The Psychological Purgatory of Depression

I’ve heard depression described as walking towards a sunset. You can see the light ahead of you, but even when you’re basking in the warmth of the light, you’re always aware that the darkness isn’t more than a heartbeat away.


That sounds pretty accurate, but what makes depression so hard for those on the outside — and even those on the inside — to understand, is that being depressed and being happy aren’t always mutually exclusive.

People with depression can be happy, sad or funny just like anyone else. And while we’re all aware of the dangerous places depression can go, what no one seems to talk much about is that there’s a kind of psychological purgatory that exists somewhere in between the high points and the end of your rope.

When you’re having a good day, no one can tell you’re depressed because the symptoms aren’t as obvious as we think they should be. You might not be feeling that miserable “I can’t get out of bed” type of way, but your internal dialogue and view of the world is pretty similar.

There’s relief in knowing that you appear normal until one little thing sets you off — a comment, an obstruction to your routine, maybe nothing specific at all — and down that slope you go sliding again.

These are the times I sit at my desk at work, feeling panic and claustrophobic with a need to literally go run away from myself.

These there are the times when I’m at home on the couch, mindlessly flipping through the same websites, the same channels, feeling nothing but a need to not think.

These are the times when I should reach out, but the world I created is so narrow that I retreat back into my head, to distractions, to exercise to numb out the pain. These actions become habit, the habit then becomes an obsession and from there I’m stuck in a vicious cycle again.

But in some ways, as miserable as you — well, that I — can feel, you get used to it.

Depression doesn’t ask much of you other than to suffer, whereas happiness — in as much as you can remember it — simply can’t be trusted. It’s undependable and often fleeting, and while depression saps your energy, happiness is exhausting in a different way.

Even though you know there are people willing to help, you can never tell them everything. Revealing the plot of your story would give away that tiny shred of control — or the illusion of control — that you so desperately feel that you need just to get by.

Plus, seeing happy people makes you feel as if you have some kind of obligation to get well, and you don’t want to have any obligations or distractions that you don’t invite yourself.

So instead you avoid people when you can so you don’t have to make yourself vulnerable to questions, to wondering if everyone knows that you’re really a big jumbled mess, unable to figure out how to get back to “happy,” or at the very least, back to “content.”

That’s why it can be such a dangerous thing.

You can appear absolutely normal and functional to the outside, but be silently screaming on the inside. And when you’re down, you wonder why you can’t just “be happy” again, and when you’re happy you feel guilty for those times you’re stuck in the dark.

Then there’s the middle — that psychological purgatory — neither way up or way down.

These are the times to remember that isolation is a symptom, not a solution, and that flowery language aside, there still are those small shards of light. For me, sometimes it’s sitting outside. Sometimes it’s trying to be funny to people I see. Sometimes it’s getting lost in a book or emailing someone I trust.

Those things can spark the good days.

Of course you have to sift through the muck and the mud, but it helps to just enjoy the good days for what they are and not question why. Life isn’t easy all the time, even to the most well-adjusted individual, and the dark times aren’t a reflection of weakness or selfishness or anything you might tell yourself.

In other words, just because you deal with depression doesn’t mean that you are depression. A bad day/week doesn’t mean a bad life. After all, it’s not sunny every day but we know the clouds won’t last forever.

Enjoy that light when you can.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

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27 responses to “The Psychological Purgatory of Depression

  1. Depression is kind of like a scary movie. You have those moments of happiness, but you know depression is right around the corner to get you.

  2. Well-written. aptured the essence of how it feels to be depressed

  3. And it’s all so tiring, tedious and tyrannical. So your post is a little bit of balm for my weary spirit. Thank you xxxx

  4. i cannot find that light right now.

    • As I said on Facebook, I know it sucks and that it often feels like there is nothing worth fighting for or that you don’t have resources, but you do. I don’t know you, of course, but you do. Maybe also read the comments on the HuffPost pieces, as you can see that you’re not alone.

  5. Beautifully described Abby. Thank you for using your words to help others know they are not alone. ❤

  6. Depression is a hard and lonely thing but reading posts like this let me and others know we aren’t alone so thank you 🙂

  7. Perfect description of my life……

  8. Terrilyn Richardson

    Thank you Abby. This was so needed today. Thank you, thank you.

    Sent from my iPad


  9. I would love to share this on our new Surviving Mental Health page, would you mind?

    • Of course not! Feel free to share the other depression posts I linked to in this one as well. The more people know, the better.
      I need to go find that page…

  10. I don’t even try to get through one day anymore. It’s moments. I try to remember that my feelings are just feelings and are not who I am, and that I WILL feel happy again, just like I will be sad again. Right now managing my depression is a full-time job. It is out of control and bigger than me and it takes almost all I have to keep the monster tamped down, but I know that I want to be here. I want to live my life even if it is a struggle every day.

    • Exactly. While I try and do the day-to-day thing, it really is moment to moment. It’s also hard because I have to do the full-time job thing on top of trying to manage my own head and everything that comes with it. It’s certainly a struggle, to say the least. Hang in there.

  11. This is exactly it. You’re right there in my head. There are times I’ll be thinking about all the things I want to do, or need to do; I’ll have the time to do them, and I don’t feel like doing one damn thing. And I completely relate to having created my own narrow world. Thanks for this. So well said.

    • I’m with you. I have more uneventful, unproductive days than I care to count due to those same feelings. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing what I want or need to do, or I feel overwhelmed by all the things I have to do and give up before I start, or I’ll be ready to take it all on, somehow managing to even feel good and optimistic for once, but then I’ll sabotage my progress by getting sidetracked or procrastinating.

      • Yup. Even though I am a highly productive person and have a hard time “being lazy,” it comes and goes in spurts. My focus is so scattered that when I can focus, I rock it. When I can’t, there’s really no way to refocus. I procrastinate and then I beat myself up. Not the best cycle to perpetuate.

  12. “In other words, just because you deal with depression doesn’t mean that you are depression.”

    This is very true.

    I always appreciate it when you address this subject. You have such an eloquent way of capturing in words what it’s like to experience depression, anxiety and OCD, while at the same time, dispelling myths and stereotypes. You are so insightful and always right on with your descriptions.

    Thank you so much for your courage to share your story and experiences. ❤


  13. Pingback: Boosting the Signal | Pilcrows & Cedillas

  14. Spot-on. This will be my first reblog.

  15. My wife has depression/anxiety. I show her so many articles/blogs about people dealing with depression because she feels so alone with it. She always feels like she has to be perfect. If a kid is late doing a chore I have to stop her from doing it because she feels like it is her responsibility. She works as a doula so her hours are kinda freaky for some clients, making it hard to stay on a good sleep/eating schedule. My condition doesn’t help her either(disabled with back injury). It hits her coming and going. When I can do little to nothing she feels like she has to do more to make up for it and when I can do more than normal she feels like since I can do certain things she has to do more to keep up.
    With every piece I find that she can relate to I feel like I am helping her so she can see she is not alone. This is one of the best I have shown her.

    • Wow. This comment means so much to me, maybe in part because my mom has had 13 spinal surgeries and is completely fused in her neck. In other words, I grew up with disability as well in certain ways. I really do hope that she finds value in the fact that she’s not alone.

  16. Thank you for sharing this.

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