Disability: Depression Diaries and The Theory of Relativity

Content Note: Depression, Cancer

One of the "fun" things about depression is how easily it can downplay itself as Nothing Serious and you, the sufferer, as a Big Whiner. It does this by the tried-and-true fashion of somebody else has it worse.

Now, you don't have to be depressed to suffer from somebody else has it worse; my mother, for example, has spent pretty much her entire life vocally castigating herself for daring to complain about anything at all because, hey, somebody else has it worse. And because this is logical and objectively true, it's hard to argue with: somebody, somewhere, almost certainly has it worse than everyone else, no matter how you choose to measure things.

But the depression version of somebody else has it worse is, I think, particularly insidious, because it feeds back into the self-loathing cycle of depression. It's not simply eh, but you know, somebody else has it worse so I shouldn't complain too much but a grander, more epic somebody else has it worse and is coping better than I am and therefore I am a terrible, weak, worthless person. It's a seductive siren call, not the least because it's pretty much impossible to argue against. You simply cannot falsify the concept that someone else on this planet Has It Worse and is Coping Better; it's an unverifiable statement.

Not that you have to look that far for examples. I know for a fact -- because several of you have told me as much -- that some of the people reading my blog mentally point to me as the Somebody Else. Look at Ana! She not only has depression, but she also has chronic back pain, and she manages to put out daily blog posts, so what's my problem? And meanwhile, I'm over here crying and rocking back and forth because [Commenter] not only has depression, but zie also has to deal with [redacted], and what about [Best Friend's] sister who has been going through [redacted], and have I mentioned today that Dad is going through cancer? And he doesn't complain! What's wrong with me? 

One of the biggest problems with this depression "theory of relativity" (everyone else, relative to me, has it worse and is doing better and therefore I double-suck) is that it's not something that on the face of it seems irrational. It's not like the Spiral of Suck in the sense that you're likely to snap out of it and say hang on, I feel this way because I'm depressed. "Somebody else has it worse" is something that has been drilled into many of us from our childhood, it's something that was given to us as children as a means of maintaining a healthy level of perspective (yes, you weren't allowed an extra helping of pudding for dessert, but People Somewhere Are Starving, so have some perspective), and it's something that seems so logical and true that it's hard to argue with.

But -- and if you take away anything from this post, take away this -- it's complete garbage.

Because, first of all, it doesn't work like that. I have my problems, [commenter] has hir problems, [Best Friend's] sister has her problems, Dad has his problems. Those problems can't be lined up nice and neat on a board and compared by an objective third party handing out first, second, and third prizes for Objectively Awful. I think Dad has it worse because his cancer is potentially fatal and took 35 sessions to treat and could permanently destroy his taste buds; Dad thinks my back issues are worse because they've been with me my entire life and has taken two surgeries (so far) to treat and has permanently altered numerous aspects of my life. Who is going to step up and judge between us to say who really has it worse? Nobody, that's who, because it doesn't work like that.

And if you're depressed and reading this, you probably just blew by the bold text there, because the important thing about that paragraph is how awful Ana and her Dad have it and clearly you suck because no matter which one of them has it worse, they both have it worse than you. So I'm going to say this again: it doesn't work like that.

If you are suffering -- and particularly if you are suffering from depression -- you have it bad. It doesn't matter a tinker's dam if someone else has it worse or not because bad things aren't fungible like that. Awful things are awful and they make you feel awful, and it doesn't matter what anyone else on this planet is experiencing relative to you because their experience doesn't invalidate your own. The depression tells you that it should; the depression tells you that everyone else having it worse is just another reason why you should feel better right now. But that's impossible. You can't magically feel better just with the knowledge that someone else feels bad. (How could you? These people who feel bad are very frequently people you care about. Knowing they hurt just makes you sadder.)

And then, when you can't magically feel better knowing that other people have it worse, the self-loathing kicks back up. Because that's really what somebody else has it worse is for: it's grist for the self-loathing mill. You feel bad? Other people feel worse. That didn't cheer you up? You're a big whiner. And so on.

