Anxiety vs. Depression — A Primer

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I have been enduring one of the worst stretches of anxiety and depression since I was in high school. Lately I couldn’t cast Expecto Patronus if my life depended on it. The dementors would just have to take me. Budge assures me it is not, in fact, THE worst since I haven’t been hospitalized but I think I probably could have been sent to the psych ward two or three times in the last seven weeks were it not for the fact I refuse to ever voluntarily give up my freedom to a doctor’s whim again. If I am ever hospitalized again, it will be with a warrant, a straitjacket, and several large orderlies. It may help some people, but it just terrified me. So, I’ve been thinking — analyzing my condition and rather than just a single side of my mental health coin showing up, the last seven weeks have been categorized by mental “coin flips” and it seems the coin is always in the air and I have no idea or control over how it lands. I can only hope for it to land on the thin edge because that edge is where normal, calm, relatively happy days exist.

In the process of analyzing my current situation, I realize just how isolating these conditions are. I don’t think people are monsters. They want to help me, but they have absolutely no idea how. It leads to a lonely existence, especially when I’m alone most of the time anyway. Another thing I’ve noticed is how interchangeable in some people’s minds the concepts of anxiety and depression are. While the two are intertwined in many subtle ways, they do have their distinctions and, as the old adage goes, the devil is in the details.

Depression targets motivation and self-worth. When I’m depressed, and I don’t mean just in a bit of a funk, but really manifesting clinical depression, I have a hard time standing up. The first thing I have to do every morning is make the decision to get out of bed. I literally have to urge myself to stand up, cut the light on, and start the day. Depression becomes the “why bother” disease. For instance, take laundry, which we all agree is a task everyone has to deal with unless he is a nudist. A rational thinking person will look at a pile of laundry and she may think, “damn, I don’t want to do this laundry!” However, her motivation kicks in and she begins to think of all the reasons why this needs to get done now as opposed to later. Depression looks at laundry differently.

When I’m depressed, I see a pile of laundry as an insurmountable challenge. I think, “there’s no possible way to get all this sorted, washed, dried, folded, and put away.” Then the “why bother” kicks in, as in, “why bother doing laundry at all? As soon as I get one load done, two more will take its place. It’s not like I go out anyway, so how dirty can these clothes be? I just want to go back to bed.” Then, depression’s second insidious attack begins — self-worth. The laundry sits there in a pile and you can hear a voice in your head saying, “you’re pathetic! If you’d just man up and do this shit when you get a load together instead of waiting so long you wouldn’t have this problem! You know what? You’re right, go back to bed, you don’t deserve clean clothes anyway. People who DO stuff deserve clean clothes. Losers can wear the same things again.”

It’s a devastating one-two punch. First, you have to fight just to get up the momentum to take care of a task only to have your mind screaming at you just how worthless you are for not getting the task done already. It can be about ANYTHING, too. Right now I can name off a twenty-five item list of things that need to be done around the house. Just looking at the list in my head makes me tired which triggers the idea of “why bother?” After all, nothing you need to do will actually be done because grass grows and bushes grow and oil in cars wears out so no matter what you do, you’re going to be stuck. See, a rational person sees these tasks as a part of life; a depressed person sees them as almost punishments and of course you have the peanut gallery in your head screaming, “You bloody loser! You have the worst looking yard in the neighborhood and you deserve it! Losers don’t get clean yards OR clean oil! Just sit there and cry like a baby . . . it’s what you deserve!”

Another characteristic of depression, at least for me, is a seething, roiling, barely contained anger bordering on rage. I don’t know where I heard it but someone said “Depression is anger turned inward.” Whoever they were, they knew what they were talking about. I’ll just sit sometimes and think about throwing my phone through the wall or something along those lines. At times like that I feel like I am a single giant exposed nerve with no skin and the environment is scrubbing me with sandpaper. I’m never mad at anyone but myself though because I always think I should do better, or should have done better. I was a bit of a cutter when I was in high school and it actually was quite soothing, but the world is hard enough on teenagers who self-harm, it’s down right ferocious on middle aged men who cut themselves. We’re supposed to know better.

Anxiety works in an entirely different way. Anxiety is the “What If” disease. A rational person knows if he wants to eat he has to go to the grocery store, but a person dealing with anxiety sees the trip as nothing less dangerous than a trip to the headwaters of the Amazon. What if you have a panic attack? Remember, you had one last time and had to hurry out of the store! Anxiety is usually much more talkative than depression. It’s a constant chatter of “why hasn’t anyone called you? Is it because they hate you? Did you offend someone without knowing?” Sometimes it’s all about the future, “Oh dear, you know what could happen if we do X! We can’t do that! It’s too much risk.”

That’s another difference between my depression and my anxiety. I can only speak for myself, but depression is much more past focused and backward looking while anxiety is almost exclusively future oriented. One way I’ve analogized them is two huge, dark oceans, the Ocean of the Past and the Ocean of the Future and they swirl together in a maelstrom until they crest and break with unendurable force on the Beach of Now. Anything on that beach is going to get crushed: plans, hopes, dreams, normalcy itself, all drowned in a tide of voices.

