“But you don’t look depressed…”

Sometimes when people experience clinical depression, they can end up showing how they feel in their facial expressions and body language. Maybe not a lot. Maybe not at all. But there may be similarities in their demeanor to how they feel inside.

Comments that have been made to me over time like “you don’t look depressed”, and “I never would have thought you were depressed”, and “you are always so happy” have me wondering often what other people really understand depression to be. And how they think it should present.

Depression is a chemical imbalance, a shortage of serotonin which is a hormone that influences your emotions. It exists in the mind but can affect the body too. It’s classed as a mental illness.

It’s presence anhililates your mood, leaving you intensely worried about anything and everything that you previously had never even thought of, very sad about memories and thoughts and life, negative about daily life, unmotivated to live and succeed, tired of living, lacking interest and enthusiasm in anything that you used to love and enjoy, and finding life very difficult to live..

Other chemical imbalances that are classed as illnesses include shortage of insulin (diabetes), shortage of thyroxine (hypothyroidism), shortage of iron (iron deficiency anaemia).

Why is it that there is an expectation that there should be some sign of depression in your looks? We don’t say to people, “you don’t look like you have diabetes/hypothyroidism/iron deficiency anaemia”. What is the difference in our thinking between depression and deficiencies that affect our physical body? How do we expect a hormone imbalance to show in someone’s face or body?

How should it look? How should I look? Should I not smile, to show that I’m depressed? Should I be giving a better impression of being down? What sign are you looking for in me that would tell you that I am depressed?

I am genuinely interested in the answers to these questions and would love replies!! Please let me know what it is that tells you that a person is depressed.

I sometimes feel the symptoms of my mind showing in my person. I notice that on “off” days or “down” days my face falls into a stare or a frown by default. I sigh a lot. My shoulders sag; it’s just too much effort to hold them up. I get dry eyes from staring into space without blinking, so my eyes get sore and red. My smile takes effort to paste on and I worry that it ends up looking a bit fake or forced; it feels that way! I laugh but it’s a bit feeble and forced too. These are my “slump” days.

‘And when you’re in a slump,

You’re not much fun,

Un-slumping yourself,

Is not easily done”

– Dr Seuss

I literally drag my feet; my legs feel heavy. Sometimes getting up the stairs to bed feels like climbing Mt Everest! And I trip over my feet! I become ridiculously clumsy. Walking more than an inch out of my way feels like a marathon. I hear words like ‘gym’, ‘exercise’, ‘go for a walk’ and my inner person shudders and wants to go into shut-down mode before I can be forced to do something so very impossible! I hate the idea of leaving the house.

But that’s at my worst. On medium to good days there’s probably nothing to notice in my person that would really give you any clue to what’s going on in my head. On these days I have a bit to a lot of energy, a bit to a medium amount of motivation and I have effort to put into living my life.

I might start to talk about or actually go to the gym, I might start having lists of things that I want to accomplish. I might have plans for social catch-ups, entertaining or going out. I’ll start to have projects and hobbies again.

I might start chatting your ear off, although that’s more likely when I’m getting a bit over the line into mania land. Then I have loads of energy, epic plans and motivation to boot!! In mania land I start planning my return to work, how I’m going to do 50 million things in a day and get excited about everything! I smile, I laugh, I giggle!! It’s fun, but never lasts too long. But it gets me hopeful that I’ll be happier in the future.

And on days like this, there’s really nothing to see! Nothing to show what’s inside, what’s under the surface, what’s going to come right back in a few days. These are the days when you’ll see me out and about, smiling and enjoying life.

Then there are the anxious days. Days when my heart is racing, my breathing is fast and my fingers, my hands, my head, my feet, my legs are tap, tap,tapping, shaking, clicking pens, jiggling, clenching, stretching, moving moving moving! These days are easy to tell. I can’t sit still. Literally!!

And so you can see that there is a continuum here, a line in the sand that shows the variation in my moods. From deeply depressed and almost catatonic to mildly depressed but able to drag myself through life to okay but buzzing with stress hormones to too anxious to hypomanic, a milder form of mania.

So: when I look in the mirror, what do I see? A pair of eyes looking back at me. Do they shine, or stare, or cry? Does the mouth smile, pout or sigh? Is the hair washed, shining or dirty? Do I think myself gross or pretty? It can be a different answer every day.

And what do you see? Unless you come to my house and let yourself in and climb up the stairs to my bedroom you will never see me on a bad day. You may see me on an okay-ish day, an anxious day or a manic day. But if you see me, it pretty much means that the signs of major depression aren’t in my face or my person. They might be in my mind and my thoughts but you probably won’t see them. So how I look probably isn’t the best indicator.

So you will likely see me with a smile, with a laugh, with some enthusiasm for life. You won’t see me with my worst frown, at my most catatonic, in my slowest state dragging my feet around. On those days when I get up mid-morning and have a nap before lunch and another one after lunch I rarely leave the house. I’m not interested in anything, I’m pretty much waiting out the day til I can go back to bed for the third time and shut off my brain to escape the day. I’m just filling in time, surviving til my mood swings up again.

It’s a chemical imbalance, a shortage, a lack. There may not be anything to demonstrate my state. It’s just another day in the life of illness, managing as best I can with the aids I have to get back closer to where I left off, before my brain snapped!

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