When Chris and I began our discussions, we made it clear to each other that we spoke only for ourselves. What we say about Christianity or Judaism is our view: we cannot and do not speak for an entire religion or faith tradition. As we begin to spend more time in the area of mental health, this caveat cannot be overstated. What we share about depression is our own, individual experiences with depression. We do not speak as professional health care providers (which neither of us is), nor do we speak for everyone with depression. Part of our mission in this undertaking is that by sharing our stories we hope other depressives will find some comfort in community (i.e. “I am not alone in this”). However, we caution against comparing our stories, either to each other or to yours. There is no need to create an artificial hierarchy of victimhood: depression takes many forms, and everyone’s experience is different. With that said, let the meeting begin.
Hi. My name is Charles, and I am a depressive. My particular variant of depression is known as chronic severe depression combined with a depressive personality. In short, I live with depression daily, and have done so for most of my life. Notice I did not write that I “struggle” with depression. Being in some sort of depressive state is my normal. Most of my friends and acquaintances don’t know I have depression because after fifty-plus years of living with it, I have become quite adept at hiding it. Most people who “know” me would describe me as a charming, witty, social fellow of good cheer. A small number of close friends have seen me depressed, and only my family have ever seen me in a prolonged, major depressive state.
What I do struggle with (and therefore one of the reasons I hide my depression from others) is trying to convey to non-depressives the difference between being depressed and having depression, as well as what it is like to live with depression. In my response to Chris’s most recent ECT post, I likened the difference to the difference between fog and smog: the former is a natural, temporary occurrence that does no permanent harm, while the latter is a chemical process that blinds and chokes you, leaving you unable to function.
For those of you who do not live in Beijing, perhaps this analogy will prove more enlightening: Living with depression is like living your life in a swimming pool. Most days, your head is above water, but this requires treading water and can be exhausting. Some days you just float on your back. You can see the sky, but the water in your ears leaves everything else muffled. Occasionally you can rest on the side, and on rare occasions stand up in the shallow end. But, these days are few and far between. Then there are the major depressive episodes.
During a major depressive episode, you sink and lay on the bottom of the deep end. No need to hold your breath. You have adapted and grown gills. Your reptilian brain takes over your body functions freeing your mind to focus on focus on every negative thought that has ever passed through it during your entire lifetime (I know this is a mixed metaphor, but depression has its own logic!). There is nothing you can do. You cannot even think about trying to swim for the surface. You just lay there and wait to become neutrally buoyant again and slowly return to the surface. Once in a great while you may be able to scuttle along the bottom, like a pair of Prufrock’s ragged claws, and make your way to the shallow end. However, the water’s surface is still feet above your head.
The most important element of this analogy to understand is that no matter what you do, you can never get out of the pool. There are no ladders or steps, and you never will have the strength to climb out. Medication cannot lift you out of the pool. Meds are like swim floaties. They are small flotation devices that make treading water a little easier. Therapy cannot lift you out of the pool. Therapy is like lifeguard throwing you a rope and pulling you to the side. Once you are there, the therapist/lifeguard moves on to aid another struggling swimmer leaving you to your own devices.
Another common misconception non-depressives have about depression is it is just like being depressed, only more so. Not true. Other than a shared linguistic label, the two could not be more different. Being depressed is most often situational. When you are depressed, you are sad, blue, or even melancholy. Neither of these is true of depression. Depression requires no antecedent event. And, it very rarely involves “feeling sad.” Depression is a state of helpless hopelessness and hopeless helplessness, of worthlessness and fear, of pointless anger and impotent rage, all at the same time.
None of the emotions associated with depression are natural or logical. Depression cannot be described, only experienced. And so, many depressives choose to hide their depression rather than struggle to explain to the non-depressives in their lives what they cannot understand.