Levels of Depression

(content warning: depression, of course)

I’ve been depressed at least twice now, separately. (I might still be. This one seems to come in waves; Sep-Nov pretty bad, Dec good, Jan-Mar awful, Apr bad, May good, June bad. We’ll see about July.) I suppose that means it might come back. I would like to have the following:

  1. a way to know if I’m depressed
  2. a way to tell how depressed I am
  3. a way to communicate how depressed I am

3 is especially important because some of my loved ones who aren’t depressed seem not to understand that there even are more than two levels: “mildly depressed but basically fine” and “suicidal”1. So here’s my attempt2 to describe some of the levels for me.

First, a concept: Same Valence Re-experiencing

(this section is mostly a condensed repetition of Fast Forward Time)

There’s all kinds of ways to think about feelings, and obviously “sad” is not the same as “bad.” Lots of days bring difficult emotions, but at the end of the day I’m glad to have gone through them, so I can’t just say “feeling sad means I’m depressed.” And some days are tough but bring good consequences; final exams, say. But one way I have to evaluate my current state that seems pretty hard to be mistaken about is simply: “Do I want more of this?”

A thought experiment: Let’s say you’re going to live to 90 years old. If you could have one more day, so your life span is now 90 years + 1 day, and this extra day would be tomorrow and would have the same valence and consequences as today, would you do it?

Roughly equivalently IMO: let’s say we’re all in The Matrix, and you have the option to spin up a second copy of yourself and have that copy re-experience today. Would you do it?

I think most people who aren’t depressed would say yes most of the time.

Alternately, do you want less of your life? If you could cut out the next day or week or month so that you just wake up tomorrow and it’s N days later (but not like Rip Van Winkle; you had lived normally and done normal things, you just didn’t experience it), would you?

Anyway, on to depression levels:

These are mostly cumulative - if I’m at level N, I’m experiencing most of level 1…N-1 also.

Level 1: mildly depressed, or “cold depression”

Level 2: “hot depression”

Level 3: “uncontrolled hot depression”

Level 4: “beginning escapism”

This is as low as I’ve gone, thank goodness, but it’s awful! The rest is conjecture; there may be more to it than this; I hope I don’t find out:

Level 5: “no really, escapism”

Level 6: “escape logistics”

Level 7: “even lower than that”


That’s all the levels I can think of. Of course, the experience is not really this linear. But it at least helps me place myself, and maybe will give me some language when talking with family.

Levels 3+ start creating epicycles too; like, I’m pissed off, I yell at my wife, now I’m pissed off and now I have to deal with the fact that I yelled at her. Or, I’m talking with my mom and she gets worried in a way I don’t like, so I have to backpedal and pretend I’m not feeling as bad as I am.

I guess I’m saying, it is a huge benefit to go from level 3 to level 2, or 2 to 1. Almost like this stuff is logarithmic.

  1. Not blaming them! I think this is how it’s described in pop culture, and if your mind, heart, and body haven’t been to this place, I can see how it’d be really hard to understand! ↩︎

  2. This is about attempt #5 and I’m still not happy with it but I gotta get this post out there eventually! ↩︎

  3. I guess I can’t link to tweets and count on them being accessible anymore? gosh. Gosh. well. here’s what I said in that tweet: 1. biking on a loud st (San Jose Ave btwn Bernal/Glen Park, or Cesar Chavez) 2. towards water, with few people (warm water cove park) 3. walking around SOMA, not really but kinda ↩︎

  4. Tweet from someone I don’t know, text: “I just saw the “anti-depressants are dangerous, they come with a warning about increased suicidal thoughts” take AGAIN and it appears that people in this Year of Our Lord 2023 don’t understand that this is actually a common thing that happens when depression starts to get better. [CW suicide] People don’t understand that “I want to die” isn’t the lowest point a person can hit. There’s a level below that, which is “I would want to die if my brain could function enough to want ANYTHING” and a very dangerous stage where you rise UP TO that level.” ↩︎

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