CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mental health content that may be distressing.
Editor’s note: This is a sponsored article produced in collaboration with Kids Helpline Australia.
Depression is on the rise. Studies suggest that Millennials and Generation Z are experiencing higher rates of depression than the generations that came before us, and sadly, the pandemic has made matters even worse. According to Roy Morgan, young people are being hit the hardest when it comes to the mental health impacts of lockdowns. But amid all of the statistics, it can be easy to lose sight of the felt experience of depression: how the illness affects everyone differently, and how that shows up – usually quietly and without fanfare – in our day-to-day lives.
While some sufferers may find that the typical imagery that we associate with depression – the ‘dark cloud’ or ‘black dog’ – are sufficient to describe their experience of the illness, others know it as something else entirely. Perhaps they find it more akin to an all-consuming detachment; the threat of a mountain too steep to climb; or even just a complete inability to get out of bed.
To get a snapshot of the myriad ways that depression shows up in our lives, we asked six young Australians, all of whom suffer from the illness, to give us some insight into what depression looks like for them, and the ways they’ve found to cope.
“I move through no volition of my own”
Some days I’ll wake up and feel like I’m in another body. Everything feels strange, like there’s a glass screen between myself and the world before me. I move through no volition of my own – marionette-like, laboriously dragged by my mind one limb after the other. Time passes at a different pace in this state. Coffee transforms from hot to cold, hours morph one into the other. My body feels unconstrained by any obligations – eating, sleeping, working, all out of the question.
My compulsively cleaned inbox falls into disarray. I see the emails growing in number – first two, then five, then 12. The numbers scare me – they loom large, daunting, accumulating in size, one after the other. Their presence alone holds me hostage, barring me from taking any action against them. I disconnect my Mail app; log out of my social media; ignore my messages.
My to-do list presents the same threat. Opening my reminders exposes me to menacing deadlines, tasks and obligations. University assignments. File dates. Grocery lists. A mammoth mountain too steep to climb. I ignore them all. Another problem for another me.
The days I feel like this are the days that make no sense at all. I mean, I know what depression looks like – I’ve seen it on screen, on television, read about it in books. It’s mind-numbing sadness, all-consuming grief. So why the hell do I feel nothing at all?
“Moving through the days feels exhausting”
We hear that depression is like a black cloud hanging over your head; following you around, turning everything to grey. But for me, it’s more like the cloud is inside me, wrapping itself around my organs, sapping all the joy from my body. It seeps into my muscles, making them feel heavy and pulls on my joints, making it hard to move. It swirls in my stomach, making me not want to eat and pulls on my eyelids, making them so heavy it’s hard to keep them open.
It turns all the things that bring me pleasure and delight – cooking, moving my body, reading, writing, seeing my friends and family, eating food and drinking coffee – into chores. Moving through the days feels exhausting and the smallest of tasks send me back to bed to gain enough strength for the next.
Growing up, I didn’t know about ‘depression’. I mean, I’m sure I knew it was a word but not one that applied to me. I just thought the world felt hopeless sometimes and that I didn’t belong in the happiness others around me were experiencing. Now I know what it is and how it affects me. I have the words, learnt from doctors and psychologists. I can recognise low weeks as they arrive, bouts of deeper sadness and expect it to be waiting on the other side of my anxiety.
I know what to do now – how to help manage it, although it’s not always easy. But it will always be part of my being; that black cloud and me. Always ready to return and move like smoke through my body.
"The fear drove me to take steps towards getting better”
I’ve always had suicidal thoughts, but never felt as though it was a line I could actually cross. I never even made an attempt, so it couldn’t be that serious, right? Well, I later found out this is called ‘suicidal ideation’ and learnt that 1) it is real, valid and serious, and 2) as hard as it can be to believe, you can get better.
Throughout my life, it’s startling how little views around depression and anxiety changed. At school, teachers would dismiss my poor mental health as attention-seeking – no one ever notified my parents or referred me to a support service. When I started working I was met with dismissive attitudes – at one job I was put through a humiliating ‘fit for work’ test when I asked for a mental health day. At another, I was told that “women use tears as a weapon to get what they want”. I became resentful of those who couldn’t fathom what I was going through.
