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Depression: Why Do People Keep Asking What Happened?

Most people don’t understand depression or bipolar disorder. They ask: why are you depressed? When living with depression, you don’t need a reason. That's what they don't get.

I have had this exchange a thousand times,

“I’m really depressed.”
“Why, what happened?”

Have you been missing the plot?

Bipolars Get Depressed

Bipolar disorder is defined as the cycling of moods between a depression and a mania, or hypomania. It is not characterized by being cut off in traffic and then being depressed about it.

Depression Happens. Bipolar Disorder Doesn’t Need a Reason.

I do understand the confusion. For a normal person, emotions have causes. I say something hurtful to you, and you might feel hurt. Someone hits your car and runs, you might feel mad. You break up with your other, you might feel sad. I get that. They taught us the feeling faces in elementary school.

The problem is that for most people, few emotions fall outside this cause and effect. It’s true that people may not always be able to pinpoint the cause, but generally one exists. The only feelings falling outside of this paradigm are things like bad hair days.

Depression Is the Worst Hair Day of Your Life

So when I say to someone that nothing caused the depression, they have no frame of reference. Normal people don’t wake up feeling suicidal. Normal people don’t understand what it is to be crying for no other reason than it is 3:02pm. Or 4:07pm. Or 7:12am. People just can’t comprehend what causes an 180 degree mood swing in a matter of moments. They don’t believe it. They think it isn’t possible. They think I’m sneakily hiding the reason. They seem to think I’m lying to them.

Rest assured; I am not.

Why Do You Have a Cold?

It’s like getting a cold. You have no idea why you have a cold, or how you got it. But you have it. Suddenly. Without warning. You didn’t do anything wrong. And now you’re stuck using up all your tissues and searching the cupboards for chicken soup.

Depression is like that: you don’t know why you have it, or how you got it. But you have it. Suddenly. Without warning. You didn’t do anything wrong. And now you’re stuck using up all your tissues and searching the freezer for Ben and Jerry’s.

Bipolar Happened

No one asks you how you got the cold. They know it’s an illness. I wish people would remember that so is depression. I don’t know why I have it. It just appeared. There is no reason. Stop asking me what happened.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar Burble, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

30 thoughts on “Depression: Why Do People Keep Asking What Happened?”

  1. Dear Natasha

    Very very accurately drawn picture of “US” the sufferer.
    At the age of 50 I am trying to complete my Ph.d in Computer Science which I hate.
    I have worked for past 17 years.Wish I could work with an NGO because helping others heals me. Still trying to grab life.Blessed with a doctor husband and a handsome son.

  2. I have been dealing with anxiety since I was little because when I was in school if I didn’t do good my dad would yell. So every time he came home I was so scared. Now I’m having to deal with psoriasis in my head, my finger and toe nails, and a small spot on my back. Then since August of 2012 I’ve had knee problems and now my feet. I get so depressed because I can’t so much and that I do stuff to make it better but it doesn’t work. Back in nov my grandpa was dying of stage 4 brain cancer so me and some family members had to take care of my grandma that’s disabled and she drove us nuts for 10 weeks. I lost my grandpa in jan, then my aunt in feb and then in march my fiancés grandpa. Ever since nov I have just been snapping and getting anger at everything and people. I’m always trying to blame something or someone else when more than likely its mine. I don’t know what to do. I’m pushing away the love I my life away and other people. Help?

  3. I know this is an older blog. But I found it very informational for me in my current depressed state (mood). With the help of my therapist I have identified a couple of triggers that can bring on a depressed state for me. However, most of the time I can’t identify anything that brought on my depressed mood. Depression is the worst part of bipolar illness for me. It robs me of my energy and makes me spiral down into dark negative thinking. For people who have the illness you know what types of negative thoughts I am talking about.
    Before being diagnosed, I often spent months in a depressed state and never understood why. The worst part was that until my doctor diagnosed me as bipolar and not just depressed I was not on the correct meds to treat bipolar. On my current meds, my moods are more stable and the depressed and hypomanic states aren’t as severe. However, I still have mood swings and spend more time depressed than euthymic or hypomanic.

  4. I know this was written a while back ago, but this really hit me. When I am having a depression episode I could never understand what was causing it (aside from the internal aspect) and it always made me so frustrated when my therapist would ask why and all I could say is that I dont know. Usually there would be absolutely no specific trigger that I could put my finger on. THANK YOU so much for writing this for others to see too.

  5. I wish I could get to the point of people asking. My family understands the depressive and somewhat manic sides and have learned that it does just happen and to try and deal w/ it until I find my way back. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen in the business arenna. They just see the difference and find ways (legal mind you) to have you dismissed. Families are easier to explain and have the understand, but how do you do this in the work environment? That is my true struggle, after being recently diagnosed. These blogs and informational websites are very helpful, but they can only go so far.

    1. I know this is a very late response, but I thought it was a good question that deserves an answer.

      First of all, it’s completely up to you whether you want to disclose your struggles with depression or any other disorder. Some feel uncomfortable for personal reasons and others fear discrimination. But when your symptoms start effecting your job performance it’s a good time to reconsider the position.

