Depression is Analogous to Treading Water

Depression is hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it firsthand. People who are lucky enough to not understand it often brush it off, and expect the depressed to just, “snap out of it”.  There’s no limp, no rash, no wheezy cough.  It’s an invisible ailment.  The disease is misunderstood and has a negative stigma and it can be embarrassing to admit you have mental health condition.  It is also biologically based and indubitably real.

When I think about my own depression, I liken the experience to being out in the middle of an ocean, treading water.

Satellite image of Tropical Depression One-C i...
Satellite image of Tropical Depression One-C in the Central Pacific Ocean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You are just trying to keep your head above water.  You are using all of your energy to stay afloat.  You do not have energy to attend events, enjoy your hobbies or cheer on your friends.  You might be focusing so hard on surviving that you forget dates or meetings or to pick up bread from the store, or even to take your own meds. Compared to sinking and drowning in the salty sea, those other items are quite trivial.  It’s Maslow’s hierarchy in action.

You feel alone.  Stranded, stuck. There’s no one to talk to, no one to listen, no one to understand.  In a crowded room, at a family holiday, you’re still staring out at an open ocean, feeling utterly isolated.

It’s physically exhausting.  Treading water takes energy.  Your legs hurt, your neck hurts, your head hurts.  Your eyes hurt, your stomach hurts.  You’re tired.  All the time.  Tired.  You are so tired, you could fall asleep at your desk, at the grocery stores, driving your car.  You’re so tired you’re not sure how long you can keep this jig up.

You think you might not make it. Sometimes not knowing which direction leads to shore, means you remain immobile.  People who do not understand depression might think you don’t WANT to help yourself, that’s you’re being lazy – when in reality you just don’t know where to go.  You don’t know how to fix it.  You don’t know if you CAN fix it.  Sometimes something that used to help, doesn’t help anymore. You feel hopeless.

You think it might be easier to just let go and be swallowed up by the sea.  You’re just so tired and you don’t think it’ll ever get better.  You sit in the garage with the car running, thinking about shutting the door, much more often than you would ever outwardly admit.  Usually you just go inside and say hi to your spouse and start making dinner.  Some people eventually decide to stop pumping their legs and shut the garage door.

You might not be able to get out of this situation by yourself. Remember when Rose, from the movie, Titanic, was stranded at open sea, half-frozen on the trunk?  If you recall, the rescuers came to help, but at first she just blends in with the rest of the dead.  Most people can’t see how depressed you really are.  Even when the help was right there, Rose barely had the energy to reach out to them to save her own life.  The only thing that saved her was the whistle.  If you don’t have a whistle, of sorts, a way to get the help that’s needed in terms of medicine, therapists or other supports, it’s very difficult to get yourself out of the blackness.  Sometimes you have a whistle and just can’t see the rescuers.

You’re not very cordial.  You might notice that saying hello and turning the corners of your mouth upwards takes significantly more energy than you have stored within your cells.  Can you imagine a rescue team approaching someone who is stranded in the ocean, and them berating the person they are plucking from the tide because he or she isn’t affable?  Is too unsociable?  That’s the message we receive when our friends and family get upset at us for looking or acting like we feel. Sometimes we push away the lifesavers around us with our poor dispositions.  Sometimes the people we need help from the most unknowingly hold our heads under water.

Some days are okay while others are a nightmare. Sometimes treading water is okay.  Like, if it’s sunny and there’s a nice breeze and you’ve only been treading water for 20 minutes.  But, it is a whole different story if you’ve been stranded for days, without food, and it’s thunderstorming.  People with depression have good days and bad days (or months or years) depending on what’s going on and how long they’ve been feeling this way.  Seeing someone smile does not mean they are not struggling with depression.

You have irrational fantasies of being saved.  Mirages appear, making you feel like you are saved.  You think the depression will never recur.  Perhaps you’re picked up by a boat, and you think, “Hooray!  I’ll never be in this situation again!”, But inevitably, the boat gets a hole and sinks and whoever rescued you drowns and you’re back in the same blackness you fantasized about never again having to experience.  And you think, “How did I get stuck out here, AGAIN?!”  As much as you feel like it won’t, it always comes back.  It always, always does.  Hint:  That’s how you know it’s a disease.

