They are not the same thing.
I’m aware of the stigma STILL attached to mental health issues (particularly in the workplace) and I refuse to be ashamed. Why should I? I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was going to make myself a crazy person.
I used to struggle terribly from the second week in January through to my birthday at the beginning of March so I’m very self-aware at the moment, and the start of the week I could feel the deathgrip coming. The overwhelming urge to dive beneath the duvet and let the world steam-roller over the top of me. This is the feeling that puts me into lockdown – that place where I revert to self-preservation and scrape by doing the bare minimum to function as a human being, because it is all I am capable of.
What I am experiencing is anxiety, not depression. I’m not a doctor, but having suffered both, I can tell the difference. When your brain is swimming and your logic is drunk, sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. They often go hand in hand, and one can lead to the other. They tag-team your ass. And they’re sneaky.
Depression is a mire. You feel worthless, demotivated and cannot see any good or beauty in anything. There is no point in anything. I often suffer terrible lethargy, prolonged bouts of tears/feeling hopeless and the want to do absolutely nothing because everything is so terrible. I can’t feel positive or happy and have no interest in myself or others – which in turn makes me feel worse because it means I’m a selfish, self-absorbed cow. I take no interest in hobbies or pastimes, which is why I find it very difficult to write when I’m truly depressed. I don’t sleep well for weeks on end. And the weirdest thing of all? Brushing my teeth. I kid you not. Chronic sufferers of depression will tell you that taking care of themselves no longer rates, and with me it’s my teeth. I have no idea why.
The main thing about depression for me is cause. If I can get to the root of why, I can take steps to start fixing it. Until I find the root cause (or admit the cause to myself) I might as well stay under that duvet and wave on the steam roller.
Anxiety is worse. Depression I can feel coming on over a period of days, weeks, sometimes months. Anxiety sneaks up and bitch-slaps me whenever the hell it feels like it. Which is frequently. It’s a fast, snappy feeling which contrasts with the sluggishness of depression. Anyone will tell you – I talk a lot. A LOT. No, I mean A LOT. I’m not sorry. It’s the way I’m wired and I can’t help it. I really can’t. I’m one of those people that has a million tabs open in the browser in my head all the time, and things compute on all these tabs at squillions of miles an hour, all simultaneously. It has to get out somehow, or my brain would explode. I think this lends itself to bouts of anxiety.
The things I juggle in my head suddenly start to pile up, and more and more thoughts come crashing in. I become overwhelmed. My heart races, my stomach knots. Intense feelings of guilt engulf me and I panic. My concentration drops to nil. This can last for hours, sometimes days. If I’m in that delicate state, or on the cusp, the slightest little thing can tip me over the edge and I start to over-think, blow things out of proportion (my doctor used to jokingly call this ‘analysis paralysis’) and I make myself physically ill. I get pins and needles in my face, fingers and arms and my bowel turns to water. I vomited violently before my final Degree exams because of this. (Romantically, this is one of James’ earliest memories of me. Lovely.)
For me, learning to tell them apart has been key in managing my mental state, controlling my weight and generally getting more out of life. Mental illness can be crippling. I’m good at it now, having had years to discover what works. It’s a bit like diabetes. I’ll never be able to make it go away, but I can manage it and take steps to keep on top of it.
I’m not scared to talk about it. I don’t think people realize how common mental illness is, and some don’t even recognize what is wrong with them. Having a mental illness doesn’t make you weak or a lesser person. It doesn’t make you a weirdo. It makes you strong. I cannot begin to describe to someone who has never been depressed or suffered chronic anxiety how frightening it is to fight with your own mind every day and know that the battles are coming.