Like before, I don't have an answer to all this, except that the whole thing is garbage. Knowing really isn't half the battle, though, since we've talked in the past that depression is adept at incorporating logic and reason and knowledge to use against you. But if you are suffering from depression, please don't use me as an example of having it worse and therefore you suck. Because there's ten-to-one odds that I'm over here using you as an example of having worse and therefore I suck. Maybe somehow we can cancel each other out and realize we both have it pretty bad that that depression -- not us -- sucks.

And if you love someone who suffers from somebody else has it worse, repeat like the mantra that it is: "It doesn't matter if somebody else has it worse. You are hurting, and that pain is real and isn't diminished by the power of relativity. And I love you."


Lily said...

Content note: depression, anxiety, death phobia, religion

Awful things are awful and they make you feel awful, and it doesn't matter what anyone else on this planet is experiencing relative to you because their experience doesn't invalidate your own.

I need to be told this more often, because if I go to my mom with anxiety issues and get a response like, "We've gone over this a thousand times already!" I...feel invalidated. "You're not the only one who feels this way."

"I know." And then I go back to my room and try to make myself stop crying because I feel guilty being depressed. One of my close friends has lost a lot of people in his life and I think my death terror stems from the fact that I hate to see anyone suffer or in pain. (This is why hell was and still is a very scary thing; I live in an evangelical Methodist family.) He has a lot of stuff to deal with, so I really don't want to bother him and I worry about him too on top of everything else. I'm always telling myself I have it worse than because my CP is fairly mild; I'm a walker and wheelchair user. I tried to tell myself God loved me as a kid, but I still believed I was bad.

I'm just very anxious and can't cope well; thank you for having this blog, Ana.


★☆ keri ☆★ said...

This is something I had to work on a lot in therapy over the years (I've been in a lot of therapy). My depression is very much a Part of Me - it's something chemical in my brain and I can get gold stars every week in therapy and practice my CBT techniques 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, but if I'm not on medication, I can't get better. It started manifesting when I was quite young, so I've basically been fighting this kind of thing all my life.

It was really really hard to break free of the pattern, and I still fall into it a lot. One of the first things I had to do was learn/accept that yes, other people have it hard, but I have it hard, too! and that because everyone is unique, what might seem difficult for someone else actually isn't so bad for them. Just like we all have different food or color or clothing preferences, we can all have different tolerances for pain or irritations or whatever. And we're also products of our upbringing? which is partly a privilege thing - but privilege isn't inherently bad, it's just what we're used to. I can't tolerate wearing sandals with a thong between my toes and I find it completely unbearably unpleasant, but other people can't tolerate heels or super snug ballet flats.

I'm still really depressed without my medication, and when I'm medicated but still in a super low period because of PMS hormone fluctuations (which is as bad as without meds, but at least it's only 2 weeks per month instead of all 4.5?), I find myself having to repeat that stuff a lot, and when I do compare myself, I try to also point out the ways in which I am dealing with the bad stuff that others perhaps couldn't tolerate either - I mean, I always feel horrible that my menstrual cramps make me miss out on social things and I even have to call in sick to work, and lots of people go through life just fine with cramps, but dammit, they don't have adverse reactions to almost all pain relievers, and it shouldn't take double the prescription dose (which isn't recommended) just to pull back from the puke/cry level 10 pain to the can't really focus on anything level 8 pain (at which point i fall asleep because even just that relief is enough to let my exhausted body relax a bit). Maybe some people do, but not most? And the main point is that I'm turning it away from comparing apples and oranges to going "look, it IS bad, and no one should suffer like this, so it's okay to be miserable".

I don't know if my story will help anyone else reframe the comparisons - I mean, it did take me years to be able to do it myself - but I wanted to share how I frame it now and give an example, just in case it does help somehow. (A kind of extreme example, but it's easiest to explain and one I have to remind myself of fairly regularly.) The depression part of the month is creeping up on me today, and I'm kind of terrified of what the weekend brings, but I also know that fear is partly the anxiety element of my depression. It sucks so much.

Annafel said...

