And ultimately we hide from ourselves until we no longer know who or what we really are. It is possible to bury and deny our feelings for so long that we are no longer aware that they exist, and to live with our masks for so long that we come to believe that our outer public image is the real self. Dick Innes
When I was diagnosed with clinical depression I was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). My experience with depression was not the complete absence of emotion normally associated with it. I could feel one emotion, a constant and exhausting anxiousness. My psychiatrist told me that depression and anxiety were cousins and that my anxiety was probably feeding my depression. He put me on a medication that was supposed to help with both.
A couple years later, when I was further along my road to recovery, I became more aware of the spikes in my anxiety. I started to discover that I wasn’t generally anxious. I was concerned about specific things, I just didn’t have the emotional awareness to know what they were. A key skill for me to be able to live fully without the constant bondage of anxiety was realizing when my anxiety was spiking and why. I learned to recognize the trigger and the deeper fear that that trigger was playing on. Finally, I learned how to verbalize those fears to a friendly ear.
As a side note, this is when counselors are at their most useful. If you feel like maybe you're overreacting to situations and that there could be more going on emotionally than you're aware, consider talking to a counselor. Understanding the deeper parts of yourself and being able to name your emotions and fears is the first step in overcoming them. Andrew Solomon gave some great advice about counselors. He said, "Someone to whom you connect profoundly can probably help you a lot just by chatting with you in an unstructured environment; someone to whom you do not connect will not really help you no matter how sophisticated his technique or how numerous his qualifications. The key things are intelligence and insight..."
Be careful as you do your digging though. When archaeologists have a site prepped and are ready to do the real excavating work they go painfully slow and use gentle tools so as not to harm the treasures they are seeking. So should you. A lot of us depressives are given to over-analysis. I know I am. I really had to learn how to go easy on myself. If you are continually slicing yourself into pieces and then dissecting the pieces into even smaller parts, you're just going to be walking through life emotionally shredded and raw. Your self-analysis, preferably with the help of someone who cares about you and knows what they're talking about, should be for short periods of time with lots of rest and living life in between. Noting when you have spikes in your anxiety or attacks of depression or bouts of sleeplessness is good. It can help you to understand the causes better, but just note it. Don't analyze them every time. You'll get lost in your brain.
Good self-awareness is a key to keeping depression from coming back after you get better too. I feel so much better now and like I can live basically a normal life, but similar to someone with a drug addiction I have to keep vigilant in order to avoid a relapse. I've always struggled with social anxiety and feelings of awkwardness. I'm not as socially awkward as I feel, but it's still a practical struggle. A few years after I was feeling better, a friend of mine invited me to a party at his house. I knew a couple of the other people that were going even though I hadn't talked to them in years. I felt like I was probably strong enough now, so I went figuring it was going to be just a laid back party with some food and people catching up. There turned out to be a lot more people than I thought, though, and the few people that I knew were busy with all the other guests. I quickly started to feel isolated, and the old familiar internal dialogue began... "Why are you so awkward? Look at what a good time everyone else is having. Why can't you be like that?" I wanted to leave after 45 minutes but that felt even more embarrassing. I couldn't face people asking me why I was going so soon, so I just suffered through the night.
Everyone there was great, but it was still an excruciating night that definitely set me back. It was a lesson for me though. It's not that I don't want to go to parties with a lot of strangers. I just have to realize that I need a wing man or wing woman, preferably one that is aware that it's kind of a difficult situation for me. I can do most of the things that I want I just have to be aware of my weaknesses and learn practical ways to cushion them. For instance, if I know I have an intensive time of socializing coming up, like a week-long family reunion or friends staying at our house for a while, I try to always make sure I come into it rested and schedule recuperation time afterwards. I also don't beat myself up internally if I need to spend a couple hours alone in my room resting before I come back to join the shenanigans.
Getting stronger is still the goal. However, knowing your weaknesses at their core helps you to know where you need both strengthening and protection. If your leg was in a cast for 3 months you would need to exercise the muscles that had atrophied, gently at first, and still be careful not to put too much pressure on the leg because it's more likely to break in that weak spot. Similarly, our emotional muscles need to be stretched slowly to give us the flexibility we desire. If you try to do an emotional split before you're ready, you'll just end up injuring yourself.