Real Talk: What Depression Feels Like With Amanda Chatel

Real Talk features exclusive interviews with editors on their most intimate experiences and journeys with health, wellness, body image, and more.

Amanda Chatel is an essayist, as well as a lifestyle writer with a focus on sex and relationships, sexual health and wellness, women’s reproductive rights, and feminist issues. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Atlantic, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar. For our “Real Talk” series, we asked Amanda about her experience with depression.

You’ve shared how depression has impacted all aspects of your life, from your work to relationships. For someone who doesn’t have depression, can you explain what that looks or feels like?

I have often, as in countless times, tried to put what depression feels like into words. Especially because I’m the only one in my family who has depression. I’ve found that no matter what words I come up with or quotes I’ve shared from writers far more eloquent than myself, there is still something that prevents my family and even some of my friends from understanding depression as the serious illness that it is. I don’t know what depression looks like on me or others. I can tell you, as I write this, I’m suffering a profound setback in my depression, that my struggle today, as it has been for the last several weeks, has been unbearable, but if you talked to anyone I interacted with today, they probably would have no clue the depths of my despair, the suicidal ideation, and the difficulty in finding the strength to just get out of bed this morning. I’ve learned to go through the motions of being alive, like someone on autopilot, so as not to burden my friends and family. But I can only go so long before something breaks me and I’m forced to rely on my loved ones; I’m forced to remind them that I spend so much time faking it and trying to manage it, that it’s exhausting.

As for what it feels like—and I’m sitting here staring at the wall trying to find the right words—it’s a prison of the brain in many ways. It’s anguish that comes and goes in waves. It’s sometimes an extraordinarily deep sadness, one that makes me physically sick, while other times it’s a complete absence of feeling. But in both cases, it’s suffering; to feel nothing is to suffer. It makes you question your own existence and humanity; to wonder if you’re even real at all. How can someone be human, if they can’t relate, feel empathy, compassion, sadness, happiness, or even indifference? But to someone who’s never been there, who’s never spent weeks or months in a depressive state, the concept of feeling nothing and suffering because of it, makes zero sense. It’s not a numbness, because that’s still a feeling. It’s truly nothing or, on the flip side, everything all at once that leads to the profound sadness, even if there’s nothing about which to be sad.

Amanda Chatel

For someone struggling with their mental health, it can be completely overwhelming to know where to start in terms of seeking help, treatment, and even a diagnosis. What’s your advice, for someone who isn’t quite sure if what they’re experiencing is anxiety or depression, on how to seek help and resources?

Although much progress has been made in regards to understanding depression and our society has made great strides in recognizing it as being just as deadly as any other disease, there is no miracle cure—that’s the most important thing to know before you seek help.

Also, be kind to yourself. While some people have depression due to childhood trauma, there are many of us who have it simply because of the wiring in our brain. As someone who falls into the latter category, in addition to struggling with my depression, I’ve always struggled with whether or not I had any right to be depressed. I come from an upper-middle class, privileged family, where my parents are still together. I’ve had advantages that many people haven’t: I have my dream job, I travel the world—I have, from the outside, nothing that should cause my major depressive disorder, but yet it exists. If you’re one of those people, give yourself a break. Like any disease, depression doesn’t discriminate, so don’t feel bad or weird reaching out to a professional if you think you might have depression—and depression isn’t just being depressed a couple days over this or that; it’s ongoing. Even when it lifts just enough to let you catch your breath, it never really goes away.

If you’re comfortable doing so, asking your friends if anyone knows of a good therapist with whom you can have a consultation can be a good start. If you don’t feel comfortable asking your friends (although there’s a very good chance that someone you know is in therapy), then do some research online. We’re lucky enough to live in a time where therapy can come in different forms: text, teletherapy, and still the old fashioned way of being face-to-face. Just keep in mind that finding a therapist that works for you is a trial and error process, so don’t be surprised if you don’t mesh with the first therapist you meet. Also know that most therapists don’t have the ability to prescribe medication, but can help you find a psychiatrist that can help with that, if meds are necessary. Again, medication is a trial and error process. Depression is about learning how to manage it and not cure it—until that magical cure-all pill comes along, of course

This pandemic has thrown everyone for a loop, and has been particularly difficult for those who struggle with mental health issues. Have you found any helpful coping mechanisms for your depression during this crazy time?

I wish I could say that I’ve found some brilliantly helpful coping mechanisms during all this madness, but all I have are two words: The Office. I originally thought watching The Office over and over again might not be a healthy move, but research has found that during uncertain times, people want to watch or read the things they’ve already watched and read over and over, because they know how it ends. It gives a glimmer of hope and peace in a world of so much uncertainty. So, yes, not groundbreaking, but it has helped. As has drowning myself in work, on days when I’m emotionally capable to work.

Amanda Chatel

Has depression changed any of your perceptions around femininity or beauty?

I spent a lot of time thinking I wasn’t just merely flawed because of my depression, but broken. I had a few partners in my 20s who didn’t understand it at all, said I was just a drama queen, or “too much.” And I foolishly took those comments to heart. But as I got older and started seeing myself and my depression differently, my perceptions changed. 

I hate my depression. I wouldn’t wish my darkest, maddening depressive episodes on my worst enemy. But in the same vein, it’s part of who I am. While it certainly doesn’t define me, I’ve had to accept it as just another one of the aspects that makes up me in my entirety. I’ve also chosen to take the Ernest Hemingway route when it comes to suffering: “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it—don’t cheat with it.” I have this tattooed on my inner, upper arm and a lot of days, it’s the reason I get out of bed, sit down at my computer, and write. 

Ultimately, there’s beauty in the struggle, if you try to find it, and if you use it properly and don’t cheat with it, as Hemingway says, you just might be able to come out of it all with something extraordinary. So on my good days, I relent a bit, and let myself see what beauty I’m capable of creating and adding to the world because of my depression, instead of in spite of it. 

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