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What Your Depressed Loved One Isn’t Telling You

And What You Aren't Seeing Yourself

Photo by Thư Anh on Unsplash

Depression is a tricky beast. It hides in plain sight, envelopes you from the inside out, eats you alive and leaves you lifeless. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America calculates that over 16 million adults in America are affected by depression, or a depressive episode, every year— 322 million individuals worldwide. But how reliable can a number be with such a sneaky, manipulative monster? Where some may display “common” signs and symptoms of depression, others learn to bury them. Some are simply unbeknownst to the fact that they are struggling with a silent but powerful demon.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “well, I don’t know anyone who’s depressed," you’re 100% wrong. Maybe you’re not thinking that at all. Maybe you’re on the opposite side and are instead thinking, “everyone is depressed these days, just the way it is." You’re still wrong. If you have experienced the slippery grip of depression first hand, you have some understanding of the mood swings, lack of interest or motivation, sudden anxiety, and most of all, the faking it. But regardless of your personal experience, one will never understand the intricacies of someone else’s internal struggle. Even those of us in hiding can’t always spot a reciprocal.

Mine Is Not the Same as Yours

Depression isn’t a visible, tangible illness. You can’t draw some blood, look at cells under a microscope, and draw a single, determinant conclusion. There isn’t one simple test or scanner to run you through and “poof," you’re diagnosed, medicated, and healed. And no simple test or tangibility means no completely distinguishable timeline for how long you’ve been depressed or how long it will last.

When something is not easily diagnosed, signs and symptoms are a generalization of behaviors that may, or may not, appear in an individual. My depression may look like the behavior of an introvert—quiet, unsocial, disinterested in extra attention or crowds. My brother’s depression may look like more than a beer or two a day, a short temper, and abnormal sleep patterns. Your depression may look like a boisterous cynic with a potty mouth and a mean streak who hasn’t cried a tear in years. Hers may look like a perky millennial with a bright future and a perfect smile who cries herself to sleep every night. No matter what one perspective may be from the outside, the invisible cloak of depression is not one size fits all.

Some have trouble wrapping their head around what feels like their own internal dysfunction. So, who are we to bunch anyone into a group and slap a single tag on it? As if the options are only “DEPRESSED” and “NOT DEPRESSED." We give nail polish and crayons more credit than that.

Sadness Doesn’t Equal Depression Doesn’t Equal Suicide

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

A common misconception about depression is that it is just a temporary emotion, something that is felt and then goes away with time. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. Depression is a psychiatric disorder, not a feeling. It can be a reaction to an event or have no easily distinguishable root, which makes it that much harder to understand. Sadness is a feeling, an emotion. Sadness can be a reaction to an event, but usually has a distinguishable root or cause, and likely isn’t permanent. Any person with a considerably normal spectrum of emotions will experience sadness at least once in their life—that does not mean the said person will experience depression.

We often see and hear conflicting information from doctors and pharmacists pushing anti-depressants, to the media or family hastily warning us of the signs of depression, addiction, and suicide. Although sadness may lead to depression and depression, sometimes, may result in suicide, we cannot equate them as the same. Life’s misfortune can lead to any array of emotions, dysfunction, or disorders. Some cases are met with sadness. Some cases are met with the diagnoses of a disorder that can be medicated. Some cases are fatal, unresolved with medication or therapy, and end in the taking of one’s own life. It is difficult, even for a professional, to determine the exact outcome of misfortune or a diagnosis, so we simply cannot generalize and assume all situations, emotions, and diagnoses are the same.

Reactions Encourage Silence

Individuals dealing with the sticks and pricks of depression may not experience their disorder the same, but we usually all have one thing in common: discomfort, anxiety, and fear with the thought of telling our story to someone else. Telling your own truth is never easy, no matter what demons you’re battling. That truth is even harder to tell when there is so much negative stigma and misunderstanding surrounding your internal battle—even more if you come from a particularly silent, less-than-sharing family.

Think of your deepest, darkest, most embarrassing secret. Add some confusion, frustration, and lack of control over the secret, sprinkled with the weight of a judgmental society. You can imagine how expressing a secret like this requires strength, courage, and likely, trust in the receiver. But when that receiver isn’t as receptive as one may hope or expect— maybe laughs, rolls it off as nothing, suggests “well can’t you just stop” or “everyone’s got shit”—it’s crushing. Because depression, and mental/invisible illness in general, is still so misunderstood, reactions tend to be misinformed—and many times, hurtful. And witnessing a hurtful response discourages others from wanting to share.

When you hear your co-worker describing how annoying and whiney their niece is because “she claims she’s depressed” or your father tells you to get over yourself and grow a pair because “your life isn’t that bad," all that strength to share melts away. When your best friend sits in silence immediately following your admittance, and then starts a conversation about food or a movie ten minutes later, all of the courage and effort you put into opening up are lost. No reaction is perfect, but some are certainly more compassionate and comforting than others. 

It Hurts

The number one message your depressed loved one isn’t telling you, but wants to scream to the world: IT HURTS. Depression may not be as straight-forward as a black eye or as blood rushing as a gunshot wound, but it most certainly causes pain like no other. It’s like a body-evasive serial killer in an invisible cloak—it meticulously breaks you down, causing pain throughout your body and soul without leaving a trace. The pain you incur when trying to pave your way through the chaos is indescribable. You can’t replicate it to give a hint or an idea of what you’re feeling to a stranger. The worst part? Pain that can’t be seen is the hardest to track down, and the hardest to get rid of.

Although reading an article by a stranger doesn’t make you an experienced therapist or the most understanding person in the world, it may give the slightest bit of guidance in helping you understand what your loved one may be going through. Depression (and many other mental illnesses and emotional disorders) floods America, growing person by person, day by day. Whether this monster lives inside you or not, we all should do everything we can to better understand and anything we can to not let it devour us all. After all, life only gets harder as we go.

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