The thing about depression is that it’s a wound. It comprises specific areas of your existence, not all areas.
Like a ship that has been hit by a torpedo and is rapidly taking on water, certain compartments of life have to seal up and shut down.
If it’s the galley, then guess what? No kitchen service is gonna happen. If it’s the section where the bunk beds are, then no sleep. If it’s the engine room… real problems ensue, quickly.
A person with one missing eye can still see out of the other. A person with a broken foot can still put weight on the other foot. Someone who has a broken bone can still laugh at jokes or play a board game with a friend.
Similarly, someone who is suffering from depression will seem entirely normal in many ways. You might notice that they seem sad. But you might not notice anything at all. They might seem perfectly functional and happy. That’s because they’re putting on a good show, trying to make it through another day.
But depression (clinical, brain chemistry problems) are a wound, caused by repeated trauma.
Bad things happen to all of us. At some point in your life, you will experience something that puts you into a serious “depression”. Your brain starts dropping off sharply in the “feel good chemicals” of dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin and serotonin.
You literally “hunger”… but not for food.
You hunger for certain chemicals in your brain. You hunger for the hunger that you used to feel for life.
It can even get so bad that it becomes literally impossible to feel the normal desires for things you normally enjoy, like food, sex, entertainment and so on. Ice cream becomes meaningless and your favorite show is nothing but noise that you would rather not have to hear. Sleep is your new hobby. Silence is the new black.
Or maybe you barely sleep at all. Maybe you gorge yourself on food or television or sex, just trying to get that brief fix, so you can feel happy for 10 minutes before you crash again.
Everyone gets sad. But you get over it… it’s what people do. You bounce back.
If something else really traumatic happens in six months, your brain drops the happy chemicals again. But now it has recognized a pattern.
The Corks Bob Back Up
If you’re life gets better and stays better, there might not be any issue. Our brains and bodies are one, single system and they’re usually quite adept at helping us equalize and stabilize, through even the most terrible traumas.
But if you have three or four major events, all timed out at roughly the same intervals (whether it’s six months, a year or even three years), then you have an “accidental pattern” that your brain now thinks that it’s supposed to run. It takes over, all on its own.
Trauma #1, then Trauma #2 a year later. Trauma #3 a year later and Trauma #4 a year after that.
Then in a year from there, you’re doing great. You “should” feel happy. Things are going really well for you. But you DON’T feel happy. You barely feel anything at all. When you do feel something, it’s usually tired, achy, lonely, despair, boredom, etc.
It’s because your brain thinks it’s supposed to be acting like it did, about this time, one year ago and a year before that and so on.
Depression is a wound. Having a bad attitude is unhealthy. But that’s a choice. Having depression is NOT a choice. Being lazy is not cool. But people suffering with clinical depression are NOT lazy.
The company of friends doesn’t fix it. Drugs, booze, sex… nothing fixes it. Certain things might bring relief temporarily, due to the chemical highs they produce but once that wears off, you’re right back in the deep end of the soup bowl.
You might lie in bed for days, weeks or even months on end, getting up only to use the bathroom and eat something once or twice a day.
But you might be up and working two or three jobs, pretending to laugh at the jokes people tell you. You may find yourself acting like you’re really excited about that new thing that’s about to happen, when really, you’re dreading talking about it, much less doing it.
You might even become cruel.
Sometimes, the way of dealing with the pain becomes passing it on to others. This doesn’t happen in most cases but it can.
Depressed people might temporarily have fits of anger and say things that they later regret. If you’re foot is already broken and someone steps on it, even accidentally, you may just bite their head off.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, be extra patient and gentle with the situation and allow for some mistakes.
Most people will never know the INCREDIBLE feat of strength that it took for that person to NOT shoot themselves or take a fistful of pills, to end the excruciating emotional pain.
And I don’t mean to imply that anyone who commits suicide is weak… far from it. They simply carried the weight as far as they could with tools that they had at the time.
When the pain being experienced becomes greater than the resources a person has to bear it, this is the dismal result.
The only thing that I know to say to someone in that position is… if you’re just too damned stubborn to quit, it might just get better… even if only by accident.
But suicide is a permanent solution to a (possibly) temporary problem.
People in the worst throws of this type of suffering start looking for anything that resembles rope.
It can be used to climb out of the pit and it can be used to hang yourself. Either way, it’s useful stuff.
