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This Is What Depression Can Feel Like

Five middle-aged adults describe their symptoms and how they’ve learned to cope

silhouette of a man sitting in a chair with his head in his hands

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We’ve all had moments in our lives when we feel sad. But if weeks go by and those feelings linger, it may be a sign of clinical depression. More than mere sadness, depression is a mood disorder that can suck the joy out of life and leave you feeling too overwhelmed to engage in normal daily activities or to get much pleasure from people or things that you previously enjoyed. It can be exacerbated by stressful life events, such as the COVID-19 epidemic, thought to be a factor in surging rates of mental health issues around the world.

But depression doesn’t always manifest itself as melancholy; some people with the disorder (particularly men) may express anger, rather than sadness, says Maria Oquendo, M.D., professor and chairman of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “Depression is often missed in males because it shows itself more as irritability than as sadness,” she notes. “Most people don’t conceptualize it as depression. They’ll think, Well, he’s just a cranky dude. In fact, it’s not just that.”

And among older people, depression can look a lot like dementia, according to the National Institutes of Health, with symptoms such as decreased energy or fatigue, moving or talking more slowly, and more difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions.


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Other common physical symptoms of depression (for people of all ages) may include headaches, joint pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping and gastrointestinal problems.

At its worst, depression can cause someone to feel complete and utter hopelessness and to have thoughts of suicide (see sidebar).

The good news is that depression can be very treatable. “There are a variety of highly effective treatments available,” says Amanda M. Spray, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, who points to medication — typically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, such as Prozac and Lexapro) — and techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), “which helps the individual to understand the link between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors.”  

It’s important to get help when you’re hurting. As Oquendo notes, “Willing depression to go away doesn’t work.”

Since depression can feel different to different people, AARP asked five adults who have had the condition to describe what it feels like and to share what helps them cope. 

Nita Sweeney, 60, Columbus, Ohio

“It’s like walking through sludge.”

nita sweeney

Courtesy Nita Sweeney

Growing up, Nita Sweeney had always been kind of melancholy, more sensitive than other kids. But it wasn’t until college that she really began to notice feelings of depression. “I worked hard and got good grades, but when life threw anything at me, say, a breakup, it felt huge and outsized,” she says. “I would be devastated, and it was hard to function.”  

Years later, when Sweeney was practicing law, she was one of the top attorneys at her firm but had to work twice as hard as her colleagues. “Not only did I have to do the work, but there was a huge hurdle — that initial inertia and paralysis — that had to be overcome before I could actually do anything,” she explains. “I felt heavy, like there was lead in my bones and weights on my arms and shoulders. It was physically painful. It’s like walking through sludge.”

Even more devastating was the feeling of blankness and profound emptiness that Sweeney, the author of Make Every Move a Meditation, still sometimes experiences during episodes of deep depression. “Everything looks gray,” she says. “Life loses its vibrancy.”

At age 33, she came close to killing herself. Deeply depressed and convinced that she was a burden to her family, she laid down on the carpet in the family room and devised a plan. “I would get into the station wagon in the garage, turn on the ignition and sit there until I went to sleep. … It was so clear that it was what I needed to do. It was the best solution for everyone.”   

Fortunately, fate intervened, in the form of a phone call. It was Sweeney’s counselor’s office, asking where she was. (She had slept through her appointment.) “That phone call saved my life,” she says. She drove straight to her therapist’s office and, a few hours later, was admitted to a local hospital. She stayed for five days, just long enough to get stable.

Since then she’s experimented with different medications; she’s currently on Prozac. She also goes for talk therapy once a month, as well as neurofeedback, a treatment that measures real-time feedback from brain activity (say, while watching a movie) and retrains the brain to develop healthier patterns.

How she copes: Sweeney does writing practice, a form of therapy that she compares to meditation with a pen. “It’s a little like journaling except you do it in a specific time period, keeping your hand moving and without stopping to think. You grab sensory details, looking around and writing about what you see. It grounds you in reality, as opposed to being up in your head.”

But the biggest emotional lift for Sweeney has been running. It’s not just the mood-boosting brain chemicals that physical activity generates, she says. “There’s a sense of community because I sometimes run with a group. I also do races, and there’s a training plan, so there’s structure. And there’s a sense of achievement that you get from achieving your goals — I said I was going to run three miles, and I did that.” Sweeney insists that the exercise really works: “Depression hates a moving target.”

John Moe, 53, St. Paul, Minnesota

“It took the form of a contained rage.”

john moe and his book the hilarious world of depression

AMERICAN PUBLIC MEDIA/MACMILLAN

Writer and radio journalist John Moe was in his 30s when he finally understood that he’d been depressed since childhood, he says. “I thought that depression was just crying a lot and laying in bed. I’ve always been able to get out of bed.”  