No one is ever really cured of depression.  If you struggle with depression, you’re always treading water.  Sometimes your legs are like lead and your head keeps going under.  Other times you’ve got your floaties on, bobbing in the Sun, with a clear view of land just over your shoulder.  You’re still always treading. It’s just a matter of how far offshore you are.

For those of you who have experienced depression, how do you explain it to other people?

If you liked this post you may also like:  A Bit of Gray Peeking Out

48 thoughts on “Depression is Analogous to Treading Water

    1. Hi
      Have just come across this whilst looking for some materials for a cbt workshop that I am setting up for depression and low mood for older people – I really like how you have explained and described depression and what it is like for you. I was wondering if you would mind if I shared this with the group – I think it always seems to help people when they realise they are not the only one that feels like this. Many thanks, Beccy

        1. Great – thank you very much – yes will let them know where I got it from and keep you posted as to how it has helped. Beccy :0)

  1. This is one of the best descriptions I have ever read of depression. And it’s beautifully written! Way to take the grouch out of the subject!

  2. My original reply disappeared into thin air. :). Well said, Mrs. Grouch. I have always described it as being paralyzed. Unable to make a move even when you know in which direction you should be going. Everything is overwhelming. I agree it is very cruel when you find yourself right back where you worked so hard to leave. Luckily, we can become better are paying attention to landmarks and road signs so we can stop and ask for directions before we get too lost, again.

  3. I like your analogy. Your images are terrible and intimately relateable. For me, it is like a parasite taking control of my emotions and holding me hostage; me cowering in a dark corner. Typically if all is well and good, I can do any number of things to regulate my emotions such as adjust my breathing or imagine my emotions are a radio that I can “dial up”. In “full-on depression mode” though, sometimes I don’t feel like I even want to try to do those things because they seem so unlikely. Nothing seems possible and the world makes me feel claustrophobic. Thanks for broaching the subject and exposing it to the light.

    1. i can totally relate to the holding hostage and cowering in the corner. good analogy. and “full-on” depression mode is horrible and scary. I didn’t really put that in here. I guess that’d be like drowning.

  4. Oh, and somtimes one might get paranoid–that could be like sharks circling. Or, seeing dolphin fins and noy knowing the difference between dolphin and shark fins!

  5. I’ve always thought of depression like this, as well. I oftentimes seem to be just like everyone else, but beneath the surface, I’m desperately struggling to stay afloat. Sadly, few people think to look below the surface.

  6. You are incredible. This is so right on and such a help to those who don’t get it. And there are many “cheer up” folks out there. You describe it perfectly.

  7. Amazing post and oh so true! Couldn’t have said it any better and sometimes wish it was more of a visible disease so I don’t feel like people think I’m making it up or just being dramatic, let alone feeling like that myself. I keep hoping for that magical boat to come along and sweep me to shore and happiness forever, but like you said, the inevitable hole appears…

  8. I have a hard time explaining it to anybody. I have had Depression since early in my teens and I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia last year and suddenly I’m “seeking attention and a drug addict”. I’m lost on where this makes sense to someone on the outside. I have worked since the age of 12 (now 30), have always had a full time job since the age of 16, and prided myself on being an island unto myself (cause gods forbid if I need any help from anyone, including fam and friends). I went out of my way to be there for these people, to do what they needed me to do, and now I can’t even get someone to pick up the phone, and they wanna bitch that I don’t call? Really? I didn’t complain about my illnesses when talking on the phone or around people, but they want to bring up that I have a cane and want me to explain why (when I’d rather them just ignore it, since they obviously really don’t care to know, why ask???). What is it with people that they do this? Oh, and the kicker that insensitive people say? “Well, you don’t LOOK sick.” My reply? “Well, you don’t look stupid, so apparently looks can be deceiving.” It’s always always the same people too. Why are they so insensitive to other people’s issues/illnesses and then can’t figure out why we get defensive or quit with any contact?

