If you have never experienced it, you would never truly be able to fathom the intensity of pain that depression imposes upon its experiencers. One might resort to using metaphors in an attempt to neatly package the all-encompassing sensation into poetic words: it feels like eternally bathing in water that is extremely cold, while your head is trapped in an inescapable tank of heat. Your mind is on fire; you see faces around you – faces that you know you are connected to, beneath it all. But pleasant feelings like these also sink in the quicksand of the experience. You do not eat – or you eat too much. You do not sleep – or you sleep too much, in an attempt to escape it all. Good things might happen around you, but in your mind these things also wither and rot away before they are allowed to bloom. All your normal emotions – love, joy, sadness, anger, fear – fuse into one: darkness of the deepest degree. Depression is, quite literally, hell on earth.
[Random interesting fact: the Dementors in Harry Potter were intended by J.K. Rowling to function as a metaphor for depression. She, as well as countless other celebrities and renowned historical figures – Winston Churchill, Jordan Peterson, Angelina Jolie, Lily Singh, Selena Gomez – have also experienced the disease]
And perhaps I talk about it too much. But I am now unapologetic about that; it needs to be talked about. It is a part of the human experience, and dare I say that it might be worse than any other (physical) ailment. We can detach ourselves from such illnesses as leg injuries or chronic back pain – but depression is wholly intrusive. It overtakes both the brain and the mind. And you are drowning – though you do not know why – and nobody can reach into the freezing cold depths to save you. But know that you are not it. It may make you feel personality-less, numb, like an unseen hurricane on legs, for a while.
You are still there, beneath the burdensome clouds.
People (absurdly but truthfully) seem to express more sympathy for individuals who complain of having the common cold than they are willing to for people experiencing depression. The latter is seen as a personal failure; as the product of the experiencer’s inability to look at the world ‘positively’; it is confused with reactionary sadness. But if sadness were hunger, depression is complete and utter starvation. And it can all be hidden behind a smile, behind academic or occupational excellence, behind addictions – to your phone, to alcohol and drugs (the more traditional intoxicants), to exercise, to eating, to love.
Just close your eyes and hold your breath and everything will turn real pretty.
– Steven Spielberg
Depression lies to you – tells you that it is dark outside, and that it will be this way forever. Put on your winter-wear; you may be forced to walk around in this darkness for a while. Onlookers might look at you sympathetically or critically (yes, I know I seem mad – I am fully aware of it, and cannot do anything at present to stop it) and you may feel the immensity of the additional pressure to go about your ‘normal’ life and to seem ‘normal’ to outsiders, in the face of it all. But what I found truly helped me to overcome this – this personal stigma I felt as a result of the heavy external stigma about it all – was talking about it. Perhaps it got annoying to certain people after a while, but I have trained myself to not care. I know that if I had any other chronic and painful condition, people would have brung me fruit baskets and cards. Talking about it – once people get over the initial shock factor of having someone talk about such untouchable things in such a frank manner – has a multiplicative effect: it brings about understanding, allows you to connect with people who are going through depression or have done so in the past, and helps to normalise it. Despite societal efforts to act like depression is abnormal and an unfavourable thing to talk about, it is in fact (regrettably) a very normal thing indeed and something we desperately need to talk about.
I am a strong advocate of cultivating a culture of openness and honesty, where people (so long as they do not pose a physical threat to others) can exist more or less as they are. Many of us have been raised with an acute ‘What will others think?’ mentality, which forces us to show and amplify our best sides to the social world, while burying the parts that are deemed less than ideal deep within ourselves. I think this is a fundamentally detrimental practice, both to the individual and to wider society. True connections are borne from the ability to connect with the entirety of a human being – not just his or her face. The fostering of this ever-present culture of dishonesty – of filtered Instagram pictures, valorising celebrities and CEOs, and preferring conversations in which two or more egos simply battle to come out on top – contributes significantly to a parallel culture of shame, in which depression and other illnesses of the mind are seen as weighty personal failures. And yes, openly telling someone you hope to impress that you are an experiencer or survivor of depression might embarrass you at first.
“I am depressed and the last time I managed to have a proper meal was two weeks ago. And I wanted to kill myself on Tuesday. Oh, and I am an eighteen-year-old with the energy levels of an eighty-year-old right now. And I am so far away from the self I have always known. I do not – cannot – care about school, although I always have. I forgot about my own mother’s birthday. My mind is failing me!”
However, slowly introducing the mundane and gloomy to day-to-day conversations would likely have a plethora of positive effects: doing so allows you to be more honest to yourself; helps others understand the gravity of what you are going through; normalises talking about mental illness; subtly educates others on how best to be there for you and for others who are going through similar struggles; may, via the aforesaid multiplicative effect, help to save a life in the future.
If you are a survivor of depression; if you have battled with your own mind and have chosen to live, know that you are undoubtedly of the strongest people on the face of this planet. And know that the ropes of hope – invisible though they may seem right now, will lead you to something beautiful, in due time. Your inability to see something does not at all mean that the thing in question is non-existent; the sun is still shining, even if you cannot see it right now; the top of the mountain awaits you, even if you cannot see it right now; a wonderful future, in which your mind is a far more pleasant place, awaits you, even if you cannot see it right now;
Phoenixes arise from the ashes of whatever came before them.
- (STRONGLY) Recommended read: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
- (STRONGLY) Recommended listen: Be Still by The Fray
Sadia Ahmed, 2019