Instead, he felt “a sort of built-in kind of hopelessness that I just took to be reality.” Moe would respond to that fear with jokes or, often, anger. That response continued into adulthood: “It took the form of a contained rage, like road rage. And I never would get out of a car or even honk much. But it was just this madness that would overtake me.”

As the pressures of marriage, parenthood and career built up, his depression (and anger) grew worse. He started to withdraw from friends and other close relationships. “My friend would call me up and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go out for beers and watch the game?’ And I would say no because I thought, Well, I’m not going to be a good friend to him. … I’m gonna let him down.”   

Moe’s wife finally pushed him to get help, and the psychiatrist diagnosed him with textbook depression. And with diagnosis came relief, he says. “It wasn’t a character flaw. It wasn’t a weakness. I’m like, Oh, I have an illness. This is something I have, not something I am.

He’s since been on various antidepressants, many of which have worked for a time — his psychiatrist tweaks his prescription periodically — and he sees a therapist regularly.

But what’s helped the most? Talking about it and helping others. Moe has dedicated his career to trying to dispel damaging misconceptions about depression and take away the shame behind it — shame that he believes contributed to his brother’s 2007 suicide. “He felt like [the depression] was his fault. … So I thought, If more people were talking about this as a normal thing, then he might have talked about it more and gotten help. … If we don’t talk about it, people die.”

In 2016 he started a popular podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression, in which he interviewed comedians including Patton Oswalt and Mike Birbiglia about their depression; he wrote a 2020 book of the same name about his experiences (read our excerpt). His current podcast, similar to The Hilarious World, is called Depresh Mode With John Moe. Its tag line? “No shame, no stigma, and more laughs than you might expect from a mental health podcast.”

How he copes: Besides talking about the realities of depression as much as possible, Moe says, “I try to move my body. I just got in from a four-mile walk with the dogs, which I try to do five times a week or so. A lot of my job involves listening to audio, listening to interviews. And so I just put my headphones on and take a long walk with the dogs, and I get work done as I’m walking.”  

Maria Olsen, 58, Fairhaven, Maryland

“It felt like my being, my soul and my consciousness were floating overhead, watching me go through the motions.”

maria olsen

Courtesy Maria Olsen

When you think of the cautionary phrase “Depression doesn’t discriminate,” Maria Olsen comes to mind. Successful and whip-smart, with two loving children, she may be the last person you’d expect to struggle with the disorder. But Olsen, a civil litigation attorney, has dealt with depression at various points in her life. She experienced her first major depressive episode in her 20s, following a “soul-crushing” miscarriage. Eventually, her depression lifted, thanks to a combination of talk therapy and a new lease on life. In 1992, Olsen was appointed to serve in the U.S. Justice Department during the Clinton administration, becoming the highest-ranking Asian American political appointee.

Years later, a stunning revelation from her father sent her spiraling into her deepest depression. “Suddenly, I became silent and barely talked for a year — and I’m a loquacious extravert,” Olsen says. “My son would cry and say, ‘Mommy, please talk!’ I just couldn’t get the words out.” There were days when her husband would go to work and her kids to school, and she would sit and stare off into the distance until it was time to pick them up. “My body was there,” she recalls, “but it felt like my being, my soul and my consciousness were floating overhead, watching me go through the motions. I was a ghost of myself.” 

As her kids entered their teenage years “and started pushing me away,” Olsen felt a new sense of gloom descending and began to lean on alcohol for relief. By 2012, at age 49, she was drinking two bottles of wine a day. “My husband starting finding the bottles and said, ‘If you don’t go to AA, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’ ”

In an Emergency

If you are considering self-harm, go to the nearest crisis center or hospital, or call 911.

Call the federal government’s free 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800-273-TALK (8255) — or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 to speak with someone who can offer confidential support and resources. On July 16 the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will be debuting a three-digit code that will allow anyone in the U.S. to dial or text 988 and be automatically connected with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

She began attending meetings and spent time in rehab. She also worked hard to alleviate her depression, using a mix of talk therapy, yoga, meditation and journaling. She worked with a dialectical behavior therapist (DBT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that teaches patients to manage their emotions, tolerate distress and improve relationships) and tried various 12-step programs.

The medication part of the equation was a challenge. It took months of trying several drugs before Olsen found one that worked: Zoloft. She improved and went off medication for two years, but earlier this year, struggling with her partner’s cancer diagnosis, she resumed taking Zoloft and returned to talk therapy.

How she copes: She’s incorporated meditation into her daily life. “Because I’m a busy litigator, that doesn’t mean taking an hour out of my day, sitting in lotus position, chanting or being silent,” Olsen explains. “For me, it means taking deep, cleansing breaths to re-center myself throughout the day. I use traffic lights as a prompt for a deep, cleansing breath. I frequently do a 15-second meditation, breathing in to the count of four, holding it for a count of four, breathe out to a count of four. It forces me to come fully present. I cannot simultaneously be focusing on my breath and worrying about the future or fretting about the past.”