Hi Ana,

I haven't commented here before, but I recently found your blog (possibly you were linked on Shakesville?) and I have really enjoyed reading back through your archives (mostly Twilight so far). I am finding your writing very insightful and thought-provoking, so I wanted to thank you for that.

I also wanted to comment on this post in particular because, as I was reading it, I recognised the wisdom of what you were saying and I was thinking that, since I knew you were right, what you were saying didn't directly apply to me. Sure, I am dealing with depression, two dear family members are chronically ill and recently deceased, respectively, and also I was just in a major car accident last week. (I am okay.) But! I'm dealing with my depression! I know that my pain is real and not minimised by the fact that other people also have terrible things to deal with. Therefore your point is interesting to note but not applicable to me!

Then I remembered that I was just talking to my counsellor yesterday about the guilt I'm feeling because I think I should be getting way more done at work, and that she had to remind me of the astonishing number of major things, good and bad, that have happened to me lately, and maybe I should not expect so much of myself just now.

I haven't exactly been going down the thought-road of "someone else has it worse" so much as I've been continuing to compare my output at work to people who, as far as I know, have had NO major, distracting events lately. (Of course they might and I just don't know. And they're still getting so much - okay, I'm stopping myself there.)

Anyway - thank you very, very much. I needed this today.

Aidan Bird said...

Content Note: Depression

Thank you for this, Ana. This needed to be heard, for I know that I fall prey to this as much as I fall prey to the spiral of suck. The insidious forms of depression really. I suppose the hardest and most insidious form for me is if I dare look at my future; through the lens of depression it looks so bleak that life doesn't seem worth it for it's only a matter of time before I run out of money, have to sell my things to eat or something, end up homeless all because I can't find a job, can't afford grad school, economy sucks, Congress cares more about this than that and nothing will ever change for the good... yada yada... and yeah. That spiral sucks me in just as much as the other two, leaving me in this darkest despair. I don't know if anyone else has to deal with that third insidious form of depression, but the last few sentences of this blog post sums up the best way to handle all three forms in my opinion. Knowing someone loves you, that you're not alone - that's huge. It's the rope that leads you up toward the fresh air and out of the dank pit.

*Offers Hugs* No matter how depression tries to ensnare us, as long as we keep remembering that we are loved, we're not alone, that are pain is real and we're hurting, and it's the depression that sucks - that when we remember that, maybe then maybe we inch a bit closer to that fresh air.

J. Random Scribbler said...

It doesn't work like that.

Indeed. And thank you. You've helped at least one depressed person today.

Yamikuronue said...

Thank you. I can't even... thank you.

Loquat said...

And meanwhile, I'm over here crying and rocking back and forth because [Commenter] not only has depression, but zie also has to deal with [redacted]...

I saw this last night and patted myself on the back for not posting about my own depression-related issues and adding to your worries. And then my husband drunkenly woke me up in the middle of the night to insist I hadn't done a minor chore I distinctly remember doing (did the cat undo it? did he undo it himself and forget because he was drunk? no idea, but I'm 100% sure I did it.) and also mentioned he'd been fucking around with explosives, which is one of the top 5 entries on the list of Shit You Should Never Ever Do While Intoxicated. But oh no, he can totally handle his alcohol, it's totally safe, go back to sleep honey. So ahahahahafuckit I'ma rant.

I'm not entirely sure if I have depression per se or some form of anxiety/depression mixture or what. I do know it's strongly related to my job or lack thereof - being unemployed turns into a vicious cycle where I feel like I'm worthless as a potential employee and therefore unemployable and therefore a failure at life. Being an American fully immersed in our work-centric culture, and being the daughter of a movement-feminist mother who's always held up work-for-pay as a moral duty in addition to a financial one, I really had no concept of how to value myself if I wasn't in school or drawing a paycheck. Having major anxiety issues about the job application process doesn't help, either. (Hooray for the temp agency that got me my seasonal health insurance job!) This is probably a big part of why I spend so much time playing MMOs - I'm helping my guild accomplish stuff! I have value to someone!

