Now that I’ve been feeling good for over a year, I’m beginning to comprehend the difference between sadness and depression.
Sadness is transitory: it comes, and it goes. Depression, on the other hand, is often a chronic condition. Yes, it can also come and go. But it tends to be stronger – it can be debilitating – and it lasts longer than sadness does. And it can last your whole life.
Allow me to share what I’m going through right now as an example.
Our four-year-old cat, Simon, got out six days ago. We were on the deck, enjoying the nice weather, when he heard a noise and freaked out. He’s very skittish and is afraid of everything, so he took off running.
Lisa and I are heartbroken. We just adopted him three months ago, and he was finally starting to get really comfortable with us. Just a couple days before he took off, he snuggled on my lap for only the second time.
We’ve done everything we can think of to attract him back to our place: we put his favorite blanket on the porch, set out his litter box, and his favorite afghan is hanging over the deck railing. We also set a can of food and some water outside for him.
Here’s the difference between Lisa and me: I’m about 98% sure he’s not coming back. I don’t think he’s hurt; we live in a very small mobile home community, where the people are friendly and the speed limit is only 15 mph. We both think he’s still here somewhere.
Lisa, on the other hand, keeps telling me that he may very well find his way back to us. In fact, her Hope is giving me a little Hope of my own. Not a lot, mind you – that would be strange and out of character for me. But enough so that I haven’t given up completely.
So why is it that I feel so sure he’s gone forever?
I think maybe it’s a defense mechanism. You see, if I start thinking he’ll find his way home, but he doesn’t, that would be a serious let-down. It would be weeks of being on edge, waiting. And waiting. It would never end; there would be no closure.
If I never see him again, that will feel like one big, long, drawn-out heartache. And I don’t know if I can handle that. After all, he’s my feline son.
On the other hand, if I don’t expect to find him, that could save me weeks of anguish. Instead of a long, drawn-out heartache, it would be a much quicker – albeit more acute – heartache.
Does that make any sense?
THERE ARE TWO WAYS IT COULD GO
Okay, that sets the stage for where my brain is right at this moment, and it leads directly to my point – that there is a distinct difference between feeling sad and being depressed. Bear with me here.
Obviously, I’m very sad right now. Lisa talked me into going to work the day he left us, which made me focus on the tasks at hand rather than dwell in the sadness and blame myself. She spent the next few hours walking around our community and has done everything she can.
Now comes the hardest part of all. The next few weeks, especially, will be really sad. They are also critical to my mental health. Every time I see our other cat, Nahla-Man, I think “Hey, where’s Simon?” and then I remember.
Every time I see his dish, filled with his favorite food, my heart drops a little. Every time I see his favorite toy or see something dark out of the corner of my eye, or even stop to think – I see him, giving me the same loving look he always gave me, ready to headbutt my arm so I’ll pet him.
I’ve often thought it must be nice to be able to be sad – even a lot sad – work through it, and then start to feel better and move on. But, aside from having major depressive disorder (MDD) for over 30 years, I’ve experienced dysthymia for even longer. I’ve felt it all my life. It’s like my baseline IS depressed, like I’ve operated no higher than maybe 25% to 30% of my happiness potential almost every day of my life.
There was no respite from this.
I knew no end to the constant depressive, sad, scary thoughts and tendencies. It was all-enveloping, all the time, all my life, before I even knew what it was.
But, while I am very sad about Simon, I don’t feel depressed. I’m very confident this will not develop into a months-long episode of severe depression. How can I tell? It’s hard to explain. It just feels different. This sadness feels very strong, but it doesn’t go down into my toes and every other fiber of my being. It’s not ripping me apart from the inside.
The fact that I know, in this case, what the precipitating factor is, makes it seem more survive-able. Like there was a beginning, and there will be a middle and an end to it. I don’t know when that will be, and I will always miss Simon, but it’s not going to kill me.
And that’s a good thing.
SADNESS RUNS ITS COURSE
Given my experience with depression, dysthymia, and sadness, I have come to the conclusion that sadness is different in another major way: it is a response to a circumstance or situation.
If it’s something you feel all the time, that’s when you cross the line into depression or dysthymia, where things like talk therapy and medication might help.
Sadness follows a pattern. There is the inciting incident, you ride it out, and then it subsides. And it does not last months or years, like depression can.
Sometimes, when I intimate to someone that I have depression, I get this kind of response: “Oh, I get depressed, too…” And then they relate a story about a time when they went through something sad, not citing a single symptom of a depressive disorder.
A lot of people get sadness and depression mixed up, which is understandable. They are very similar. But while sadness is something we ALL feel at times, depression is not.
Remember, sadness has its roots in an event or situation; depression has its roots in our brain chemistry. Our neurotransmitters are messed up and some kind of intervention (medical, therapy, etc.) is often needed to get through it.
Even with intervention, depression can ruin your life. I was in a severe depressive episode from December of 2000 until the summer of 2006. It was awful. I could hardly function. I lost three jobs because of my inability to perform my work.
That just doesn’t happen when you feel sad.
WRAPPING IT UP
Sadness and depression certainly have some similarities. They both manifest in our hearts, they can both make us sob uncontrollably, and they both really suck.
But sadness seems to be somewhat predictable: something happens, we feel sad, and we move on, in relatively short order.
Depression, on the other hand, often lasts months or even years. It often requires a combination of talk therapy and psychiatric medication, sometimes for the rest of your life. It can be so severe that it produces thoughts of ending your life.
That’s a big difference.
If you are going through a difficult time that creates feelings of sadness, know that there will be an end to it and you will recover.
If you are experiencing a depressive episode, you may want to talk to a mental health professional. If that doesn’t clear things up for you, you may also want to consider talking to a psychiatrist, who might suggest getting on meds.
And if you see Simon the cat, please let me know. :'(
Thanks for reading, Warrior. Let’s Keep it Real out there.
Previously Published on Depression Warrior