Olsen also makes an effort to surround herself with people who are positive, supportive influences. “I avoid energy vampires. We all have family members that we can’t avoid, but we can all limit our time with people who deplete our energy.”

Victoria Rimasse, 67, North Arlington, New Jersey

“Utter hopelessness.”

victoria rimasse

Courtesy Victoria Rimasse

Victoria Rimasse believes that her depression may be genetic. She suspects that her mother had the condition but went undiagnosed. Rimasse remembers her mother sitting in the dark for hours, smoking, or taking to her bed for days, reluctant to leave the house. After graduating from college, Rimasse lived at home for a few years, feeling pangs of guilt whenever she was tempted to strike out on her own. It was during this period that she experienced her own bout of depression. “There was this intense sense of isolation,” she says. “I just didn’t feel engaged with the world.”

Rimasse hit her lowest point decades later, when her son left home for college. “I felt alone and abandoned. My son didn’t need me, and I had no purpose in life, no value. I had been laid off from work and had very little money at the time. I was turning 60.”

As a result, she retreated. “I would cry myself to sleep, get up in the middle of the night to binge, then go back to bed.” She also started overmedicating with prescription drugs.

Rimasse describes her depression as a feeling of “utter hopelessness — nothing brings joy. Going to the store becomes a dreaded ordeal because you might actually have to talk to someone and you’re afraid you’ll start crying.”

Rimasse has been in treatment on and off, and in 2005, she started on Zoloft, which she’s been taking continually. It helps level out her moods. She recently began working with a cognitive behavioral therapist, who “gives me exercises to do at home. It’s helped immensely.”

How she copes: What’s highly effective for Rimasse is keeping busy and immersing herself in activities, including the public-speaking-development group Toastmasters. She’s thankful that her day job, as a paralegal at a law firm (she’s also a marketing consultant), is demanding. “I have to stay completely engaged and meet deadlines and can’t worry about my own problems.”

What helps the most, though, is helping others. “If someone else is in need of anything — whether it’s mentoring new Toastmasters members or helping a friend’s kid write a résumé — I’m all in,” Rimasse says. “Helping others gives me a feeling of self-worth and takes me out of myself.”

Joe Amuso, 62, Sayreville, New Jersey

“It’s like being trapped inside a deep, dark hole or a tiny box.”

joe amuso

Courtesy Joe Amuso

If you look at Joe Amuso — a strapping, broad-shouldered guy, standing nearly 6 feet in his stocking feet — “vulnerable” isn’t a word that comes to mind. But he has been struggling under the heavy weight of depression for more than 40 years.

Amuso believes he’s had the condition as far back as high school, where he always found it difficult to connect with classmates and felt like an outsider. Something was off, but he couldn’t figure out what. His mood got markedly worse in his senior year, with the onset of a life-altering health challenge: epilepsy. Amuso was officially diagnosed when he was 19, during college, while studying for a career in economics. He started to see a neurologist and dropped out of school.

As the seizures became more frequent he slid further down into a deep depression, which he describes as “being trapped inside a deep, dark hole or a tiny box. You can’t find a way out, and you’re completely alone. It’s suffocating.” Compounding his misery: his daily cocktail of antidepressants and epilepsy meds, which created a numbing effect, sometimes making him feel like a zombie. Finding the right balance has been a never-ending challenge. “There have been days when I’ve stayed in bed for 24 hours straight,” Amuso says. “I’ll have dinner while sitting in the recliner, and hours afterward, the tray with dirty dishes and a crumpled-up napkin will still be in my lap.”

Not everyone around Amuso understands how numb he feels. “I come from a pretty macho Sicilian family, and there hasn’t always been a lot of understanding,” he says. “To this day, there are relatives and friends who believe I can just snap out of it or who will suggest that it’s all in my head. Even more hurtful are the accusations that I’m lazy or weak. I’ve found an online support group, and fortunately, more and more people are becoming educated and enlightened.”

How he copes: For the past 14 years, Amuso has lived with a 16-pound Maine coon cat, named Sabu. “When I told people that I was getting a cat, they were dubious. There were days when I could barely take care of myself, let alone nurture another living creature. Having someone else to look after has taken the focus off of my dark moods.”

When Amuso finds himself wallowing — it happens — he lifts his mood by listening to music. “Not just the songs that send me back to happier times, before my epilepsy, but the musicians of today, like Portugal the Man. I’m looking forward.”

Barbara Stepko is a longtime health and lifestyle writer, and former editor at Women’s Health and InStyle. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Parade and other national magazines.