The above is a link to information from the National Institute of Mental Health on depression that answers questions like “What are the symptoms of depression?” and “How can I help myself or a loved one who is depressed?”

I know first-hand that depression can be difficult to spot — after all, we all feel down in the dumps every now and then. Occasional blues are part of life; without being sad, how would we know what happiness is, after all? Depression can look and act similar to sadness, but it is different. Knowing what to look for becomes quite important for being able to distinguish the passing blahs from a more lengthy and serious episode of depression.

I wish that I had known better, that I’d looked harder at what was going on with me during some episodes in my life where I realize now I was clearly very seriously depressed. For example, I flunked out of college in my last semester because I could not stop sleeping and I lost all motivation for what was previously my only passion and goal from childhood — becoming a scientist. An astrophysicist, specifically.

Nobody said anything to me that semester — not my mom, my classmates, my professors. I thought then, and I had still thought for over a decade, that I was lazy and stupid, that I’d run up against my limitations taking those last few classes and that I was never cut out to be a physicist in a first place. Math became impossible, showing up to class became impossible, and I had no energy to make contingency plans like financial aid, graduate school, etc. I let my student medical insurance lapse, then figured I had no doctors I could go to anyway. I gave up and stayed home and got the first failing grades in my life, going from Dean’s List to failed within the span of one semester. And for years I was too ashamed and thought I was too stupid to go back and face my professors and try retaking the 3 classes I needed to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in physics — a senior thesis, a criminal justice gen-ed class, and calculus IV. But no, that episode of depression so demoralized me that I had become convinced I couldn’t do it. That physically and mentally, I had proof that that was impossible.

The truth is I was coming off a hypomanic phase from the summer and fall semester, when I had done anything and everything, sleeping little, excelling at class and socializing — I truly had it all that semester. The summer before, I’d had an insanely fun time with my boyfriend at the time, spending a month in Berkeley. The fall semester, I was president of the Society of Physics students, and I got to know all my classmates really well. I played Diablo 2 all the time, got my homework done, and had tons of energy to shake off the creepy, rage-y vibes from my mom’s live-in boyfriend. I was hardly at home, because I hardly needed to sleep. Then for Christmas, I went around the country with my boyfriend, back in Berekley to spend Christmas with his family, then to Ohio to visit my extended family, driving a big loop around the east coast and going to NYC. I never traveled so much in so short a span of time, nor talked to so many people.

It seems so obvious, knowing what I know now, that of course I eventually came crashing down. And it was such a prolonged and high ‘high’ that it led into a deep, protracted depression when my final semester got underway. The depression was the reason I felt muddled and stupid, couldn’t stop sleeping, gave up on my classes and finances and everything.

That depression didn’t lift for a year. An entire year.

By then I had completely wrecked my life up. It was like I’d been driving a nice, shiny new car and had gone from a 65mph clip to running straight into a brick wall. Flunked out of college, no job, no future, dumped my boyfriend, had nothing but debts, too tired and stupid to figure out what to do (so it felt.) And my family said nothing, except perhaps “That is a shame,” and “Well, what are you going to do now?” But my self-esteem was never the same. I was a failure, a disappointment, stupid, good only for easy work, and I still haven’t figured out what I want to do with my life, 10 years later.

I sometimes wonder how things could have been if I’d been able to recognize my fatigue and brain fog and sudden lack of interest in everything for depression. Or if someone else had recognized it. If I’d been able to get some help.

I still have a lot of self-blame for that time, and to be honest a lot of blame for the people who were supposed to care about me but who did nothing as I descended into nothingness. Unfortunately, severe depression makes you do the exact opposite of what you need to do to get rid of it — you stop talking to people, you can’t leave the house, you can’t figure out what’s wrong with you, you figure, like some kind of horrible epiphany, that you are just a wretched, stupid person and that you deserve to feel that way. And you believe it. And by the time it’s full-blown, serious, crisis time, everyone is giving you so much space that nobody says anything.

So depression awareness is very important, I think. Certainly if it’s severe depression, but even when it’s a longer, malingering sort of bleak, mild depression. Life is genuinely short enough and difficult enough without your own brain working against you like that.

The lost time, the lost potential, the ruined relationships, the missed opportunities, the lost self-esteem… Recovering is hard enough. Believe me, it becomes even harder when nothing is the same and so many things have gone wrong.

Awareness is key. Just as it doesn’t do much good to become aware of CPR during someone’s heart attack, it is difficult enough to deal with your own or a loved one’s depression in the throes of its grip.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

I have been very tired for the past month or so, and struggling to ‘keep up’ for a month prior to that. I assumed that being tired accounted for why things just didn’t seem as easy, little cruddy occurrences knocked me flat and ruined my whole day, and why I couldn’t think on my feet or reason my way into feeling better. After all, I felt great just a few months ago! I was unstoppable — until all that stopped.

