This is part of a series of posts on some of the less-talked-about symptoms that tend to go along with depressed mood. As I discussed in the first post in this series, the list of diagnostic symptoms for depression is well known, but not exhaustive. During depression people experience many more phenomena as well.
As stated in that earlier post, however, it’s also important to acknowledge that each of these “hidden symptoms” can also occur at other times in our lives. Don’t fret if you see yourself in these experiences.
|Alone in a precarious existence...|
Do you have a life?
“Get a life!” people sometimes tell us. What they usually mean is that we are occupying ourselves with trivia. If we had an interesting, busy life with a variety of friends and interests, we would not be so focused on and upset about, say, whether they parked their car crookedly.
So: Do you have a life? Do you have a sufficient variety of activities, interests, and friends that you can say that you have a reasonable human existence?
The answer depends on the people to whom you compare yourself. If you are thinking of a jetsetting actor/rockstar who spends every evening at a different gala opening, with a new partner every five minutes, then perhaps you don’t – and perhaps you prefer not to have one. If you compare yourself to more down-to-earth friends and neighbours, then perhaps you do.
“I have no life!”
During depression (and at some other times) it’s common to feel that our lives are not as full as we might like. Partly we are so easily overwhelmed that we restrict ourselves to a smallish existence. Partly, great hunks of our lives may have fallen away unexpectedly (job, relationship, plans), and that’s why we’re depressed.
Sometimes, though, the same life can seem full and satisfying one moment, and empty the next – without anything really changing. It depends on the perspective you adopt.
This is reminiscent of the scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, when Woody’s analyst asks how often he and Diane Keaton’s character have sex. “Practically never! Only three times a week,” he moans. Keaton’s analyst asks her the same question. “Oh, constantly,” she complains. “Three times a week!” Same reality, different interpretation.
During depression, it’s not uncommon to feel constantly that one’s life is not what it should be, regardless of one’s actual circumstances. The negative filter that pervades – and poisons – everything we see can make even quite a nice life seem like hell. This is the usual stance during the depth of depression. The negative evaluation may be objectively true (others would agree that your life truly is awful, even apart from the mood problem), or it may be tainted by the negative feeling of the depression itself.
In milder depression, however, and as a more severe depression lifts a bit, the sense of satisfaction with one’s life can flicker. You go out to dinner with a friend and you feel warm, loved, interested, and content. Yes, you have a life, and it’s a pretty good one. Then you say goodbye to the friend, head home, close the door behind you, and that whole feeling evaporates. Here you are, alone, friendless, and with nothing to do: this now feels like the reality of your life.
Sometimes this phenomenon takes place outside conscious awareness. People know that they feel reasonably well when they are doing things with others, and miserable when they are alone at home, but they don't notice the underlying thoughts.
But some people watch the process happening and are appalled at their apparent lack of a core sense of stability. “I have the same number of friends whether I’m with them at the moment or not,” they say. “How can that knowledge not stay with me and make me feel okay when I’m alone for two minutes?”
That question, asked in frustration, actually has an answer. In fact, it has two of them.
First, this fragile sense of one’s self and one’s life is a fairly standard feature of depressed mood (and of other times when parts of one’s life have fallen apart). It doesn’t mean we have no core, no sustaining personality, no ego strength. It just goes with the territory.
Second, our emotions at times can be very tied to the present moment. If we are engrossed in a project, or sitting in a restaurant with a friend, we feel engaged and loved. If we are alone and disengaged, with nothing to do, then we can feel, yes, lonely and disengaged. Then we can take that feeling and apply it to life as a whole. There are no friends with us in the room at the moment, therefore we have no friends.
How do we stop the oscillation?
We don’t, completely. We will always be affected to some degree by our thoughts and circumstances. But if we are experiencing this wavering of our perception to an uncomfortable degree, then we can do a few things.
Acceptance. Work at recognizing that this is a normal human experience, not a sign that you have no strength or sense of yourself. It will come and go, like all the other uncomfortable feelings. During depression it may come more intensely. It will tend to fade as the depression lifts.
Desensitization. Some people try to cope by staying frantically busy and never having a moment to stop and “face the void.” This actually perpetuates the problem, subtly reinforcing the idea that being alone is a disaster. Instead, gradually introduce solitude and disengagement voluntarily. If a weekend alone seems too frightening, then start with an hour, or ten minutes. As your tolerance improves, you can ramp up.
Self-Talk. Remind yourself of the truth. No, you aren’t as social and foolishly busy as your friend Joan. But yes, you do have a life. There are friends and interests. Name them. Expect that this recitation of the elements of your life will feel flat and pointless at first. Keep going.
Welcome the dissatisfaction. Perhaps an objective judge would say that yes, your life really is a bit thin right now. Fine. Use the sense of emptiness as a cue. What would a non-empty life look like? Ensure that you leave room for solitude and reflection in this fantasy, even if they are uncomfortable right now. Take the goals you develop and break them down into achievable steps. You’d like to get another job, so you spend 10 minutes looking for your resume. You want more friends, so you check out the options for volunteering in your neighbourhood.
Follow these steps, and the wild swings in our beliefs about our lives can begin to stabilize.
Next up: The Collapse of Automaticity.