The Word Is Dysthymia

It was a word I had never even heard until October, but the definition of these nine letters described me (and most of the past four decades) so accurately that I just had to share.

The word is “dysthymia”. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing many of you will not have heard it before.

There are “official” symptoms of dysthymia (a condition that was first identified as recently as the 1980s), but essentially, it is a form of chronic depression that may be mild or intermittent for many years; to the extent that the sufferer may not even be aware there is anything wrong.

Symptoms can be vague in younger people, but when I saw this list of possible effects, I was shocked at how many I could (to a greater or lesser degree) tick off: habitually gloomy, pessimistic, humourless, or incapable of fun; passive and lethargic; introverted; sceptical, hypercritical, or complaining; self-critical, self-reproaching, and self-derogatory; and preoccupied with inadequacy, failure, and negative events.

I am definitely not all of the above—hard as it may be to believe—(I don’t see myself humourless, nor incapable of fun; in fact I enjoy a laugh almost as much as I love a double negative), but there are many traits there that have been part of me genuinely for as long as I can remember.

When I was formally diagnosed with “depression” in 2004, I felt some initial relief that there was an explanation for the way I had been feeling, but there was also a sense of being something of a fraud (if that’s the right word) because I didn’t feel “ill” as such, and there were no obvious outward signs of how hard it was to cope with every day—and interestingly that feeling of what can almost amount to deception (in the eyes of the sufferer) is another tell-tale sign of dysthymia.

The reason why the diagnosis is most often clumped together under the general banner of depression is that any visit to a doctor is likely to have been prompted by the effects of an unrelated illness or traumatic event, which has led to more extreme (i.e. “classic” depression) symptoms. Strictly speaking, this form of dysthymia is called “double depression” and it is the one-off more serious episode that is treated, rather than the long-standing underlying feelings, which the sufferer would almost certainly describe as “normal”. 

What is really positive however is that it is possible to overcome the lack of energy, feelings of isolation and debilitating negative thoughts and still be able to achieve personal goals. It may be harder and take longer, but whilst dysthymia is a heavy burden to carry, failure is not inevitable; and the feeling on realising an aim or ambition is arguably much greater as a result. I can certainly identify with that sense of achievement at the fulfilment of a challenge (just as I can with the enduring symptoms of dysthymia), and whilst I may never completely conquer my lifelong fear of failure, no one can ever say I haven’t tried my best… and I’m actually really proud of that.

To me, “depression” was always an uncomfortable label. It is my belief that that so many people face their own far greater challenges with the kind of quiet bravery and dignity to which I could only aspire. I suppose it could be argued that dysthymia is simply a different label, but after waiting forty of my fifty-one years to finally understand who I was... who I am... those nine letters have given me an answer and (both belatedly and wonderfully) an identity. Sadly, the symptoms don’t disappear overnight. In fact they don’t disappear at all; but the ever-present clouds are one shade of grey lighter than they were before… it may not seem a big deal to some, but it definitely is to me.