After seeing my doctor, ponying up 7-8 big vials of blood, then ruling out everything from thyroid issues to vitamin deficiencies, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder.

Wait. What? Um… yay?

Two weeks ago I was convinced this was some kind of thyroid thing, since I’ve been this tired before on more than a few occasions over the last 10 years or so. I usually felt kind of meh but sometimes had a few weeks or months of feeling great, then BAM! I’d hit a wall where I would sleep all the time and had no energy to do anything. But I have an autoimmune disease and a few other medical issues that seemed to explain the bouts of persistent tiredness, and things would flare up and I’d turn out to be anemic or something which would invariably seem to explain my fatigue at the time.

And it’s not like I was depressed, surely, I thought. My whole life has been kind of crappy and strange and turbulent, and I was just figuring out ways to deal with that as I grew into an adult and had the distance to look back and realize everything I had been through growing up, to say nothing of some of the new messes that presented themselves to me on top of all that. Not depression, just life. Right?

Being bipolar never occurred to me. It seemed all wrong, because I was never manic or depressed, and everyone knows bipolar people are manic-depressives. I’d taken psychology in college, I’d studied all kinds of mental illnesses, I was very ‘in tune’ with myself, and its not like I wasn’t able to function because of my moods… I always assumed my moods just reflected how I felt, which was often crappy, but rarely quite great. I never considered my periods of energy and happiness to be excessive or unmanageable — quite the contrary, they seemed like the few periods in my life when I felt “normal” and happy, like how I assumed well-adjusted, healthy, happy people did all the time. I never felt better, never had more energy, never got so much done, never was so creative and tuned in and awesome! How could that be bad?

Coming down off that and turning into a do-nothing, soulless, self-critical lump, it turns out, is what was really, really bad.

This is the third time I’ve come up negative for thyroid problems in the past three years, and the bloodwork doesn’t lie. For the first time, however, all my other medical issues are well in hand and there are no other avenues to blame for the way I feel. Also, this time my ‘happy’ cycle did indeed look like hypomania when I sat down and did some introspection, and my current ‘tired’ cycle certainly, 100% without a doubt is depression like I have never before known.

So after my doctor brought it up before ordering my blood tests and as I looked more closely into Bipolar II, which is characterized by much milder manic episodes than Bipolar I, things did seem to line up rather neatly. The fact that earlier this year I had so much energy that I nearly went to the doctor because I could not sleep and I was beginning to worry that something was wrong was one sign — this deep depression I found myself sliding further into as I waited to see my doctor for my results was a real clincher.

It was quite the juxtaposition, realizing I had never felt so good and productive and energetic as I did months ago, and conversely I have never before been so depressed, so illogically critical of myself, and so unable to function as I am now. This year’s cycle of highs and lows has been markedly more profound than any I have experienced before. I don’t see a lot of use in over-analyzing my prior mood shifts, except to note that I’ve been experiencing them since at least my early 20s, and that, looking back, sometimes I can pinpoint an outside occurrence that might have triggered it, and sometimes it seems to just shift on its down.

I won’t use the term mood swing to describe what’s going on and what has gone on with me, because it seems a little too short-lived to describe things. It is difficult for me to explain, but probably important that I try since, oddly enough, cycling through these various states of mind is what has been normal for me, and I assumed it was normal for introspective, deep-thinking, intelligent people… or something.

I’ll start on the high note. I have gone through brief (a few weeks to 2-3 month) periods where nothing mattered but everything mattered, in a good way. The best way. Life was beautiful and all experiences were important and meaningful and useful, and I shrugged off things and felt generous and engaged and chatty. Great things were great, mistakes and bad things were learning experiences to be utilized then filed away to be laughed at some other day, and there were possibilities around every corner. Life was mine for the picking, and my only problem seemed to be deciding what to choose first! Awesomesauce! Awesomesauce forever.

Then after a while, something particularly bad or threatening or difficult happened, or life just started to pile up the way life does. Then I would ratchet things down and go through periods where nothing mattered, in an indifferent or kind of blah way. Life was all the same and would always be the same, and I felt there was no point in trying to convince anyone of anything, because people don’t change, and the status quo is impossible for one person to shift. The only person I could control was myself, so I would focus my energies on me. I’d shore myself up throughout the day, because I had to be on guard against all the daily shit that would taint and soil me and drag me down, because no one else was going to do it for me. I knew these things deeply, but I refused to let it make me sad because it was just the fact of life. I wasn’t depressed — I was realistic. Besides, why shake my fist into the tempest when I was smart enough to be carrying a rain poncho and an umbrella and I happened to find the workings of tempests to be at least mildly illustrative to study? If I kept my wits about me, I could come through it all relatively unscathed and wiser, if a bit storm-tossed and soggy. But I could handle that. Surely. I convinced myself I’d pull through eventually, once something changed or improved or happened and I’d get back on top of things. Probably.

