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 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?
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