Every time I walked over a bridge or crossing, I started fearing that I really would cross that line. I realised that if my depression continued to worsen, I was going to die. The fear drove me to take further steps towards getting better. I worked with my GP to switch antidepressants and explored free therapy options.
At first, I was scared. My depression was such a huge part of my life that I wondered if I would be “me” once it lifted. As it turns out, I am.
That's not to say that medication is the answer to all. I still call psychologists and helplines for support in times of crisis, and lockdown has certainty prompted a few of these moments. Depression will likely be something I contend with for the rest of my life, but for now I’m happy to finally feel like I’m in control.
“The usual depression fixes just don’t fit”
Is my compulsion to lie in bed for four straight hours – alternating between napping and staring at my phone – depression or exhaustion? Most of the time, it’s impossible to tell. In any case, I’ve now successfully convinced myself that my depression will be cured by heading to Kmart and buying all the necessary accoutrements to finally organise my fridge the way I see on TikTok. All of those plastic tubs are cheaper than therapy, and antidepressants make me feel weird anyway.
The thing is, I am a big fan of both meds and therapy. I love how I feel when I learn something new about myself and how to better improve myself. When I finally saw my scores on a DASS 21 (a self-report mental health questionnaire) drop to a less alarming level and asked my psych if I could keep it to put on my fridge. (It lived there for six glorious months until I got too busy to look after myself again.)
The usual depression fixes I see everywhere just don’t fit into how I see the world and how I have been taught to function. As an eldest child and a migrant, the thing that really helps get me out of bed is caring for others.
As a migrant, the decision to go into the arts was a fraught one. I realised quickly that if I wasn’t excelling at what I did, then it wasn’t worth the stress I was putting everyone through. So I put my head down and barrelled on through.
“I make my depression an offer”
When I discover on my couch that I am once again sliding into depression, I’m hit with the same thought: here we go again.
You see, I cannot take antidepressants: even though I wish I could. I’ve been diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, and my doctor thinks they could make me manic. So when I forget to exercise or set good boundaries at work, I know that depression will be waiting for me in the wings.
I’m not friends with my nightmares, but we have a working relationship. So, I make my depression an offer: I will order pizza to appease the desire to do nothing, and in return my depression must let go of me tomorrow. I have a meeting the following day and if I cancel for my mental health again, the team won’t be able to deliver on the due date. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. When negotiating under duress with a genie something always slips. Doubly so when it’s a pair of genies; both attempting to escape their lamps.
My genies – the depression of downs and the hypomania of ups – are not friends, either. But they too have a working relationship. Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus: balancing a pin on my nose, but knowing it could fall to either side at any moment. But when I’m in the thick of a depressive episode, I remember the engraving on the ring King Solomon held to keep him optimistic when he was sad, and grounded when he was happy: ‘this too shall pass’.
“I’m just going through the motions”
People often equate depression with sadness. A quick Google search yields images of storm clouds hovering over human outlines, or shadowy figures curled up in dark rooms, knees pulled to chest, head buried in hands. Maybe this is what depression feels like for some people. But for me, I experience depression as apathy. A deep-seated can’t-be-bothered-ness. In the grip of it, I would wake in the morning and run a tally of the immediate tasks I faced – go to the toilet, wash my hands, remove my retainer, rinse my retainer, get dressed – and feel exhausted by the sheer tedium. And that was only the first 5-10 minutes of the day. But, despite what the media may have you believe, this apathy doesn’t render me bed-bound, surrounded by used and dirty laundry. I still get up, shower, dress. I just don’t feel any particular attachment to these, or any other, activities. I’m just going through the motions, struggling to shake the sense that none of it matters, that it's all ultimately pointless, and that if I stopped doing these things, or stopped being here at all, it wouldn’t matter.
That’s how it felt on my worst days. Thankfully, since engaging with therapy, finding the right people to support me and taking medication, I rarely feel like that. I consider myself so lucky to have found clinical, environmental and social support. I can only encourage anyone out there who is struggling to engage with support, even if it’s talking to just one person about how you’re feeling.
This article is sponsored by Kids Helpline, Australia’s only free, confidential, 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5-25. If you are struggling with depression, please reach out for support.
For more information and resources on depression, head here.
Story contributions were compiled and edited by senior culture writer, Reena Gupta. Reena also wrote the introduction to this piece. Follow her on Twitter @purpletank.