And now for my current mood period, which kind of new. Everything matters, in a bad way. I can’t handle anything. I realize I was never able to handle anything. I was fooling myself all along that life was great, or that even when it wasn’t great, I could somehow rise above it and glean something useful from it. What a self-deluded moron I have been, what a complete and utter fool. I bet the entire time I was happy, everyone thought I was some overly-optimistic, ridiculous idiot, and the entire time I thought I was reaching deep and trying to forge my way through life sorting through the crap and looking for bits of hope, I looked like some preachy, self-important philosophizer who at 30 is too old to be acting like some know-it-all, gloomy teenager still. I can’t get out of bed before noon, I can’t stop eating candy and junk food, I can’t get the dishes done, I can’t even bring myself to go check the mail until it’s dark outside, the thought of having to get groceries or make appointments or having something go wrong makes me want to cry… I am an utter and complete failure. Everything I ever did that was appreciated or praised was a fluke and will never be repeated. I am useless. The secret will get out and everyone will know that I’m useless, that I always was useless, and that I will forever be useless. Fuck, what an idiot I have been. Fuck, what an idiot I will continue to be.

So yeah, that is kind of where I have been for a few weeks, though I have been working hard on doing cognitive behavioral therapy to short circuit the illogical, unhelpful, and clearly very negative thoughts that aren’t realistic or useful at all. But counteracting my irrational, depressed thoughts has not offered up much in the way of mitigating my physical symptoms (fatigue, stupid appetite, feeling muddly,) and I can’t pretend like my mood is lifting dramatically on my own, either.

So, after heading straight back to my doctor after coming to grips with the fact that there was, for once, nothing wrong with my bloodwork, I have my shiny, new diagnosis. I’ve also started on Wellbutrin, which I am desperately hoping helps with these physical symptoms of depression, and I have a follow-up appointment with my doctor, who may refer me to a psychiatrist if things don’t improve or if they get more complicated.

Naturally all of this makes me kind of even more anxious/depressed/worthless feeling, but I am clinging to my logic and reminding myself that things have been better and can be better — in fact, they can be better than they were before, because I am getting off the roller coaster and evening things out from now on. (I tell myself this literally every 30 seconds or so.)

Thankfully I have plenty of support from my husband, who was a lot more suspicious that I was bipolar from the start. Unfortunately he’s going to be on travel a lot for the next few months, but honestly I almost feel better being alone while I wait for my medicine to kick in because I felt a (not so) surprising amount pressure and negativity about myself when I couldn’t feel and act normal while he was home between trips this weekend. ”I feel depressed. I’m sorry I’m acting so depressed. I’m trying not to be depressed, honest. Oh god, I even sound depressed when trying not to be depressed. I must look and sound stupid and I bet you wish you didn’t have to deal with me like this. Really, I’m trying not to be depressed because I know this is all part of it, but it’s not working! I feel even more depressed now,” and so on, and so forth. It is a stupid cycle that makes no sense and feeds itself and makes me feel worse whether I try to fight back or not. Not fair, brain, not fair.

In the meantime, I do still feel quite depressed, despite my best efforts to cajole myself out of what I assumed at first was just some stupid ‘funk,’ and then some kind of horrible joke my thyroid was playing on me. It is especially hard to accept these new ‘limitations’ after looking back to earlier this year, when I had lots of energy, a great attitude, and so much creativity I could barely sleep. I honestly for a while there thought, “This is the new me! I’ll be this awesome from now on? YAY!”

Contrast that with “This is the new me. I’ll never feel awake again, I’ll never write again, I’ll never do anything again. I’ll be this pathetic from now on. Shit.”

Naturally the disparity between then and now looms in my mind, making the gulf between “Happy Me” and “Crappy Me” all the more profound, disappointing, and disturbing. And naturally, that gulf seems like a black, yawning chasm of disappointment and horribleness that proves I’m a faulty human being — when I don’t watch my thoughts and keep them from being this ludicrously bleak. Even the constant vigilance starts to seem pointless and amateurish after a while, though, which is just another evil trick up my mind’s black sleeve. FMB.

I haven’t written anything in days, almost weeks, not after shredding my own self-esteem to bits after struggling to stay awake and put together a coherent paragraph that I didn’t hate and want to immediately delete. After working myself up into ridiculous, pointless, uncontrollable sobs over it all two weekends ago, I put my Macbook aside and retreated firmly to my non-writing/gaming-only laptop and immersed myself in other people’s work, hoping not to ‘waste’ my downtime. I also have been listening to audiobooks and reading when I can manage it, though my attention span isn’t great and my ability to remember and process things is noticeably slowed to the point where it is sometimes seems unbearable to even try.

