Refined and edited on 11/24/2020
“I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to.”— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Two months ago I lost the will to live. I wasn’t afraid to die. How could I fear the one thing that would give me peace? I didn’t deserve to live anyway. I was scum, spit, unworthy of eating garbage. I needed to bring justice to that horrible abomination, put an end to its sickening life.
But to die, you have to be alive first. I wasn’t alive in those moments. I wasn’t dead, but I certainly wasn’t alive. I couldn’t see colors, only dreary blacks and greys. I couldn’t hear words, nor could I respond to them. They passed me like cars speeding by on the highway. I could walk at snail’s pace, but I couldn’t see where I was going. I could eat a tiny bite every minute, but I couldn’t taste. I didn’t even have the motivation to chew, only swallow. It was as if I were a ghost.
I felt so little, that I began to doubt that I was really alive. I certainly didn’t feel joy, but I didn’t feel pain anymore either. Had I experienced the latter, I at least would have known I was living. All I could feel was a total lack of feeling, a numbness that colored my entire existence. Not a peaceful, freeing numbness, but an oppressive weight, anchoring me to my bed. What was the point of getting up? What was the point of taking a shower? What was the point of getting dressed, of drinking water, of eating food? I’d just have to do it again the next day. And the next. And the next. Nothing ever lasts. Why should I?
Yet something kept me from making the fatal plunge. I don’t know what. Perhaps it was some primal survival instinct, keeping the body out of harm’s way. Or perhaps I still had some invisible sparkle of hope shining through the blackness within me. Maybe it was my friends (however limited those friendships were) who tried their best to reassure me. Or maybe I just didn’t have the strength to reach for the pocket knife in my drawer. But somehow I survived.
It’s hard to describe what depression feels like. If you’ve experienced it, you know it, but if you haven’t, there’s no way to really convey the gravity of it, the sinking dread of it. An overwhelming doom hangs over everything you do. You can’t feel joy, can’t smile, can’t laugh. If you do laugh, there’s no excitement behind it. It just feels like an expulsion of air, followed by an even deeper feeling of meaninglessness and despair. Days and weeks are hazy, actions feel repetitive. You get up, brush your teeth, put on your clothes, go to school or work, and you feel like you’re just going through motions, like you can’t distinguish between anything because it’s all shadowed by the same grim hopelessness. You feel like screaming but can’t make any noise. You feel trapped and alone.
To those of you who have suffered like I have, I’m not writing this article to give you meaningless advice that you don’t know how to use, nor will I delude you with promises of joy in this life or the next, nor do I claim to know what causes depression or how to totally overcome it. I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone. You are not a bad person. You weren’t born to be miserable. You are not cowardly, weak, or oversensitive. You are not being punished by God, by fate, or by the world. Your pain is not your fault.
You aren’t alone, but it may feel like you are. The society we live in forces people to keep their emotions secret, rendering intimate discussions too “personal” or taboo. If you have the courage to open up to someone about depression, the average person might be afraid of you, afraid your misery is contagious, afraid that if you were to hurt yourself it would be their fault. They might think that you’re weird or “sketchy”, that you’re somehow below them. But you aren’t a lesser person by any stretch. In fact, your ability to discuss your deepest fears, to let someone else see the darkness that inhabits your being, makes you braver and stronger than they could possibly be.
Yet someone who hasn’t experienced depression doesn’t know what those emotions actually are or how to deal with them. Expressing yourself to them is like talking to them in a foreign language. They try to comprehend it, try to listen to you and give you whatever response you need, but ultimately they don’t understand the words that you’re saying. Though they may have good intentions and may try to help you as much as they can, unless they’ve actually felt what you’ve felt, they can’t empathize with you. This is why depression hides itself so well: Because nobody you talk to understands you, you feel like you are alone and continue to hide your pain. In reality, it’s overwhelmingly likely that some of your classmates, coworkers, family members, or even friends quietly endure the same pain, and you don’t even realize it.
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality surrounding depression in our society is bolstered by dangerous misconceptions that falsely label it as a choice. It is a “choice” in the same way that having asthma is a choice. Nobody chooses to suffer the pain of depression, just as nobody chooses to lose their ability to breathe. Nor is some greater power punishing you for being a bad person. You’re simply born with it or you contract it, and the causes are out of your control. Depressive people are often accused of being “oversensitive” or “irrational”, as if the victim’s behavior is somehow the cause of their pain. But these are merely symptoms of the illness, not causes. Irrationality is to depression as a runny nose is to a cold. Ryza Cenon writes, “When you’re depressed you don’t control your thoughts, your thoughts control you.” 1 The disease effectively strangles sound judgement in the afflicted, allowing emotional turbulence to take full control.
