Health

You Have No Idea What the Term 'Depressed' Really Means Until It Devours You

"Depression" was a just a word to me before, like "sandals" or "matinée." Now, I get a pang in my chest whenever I hear it.

by Joe Bish
Apr 29 2015, 5:00pm

Artwork by Dan Evans

Remember when you were younger and you used to say you were "depressed" all the time? Same episode of Boy Meets World as yesterday? Depressed. No fucking French fries left at lunchtime? Depressed. Lost a game of little league? Christ, will I ever catch a break?

"Depressing" was just another way of saying: "This is bullshit." Growing up, it was a nebulous term that had no real applicable meaning, one that could be used semi-sincerely and derided in the same breath. Today, many of us use it with the same flippancy. Seeing a one-legged pigeon is depressing. A stale sandwich for lunch from the bodega is roundly depressing. Even the success of your enemies can be depressing. "Fuck," you say. "Dean got that job? That's fucking depressing as fuck."

Like many things, depression can be a hard thing to "get" until you have a real sense of what it's like. It's like before you try ecstasy—you can't really "get" the level of joy and contentment and love you're going to feel. You can tritely attempt to express it with words like "loved up" and "rolling balls" but they can't convey the fizz, the glee, the closeness. Look: I'm doing a bad job of it myself.

Depression is inexplicable, too, because it's such a sharp blow to the senses. It's like nothing else you've ever felt, and it's difficult to believe when it strikes that humanity hasn't found a better way to articulate something so agonizing. You might use the word "depressed" day-to-day, but trust me, you're pretty clueless about its meaning until the gloom descends upon you.

My first dance with the black dog came at the start of summer two years ago. I'd felt a bit strange at work, had a headache. The sound of my co-workers singing along to a song on the radio was making me inordinately angry. I went to my girlfriend's house after work feeling a little woozy, and almost as soon as I walked through the door I began to cry. I had never cried like this in my life. I was beside myself. Vocally crying, yelping, my normal face replaced by a damp, red raw oval. And then I stopped crying. "What's wrong?" There was no answer. I had no idea. And then I started crying again.

The crying continued for a couple of days. When I got home, I told my parents and threw up in the garden.

A friend came over to check on me and brought a joint to help calm me down. I had a toke, and it was the worst thing I could have done. My mind began to spin. I paced the room holding my head, again, scream-crying. My friend was at a loss as to what to do. I lay on my bed, still holding my head, and shut my eyes. When I opened them, I saw the coat hook on the back of my door, and briefly entertained the thought of hanging myself from it.

How easily these kinds of thoughts creep into your conscious brain is, for me, the most terrifying aspect of depression. These days, suicide is less likely to be a spur of the moment action—in some cases, this is down to design; like the British suicide rate dropping by a third when the government changed the type of gas in everyone's ovens to one that isn't deadly. In most cases a great deal of consideration goes into suicide, but just to have the thought, just to have it in your head as something tangible that could be an option, remains the most frightening realization I have ever had in my life. Again, the flippancy of how we use these words comes to mind. "If I miss that train I'm going to fucking kill myself," you might hear today in your office. But when the notion, the sheer fucking enormity of the word "kill" enters your head, it's like nothing else on earth.

If I ever think about killing myself now, I'm aware that it's just that: a thought. One that will come, and then go. But for a few hours, two years ago, it felt so incredibly real that I began to lose a sense of who I was. Thinking something so at odds with the personality you've built up till that point shakes you like a ride on a busted waltzer.

This is where I began to disassociate.

I went to the hospital. My folks found out what I was thinking, and it upset them. This made me feel guilty. For the next few months I couldn't think properly. Everything was jumbled up. I'd cry on the phone to helplines. I'd cry alone in my room. I'd reject offers for people to come and see me. The usual depression tropes all applied, but they didn't seem like the sort of things you'd see in a webcomic when I was experiencing them. When I was in the throngs of it, it was as if nothing else existed, even perhaps myself. All there was was my brain and the dark raincloud swimming over it, shooting bolts of shitty, horrible lightning at my deflated gray matter.

It took its toll on my relationship, too, which has now, thankfully, recovered.

It's been about two years since that episode, and while I was able to tentatively shoo depression away, the prospect of it returning is a constant fear. I managed, through the help of a course of psychotherapy and the support of my friends and family, to intellectualize it; to separate myself from my thoughts. If I considered the logical foibles of it—"it" being a product of my own mind, which I control—then surely I could consciously push it out? It took time, but therapy aided in strengthening my convictions. There's something about someone with years of academic training telling you how your mind is working, scientifically, that assuages some of the more manic aspects of depression. I started to feel the positivity return. Once I was sure I could get by without the therapy, I knew I was on the right track.

Really, though, it's always there. The memories don't leave you. Depression can be likened to cancer in some ways; you can get over it, you can beat it, but there's always a chance it will come back. I'm thankful that my brush with depression was only brief—albeit severe—but others are not so lucky. Part of what made Robin Williams's recent passing so crushing for me is that, even after 50-odd years of dealing with depression and anxiety, it could still grab him. I would tell myself, when I felt really bad, that it would get better—not because I knew it would, but because it had to. You have to steady yourself under the weight of depression however you can, to accept that you're unwell but that you can cope, and not surrender to finality. Eventually it always passes.

When I emerged from the other side of this bout of depression, I'd find myself welling up at people doing things as trivial as fun runs for mental health charities. It made me want to empty my wallet. There's something incredible about helping people with injuries they don't know how to fix. There's no physical splint for a broken mind. There is, however, a great many treatments available, whether that's CBT, medication, meditation—whatever feels right for you, whatever helps you live. You will be afraid of the calm after depression has passed, and not want to trust it, because the experience is something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. But if it does come back, take solace in the fact that there are other people who know what it's like. As shitty as it may be for a while, you are still here, and it will be transient.

I think about the language surrounding mental illness a lot, how "depression" was just a word to me before, like "sandals" or "matinée." Now there's a slight pang in my chest when it's mentioned, and the memories of desperate, dark sadness flicker behind my eyes when I remember that summer. Words change meaning all the time, but rarely in such personal ways.

If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.

@joe_bish