Depression looks towards the past. Sometimes it can look almost telescopically into the past. It’s not unusual at all for me to agonize over things that happened to me as a child or bad experiences I had in high school. Most of all, depression expertly hunts out mistakes. If you screwed up, no matter how big or how small, a bout of depression WILL find it and like bamboo under fingernails push on the soft, tender spots of your psyche until it bleeds, and it’s accompanied the entire time by the chorus of “you idiot! How could you do something so undeniably stupid! No wonder you’re in such a sad state; you’ve never made a right choice in your life! Just look at all the people you hurt; look at all the damage you caused! IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!!”

Anxiety, on the other hand, peers into the future and it never, ever likes what it sees. Anxiety also like to do its talking at night. You’ll just be lying in bed planning to go to sleep when you think, “Wonder why my arm has been hurting so much lately? Is that related to why my hand is shaking? Have I got Parkinson’s Disease? Am I going to die? What happens if I die? Who will take care of Budge?! Budge . . . did she check her sugar enough today? Did you make sure she didn’t eat gluten? What if she dies? You’ll be all alone! You’re going to DIE ALONE!”

Sometimes, they team up with depression dredging up some awful pain from the past and tossing it like a downfield pass to anxiety who says, “Ah yes! Remember this bit of idiocy on your part? What’s going to keep you from doing it again? You know every time you open your mouth something stupid comes out? This is just proof. I’m just going to have to make sure we don’t go anywhere or do anything that might cause a repeat of this mistake.” Of course, depression piles on with “That’s right! Stay home! Stay in the bed! You don’t deserve to go and do because you’ll just screw it up!”

Those “voices!” Now when I say “voices” please understand I’m not “hearing voices” in the classical schizophrenic sense. I’m just anthropomorphizing my thoughts. I will say sometimes though it can feel like the voices actually are screaming. It happens at my lowest and when they start pounding on me and I’m in tears and near the fetal position, I have entertained the one way to shut them up entirely . . . but so far I’ve always managed to claw out of such darkness. Honestly though? I never come back from the edge for myself. If it was just me, I’d have punched my ticket a long time ago. Someone’s always needing taking care of though . . . Mama, Granny, Budge – of course. I always come back.

The amazing thing about dealing with anxiety and depression is the amount of expertise you encounter. For example, one of my favorites is have someone say, “You know, there’s nothing really wrong with you? It’s all in your head.” Awesome! Thank you random person or perhaps family member. I have a board certified psychiatrist and a board certified psychologist who would disagree with you, but thank you for letting me know a mental illness is, in fact all in my head. I do hope the irony is not lost.

Another great healing balm is “You just need to get out more and face the world! Face your problems head on!” Again, I appreciate the sentiment and as soon as I uncurl myself from the fetal position and cut the lights on so I can put some unstained clothes on, I’ll get right on that!

The worst, however, is to be a Christian and suffer from depression and anxiety. You get a whole different batch of advice and well meaning helpful hints. Let me just list some of the things other Christians have said to me over the years when I’ve been stupid enough to talk about my depression and anxiety in front of them:

  • If you prayed enough you wouldn’t feel this way.
  • You can’t possibly be a REAL Christian because REAL Christians don’t have mental illnesses . . . . they’re of the devil!
  • If you just focus on Jesus instead of yourself you’ll be fine and it’ll all go away.
  • You don’t need all those medicines; prayer is the answer.
  • You must not be very close to God. He wouldn’t let you suffer like this! (When I get this one I always want to say, ever read Job, asshole?)
  • Real Christians don’t think about suicide because suicide is an unforgivable sin!

That’s just some of the more common pieces of wisdom I’ve had sent my way by well-intentioned believers over the years. It’s not as bad now that I’m in a different church but, no offense, growing up Pentecostal with a mental illness, it’s a wonder I made it out alive.

So that’s it. That’s what I’ve been dealing with the last several weeks. Hopefully you got some information out of it that will help you connect with someone you know who’s struggling with depression or anxiety. Maybe you are one of the brotherhood / sisterhood yourself and you came across this post at a low point. I hope you know you aren’t alone and let me leave you with two pieces of advice that have sustained me through many long dark nights of the soul:

  • Suicide, no matter HOW tempting it can be at times, is ALWAYS a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
  • It’s ALWAYS a temporary problem because you’ll get past the hump or you’ll eventually die and it’ll be over then, but be sure to follow Item 1.

Love y’all, I mean that, it’s not something I just use as a tag line. Not enough people love each other so when I close with “Love y’all” I’m not just talking to hear my brains rattle. Anyway.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

One response »

  1. I am so sorry you are experiencing such a rotten stretch of anxiety & depression. I want you to know I have heard every word you have written here & appreciate you sharing your feelings & thoughts in such an honest & open way. We can all learn from your words. Hoping you have support & love to hold you up as you work your way through & wishing you a lighter heart in the days to come. Lynn xx

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