Another myth the suicide is somehow “selfish,” that those who succumb to it commit the ultimate sin and deserve condemnation and alienation. The same militant perspective is used by some to discourage it, attempting to shame the victims into choosing life. But to sin, you must have the choice not to sin. When all vitality has been ruthlessly stomped out of a human being, they no longer have the ability to lift their fingers, much less choose between life and death. Would you call a stroke victim weak? Would you say that by dying from it they embrace selfishness? Any reasonable, compassionate human being would answer no to both of these questions. By the same token, we should not condemn those who struggle with the sickness of depression nor those who are taken by it.
Many who don’t understand depression will lecture you by listing your good fortunes. Perhaps you have a lucrative career or an abundance of friends. Or maybe you’re pretty handily staying afloat, even if you don’t have an abundance of material or emotional wealth. Or maybe you’re barely scraping by, if at all, or you lack any substantial interpersonal relationships. Regardless, people will claim that because of the good things in your life (however limited or abundant), your misery is “all in your head”. They will act as if you are spoiled, saying that “someone else always has it worse,” telling you that you have no right to feel depressed. They might tell you in a devastating situation, “that’s just the way it is,” and that you should stop complaining. These cruel, insulting, and brazenly idiotic words assume that illness is a choice or a lifestyle, that only those without homes who are starving and lonely have any claim to it. Although class and racial disparities are an integral part of the world’s mental health crisis, depression rarely discriminates; anyone from any background can contract it. Would you tell someone their home is too nice for them to have cancer? Or that they have a marvelous wife and beautiful children, so they’re not allowed to have an aneurysm? Because when you tell someone they have too much good fortune to suffer from depression, you are effectively saying the same thing. But in this case, your victim-blaming heightens their insecurities and otherizes the less privileged whose complex human emotions are not yours to postulate.
All of this is not to say that the victim can’t do anything to alleviate their pain, only that they don’t cause it. But they can’t get through it alone. There’s no shame in asking for help. You are not “crazy” if you go to therapy or take antidepressants, and you are not going to be “locked up” if you confess suicidal thoughts. When I experienced my breakdown, I had similar fears when I went to my therapist. What if I tell him and he sends me to an asylum? What if they trap me in some hospital room and brace my wrists to the bed? What if for the rest of my life people think I’m crazy because of it? But my anxiety was unfounded. Rather than panic and call 911, he remained calm and reassuring, discussing my feelings with me and helping me work through them. My confession remained a secret, protected, like any other part of therapy, by confidentiality laws.
There is a notion that through medications, therapy, or other remedies, depression can be permanently cured. However, this is sadly not the case for the vast majority of sufferers. For victims of severe depression, it may be impossible to completely eliminate it, but they can still learn to cope with the misery and make it less debilitating. That’s the purpose of psychotherapy and medical treatments: to help you grow to a point where you can deal with your pain independently, not to foster a dependency on those things. Or in the case of the former, to give you a place to talk and feel safe. It is critical for long-term recovery that you ensure that therapy sessions prompt you to think in between them, rather than becoming your sole time for contemplation. On the same note, we must look at prescription drugs as a method of assisting in this process, rather than taking the emotionally and financially costly route of letting them control it.
Popular culture would have you believe that therapists are all con artists trying to keep crazy people hooked and take their money. Not only is this assumption blatantly false, but it is critically dangerous. Therapists are not a uniform body; they are individuals, each with different personalities and different ideas about what will help their patients the most. Some therapists are bubbly and optimistic, others are deep and existential. They are also, believe it or not, people just like you, and being one of them requires an immense amount of compassion. The challenge is finding someone who you can connect with, who you feel understands you, and continuing that pursuit until you succeed. I, for example, would probably find the bubbly therapist annoying and superficial, but the grounded existential therapist would make me feel like I was really being understood. The opposite may be true for you, or maybe you’d have to look for some other therapist who thinks like you. Ultimately, the biggest part of getting help is finding someone who connects with you. If you feel that you’re not being heard, then find someone who will actually listen. They’re out there.
To those of you who haven’t been through the same level of pain that victims have gone through, maybe the questions and emotions they’re dealing with scare you. But they are still human, and they need your help. They need you to show them compassion and companionship, but most importantly, they need you to listen. Maybe you don’t understand their feelings. Maybe you don’t know how to respond to them, don’t know how to sympathize with them. But you can still listen to them. You can still show them you care. And that, to a depressive person, is crucial in rediscovering hope: knowing that someone cares. Knowing that you’re not alone.
- https://www.instagram.com/p/BjxEfYJH067/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link ↩