Wild Mood Swings (or How to Know if Your Loved One is Depressed or Just an Asshole)

In October of 2015 I wrote a post about what do do when depression makes you act like an asshole, which it most certainly may do. This post of mine gets viewed more than any other, and and usually people find it because they are curious as to whether or not a loved one is depressed or just an asshole. On average, 5 people find that post everyday through a google search. Almost 800 people have read that post just in 2017.

What bothers me is that I don’t know how helpful my post is for answering the question that most often brings people to the post. That post is written for those of us who are, on occasion, depressed assholes. What about all of you trying to determine the difference between depression and moodiness or meanness in a loved one?

In my original post I discussed Kanye West’s song “Runaway” as a way to understand the motivation behind a depressed person being abrasive. In my case, I intentionally push people away in order to save them from my destructive, gravitational pull. I feel like a black hole, and I am desperate for those I love most to rescue themselves. I redirect the conversation away from my depression and place blame elsewhere. I detach. I become cold. I’m trying to save you from the inescapable evil of my true self. That is the bullshit that depression makes me believe. I push people away because I don’t feel worthy of love. It’s about self-sabotage in order to get what I believe I deserve–hatred and isolation. It is important to understand the motivation behind your loved one’s actions. If it is depression, the chemical changes change how you act, yes, but also how you think and feel. Better understanding the core of depression can help you understand where your loved one is coming from.

In that vein, there is this really beautiful but terribly sad song by The Cure called “This Is A Lie” from their Wild Mood Swings album. It’s this mulling-over of human connection, human purpose, and how false it seems to continue on without acknowledging the existential horror of our meaningless existence. It’s not just sad and resigned. There is a frustration at the impossibility of understanding the our meaning and purpose. And that going on with our existence without acknowledging this makes it all an unbearable lie. 

I’ve chosen this song as a starting place to differentiate between being an asshole and being depressed because I think that depression really is about deeply negative perspectives of life and the self due to chemical imbalances in one’s brain. And this song is a perfect example of that. I’m not saying that life is full of meaning and that we all have purpose–those are philosophical questions without final answers. But, most of us learn to live life despite these grand questions. We know that even though life feels empty, we still have to feed our children. We know that our jobs may not change the world, but we appreciate the need for income so we go to work. 

When you are depressed, these big questions become overwhelming. Why should I get out of bed to make dinner when life is meaningless? Why go to work when it just reinforces the purposelessness of life. We can’t get beyond questions of meaning and purpose in order to live. And, to be honest, that is sad, yes, but it is also incredibly frustrating. Especially when no one else feels the horror you feel. Everyone else seems like a robot. A clone. A puppet. And that can be intolerable. It makes you lash out; it makes you withdraw; it causes destruction.

But it can be difficult to get a depressed person to understand these deep feelings, let alone acknowledge and describe them. If your loved one is acting like an asshole and you are worried that it is because she is depressed, I think it is important to start here–with the depth of thoughts and feelings that arise from depression. It’s permeative. Living and breathing become more difficult. Love, hate, joy, and pain are all reminders of the ultimate emptiness of existence. Like Robert Smith sings, “This is a lie.” Under the pressure of depression, trying to survive seems not just futile and meaningless but also wrong and false. This means that just about anything can set off a negative reaction. Anger, paranoia, meanness, criticism, coldness–all of these can be ways of coping with the difficulty and emptiness of depression. 

When you are wondering whether or not your loved one might be acting like an asshole because they are depressed, I have thought of a couple of things to look for that might be signs of the deep sadness, emptiness, and frustration that is depression. 

First, if your loved one regularly overreacts to minor difficulties or problems, it could be depression. It’s not just about losing control, it’s about a disproportionate emotional reaction caused by an overflow of negative emotions brewing beneath the surface. Criticism can reinforce a depressed person’s self-loathing. And it feels really terrible to receive proof of your worthlessness or your destructiveness. It makes me angry. I don’t want to be the awful thing I think I am. But if my husband gets frustrated at the growing pile of dirty dishes, I respond angrily. I’m angry for 2 reasons: first, I am angry at what I perceive to be inescapable truth–that I am evil, rotten, horrible. Second, I am angry that I can’t push through the crisis in my mind to do what other’s so obviously think I ought to do. I get so angry. I hate living. And I’m supposed to do dishes at the same time that that is ripping my heart apart? I know the truth–I don’t deserve life. How do I know? Because I didn’t do enough dishes. 