        1. Hi … I’ve been,. what shall I say, I can hardly bring myself still to name myself ‘it’, I hate ‘it’ it’s viscous, malignant and invasive, it rips you to you core, spits you out, lets you see a glimmer of hope, and then attacks you again.. Odd girl, I really do feel for you,, I’m beginning to experience it, where friends who don’t get it, are now (now that my crises period has gone and I am looking and sounding ‘normal), they are distancing themselves, I feel that they are doing so because they don’t know how to talk to me, don’t know what to say.. when all I want is the odd hug if I’ve not seen them in a while (normal behavior?!?) and to chat about normal things, to treat me normal… its is such a powerful and under talked about illness, it incapacitates and debilitates you, and the lucky people who don’t know should read up on it, get knowledgeable on it, it is widespread through society and yet still has such a terrible stigma… I must admit I knew nothing of its extent before I got ‘it’, nothing of how truly destructive of a persons life that it can be, it affects and changes your life in such a multi faceted and deep way… can anyone advise on any forums or chat sites where people chat about it? I’d love to just chat about it, try to normalize myself to my illness and find new ways to be able to cope and start life again…

          1. If you have a facebook there are a few on there. Here’s a link to one of them: It’s not a closed group, so what you say someone can look up, but that’s never stopped me. It’s very hard to get any where near average activity, and there will always be the possibilities of flares and setbacks, and we just have to keep moving forward, even if that’s just mentally or figuratively for that particular day. One thing I’ve learned is that Self Forgiveness is Essential. You can’t sit there and make yourself feel bad for things you can no longer do at this particular junction. Some days we just can’t. And friends? I’ve learned who was and who wasn’t, and it hurts. But that’s not something I can do anything about. If they ever gave a damn, they didn’t/couldn’t show it, and I don’t have time or energy to censor everything and sacrifice my comfort for theirs. It’s a new way of life, and we have no choice but to adjust accordingly. People can think and say what they wish, it’s none of my business what people think of me: only what -I- think of me, and I think I’m pretty damned awesome. I’ve managed thus far to not totally lose it, so I give myself a high five for that one, because some days……..
            Anyway, oh! Another site that I think is It has surprising insight, and soon you’ll probably be explaining your illness with spoons when people really, really -ask- what it’s like. Other than that, I just let people feel how they want to feel, because I’m not here to fix them, I’m here to live my life as best I can, and hopefully when I die it’ll be with memories and not regrets. So far that’s my only goal, to LIVE, not just survive, not just make it day to day. I WANT TO LIVE.

  9. I think you have described in perfectly! For me, it’s a life-long struggle. I’m doing well now, but I have to be constantly vigilant so I don’t “fall below the line” (my metaphor for going under, becoming depressed.)

    1. I think it’s a life-long struggle for all of us. Even if we think we’re “Fine” fo awhile – at some point something pulls us down again and reminds us how ingrained it is in our bodies and minds.

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  11. Your explanation and description is so accurate. Scary & sad, but nice to know someone else knows the struggle.
    I describe mine as a darkness that I can’t escape. A rain cloud over me, everywhere, that no one else can see. Some days just a little gray one that allows some sun to peek thru, but other (most) days it’s black with a torrential downpour.

  12. Spot on.

    My personal experience\analogy is a deep cavernous well…where I alternate between treading water and floating…praying for a glimpse of sunshine (hope) or a rope to pull me out. Simply existing…is not living.

  13. Wow, you just summed up my life better than I ever could. Thankyou for posting such well-considered thoughts for others to benefit from.

  14. Just wanted to tell you I feel seen. I just googled “I feel like I’m treading water in the ocean” and this article came up. I took myself off of the four medications I was on for the combination of anxiety and depression. I’m seeing a new doctor next week. I’m trying to have hope. Thank you for the validation.

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