And then there's my husband's drinking. He was drinking last night and woke me up at 3:30 this morning still noticeably drunk, and mentioned he'd spent the last couple hours reloading. That's assembling bullets, brass casings, and gunpowder into new rounds of ammunition, for those unfamiliar with the term. (He enjoys target shooting, and premade ammo is more expensive.) It's perfectly safe, as long as you're sober and pay attention to what you're doing. If you get careless, though, you can blow yourself up at the reloading table or make a round of ammo that blows up your gun when you try to shoot it. In other words: reloading while drunk is just asking for a major injury.

I don't know what, if anything, I can do about this. I'll talk to him today, but he's probably going to blow me off. The most frustrating thing is, he knows he's at risk for alcoholism and stopped drinking altogether several years ago after multiple citations for drunk driving. That was before we met - when we met he was proclaiming himself "on the wagon" and carrying energy drinks everywhere so he'd have an alternative to booze. And then, at some point after we bought our house, he decided he could handle alcohol again, and got into the habit of getting drunk a couple times per week. I'm pretty sure his frustration at my continued unemployment was a factor. But then again, he enjoys getting drunk, so maybe this would be happening even if I'd had a great job all this time. He doesn't get violent or anything - mostly when he's drunk he just watches TV or plays video games. But he's convinced that alcohol only gets him in trouble when he drinks hard liquor, and that beer doesn't affect him, and of course he can never have just one beer because just one beer isn't nearly enough to give him a buzz, so he'll drink a whole 6-pack, but beer doesn't affect him so he's totally fine to do hazardous things if he feels the urge. I don't think he's actually driven while drunk yet, but it's only a matter of time if he stays on his current path.

It's after 7. I've been awake since 3:30. Fuck. *headdesk*

Ana Mardoll said...

You are always welcome to rant, dear heart. That's part of being a safe space. I am sending you so many internet hugs right now.

chris the cynic said...

(How could you? These people who feel bad are very frequently people you care about. Knowing they hurt just makes you sadder.)

Even if it isn't someone you know, someone out there is hurting, how can that possibly make you feel better?

I wish more people could grasp that because it seems remarkably common, depression or no, for someone thinking themselves oh so helpful to respond, "You're feeling down, well let me drop an atrocity on your mind and then you'll feel better in comparison," with the completely predictable result that you'll feel worse because now you've got your own problems and this thing you weren't even thinking about before both dragging you down, and possibly even guilt for the fact that you hadn't considered the newly introduced bad thing before because you were so wrapped up in your own troubles and what kind of horrible person are you for not even thinking about those who have it so much worse?

So now you've got at least three times as much reason to feel like shit as you did before, and how the hell did helpful person think this would help?


I go to read the rest of the post now.

chris the cynic said...

Looks like I was almost done anyway.

Another thing I recommend not doing, "I know someone with depression and they can..." as part of a, "So you can do it too," argument. It does not work that way. I actually wrote a post about it once upon a time called We're not all the same.


What the post talks about is very familiar. There was the student in Greek with me going through a difficult pregnancy, gave her diabetes made her sick all the time, and she had a younger child to take care of as well, she was always on top of things. There was one of my teachers, difficult marriage going into divorce, massive problems with the administration, she's stuck at the very center of things because she stepped up into a leadership role no one else had wanted and tried to change things for the better only to have the administration screw everything up, she was coping. I can go on, I was in the process of doing so, but the thing is they're always there.

People who have success where you know you'd collapse under the pressure.

I sort of exist in a perpetual state of head just above water, anything worse and I'd sink. I find myself surrounded by people who seem to have worse.

Of course the depression itself gets edited out of the equation. Could those other people do the same with my depression? Can't answer that.

Could I cope as well as them with their neurological state?

Comparison is a bad idea anyway, but the only way it makes even the least amount of sense is if you internalize the depression and consider it a vital part of who you are. If I were in their shoes of course I'd being my depression along for the ride, and in that case I'd never be able to do what they do. Which stands a good chance of being false in itself, but why would you bring your depression along for the ride?

Timothy (TRiG) said...

Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist who lived through the Holocaust, said something to the effect that suffering is like a gas: no matter how much or little there is of it, it fills all available space.


Smilodon said...

