How to Know If Your Bad Mood Is Actually Depression

Four women share their depression journeys, including the specific symptoms that let them know they were dealing with a mental illness, not a rotten day.

You might know Ashley Wagner for her steely resolve on ice. The three-time U.S. national champion broke American figure skaters' decade-long medal drought by taking silver at the 2016 world competition. But after failing to make the 2018 Olympic team, a "very severe depression" left her barely able to function day to day.

"At first I was just really disappointed in myself for letting one event in my life derail everything that I thought I knew was true about myself and how I saw my place in the world and how I felt about my own sense of worth and value," the skater recalled in a recent Instagram video.

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Fortunately, people around her pushed her to seek professional help. "I'm finally gaining tools to help myself feel better," Wagner revealed. Her candid admission (coinciding with World Mental Health Day earlier this month) goes to show that if depression can throw a world-class jumper into a tailspin, it can sneak up on anyone.

So how do you know when you're experiencing more than just a temporary mood shift? We asked four women to share their own very different depression journeys and the tip-offs that let them know they were dealing with something more severe than just a bad mood.

"It's Not Sadness—It's a Feeling of Dread."

Jen, a media consultant in New York City, is the type of person who likes to be around other people. But as a college student, her outgoing disposition devolved into isolation and anger. When she wasn't lashing out, she was holed up in her apartment, sleeping 18 hours at a stretch, sometimes making it to class, then sacking out again. She gained weight. And she cried. A lot.

"I had a boyfriend at the time. He was like, 'What is happening to you?'" she recalls. Her roommates noticed the difference too. But it was a visit home that brought her problem out of the darkness. "My parents could see it. There's just a look … a very sad, hardened look that I would get."

Going for therapy and getting on the right medication (Prozac, in this instance) made all the difference. "It doesn't change your life like you're running marathons and happy as could be. It just makes you feel like yourself," no different, say, than taking insulin if you have diabetes, she explains.

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Jen eventually stopped treatment. When depression bubbled up again six or seven years ago, she put her own mental healthcare on the back burner due to frequent work travel. Her mood further deteriorated when she didn't have to report to an office every day. "I was spending more time with myself, and I couldn't ignore the signs anymore," she explains. By January 2018, she was seeking treatment again: same doctor, different drug (Cymbalta this time).

Jen's depression comes on as a quirky feeling in her head, as if one side of her brain is failing to connect with the other side. It's not sadness. "It's a feeling of dread, and not dread like something bad's going to happen. It's dread that I have to get up in the morning; I have to function."

"I Thought If My Plane Crashed, at Least I Wouldn't Feel This Way Anymore."

When Janet, a Washington, D.C. business executive, landed a big promotion in 2003, life suddenly changed—but not in a hopeful way. She grew anxious and weepy, prompting her husband to ask whether she was having an affair. She'd never been in such a dark, "icky" place. It felt like trying to ascend from "a black pit" and seeing the light above but failing to reach it, she says.

"At one point," she confesses, "I was on a plane and I thought, well, if the plane crashed, at least it would be over and I wouldn't feel this way anymore." It was just a passive thought; not a suicide wish. Frightening nonetheless.

A few months later, Janet tearfully confided in her trusted ob-gyn, who recommended talk therapy and started her on Zoloft, an antidepressant. It took three or four weeks for the medication to kick in. When it did, the misery started to lift.

What Janet's physician and psychologist recognized is that depression can be a symptom of perimenopause, the five or so years before menopause when hormone levels start plummeting. In retrospect, she believes her fluctuating hormones, compounded by the stress of new workplace responsibilities, triggered acute depression and anxiety.

When she tried stopping the meds at one point, those hopeless feelings reappeared. Her doctor finally convinced her to take the drug without guilt. "Everybody has their own journey through menopause," she recalls her doctor explaining, "and yours seems to be anxiety and depression."

Now when those feelings creep up, Janet imagines a cat clawing at her. Rather than fight that fur ball, she soothes it, "like, okay, alright, I see you, calm down."

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"I Lived in Chaos in My Head"

Vanessa's parents adored their daughter but knew something was amiss. Often irritable and overly emotional, this Los Angeles–based grad student kept to herself and cycled through friends. But one therapist after another assured them Vanessa was merely coping with the insecurities of being a young girl.

By the time Vanessa entered high school, she excelled at telling psychiatrists what they "wanted to hear," she remembers. And by all outward measures, the honors student was doing great. "All I knew was that I lived in chaos in my head," she says. Secretly, she was struggling with substance abuse and self-harm.

The tipping point came years later. Vanessa's manager at Victoria's Secret was wise to her employee's cutting, purging, and suicidal thoughts. If she didn't come clean, her boss would alert her parents. Sure enough, her manager placed the call, and Vanessa's next visit home was a "come to Jesus" moment, she recalls.

After an inpatient hospitalization, she spent three months in residential treatment at Timberline Knolls in Chicago. At 25, she finally secured a diagnosis: bipolar II (involving episodes of depression, but not full-blown mania) and borderline personality disorder (characterized by depressive symptoms).

People with depression are often dismissed as lazy, but really "it's that they literally cannot function," said Vanessa, who recalls ghosting grade-school friends who wanted her to go here or there with them. She didn't necessarily label her feelings as depression. "I was just thinking about how to get out of it. What can I use for my escape that day: Is it self-harm? Is it drinking?"

Vanessa's life is back on track. She takes an antidepressant and mood-stabilizing medicine. She goes to outpatient treatment and trains in mixed martial arts. She surrounds herself with friends who check in on her when she gets quiet. She's passionate about normalizing depression, including in the workplace. A year or two ago, she told her manager, "I'm not even going to say to you that I'm sick right now. I'm sad. I can't get out of bed."

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"It Was a Black Hole of Sadness I Didn't Feel I Could Get Out of"

In 2010, Jennifer was studying to become a physical therapist. It was also the year she entered residential treatment for an eating disorder that had spiraled "out of control," she remembers. At the time, the young graduate student didn't recognize she was depressed. She only knew she felt very inadequate and unworthy of anything. "Nothing was ever good enough in my mind," she recalls.

Sure, she smiled, laughed, and feigned normalcy around people at school or in clinical rotations. But she dreaded going home at night. "The only way I could get myself to eat is if I couldn't feel anything, so I had to either drink or take pills," she admitted.

Yes, pills. Anxiety meds, to be exact, are prescribed by a general practitioner. An accidental overdose catapulted her into the hospital psych ward followed by two months of residential treatment, interrupting her studies. "I wasn't trying to commit suicide at the time," she insists. "I just wanted to not feel anything."

Jennifer now realizes her depression was manifesting as an eating disorder and through substance abuse. She still has times of sadness but no longer feels hopeless. Looking back, she says, "it was like a black hole of sadness that I didn't feel I could ever get out of."

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