      Mental illness is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which affords you protection from discrimination and “reasonable accommodations.” But these can’t be enforced if an employer does not know you are clinically depressed.

      I would suggest, after asking for a few minutes of their time and having an official documentation of your diagnosis, personalizing the following basic approach:
      “Hi [Employer], I wanted to speak to you about my recent performance. I’m currently struggling with clinical depression (or you can be more vague), which I’m being treated for, and as I get better my performance will improve. However, I may require some accommodation while I recover. I’m still able to perform my duties, though I am having some difficulty with [insert issue(s) here]. It helps when [accommodations/environment/etc.]. If you have any questions or concerns about my diagnosis, please feel free to talk to me. If you see [specific scenario], you can [action]. I’m grateful to be a part of this team and wanted you to be aware of my circumstances so we can work together to keep things on track.”

      I would recommend speaking with HR or your union first if you think the conversation will be problematic, and to check in with your employer again in a few days to see where things stand.

  6. Hi Snoopy,

    I think many of us have sought valiantly for a cause to an emotion only to find that it doesn’t exist (extrinsically).

    Not that therapists are bad, because they’re not, but they seem to have a burning need to track down sources that sometimes just aren’t there.

    “OCD can make you think someone doesn’t like you because of one tiny insignificant thing that happened the other day. And then you obsess over it.”

    I do that too. Not that I have OCD, but I do tend to be obsessive. It’s unbelievable how awful it is to obsess over the tiniest thing and use it as an excuse to worry that someone “hates” you or is “mad” at you. Even when I know it isn’t true.

    Thanks for the comment.

    – Natasha

  7. Amen. I totally understand, Sweetie.

    I’ve had the reverse… wondering why am I mad/sad/depressed, and then hunting for a reason when the reason didn’t exist. Or rather, the reason was in my head / due to PMS / due to OCD.

    OCD can make you think something is unreasonably dirty. Contaminated. You focus on that contamination, when the problem isn’t the germs, it’s your own brain over-reacting to the perceived presence of germs.

    OCD can make you think someone doesn’t like you because of one tiny insignificant thing that happened the other day. And then you obsess over it.

    Anyway, just wanted to say I understand. And that I won’t ask you why you are depressed, lol. 🙂

  8. Hi Sabine,

    As I’ve mentioned, depression isn’t a chemical imbalance: http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2010/11/depression-isne28099t-a-chemical-imbalance/

    It’s considerably more complicated than that. Have we made progress? Yes, huge amounts. The first drug I took that worked was not being prescribed 15 years ago and now we know it’s one of the best mood stabilizers with elevating effects for bipolar disorder. I understand the progress can’t come fast enough for those with a mental illness, but it is coming.

    (We actually know lots about the brain and depression as well: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_08/i_08_cr/i_08_cr_dep/i_08_cr_dep.html)

    Feel free to take medication or not, whatever works for you, but yes, our understanding improves every year.

    – Natasha

  9. Hi Beverley,

    “There is a reason why you are depressed, please don’t tell people there isn’t, this will only give them the impression that you are ‘feeling sorry for yourself’”

    Well, that is exactly the point. I get depressed because I have a mental illness not for an extrinsic reason. It’s intrinsic. That’s the whole point.

    As I said, it’s the same as having a cold. You have a cold because there is a virus in your body. You have a depression because there is something wrong with your brain. But in neither case is their necessarily an extrinsic factor.

    – Natasha

  10. Bonjour from France,

    From mood swings to bi-polar (previously manic-depressive) we face the same sens of loss of control over ourselves. And this is freaky, very unpleasant (euphemism) for us and the ones around -if any.
    It is such a psychologically/socially crippling handicap that, combined with aggravating factors, it has left me almost all alone.
    I have been told, as Berveley puts it, that we are dealing with chemical imbalance(s). But NOT one of the various and numerous drugs the psy-this or that prescribed me (while living in New Zealand, then in Belgium and now in France, my native country) worked whatsoever. No miracle there. The true miracle is that I am still “sane”.
    Could you tell me how the brain chemical levels are determinated and idientified (tests, exams, blood sample analysis …) and if they can be efficiently rectified ? Have we made progress in the past 15 years ?
    I was telling a friend that, when things go bad, it’s like having the baby blues and I do beleive that it is very much like that dreaful postnatal experience or pregnancy “state”- which induce shocking mood swings (dejection/elation, kindness/spitefulness, warmth/wrath) and floods of tears….
    I have just gone a month or so without any medication, taking only Rescue Remedy. I feel OK, but how do I know if it’s a progress or a respite. Well, at least I’m in a frame of mind such that don’t worry about the next possible (probable ?) relapse.
    Friendly thoughts from across the Atlantic.
    Sabine
    Can I ask if some of you have had dealings with Narcissists ? My daughter is “under influence”…Part of growing-up I guess.

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