There are days I wish mental illness presented like any other physical illness in that its effects could be seen, validated, and hopefully understood by other people, because living with an invisible illness can be an exhausting experience, particularly for people whose depression and anxiety symptoms fall outside of how we often categorize “mentally ill” people.
I identify as an extrovert – I receive my energy from interacting with people, being social and connecting with others. More than loving a good party (although I most certainly do) I feel energized, alive and spirited when I am with friends, meeting new people and having good conversation. Having high social needs means that the symptoms of my mental illness don’t often align with traits people normally associate with depression or anxiety. When I share with people that I have clinical depression, they are often surprised: “But you are so outgoing! You don’t seem depressed at all.” Thank…you. Does not displaying the stereotypical depressive characteristics (whatever those are…) make my illness less legitimate?
What does depression look like on this particular extrovert? In an effort to avoid generalizations, I speak only to my experience in describing how I wear my particular illness.
I prioritize my relationships and social life, making sure I am being an attentive friend, remembering important dates in the lives of people I care about, making the long drives to see loved ones and showing up for events and gatherings even when it takes every last ounce of my energy. Perhaps people assume that social events would be the first things to drop during a depressive episode, but that’s not the best thing for me. As an extrovert, I am pulled in two directions, 1) needing to spend energy pulling myself out of my funk, and 2) desperately craving a social energy hit.
In short, you likely won’t see my relationships suffer too much when I am feeling depressed because while my personal internal and external environment may suffer, my remaining energy goes into my friends and family, who will only notice I am not doing well if they know what to look for.
My particular brand of depression looks like:
Unwashed dishes: My friends know that I can laugh at myself about this not-so-cute-at-27 quirk. I am tagged in all the dirty dishes memes and before I invite anyone into my apartment, they should know I’ve likely spent over an hour washing every dish in my house. Why? Because I’ve used every dish in my house. Why? Because I couldn’t be bothered to wash them right away, and they’ve become a pile that will take me an hour to wash, and that’s an hour I could spend sleeping so I have energy later to hang out with friends.
Untidy house: Self-proclaimed “clean freaks” have always fascinated me. Why clean every day when you could, I don’t know, be sleeping. I never understood how people didn’t spend an entire day cleaning their house, until I finally came to the realization that part of my depression means I don’t make time (read: don’t care) to clean a little every day. This leaves me with a 4- hour cleaning frenzy to manage because I agreed to host the girls’ fondue night. I don’t clean for me, I clean for the benefit of other people.
Eating take-out: Subway, Panera Bread, Pita Pit…you name a sandwich place during a depressive low, and the employees working there know my order. I don’t care enough to cook or prepare something at home because 1) I don’t have the energy to cook for just me 2) there’s no food in the house to prepare and 3) there’s no clean plate to put it on anyway. Logically I know that my health and my wallet would benefit from eating at home, but I can’t be bothered to take care of myself in that way when I’m feeling down.
Three-hour naps on the daily: Another adorable trait that I make jokes about but speaks to how much sleep I require to recover and heal during a low. I also use sleep as an avoidance tool – can’t overthink things while you’re snoozing!
Attention deficits: My friend and I have discussed how nice it would be to sit down with a book and read the whole thing without getting bored or distracted or feeling compelled to check our phones. Imagine being that at peace! My downtime is spent drowning out thoughts that make me feel bad by watching comforting, mind-numbing TV shows that I know every line of dialogue to. My depression looks like distraction so that I don’t have to directly listen my thoughts, and then can run quietly in the background instead.
Self-deprecating humour: Ahhh…the quintessential coping mechanism for so many depressives! Why make other people feel uncomfortable by your illness when you can make light of personality quirks like being sleepy, untidy and hyperactive? Don’t get me wrong – joking about my illness is helpful to me too, but it’s one way I know how to reach out when I need help that makes people feel a little less uneasy.
So, much like online clothes shopping, even depression may look different on you and me than it does on the model. What I hope to work towards in sharing my stories is to help more people feel validated that their feelings are important, they deserve help, and most importantly, they are not alone in this.