“You have bipolar disorder? But you’re one of the most well-adjusted people I know!”
I was both tickled and ticked off by this comment from a co-worker after I’d told him that I’d been diagnosed 10 years earlier with Type II bipolar disorder. A part of me found his consternation hilarious because I knew how hard I’d worked to conceal my symptoms from my co-workers. However, the fact that he didn’t recognize my suffering only compounded my feelings of crippling isolation that so many people with depression experience.
Though we’ve come a long way in recognizing the devastating impact mental illness can have on a person’s life, there’s still a long way to go in overcoming the stigma attached to depression. Many people still believe that we can get up, shake it off, and get on with the business of life. When I was first diagnosed, I felt shame because I’d been conditioned to believe that depression was for people who weren’t strong enough to deal with whatever the world threw at them. It took a long time for me to concede that I’m not weak – I’m sick.
I’d done a brilliant job at concealing my illness; excelling at my career, buying my first home at the ripe old age of thirty, and appearing to be a paragon of confidence to even the closest people around me. That’s why so many of them were shocked when I was admitted to the hospital after taking an overdose of sleeping pills and cutting myself with a butcher knife. I was lucky. I survived. Yet there are so many suicides that come as a shock to family and friends because the victim had done a masterful job of concealing their desperation.
However, studies show that there are recognizable patterns of behaviour in people who are contending with their inner demons. Knowing what to look for can help you determine if you or someone you love may in fact be dealing with depression.
1) Binge Behaviour
At the lowest points in my battle with mental illness I literally have been unable to get out of bed. Sleep disorders are a classic indicator that someone may be coping with depression. I blamed my bouts of over sleeping on insomnia, the flu, and even on my dogs taking up too much space on the bed.
The same goes for the binge eating I would subject my body to. The combination of channel-surfing in pajamas in the middle of the day with the blinds closed while I inhaled chicken wings and garlic bread was in fact a recipe for depression. Isolating myself with these unhealthy habits only helped me to spiral out of control.
Keep an eye on habits that are in excess like smoking, drinking, or even exercise or dieting.
2) The Cover Up
Clinical depression erodes your mental health but it takes a physical toll as well. People suffering from depression can become pros at explaining away self inflicted cuts, weight loss or gain, and other symptoms of their illness. Be aware of repetitive excuses like the friend who constantly sleeps in and misses work or always has to have that one more drink to relax. There may be something deeper at play.
3) Abandonment Issues
Ask anyone I know – I will lose it if my life does not unfold according to the schedule I’ve set out for it. To someone with a healthy mind, a change in plans is nothing to sweat over. To someone with depression, a cancelled meeting or date can be perceived as rejection. The sufferer’s mind can go wild with reasons for the changed plans:
“My boss doesn’t want to meet with me because I’m not a valuable employee. My boyfriend broke our plans because he’s seeing someone else. My friends are probably hitting the town without me because they don’t want me to drag them down.”
Although all of these things are probably far from the truth, the person with depression will dwell on these thoughts and it will contribute to their downward spiral. If someone overreacts to broken plans assure them that the situation is temporary, reschedule for another time, and keep your promise.
4) The Over-Achiever
There is certainly nothing wrong with striving for excellence, but a person suffering from depression may go too far in an effort to prove their self worth. Depression often stems from feelings of inadequacy. To disprove these feelings the sufferer will endeavour to be the best at everything that they do. If someone is trying too hard, assure them that they’re doing wonderfully well but you would still cherish them regardless of their achievements.
6) Negative Nelly
A person with depression has the opposite of rose-coloured glasses. In fact, a depressed person will have an overall negative outlook on life. He or she will think that everything is going to go poorly, that everyone is against him or her, and nothing will ever get better.
One of my most destructive thoughts is: “the universe is against me and is conspiring to destroy every dream I’ve ever had.”
When I’m feeling well, I know how ridiculous that belief is.
However, when the veil of depression comes down I become convinced I will never, ever find peace and happiness. If someone you know is ‘catastrophizing’ or irrationally believing that something is far worse than it actually is, listen to their concerns and calmly assure them that everything will be fine.
If you suspect that someone is sinking into depression, the best thing you can do for them is gently tell them about your concerns, advise them to seek medical help, and assure them of your support. Loneliness and isolation are the hallmarks of depression, so knowing that someone cares can make a world of difference to someone in pain.