Appearances can be deceiving. Just ask Melissa Drake.
The 50-year-old Southern California author and consultant says she’s had a good job, owned a home and raised a wonderful son. On the outside, her life looked pretty good. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
Inside, Drake found herself in a life-or-death struggle with a major depressive disorder – a diagnosis she received at the age of 20.
She admits it’s hard to explain what it’s like to live with this disease. “I often describe depression as ‘all and nothing at once,’ because nothing was like that Yes, really wrong but everything felt wrong at the same time.”
Drake is not alone in her feelings.
People often say there’s no reason for them to be depressed, but they still are, says Shawna Newman, MD, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Some describe major depression as living under a cloud or walking through mud, she adds.
But a closer look uncovers discernible clues that may point to major depression.
Depression isn’t just about feeling sad or down. It’s normal to feel bad about losing a job, the death of a loved one, or some other sad event, Newman says. The difference is that the symptoms of major depression last at least 2 weeks, run very deep and are not at all normal for you. Here are some changes you may see in yourself if you are suffering from major depression:
Sadness, emptiness, or irritable mood. You can’t shake the depressed mood. You can also be irritable. If you are usually cheerful and have become moody all the time, it could be depression.
loss of interest. You may stay away from friends or loved ones, or stop doing things you used to enjoy. You may also lose interest in sex.
sleep disturbance Maybe you have a hard time falling asleep or you could toss and turn all night. On the other hand, you may be sleeping a lot more than usual or taking naps during the day.
change in eating habits. You could lose interest in food and lose weight, or you could start overeating and gain weight.
Lack of focus. Work can get difficult because you can’t focus on it. Many people describe this as “brain fog”. You can also see this loss of focus in your personal life, your social life, and your personal relationships and conversations.
changes in energy. Overwhelming weakness and exhaustion can make it difficult or impossible to pull away from the couch or get out of bed. Conversely, you may be energetic and fidgety or shift in your chair or bed to get comfortable.
Hopelessness. Maybe your outlook is bleak and you don’t see a way out of your depression.
thoughts of death. These can range from thoughts like, “I’d be okay if I just didn’t wake up,” to actively suicidal thoughts or actions, Newman says. Making a plan to kill yourself or take action (like buying overdose medication) takes these thoughts to the next level. It’s not common, but sometimes people with major depressive disorder also have homicidal thoughts.
If you feel you are harming yourself or others, call 911 immediately.
Get professional help if you have symptoms of major depression or aren’t sure why you’re feeling bad. Treatments like medicine, talk therapy, and others can work wonders. Opening up to a therapist often gives people an immediate sense of relief, Newman says.
Drake’s depression was severe at times. “I once attempted suicide, thought about it many times, was recommended for inpatient hospitalization, and was heavily medicated for over 20 years.” Her most pressing symptoms were extreme exhaustion and a general feeling of illness (malaise).
For seven years, Drake was practically bedridden, only getting up to go to work and take care of her son as a single mother. “There have been times when I haven’t done laundry or housework for months, while stacks of mail have gone untouched for years.” Although she spent most of her time in bed, insomnia kept her up at night, and bathing and self-care were non-existent.
“I was constantly numb, avoiding feelings and stuffing them with food. I gained weight and went up to 307 pounds.”
Drake describes her rock bottom to show how bad her depression was: “I have two dogs that I adore. You are always in bed with me. One day one of them threw up in my bed. As dogs sometimes do, the other dog ate the vomit. I rolled over and fell asleep again. I didn’t bother to change my sheets – for weeks.”
The most important decision Drake made was finding a therapist. “It wasn’t until I understood and accepted that I needed to do the work to recover and take steps toward recovery that I began to feel better.”
She wanted someone who would not just pay lip service, but hold Drake responsible for the better life she said she wanted. “She did and I’m so grateful.”
Once she was out of the woods, Drake says, she began looking for things to enjoy. She started dancing. “It was the medicine I needed to heal. She grounded me and brought me back into my body.”
2020 has been a particularly tough year for Drake. But today she is fine. “Far from perfect, but I’m a long way from being in bed for 7 years. I do work I love; I have a large group of friends; I enjoy dancing and the outdoors,” says Drake. “Even in difficult times, I’m generally in a positive mood.”