The real trick is in figuring out where to find your rope and how to use it to climb out of the hole, rather than making a noose with it.
And to the person who is so far gone, disappeared down that rabbit hole of depression that they see nothing in front of them but perpetual night, either rope is acceptable.
They have moved outside the realm of logic and into a place where they can no longer differentiate between a sandwich and a sledgehammer.
It’s not a question of which length of rope makes more sense. It’s merely a question of which rope will arrive sooner.
Suicide looks like pain and the severely, chronically depressed person has been swimming upstream in a river of pain for so long, that the noose is perfectly believable.
The rope that has evenly spaced knots for climbing up out of the hellhole they’re in, it just seems more like a pipe dream than a plausible idea.
A lazy person wants to avoid discomfort. The depressed person isn’t lazy, they’re just slogging through huge waves of despair (feelings that don’t even necessarily have a cause), just trying to move on to the next day. That… is NOT laziness. That… is STRENGTH.
They’re trying to get each leg out of the mud so they can take the next few steps.
It takes every resource inside a person to help them decide to stand up and try again, just one more time.
If you’ve ever had an old junker car or a broken down lawnmower, you know certain tricks you use to get it started. It takes longer than every other machine on the block but eventually, it will start. You utilize these tricks, just to get yourself to work or to go make some healthy food. You rely on habit and muscle memory.
But the thing about severe depression is… at a certain point… nothing works. Nothing.
At those times, you have to rely on stupidly simple ideas, ideas like “OK, I am not going to cut my wrists. Instead I am going to sleep”.
Instead of taking a bottle of pills (something that is more likely to give you permanent brain damage, by the way, than it is to actually kill you), you decide to get up and make a cup of tea. And even these little, seemingly insignificant decisions carry you through a few more hours, a few more days, a few more months.
I can’t stress enough that clinical depression is like starving to death. It’s slow and agonizing and you can’t even see what you’re hungry for. Everything you look at is stupid or broken or seems a million miles away.
Every idea that you have for how to make things better seems insurmountable, a fool’s errand, doomed from the start.
That’s because there’s simply
no gas left in the tank.
A car will not run without gasoline and a human (or animal) brain will not function properly without those happy chemicals.
Smart, Stupid Brain
The drugs used to treat depression are typically called things like serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.
What that means is that the brain is still technically producing those chemicals, the seratonin, dopamine, etc. But it’s spitting them back out, way too fast. This is a reaction to stress.
On an evolutionary level, this makes a tremendous amount of sense. It is the brain’s way of telling you that there is a major problem and one that must be dealt with, immediately.
It works (in theory) by getting you to notice that you don’t feel good, anymore. So that way, you will take steps to rectify the problem and then you get to feel good again. Genius, right?
Yes, except that it doesn’t allow for situations that you can do nothing about.
It doesn’t help if you’re a seven year old child who is being abused on a regular basis. It doesn’t help if you break your leg and then in nine months, you lose a family member and then in another six months, your boyfriend cheats on you and leaves you.
There’s no exception clause in the brain, for “acts of God” or bad luck. The mind and body (which are one, unified system) only understands this message:
There’s an unusual amount of stress. Therefore, you don’t get to feel any joy or pleasure.
When the stress goes away, you can have your pleasure back… maybe.
There is a huge amount of scientific research that backs up what I’m saying here.
Don’t believe me? Here’s one of our brightest scientists, Stanford University Professor, Robert Sapolski, speaking on the subject and the evidence behind it.
The type of sadness caused by the unavoidable, unfortunate events in life that we all experience, is to clinical depression, what scattered showers are to a hurricane.
How many times do you think Robin Williams decided NOT to kill himself… before the pain he felt became too intense and he could no longer bear it for even one more day?
Personally, I would guess that it was probably hundreds of times, maybe even thousands, I don’t know. But see, that’s the thing… I don’t know. Only he knew. And I am not going to be a self-righteous asshole and presume that I do… because I DON’T. And neither do you.
Everybody gets sad once in a while. That’s not even in the same ballpark with clinical depression.
And if you think that someone dealing with severe, clinical depression is just being weak or they’re just having a bad attitude, then you’re an idiot… and you can go fuck yourself.
Depression is a wound. It hurts worse (right up there, inside your actual brain) than a kidney stone or a dislocated knee; and those things hurt like nine kinds of hell.
