If there’s one thing I’ve gotten out of this infinitely flexible schedule of mine, it’s a long-overdue understanding of baseline: my brain chemistry when you factor out work, crowded two-hour commutes, living half my life in the closet, the lot of it. Something I learned pretty quickly was what depression looks like when I’m neither sad nor unceasingly hyper-stressed. At first I described it to some friends as the physical side of depression, but that’s a bit limiting (as I’ve also noticed plenty that’s mental, just not based in overpowering feeling fogs). So I think of it as depression outside of emotion, or, in a weird way: depression without depression.
Before I started traveling, I could never quite pin down whether so many of these experiences were the side effects of the time’s multifaceted stresses, or if there was some underlying chemistry stuff going on. Now that I know roughly what’s a part of my brain, and what was contributed to by circumstance, I feel like I’ll be much better equipped to manage my mental health when I get home. So although of course mental illness varies from person to person, I thought on the off chance it gives a helpful reference point to anyone else, I’d write out some of the non-emotional depressive symptoms I’ve learned to recognize in myself.
Note: through the rest of this post I will repeatedly use the word “down” as shorthand for depressed. Based on some advice from a therapist, I’m fairly certain that I have bipolar ii (intense, long depressive episodes punctuated by occasional hypomania). For this reason I tend to think of my brain functioning in ups and downs. My use of “down” here is NOT intended to diminish depression, mine or anyone else’s. I’m not saying “oh, I’m a little down”; I’m using “down” as a way to describe a trend in the brain.
- sleepiness: I’ve noticed that when my brain is down, I’m tired all the time. Even if I’m feeling fine emotionally, I’ll be tired. It doesn’t seem to matter how much sleep I’ve had, or when in the day it was, or how much I’ve been doing; I always want to sleep more. (And for me, that is always a bad idea. Past 6-7 hours, the more sleep I get, the worse I feel. Doubly so for naps.)
- exhaustion: related but not the same, another thing that’s carried over since I left work is that it’s often very hard to do things. This can manifest in tons of ways: needing a week to recover from a particularly strenuous day out, eating peanuts for dinner because cooking is an overwhelming prospect, taking all day to get less than an hour’s worth of work done…you name it, it’s probably more effort than it feels like it should be.
- never hungry, always eating: when I’m down, eating is one of the only activities I can actively do. It can be hard to focus on something as simple as scrolling through Facebook, or watching a cartoon. In those moments, unable to engage but unable to exert effort towards action, eating is my brain’s autopilot attempt to relieve the monotony. Because at least it’s an activity, right? Right?
- self-loathing: what’s super weird is that this has changed since I left work, it’s just present in a different way. I’m glad to report that, with many fewer stressors in my day-to-day life, my feelings about myself are overall pretty good. I no longer walk around feeling like existing is inherently hurting everyone I know and wasting my life. So that’s good! But that said, the base of self-contempt still seems ready to come out at a moment’s notice. I can eat a bigger lunch than intended, or lose an hour in the morning, and find myself casually saying things to myself (out loud!) like, “fuck you, idiot” or “wow, you’re just a morally, objectively bad person, aren’t you?” And in the moment, I absolutely mean it – only for it to fade completely the next moment. It’s very strange. (This is, btw, a separate phenomenon from the “remembering-a-decade-old-mistake” genre of self-loathing, which for me falls squarely in the anxiety side of health.)
- the bad days: sort of related to these self-loathing flashes, but much broader, there are still sometimes hours or days that just suck. This was true at home too, but these times were much less surprising back then, because I already felt so bad so much of the time. The bad days were hardly blips on the radar, generally just single particularly intense days inside weeks-to-months-long stretches of bad. Now, with my emotions generally neutral-to-good, the bad days can totally blindside me. My brain can suddenly be convinced that I, a person living a lifelong dream with no immediate health, safety, or monetary concerns, should be dead. The bad days are scary.
I think that’s about it. That’s baseline. That’s what my down brain throws at me given a minimum of external stress, and that’s what I would say defines the non-emotional sides of depression (for me).
But all that said, there are two huge upsides here!
One, in the here and now, it’s nice that as a general trend, I’m not emotionally depressed in the way I was. I may have depression (and still some rough episodes), but I don’t spend 100% of my time just…fading away. I can’t express how much of a relief that change is.
And two, now that I know what my baseline looks like with the minimum possible stressors, I know I can manage my health better in the future. I’ll be able to pursue medicine, and hopefully do away with some of these most consistent symptoms. In tandem with that, I’ll be able to recognize if a life circumstance is bad for my health, and to feel secure in the knowledge that my choices impact my mental state.
That feels like it should be obvious, but to be honest? I spent years living in shades of grey. I didn’t know that my brain was able to feel better than that, and I didn’t know that my actions were able to change it – because within that time span, very few of them did.
It is incredible to know that there is an up.