Ana, I've gone back to the part of the first depression page where you said (from memory, so maybe I misquote) "it amazes me that something like this is dealable in the long term" and read that sentance over a ton of times. It's so good to hear someone say "This thing you deal with? Is hard to deal with. You're not weak for all the things you wish you could do but you don't. You are dealing with things."

Ana Mardoll said...

I'm glad it helped, and I absolutely mean it. Going from "not depressed" to "very depressed" via strong narcotics has been an eye-opener for me. The depression has been harder than ANYTHING involved in my surgery, the lead-up to the surgery, the lifetime of needing surgery, etc. This is seriously a very, very hard thing.

I cannot understand why depression gets downplayed as 'nothing' so frequently; it's one of the worst things I've experienced. I'm shocked and utterly astounded that people learn to deal with it over months or years of time. You are all incredibly strong.

chris the cynic said...

When you get cold enough the color runs out of your extremities, if you're like me you never had much color there to begin with.

The result is that sometimes when I get to a place to warm up and start taking off clothes I have this incredible indescribable pain in my fingers or toes and, even though I know better, some part of me expects it to be visible. Like I'll take off a glove or a sock and see some hideous sight of what's become of my limbs, instead they look completely normal. Everything fine. No sign, whatsoever, that I'm in pain (assuming I am in pain as opposed to numbness in which case I swear it feels like there should be some highly visible highly disgusting sign of wrongness then) everything looks completely normal. Nothing to see here.

If someone were to quickly look at my frozen extremity, they'd think nothing is wrong. No blood, no discoloration, nothing dislocated (unless you look close enough to see the difference between pale and pale.) Everything looks fine.

I think depression works the same way. You can't see it. It's invisible. And if you can't see it how can anyone else, and how can they tell that there's something wrong. When I was on crutches people noticed, and they tried to be helpful. Oddly, they didn't need to. I took to crutches pretty well* as soon as I learned that it was easier for me to maintain my balance on them if I tried to move fast instead of take it slow. But I had a sign: Person hurt here. And people reacted.

Sprained ankle: Lots of attention and people caring because they can see it's not nothing.
Depression looks exactly the same and anything else. Someone takes a look at you and it seems like nothing's wrong. So nothing must be wrong.


* Except no one told me that if you made use of the armpit rest things too much it'd leave stretch marks that stick with you your whole life. That could have been useful information.

Izzy said...

First of all, bogglelovesyou.tumblr.com, which I feel people might find helpful. Many similar messages, and also a worried little owl.

And also, yeah. Counting your blessings or trying to think of five good things that happened today or whatever can be helpful, and I'm all for it. Remembering that other people have their own problems and the world doesn't revolve around you is necessary: otherwise you end up as the sort of hell-vortex of a person that Alec Baldwin would play in a movie about Wall Street. But you can do those things while also being good to yourself, and recognizing that your problems are also problems, and painful to you, and so on.

Ana Mardoll said...

You are seriosly in my head -- one of his is this weeks' Recommends already.

(Missed you, by the way!)

depizan said...

*offers hugs to all the people that want/need them*

I wish there was a magic "fix everything" wand for all the things people are struggling with!

Lonespark said...

The thing about the people who bear up under the unbearable is that that's what they do...until they don't. I have learned this from living with my mom, and other people. Depression and hopelessness can get anybody.

I have since come to resent it when people say admiringly that someone "never thought of themselves," or "was always there for others." It's kind of true sometimes for a very few people, but so what? I hate valorizing it. People who thought of themselves when they had to and were usually there for others are really damn important and worthy of recognition. Usually it's just hyperbole, often for dead folks who can't speak up about their doubts and frailties, but is still rubs me the wrong way.

Loquat said...

Good news on the alcoholism front - husband acknowledged drinking problem, promised never to reload while drunk again, and volunteered to try going dry for a while. So that's one source of stress reduced. Yay for not being in denial.

Ana Mardoll said...

Oh, that's so good to hear, dear. I try not to offer unsolicited advice because relationships are complicated, but I've been thinking about you today. Hugs.

Sherry Hintze said...