I tend to sleep a minimum of 12 hours, despite struggling to get up and get going from when my alarm goes off at 8am and I take my new anti-depressant pill. I hate going to sleep because I know I’ll be struggling to wake up. I also know I’ll wake up feeling just as exhausted as if I never slept. It takes at least 3-4 hours for me to feel even remotely awake (I perpetually feel like it’s 4am and I haven’t slept at all), then I usually feel like I need a nap or just fall asleep in the middle of whatever I’m doing in the early evening. If I allow myself to nap or if I can’t help but nap, I struggle to wake up from that too. I hate waking up to find the sun setting, or worse, waking up to find that it’s bedtime and that I’ve thrown my “sleep schedule” (ha) all off again — Now I’ll never be able to wake up at 8am, I tell myself, then berate myself some more for not being able to just get out of bed and muscle through like any other remotely functional human being out there with more problems and less good sense than I should have.

And, boy, do I want comfort foods. Chocolate, pot pies, cookies, fries, burgers… And the stupid thing is, I literally cannot eat it all! I had weight loss surgery over a year ago and my stomach is physically 80% gone. Yet my brain says, “Gurrrl, can’t get enough of that food! Keep it coming!” which, naturally, makes me feel like even more of a failure for not being able to control myself there either.

Not cool, brain. 

Anyway, the point of posting this isn’t to rehash all the crazy, irrational thoughts I’m having or to depress anyone else. I wanted to write about my experience to 1) do some writing, even if it isn’t creative writing or the fiction that I’d desperately love to be writing, 2) to say “Ho boy, do I get it now. Depression is a horrible insidious thing that no one should have to go through and that is tough as balls to deal with because it feeds on itself and is evil,” and 3) so maybe someone else will read this and say “Oh crap, maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. I’m not alone, I’m not a failed human being, I just have this recognizable thing that people know about and can treat and I can do something about it.”

I definitely want off this roller coaster. I want my mind back. I wish like mad this was a thyroid thing, because that would be sooooo much easier by comparison to treat! I know treating bipolar disorder isn’t an easy, one-size-fits-all process, but even with as depressed as I am, hell BECAUSE of how depressed I am, I am going to keep trying things until something works. I firmly believe that, somewhere between the scary highs and these black, deep lows, there is a middle ground where I can be just as creative, productive, and happy as I am on the way up while also finding some stability and a better outlook on things that has probably been missing without me even knowing it.

Mental issues are so hush-hush in our society and people are so ashamed of being depressed, let alone ‘mentally ill’. It doesn’t help that lots of people don’t know how to deal with someone who is depressed and react poorly or strangely, and the depressed person themselves maybe feels like things could be a lot worse and they don’t have “the right” to feel down.

Fuck all that, you feel how you feel. But talk to somebody, and realize that sometimes you have to take your medicine to feel better. It takes effort when you feel like you have nothing left to give, but if there is nothing else you do for yourself, seeing a doctor is the ONE THING you must, must, must do. It isn’t something you should be ashamed of, it isn’t something you should have to ‘wait out,’ and it isn’t something you should just ‘suck up’ and assume you have to deal with on your own. Depression kills a lot of people and makes life unbearable for many, many others. It is a legit medical concern, no more to be ignored than chest pain or blood gushing out of you.

I, for one, am not messing around after seeing first-hand how alarmingly fast my mind spiraled out of control on itself. I have dealt with so much medical shit in the past that I find it quite easy to talk about my issues, and I feel no shame anymore over having things wrong with me, and yet when my doctor said “We’ll test for these billion things… but did you ever think you might be bipolar?” I was just like “HAHA, no, madam. Shut the fuck up.”

Nobody’s perfect, me least of all, I assure you, yet I can tell you that no amount of there being things mentally or physically amiss with you makes you any less of a worthwhile person. In fact, you have to work harder and longer and deal with more than a perfectly healthy person to accomplish what you do manage to do. If you are ever feeling even 1/4 as bad as I’ve been feeling, at least talk to a doctor about it. Maybe it’s a vitamin D deficiency, maybe you need a B12 shot, maybe it’s depression. If you do nothing else, though, find out.

For now, I’m taking things one day at a time, basically just trying not to make stuff worse while eagerly anticipating feeling something start to ease up as I wait for my new medicine to kick in. I intend fully to get back to writing just as soon as I can — I just have no idea when “I can” will be or what it will feel like. I know I will get there, because I always have pulled out of these things before on my own. I am sure this time it will go a lot faster, and a lot smoother, since I’ll be doing what I can to make sure it lasts instead of swinging around on me.

I have sooooooooo many things that I want to do, so I try to always remember how much I am looking forward to getting back into action. It is one thing that I keep telling myself that always that helps me bust up the bleak swarm. I will be back, better than ever. I will be back. Better than ever.