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.
6) You can be depressed without knowing it
Yes, it’s counterintuitive. Yes, it sounds impossible. Still, the fact remains that it’s true. The thing about the overwhelming numbness of depression, the constant certainty that nothing at all matters, is that it can blind you to changes in your mood and behavior. Even if you’re tracking those things, if nothing matters, then they don’t matter either. I’ve been depressed, more than once, without having any idea that that’s what was going on. I’ve also realized that I was depressed in the middle of periods of depression, rather than at the beginning, and only realized the full extent of things in looking over the weeks and months prior.