It used to be that no one ever spoke of mental illness except in whispers. No one seemed to want to acknowledge its existence. Society as a whole shunned both the topic as well as its sufferers, who were often ridiculed or demonized. That has now slowly – very slowly – started to change. Ironically, while many of the mentally ill are still demonized, there is now a trend to romanticize. Erratic behavior and psychotic symptoms are portrayed as exciting and artistic. Even depression is glamorized. Ads for drugs to treat depression, the most common mental illness in the world, appear regularly in magazines and on cable. A subtly made-up, attractive woman (although sometimes a token man) in soft flowing clothing walks alone along a beach, or a path through a field, while a soothing male voice describes the benefits and drawbacks of their product.
There is nothing romantic about depression. I’ve been going through a depression recently without psychotic symptoms. My psychoses, while terrifying, are notable, out of the ordinary. I can tell myself they are manifestations of my artistic side. They are interesting – something that I can and want to write about. The opposite of depression. Not plain, boring, sad. Depression is depressing. There is nothing interesting about it. It’s constant, not episodic. Slow, not fast. An unrelenting, overwhelming, unexplainable sadness characterized by a feeling of absence, not presence.
Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain, –
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.
People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem Sorrow
If Sylvia Plath made mental illness romantic, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words illustrate its dullness. It’s the best description I have found of what living with depression truly feels like. Unlike my psychotic more “interesting” symptoms, depression doesn’t move me to do anything. In fact, I rarely move at all. Depression is sitting in bed all day, too tired to work on anything, or even text a friend. It’s using up every ounce of energy I have walking to the fridge to get a frozen dinner, only then to be too exhausted to put it in the microwave. Like Millay says, nothing matters when you’re depressed. Food, clothes, even friends and family seem insignificant in comparison to the weight on your shoulders. Everything looks like it’s been painted with the same brush – nothing is different or new. The days run together. Time doesn’t really mean anything. Sleep either comes much too easily, or not at all. Human interaction is absolutely exhausting. Holding a conversation seems like a superhuman task. But it’s undramatic. There’s no screaming or hallucinating with plain ol’ depression.
What is truly frightening is that it actually becomes to feel comfortable after a while. Safe. This, of course, can translate into extreme guilt. “Why am just lying here?”, “I have nothing to be depressed about”, “I’m ruining my social life”, “Why can’t I just take a shower? I’m disgusting, it’s been days”, “It’s my own fault.”
Depression was the first mental illness I was diagnosed with. It took me a long time to ask for help because I thought I should be able to pull myself out of it. I only asked for help when I started to consider suicide an option. If I had reached out earlier, it might have never gotten that far. But depression tricks you into thinking it’s normal. It tells you that everybody gets sad. But when sadness becomes heavy, paralyzing, and daily – it is no longer normal. But depression can also be comfortable, and it is only when you reach a breaking point that you can see how far gone you are. Little things add up. Not taking a shower isn’t a huge deal. But when you haven’t showered for a week, have only eaten a pop tart in two days, have been unable to walk your dog so that he has been forced to urinate and defecate in your apartment and you are too tired to clean up the mess, and the thought of calling someone for help brings you to tears – that’s a big deal. Little things add up to make big things.
Depression’s mundanity makes it hard to reach out for help. Its boredom makes it hard for people to see how painful, and sometimes fatal, it can be. If the courage to ask for help is reached, it’s often met with “You’re not really sick”, “Other people have it worse than you”, or my personal favorite “Why don’t you just choose to be happy?” As if it were that easy. These attitudes are ignorant at best, and cruel at their worst. For some people, happiness is not a choice. If so, I would have chosen it long ago. The worst part about depression is its perseverance. It is a relentless monster disguised as a friend. And small quips and platitudes do nothing but feed it.
While the discussion around depression has changed in recent years, and people are more open about it’s existence, there is still a major disconnect between society’s perceptions and reality. According to statistics, roughly seven percent of all adults in the United States had a major depressive episode in the last year – that’s one out of every fourteen people. The odds are that someone you know and care about has depression. Remember to treat it like the disease it is. Give that person the same treatment you would give any other with a serious chronic illness. Don’t give out “inspirational” quotes. Remember, depression is a ceaseless rain and when you tell someone struggling that “happiness is a choice” you are standing next to them, comfortably under your umbrella, and not giving them any shelter. Instead, offer them space under your umbrella and listen. The most important thing you can do is let someone know that their feelings are valid, even if they “have nothing to be depressed about”.
I didn’t want to write a piece about depression. I thought it would be too boring – too “depressing.” My other symptoms are far more exciting (and writeable). I thought – and still worry – no one may care about the sluggishness and grossness of depression. But that’s precisely why I finally decided to write this piece. Depression is gross. It’s dirty and disgusting. It’s not showering, not eating, and living with dog feces. And omitting that part of my illness is doing myself and everyone who struggles with depression a disservice. Depression is exactly how Millay describes it: it neither stops nor starts, it’s slow and brown, and little matters. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. I have made a conscious effort to try to tell the truth about depression. About its dirt, its mundanity, its boring nature. Because the details matter. Remember, those little things become big things. And big things can be fatal. Not caring about the small things that make up life can lead to not caring about life at all.
I hope this helps someone. Or at the very least, helps someone understand depression a little better than before. People with depression feel stuck in place, just as Millay felt the same whether standing up or sitting down. They need help getting involved in life – to get outside and regain an interest in what gown or shoes they wear. The only way this can be done is for those who have it, those who treat it, and those who are affected by it, to talk about depression openly, honestly, and realistically. All of it.