But you’ll never see this pain. You can’t simply point to the scar and say, “See? That’s what is causing my pain“.
It’s invisible. It’s silent. But so is cancer and so is an aneurysm. You don’t see a heart attack until it’s happening already and all those things kill people, too.
If you’re struggling with depression, you need medication. Unfortunately, the medications suck. They ALL have side effects and there’s a social stigma about depression, precisely because people don’t understand it. But stick with it until you find the medication that has the LEAST number of side effects, the ones that you can live with.
And if you think you are stable enough to come off your meds… then please, please PLEASE… do it incredibly SLOW!
You have to scale down over a course of 3-6 months… NOT over 3-6 weeks. The backlash of coming off of antidepressants too quickly will very likely cause suicide.
As far as the stigma, you have to be strong about dealing with intolerant people who think they know you, when they really don’t have the first clue. But that’s OK, because you ARE strong. You made it this far.
Don’t listen to the detractors. They’re not your real friends or your real family. Your real friends and family are the ones who take the time to fully educate themselves on what you’re suffering with.
They look past the overly simplistic questions like “Yeah, I get it, you’re sad. But about WHAT? Your wife left? Hell, my wife left me. I got over it! Your dog died? I had three dogs die. I got over it. Jesus, buddy… man up a little!”.
Your real friends don’t say stupid shit like “Just go do something fun. You’ll feel better!”.
No, your real friends ask if you’re going to your counselor regularly and if you’re making certain to take your medication and if there’s something they can do to help. They check to see that you’re eating well and they do it quietly, so they don’t make you feel like a child. There’s no condescending attitude about it.
And if they say anything about you needing to just pull yourself up and try harder or anything like “You’re just not doing your best”, then they can fuck off.
If someone has gone 14 days without any food, you don’t say to them “Come on, push! Put your back into it!” and then they go “Oh, sorry!” and suddenly they put 100 more pounds of pressure into it.
A severe depressive episode is every bit as disabling as insulin shock is to a diabetic.
They can’t. They’re sick. They’re compromised. They have to get well first. Then, they can push just as hard as you.
And if someone has clinical depression, you don’t say “Turn that frown upside down” and expect them to go “Hey, you’re right!”.
It doesn’t work that way. And if you think that it does, well then, you’re an idiot and you can go fuck yourself.
The person with clinical depression is actually already pushing harder than you are.
Because they’re doing daily battle with a highly persuasive devil.
They’re pushing through an interminable and thoroughly confusing argument, going on inside their own mind, one that tells them “There’s nothing here for you. This world belongs to them. You don’t belong here. Do yourself a favor and end it now, because it’s only going to get worse”.
Unless you’re wrestling with clinical depression… no, you don’t have to deal with anything even remotely as bad as that. You probably feel purposeful in your basic movements.
You likely see light at the end of the tunnel. You are probably able to actually, truly BELIEVE that you are going to succeed, if only you do the right things, in the right order.
You probably believe that getting up and cleaning the kitchen is going to make a difference in your life. A severely depressed person sees no purpose whatsoever in doing those things.
They might muddle through those activities… but they don’t really believe that it will matter in any way.
The depression sufferer is flying a four engine plane with three engines gone. They’re scaling up a cliff with a backpack full of bricks and cuts on their hands.
They ARE strong. And if you recognize that, then you are, too. And if you don’t recognize their strength, then I have already said a few times what you can go do with yourself.
The good news is that there are lots of things that you can do to get your life back together and not only survive but also feel joy. It takes more than just medication and talk therapy, though.
It takes a rabid commitment to stay alive and make as many small, constructive, healthy decisions as possible.
You’re going to need help from friends (REAL friends) and you’re going to need to be incredibly gentle with yourself and you have to ignore everyone who is telling you that you’re weak or lazy. If they were wearing the three hundred pound backpack that you are, they would not be as excited about charging up the next hill, either.
Tour of Duty
There’s a reason why soldiers are rotated out of active combat duty after no more than 13 months at a time. It’s called Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue or PTSD. At least a third of all military personnel and civilians who experienced intense battles in war end up with some sort of serious emotional trauma that haunts them.
Living with depression is a day to day grind and you have to be strong, because there is no end to your tour of duty, unless you make radical changes to your lifestyle.
Slugging it out in the trenches is no fun. You’re strong and you will seek the help you need. And you won’t stop until you find it.