Depression or Sadness?

At least a few times a week, I have clients who sit down on my couch and immediately say, “I’m soooooo depressed.” My first question is usually, “Why are you depressed?” My general rule is that if you can tell me specifically why you’re depressed, it isn’t depression. It’s sadness. Sadness is a normal emotion to have when something bad has happened. Your dog dies, your best friend moves away, you break up with your partner: these are events that cause sadness, and yes, if the feelings persist for a long time, it may develop into depression. But the difference is this: sadness is an effect, caused by an event. Depression doesn’t necessarily have a causing event; it can come out of nowhere and completely disable the person suffering from it. Sadness is an emotion; depression is a state of being.

Trying to describe depression to someone who hasn’t suffered from it is like trying to explain color to someone who has always been blind. How do you describe the color green if you can’t reference trees, grass, nature, your best friend’s eyes, etc.? You can’t. They have no reference point. For those who live with depression, explaining what it’s like to someone who has never felt it is impossible. But I’m going to try.

Imagine everything in your body hurts, like when you have the flu, but the pain isn’t physical, it’s psychological- but no less real. There is no medication that you can take to make the symptoms even the slightest bit less intense. You can’t predict when it will hit or for how long it will persist  and doing the simplest of tasks feels impossible. Imagine that in addition to the pain and discomfort you feel, your brain is telling you that it will never get better, that it will always be this way. It may even tell you that life isn’t worth living, that you should just end things now because that is the only release from this hell that is now your life. It could also tell you that you deserve this for one or countless wrongs you have done others in your life, and this incredible pain is your punishment for those wrongs.

I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there. Most therapists don’t admit their own struggles to their clients, but I’m going to let you in on a secret: the best therapists have had mental health issues, faced them, and speak from experience. We as therapists are no better than you, no smarter than you, and we’re certainly no less human than you.  Acknowledging and embracing that makes us better at what we do and makes it easier for our clients to trust us. We’ve learned how to conquer these things and when we can admit to our clients that we’ve suffered from them we can also share how we got past them- and that’s the whole point. If we can get past them, so can you. There is no cure for depression, but there are definitely ways of easing the pain and learning to function in spite of it.


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