4) Suicidal thoughts aren’t always part of depression, and even when they are, they’re not always activesuicidal thoughts
An active suicidal thought might look something like this: “I wish I was dead, so today/tomorrow/next week/next month, I’m going to overdose on enough pills that I don’t have to continue being alive.” Active suicidal thoughts involve intent, even if it’s intent to do something a long time from now. They involve a plan, even if it’s a vague plan. They’re what people think “suicidal thoughts” mean, and they’re not wrong, exactly. It’s just not the entire definition.
The other variety of suicidal thoughts looks more like this: “I’m going to go to sleep, and I hope that I don’t wake up tomorrow,” or, “Man, if I just jerked the steering wheel a little to the left, my car would flip over the highway partition and I could stop living — wouldn’t that be nice?” These are what are called passive suicidal thoughts; there’s no real intent behind them, and there’s not necessarily a concrete plan involved. They are, in essence, fantasies about dying, which crop up because depression has made the idea of dying more appealing than the idea of continuing to be alive. I won’t lie here, though I’d honestly prefer to: though I’ve never been in danger of truly harming myself, I’ve experienced passive suicidal thoughts alongside depression many times over the years. This type of thought is not as dangerous as the active type, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous, because the one can lead to the other. Enough passive suicidal thoughts, built up over time, can become an active one.
Having said that, depression is often reduced — even in the minds of the depressed — to, essentially, the suicide disease, and that’s neither accurate nor helpful. Some of us never experience suicidal thoughts at all; some of us have only ever experienced the passive ones I just mentioned; some of us have experienced active suicidal thoughts, but they’ve been few and far between.
Regardless of the volume of these thoughts, treating a friend or loved one who has told you they are depressed like they are automatically a suicide risk is often a mistake. For one thing, if a depressed person knows you are worried about that, they may be afraid to talk to you, or think that mentioning it would be burdening you, in the event that those thoughts do crop up. And, of course, there is the fact that the person underneath the depression — the person that depression is lying to, bullying, and bossing around — is probably very, very frightened of both the idea and the reality of suicidal thoughts. Having a part of your brain wishing you would die, whether actively or passively, is really scary, and it can be incredibly exhausting to have to comfort others on that subject when you’re already struggling to comfort yourself.
5) Depression and sadness aren’t (always) the same thing
Don’t get me wrong — they can be. Certainly depression can bring with it bouts of sadness and despair. Certainly, when depressed, things that might not bring you down otherwise can sink you into a dark mood. Depression once made me burst into tears of anguish over a Simple Plan song, so trust me, it can find the melancholia in almost anything. But more than sadness, more than despair, the word that really characterizes depression is numbness. Depression takes your feelings and bottles them up, only to release them without warning in unpleasant, incongruous bursts. When you’re depressed, you tend to bounce between feeling so much you think it might tear you to pieces, and feeling absolutely nothing at all.
The way that I always think of it can be sourced back to Terry Pratchett, the author of a number of my favorite novels. He brings up this paradox in a few of his books: “Open the box with the crowbar you will find inside.” That’s what the numbness portion — by which I mean, the vast majority — of depression is like. Your emotions, normal reactions, motivations, positive thoughts; these things are inside of a box, and also inside of that box is a crowbar with which the box can be opened. It’s a frustrating situation, although, of course, it doesn’t feel frustrating when it’s happening, because your ability to feel frustrated is inside the box with everything else. Instead, you mostly feel like it doesn’t matter, because you mostly feel like nothing matters.