Summer is in full swing, the birds are chirping, the sun is shining and all you want to do is curl up alone in a dark room and be alone. This is the stark reality of someone who deals with chronic depression. The general public knows this image well. Mention depression and they imagine a person who withdraws from social events; who can’t get out of bed, and are either tearful or angry.
Now imagine Sally. She gets out of bed every day. She goes to work; she puts a smile on her face and engages with coworkers as needed. She attends family functions, but might leave the party early citing an excuse of some sort. She spends her nights at home, zoned out with the TV or spending time alone. You can often find her curled up on the couch with her favorite cat, watching old reruns on Saturday night. Sally’s energy levels are low and she is often tired. She does what she needs to do so she can get by, but there are no goals or dreams in her future. She stays focused on the past and on the present. Life has become more about surviving than thriving. Sally is what we call functionally depressed.
A few years ago I first heard the term “functional depression”. It affects countless people, often impacting the lives of individuals who don’t even know they suffer from its symptoms. So often when people think of depression, they imagine the cliché of a dark room, a teary eyed woman sitting alone, unable to get out of bed. They think to themselves, that’s not me. I must not be depressed, but I still don’t understand why I’m not happy. Functionally depressed people are depressed, but they are able to function in daily life and can meet the minimum expectations. However, they are sad, they do not have dreams, they do not set goals, they often have low energy levels, and find that maintaining their social circles is more of a chore than a pleasure. They put on a good show in front of others, but can’t get home fast enough to be alone and let their guard down.
Functional depression is not an official diagnosis. You will not find a lot of information on it, and you will not find in in the DSM-V (diagnostic manual for mental health). The symptoms are very much like mild to moderate depression, but less obvious to outsiders. Functionally depressed people will find the energy to do the activities needed to meet the minimum expectations. Family members may not notice Sally is depressed because she continues to attend family functions. She continues to interact with people, holds conversations of a superficial nature, talking about work and others. She has a valid excuse when it’s time to leave early, and no one is the wiser.
So if Sally is continuing to live her life and can go to work every day with a forced smile on her face, why is it important to address her depression? Sally is in survival mode, trying to get through moments every day until she is able to withdraw and be alone. She forces herself to do necessary work or engage in mandatory social activities, but in the back of her mind she cannot leave fast enough. She is not thriving. Life is about living. It involves enjoying moments and planning for the future, and setting goals to work towards. It is about appreciating the moments of everyday while dreaming of how to reach a better tomorrow. Living life takes notice of flowers blooming in the garden and slows down to savor the scent of a home cooked meal.
Treating functional depression is similar to treating mild depression. The best way to tackle depression is a combination of talking to your doctor, and talk therapy. Talk to your primary care physician or psychiatrist to see if medication is the right option for you. Talk therapy will help alleviate your symptoms and help you build the skills you need to conquer your depression in the future.
Functional depression can be treated with medication and therapy, just like mild depression. It is important to understand that getting through life by struggling to put on a happy façade is not the only way. Goals and dreams are important in defining who we are and how we want to live our life. They give us boundaries and guide us to become the person we want to be. No one needs to suffer in silence, and no one needs to suffer alone.
Till then, continue “Discovering Your Own Way”…
– Dr. Brennan