How about a "fix everything" button? Now, where did I pick this up? Ah, well, I bookmarked it at some point:


Just a bit of silliness, really, but it makes me smile sometimes.

chris the cynic said...

My sister had* a red spot just above her nose, slightly off center. It was her reset button. When something went wrong she would push it and reset. The weird thing is, this would work. She'd stop crying if the thing had been something that made her cry, people would go along with it and pretend whatever went wrong never happened, it was basically a do over for all involved. It didn't magically pick up the dinner plate if it had been dropped and clean the floor, but it did let everyone go on as if it didn't happen (besides quietly cleaning the floor) and generally feeling better about it.

Or so I'm told, my sister is older than me and if I have memories from the reset era they aren't of the button being used. I've seen old pictures with the red birthmark in plain view, I've heard stories, but I don't remember it myself.


Sister still exists in the present tense, the spot does not, having faded to nothingness with time.

theKatriarch said...

Thank you for this post, Ana. Thank you for all these posts, actually. I really wish there was something I could say to you that would make you feel as good as some of the things you have said (in particular the line that Smilodon also mentioned) have made me feel. I am so blown away by the empathy you are able to extend to other people with depression, because for me, depression shuts down my ability to empathize. It makes me really selfish and only able to focus on how bad I feel, even though at the same time it's using other people as props in its sick game of Suffering Olympics that you describe in this post. I think it's a really difficult leap to be able to reach out to other people the way that you have.

I know it might be hard to believe this right now, but you are a wonderful and sweet person. Hugs?

Lonespark said...

I love that button!

Ana Mardoll said...

Thank you! But I'm no hero and you're not selfish; I'm inordinately lucky to have a clear "cause" for my depression and an exit strategy for getting off these meds. It's often a little easier to be a tourist than to live somewhere, I think. :)

But thank you.

Silver Adept said...

That's the thing that always gets me - yes, it sucks, but the resources should be directed to others who have it worse than I do - I'll manage. Which I do - until the point of the breakdown, that is, when things are just to much and I want too tell everything to go away. Which they won't - work has things for me, and if I take vacation from work, home will think of it as an opportunity to get my help on all the Projects. When all you want to do is sit and play games for a few weeks.

I could reach out to the support network at that point, but I don't want to bother them because they have their own problems and I'd just be burdening them.

It's a vicious, nasty cycle. Because that's what depression does for me.

Aidan Bird said...

Oh my heavens, I needed to see this. How silly am I? I totally started to cry reading those posts. Partly because the owl looks so worried, and partly because what the owl writes is so nice.

This is one of those days I wish free mental health clinics existed. Or that psychiatrists or therapists would show up at the free medical clinics. Why doesn't our society take mental health seriously? Receiving mental health is just so darn expensive, and not having insurance kinda screws over anyone who can't afford it.

Lonespark said...

The owl is so good. I made a Tumblr just so I can follow Boggle. And I made Daily Assignments from Boggle my desktop.

The quest for therapy made me wonder if there is online therapy. Googling does turn up stuff, but does anyone have any firsthand or professional knowledge about it?

Nenya said...

Ana, about this post: fucking thank you. I'm on an upswing right now with my depression, but holy cats, you describe the horrid "someone has it worse" spiral perfectly. Chris the cynic's "three times worse" is exactly right, too.

Thank you. Thank you, thank you.

Steve Morrison said...

Add my thanks to everyone else's. This post has already helped me.

Dan Audy said...

Definitely nails the horrid cycle of depression begetting self-loathing begetting depression.

I personally have found that if I can get over the hump of SUPER depression (only slightly differentiated from catatonia) AND I've been taking my meds (regularly for 6 weeks) that my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy training for social anxiety can usually hold me at a semi-functional level until I next have a bad day. This is nice because it means that usually for over a week a month I can handle non-essential tasks like cleaning my house and yardwork.

Scylla Kat said...

Thanks, Ana, as always. I have had just this cycle, sometimes for months on end, and the pills sit on my desk so I don't forget to take them, because it's so easy when it doesn't feel that way to think that somehow it will never come back. Gratitude is hard to come by in the daily grind, but it's a very different feeling from "and I suck because other people are worse off than I am."

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