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Can you be depressed and not know it?

Updated: Oct 30

Years ago, I became depressed – and I didn’t even realize it.


You might be surprised to learn that it’s possible to be depressed and not know it. I was too. At that point, I hadn’t really done a lot of inner work, and I didn’t have a lot of emotional awareness. I hadn’t gone to med school yet either. I had no idea that people with depression might not realize that they have it.


An upset looking African American woman sitting on her bed

Looking back, I can clearly see how my mindset and lack of self-care contributed to my depression. The signs were definitely there, but I didn’t realize what they meant. There might be some of you out there who are dealing with the same thing I was. By sharing this story, I hope to shed some light on how depression can creep up on a person.


How a lack of self-care can lead to depression


During that period of my life, I was working incredibly hard. I wanted to go to med school, which of course is not an easy path to take. I knew I’d have to work hard to make my dream come true. I believed that the best way to do that was to hustle as much as I possibly could.


Early in my life, I had absorbed the idea that self-care was just self-indulgence. This idea is everywhere in our culture, and many of you have probably absorbed it too. I believed that I should be working all the time to meet my goals – that was where my sense of self-worth came from. If I wasn’t being “productive,” I felt like I was wasting time.


So I worked myself to the bone, giving myself almost no breaks, for years. During this period, I was also becoming increasingly aware of the problems in my marriage. I’d married my high school sweetheart, and I basically didn’t know what a relationship was supposed to feel like. The relationship was not healthy, but I really didn’t want to acknowledge that.


As I became increasingly aware of the problems in my marriage, I worked harder and harder. Work was a refuge, a way to avoid facing the truth of what I was feeling. I would also exercise really hard, which was another way to look “productive” while avoiding my feelings. I was isolating myself socially, and spending a lot of time alone, either working or exercising.


It’s not at all surprising that all of this took a toll on my mental health. Decades of research have shown that there’s a strong link between stress and depression. Stress impacts the brain in many different ways, and the resulting changes in brain function often impact a person’s mental health. I was subjecting myself to massive amounts of stress, so my risk of depression was very high. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time.


Slowly, over time, I became someone I barely even recognized. I was irritable all the time – little things made me angry. I’d previously been a happy and fun-loving person, but now I found myself becoming bitter and even mean to the people around me. I didn’t like some of the things I heard myself say. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t want to be like this anymore. I wanted my old self back.


How I found out I was depressed


Finally, I went to see a therapist. After some conversation and answering a bunch of questions, she told me that I met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression.


I was completely shocked. I definitely didn’t think that I was depressed. I wasn’t crying or feeling sad all the time. I was functioning well in my life – doing well in school, taking good care of my son. This just wasn’t what I thought depression looked like.


In fact, I basically thought I was immune from depression. I was working hard and doing everything that I was supposed to do. I assumed that meant I couldn’t possibly get depressed. As far as I knew, people who do everything “right” didn’t get depressed.


So once I was diagnosed, did I start therapy, and finally get the help I needed to learn some healthier coping skills?


Actually – and I’m not proud of this – I never went back to that therapist.


Honestly, I just couldn’t accept the idea that I was depressed. I was so bought into the idea that highly functional people who do things “right” can’t be depressed. I just assumed the therapist didn’t know what she was talking about. I went right back to my old habits – working as hard as I could and never giving myself a break.


Sadly, this meant that I spent a few more years trying to push my way through depression. It wasn’t until after my divorce that I finally really started to explore my emotions and learn better ways to care for myself.


Does depression always make you feel sad?


'Now, I know that many people with depression have no idea that they’re depressed. They might think that they’re just overwhelmed with work, or that their partner is being particularly annoying, or that their hormones are changing.


People with depression don’t always feel sad. They might feel:

  • Irritable

  • Angry

  • Overwhelmed

  • Empty

  • Bitter

  • Hopeless

  • Numb

  • Disconnected

  • Lethargic

If you’re noticing a change in how you feel on a regular basis, it’s worth visiting a mental health professional. You might have depression and not realize it. Once you know what the problem is, then you’ll be able to make a plan to help you get back to feeling like your old self again.


Don’t make the same mistake I did – assuming that just because you’re functioning well and not spending all day crying, that means you can’t have depression. You deserve to feel better, and with the right support, this is definitely possible.


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