See how fucked up that is? It’s not just an overreaction, it is a highly disproportionate reaction to a minor, innocent criticism. In no world should a life be valued by any number of clean dishes. I’m not just being an asshole because I’m embarrassed by the criticism. I’m deeply distracted from my day to day by the existential crises of severe depression. The very things that make me feel empty when I do them make me feel worthless when I don’t. I can’t win. And that is frustrating. And it makes me act out. I want it to be something else other than because of me, but deep down it is all about me and the way my illness is manipulating my thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Second, look for patterns of meanness rather than just remembering isolated incidents. Depression can be harder one day and easier another, but without treatment, depression will not go away, and it will grow. Look for emotional patterns. Do certain topics set your loved one off? Are there any phrases they repeat that might clue you in to a deeper problem? Does every problem lead back to self-worth, the meaning of life, or purpose? 

When I was getting severely depressed at 18, a year before my initial diagnosis, I was constantly in crisis concerning college. I didn’t know where to go. I was so afraid. But it always came back to my feelings of inadequacy. I didn’t feel like I was good enough for college. I felt not only like I would fail but that I ought to fail. I felt like I didn’t deserve a good college experience because I didn’t deserve anything good. I didn’t deserve happiness or a good life. I didn’t deserve success or scholarships. I deserved death. And it made me a pill to be around. I didn’t want to talk about college. I didn’t want to talk about graduation. It all seemed so meaningless for me. It wasn’t just once or twice. Any conversation or activity associated with graduation, college, or the future put me in a bad mood. And it was all because deep down I hated myself. And it all seemed like a lie. Life was so full of pain and shit that being happy about college was intolerable. I would sometimes weep, sometimes grow silent, sometimes act bitchy. My reactions varied, but the root of my depressed feeling–the self loathing and feelings of eternal isolation–ruled every reaction. I just seemed like a moody teenager facing a typical, stressful life event, but beneath my negative reactions my depression was preparing to take me down.

In 2004, during my 2nd depressive episode and a difficult breakup, I wrote, “Sorrow plagues me. Every feeling, every choice leads to sorrow. I am drawn to it. I survive only off it. Happiness is temporary and I am unhappy in the midst of it. I have to pull away from it. …I lead myself down stupid pathways that lead nowhere. But I continue to walk into the brick wall at the end and beat my head upon it repeatedly–not purposefully but fully aware. …I want to fall away. Life is too hard. Too difficult. Too painful. Too, too painful. Awfully painful. Dreadfully painful. My heart is never whole. Always broken–always has been. It refuses to repair.” 

I could see my actions hurting myself and others. The break up ended up okay, but at the time was both a questionable decision and heartlessly executed. It was destructive. It was purposefully getting rid of something good in order to feel the unhappiness I felt I deserved. And yet I hardly talk about my boyfriend in the passage above. I was so self-consumed because of depression that I was more concerned with what I saw as my eternal brokenness and my intrinsic worthlessness. When your loved one is a depressed asshole, they may just look like an ass but they probably feel more like shit. And they may be unable to stop themselves from letting their depression tell them how to react. 

All of this is to say that trying to figure out if someone is depressed or just an asshole can be pretty damn tricky. Mostly because depression likes to hide. Because if you know your loved one is depressed, then the depression loses control. And if a depressed person can successfully alienate others, then their depression can run rampant without interference. When life seems meaningless and everything seems fake, it isn’t surprising that a person might become an asshole. I’ve been there. At 19 I thought 99% of the people in the world were disgustingly unaware of the true emptiness of human existence. I thought happiness and love were almost completely elusive, and that I had no chance of obtaining them. On the outside, I just looked like a moody, lovesick college girl. But inside my pain was leading me to a singular conclusion. My depression only ever wants one thing from me: my entire life. And it has to get rid of everyone who might save me in order to get me. So it makes me act like an asshole. 

So, is your daughter, boyfriend, or coworker depressed or just an asshole? I don’t know. It’s a hard determination to make. I look at myself and can’t believe that no one figured out how depressed I was at 19. I can’t believe that months of moodiness and isolation could be chalked up to hormones and personality, but they were. I was dying but all anyone could see was a miserable girl. If you are asking the question, “Are they depressed?” you’re already doing something right. Find out what you can about symptoms of depression. Get educated, find resources, and be ready. Maybe it’s just a phase, and all of your preparation will be for naught. But maybe, just maybe, you can save your loved one’s life just by being ready to help. Maybe, your loved one can be rescued before it gets to be too bad. Or maybe you’re just at the start of a long, difficult journey. I don’t know. But wherever life takes you and your loved one, know that there is help available to fight depression. There is hope for healing. You just have to reach out.