Thursday, July 24, 2014 · 1:01 p.m.
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Not all chronic diseases are visible diseases. Here's me smiling through the worst bout of depression I've had in months, pretending I was OK. (Photo: Staff)

Every few months, I find that the pull of the gravitational field under my bed increases. My brain gets slow and stupid, and it makes me apathetic. My limbs feel heavy, like I'm trying to run underwater. Time slows down, and everything seems as exhausting as having just crawled up and down several mountains on my hands and knees. For some reason, I tell myself I'm terrible and can't do anything. I start to wonder if other people agree. I'm confused by these conversations I have with myself, but I'm too tired to sort it out. I avoid leaving the house except for absolute necessities, like work. As soon as possible, I shamble back to my house, eat some pasta and schlump back into bed. This is what depression feels like, and it happened to me again last month.

I fled a friend's birthday party early because somehow being around people and holding a drink and chitchatting with some of my best friends was as overwhelming as a spotlight on a hangover. For a solid two weeks, I jammed headphones into my ears at work to shut out everyone and listened to sad songs that thickened the tight cocoon around me. At the same time, I desperately, paradoxically wanted to be around people. I just felt like making a connection was too hard, like everyone was too far away, like shouting into a tin can on a string hoping someone will hear you.

Everything felt as if I were wrapped in layers of canvas and plastic and dropped into dark water. I wanted to be touched, yet without putting in any effort; I craved some kind of automatic love. I felt an acute sense of loneliness even as I pushed safe people away. I lost interest in eating unless it was something hot and salty and basic, the kind of general mechanized comfort fuel that you eat because you know it keeps you going. I craved human companionship of the same kind—I didn't want what nourished me, just something I could feel. It was kind of like having the flu, when all you can think about is how terrible the flu makes you feel, and you kind of want chicken soup, but even more you just want to lay there and not feel anything at all.

Winston Churchill called it his black dog. Rachel Maddow described it as losing her will or disappearing out in space, cut off from the mother ship. The World Health Organization estimates that 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression. They describe it as "the leading cause of disability worldwide." The WHO notes that "although there are known, effective treatments for depression, fewer than half of those affected in the world (in some countries fewer than 10 percent) receive such treatments." For those without the privilege or resources to seek diagnosis and treatment, the effects can be devastating. Depression makes it hard to maintain friendships, romantic relationships and family ties; to hold down a job, pay bills and buy groceries. In short, it makes it difficult to function, to not struggle with being a person who needs to do basic person things.

I've struggled with that for more than a decade, and I'm lucky I've been able to bounce back from the pickles that l get into while depressed. Some of those pickles have included totaling cars, paying my bills late, refusing to answer phone calls, skipping work, subsisting off of Kraft mac and cheese, letting things mold in the sink for weeks, hurting myself, getting into relationships for the wrong reasons and actively planning suicide. Several years ago, I purposely overdrafted my bank account just to buy an artificial Christmas tree because it was the only thing I could think of that would make me smile. Part of what has made depression so difficult for me is that I always thought I'd just outgrow it after high school. We talk about angsty teens, but we don't talk about adults struggling with huge emotional and mental battles.

Comic and TED speaker Kevin Breel correctly declared that "Depression is an issue, not an identity." For the people who deal with chronic depression, it's easy to feel defective for being sad at inappropriate times or after periods in your life designated for a reasonable amount of angst. That's one of the lies depression tells you—that you're broken or wrong. Instead, it's like living with any other chronic medical condition. There's no shame in a diabetic admitting that eating a doughnut can throw him or her into a state of medical crisis or that timing meals wrong can result in needing extra shots or other treatments. We should look at depression the same way. Learn your triggers and develop management strategies for them, just as someone might for celiac disease or asthma.

Learning to manage my depression has been a long, slow, agonizing process that has involved therapy, various doctors, a variety of medications, many yoga classes, endless breathing exercises, one very alarming acupuncture appointment, and a lot of being honest with myself about what causes my depressive episodes and how they make me behave. For example, when I get the urge to shop too much for clothes or start having trouble sleeping, I know I'm in for a downward spiral. Dealing with depression, like any chronic illness, is also about being able to let the people around you know when you aren't feeling well. One of my proudest accomplishments is also one of the simplest—I was able to tell a friend last month, "I'm sorry. I have the emotional flu right now. Bear with me while I get back in balance."

Just admitting that I wasn't feeling like myself to my closest friends was a huge victory and made me feel less alone. No one judged me for being depressed. That's because it isn't depression itself that's problematic, it's the things depression can make you do that others misunderstand or take issue with. If I blew everyone I knew off for a month and didn't answer any text messages, I can see why people might be frustrated or hurt. Instead, I did my best to explain, and in return, I got to know my closest allies were rooting for me to feel better.

I wish everyone who struggles with mental illness were so lucky as to have a support group that's understanding. By being open about my struggles with depression, I hope others can see that someone who understands what it's like is rooting for them, too. I might not know you personally, but I've been there, and I'm going to be again, and I hope you know someone out there believes you are going to be OK. This is a condition; it isn't who we are. You and I are bigger than this.

Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at emmieodea@gmail.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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