nothing and sometimes it felt like everything packed into me all at once.

It’s hard to make any sense of depression or put it into a neat narrative. That’s probably why this description seems so disjointed: depression doesn’t make sense. It’s a lot of really unpleasant feelings and horrible thoughts mashed together in no discernible order. It’s assuming the worst, losing the good, and feeling like no one cares. And unfortunately, since my depression is chronic, it’s always lurking, waiting for a bad day that it can take advantage of.

What It’s Like: EDNOS

This is the third in a series. Find the first two posts here and here.

This is the point in the series where things are going to get a little hazy. The remaining diagnoses that I have (EDNOS, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder) are all big buckets. They cover a lot of people, they look a lot of different ways, and it’s entirely possible that other people with these diagnoses will have nothing in common with my experience of them. So while I did offer a disclaimer on the first post, I want to reiterate in a BIG WAY that this is just my experience and I don’t speak for everyone. There’s also the possibility that these three get mixed together in a big way, so I’ll be doing my best to separate the strands of what’s what’s but I make no promises that there will be clear distinctions between things.

With all the disclaimers out of the way, let’s get on with it.

EDNOS or eating disorder not otherwise specified is kind of a catch all diagnosis for people who have disordered and unhealthy relationships with food but who don’t fit clearly into one of the other diagnoses (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder).

I have a very restrictive type of eating disorder. I’ve never had binge eating as one of my symptoms, and I exclusively restricted my food intake for about four years before I developed purging as a symptom while I was in treatment (this is fairly common). I likely would have been diagnosed with anorexia if my weight was low enough, but it never quite dropped that far. When it started, it was mostly focused on feeling lost and confused around food (I had been a competitive swimmer for six years and when I quit I wasn’t entirely certain how to eat anymore) before devolving into a desire to lose weight.

Since then it’s become a very different beast. Control has always been an important part of not eating for me. It makes me feel powerful and more than human to go days without food. It gives me the conviction that I am actually capable of anything if I try hard enough, as I have done things the human body probably shouldn’t be able to do.

My eating disorder is how I manage a lot of my anxiety, perfectionism, and OCPD tendencies. One of the main things that I associate with it is a distraction from whatever is actually bothering me, and a way to make it seem like I have some control over my life when things are stressful. I’ve always been more focused on myself as intellectual, rational person than as an embodied person, and so things that remind me of my body can be stressful.

I’ve often felt as if I would be better, more in control, and more powerful if I just didn’t have a body. Not eating is a useful way to ignore the facts of my mortality and embodiedness. But I also can’t stop thinking about them. For years, I could tell people exactly what I had eaten for the last week, at what times, and approximately the calorie counts of each thing. I tend to get a god complex when I haven’t eaten in a long while because my body feels floaty and empty in a way that makes me feel invincible.

I also associate fasting with morality. There’s something saintly about being ascetic in my mind, and I can’t quite shake the connection. I’ve always been fascinated with religion and being “good”, and self-denial is a big part of how society (and particularly Catholics) define morality and godliness. Every time I don’t eat, I feel like I’m being good. I feel guilty when I do eat, regardless of what it is or how much. This has toned down over time, but there have absolutely been times during which I would spend hours trying to determine when it was acceptable for me to eat, how much, what kind of food, etc.

I feel like a failure when I eat too much. Not a failure at a diet or at losing weight, but a failure at being a human being. Sometimes it reduces me to crying in the fetal position because I’m convinced that I’m the actual worst person alive. This can extend to other activities around food. I get anxious about grocery shopping because I can only imagine having ALL THAT FOOD in my house that needs to be eaten RIGHT NOW (don’t even get me started on perishables).

And somewhere under all of it is the conviction that being skinny will make up for all my other deficits. I may not be able to play piano as well as that person, but I sure as hell am skinnier than them and that makes me better. It’s a very competitive mindset that doesn’t look at me alone but looks to other bodies to define acceptable. This might go back to my inability to find a grounded identity without feedback from others. Of course my view of myself is distorted in comparison to others, and I don’t actually care how big other people are as long as I am THE SKINNIEST.

There’s also a fear of letting myself go. If I let myself eat this thing, what’s to stop me from eating everything else in the whole world and bloating up into some sort of horrific parody of a human body? Again, I don’t find other people who are large disgusting, but I have a hard time grounding my worth in anything but my body.

I do find my own body disgusting though. I spend a lot of time trying not to look in mirrors because when I do I will sit and pick at every tiny flaw. I do this in other parts of my life too, but my body is so obvious and immediate that it’s easier to focus on it instead of the flaws I think I have as a person. Worse, when I am aware of those flaws I try to punish myself for it by not eating. I don’t believe that I deserve food or space or confidence. If I give myself even a little bit of those things, I’ll probably go overboard and become a narcissistic asshole. No food means that I’m keeping myself humble.

I also tend to fall apart when I don’t have structure in my life. Food rules became a way to organize my life. For a long time the rule was never eat two days in a row, and while I’ve managed to adjust that rule quite a bit, I still have a very hard time eating before noon. It’s just not what I do (or so I tell myself). I also find some safety in dictating how I eat: I don’t have safe foods, but I hate meals that are composed of more than one thing. This is why I tend to just put all the stuff I want in one pot and mix it up so that it’s like only eating one thing.

Probably the final important element of EDNOS for me is that I have an overactive brain and not eating/focusing on food are both ways to keep myself from getting bored and stressed. My mind processes things quickly. It doesn’t always do this well (I make a lot of sloppy mistakes), but it’s constantly going and going fast. Sometimes this means that I get stuck on a thought if there’s nothing else there to replace it. This would probably play into the OCPD tendencies I have as well as my anxiety disorder and my EDNOS. Where I would often in the past be turning over and over something that had embarrassed me, something I was worried about getting done, my eating disorder allowed me to change that to constant thoughts about food.

There’s a lot more to the experience of having an eating disorder, but the strongest feelings are self-hatred, guilt, and desperation to be good. These get expressed in a lot of ways, but they dominated my experience of EDNOS.