Nidoking (nidoking) wrote,

On depression, and what it feels like from inside

Warning to the reader: This will be the first (or second, depending on how you count) entry in a proposed series where I discuss my experience with depression in far more detail than you will be comfortable with. It's been very upsetting for me just to plan this series and think about the things I'll be talking about. I plan to make these entries public in the hope that they will be of benefit to those who suffer from depression. They may also be informative to people who don't personally suffer from depression - this entry in particular is an extended metaphor intended to express solidarity and demonstrate how I've suffered. It will probably be a very emotional experience, and very upsetting, so if you have any doubt about its applicability to your life, I recommend that you stop reading now and avoid future entries in the series. If you're sure you're ready to proceed, then read on.

I've been thinking for a long time about how to follow up my previous entry on depression, since I made things sound pretty hopeless, and let's face it, if you have depression, they are. It's not an impossible situation - you've heard about people who have learned to deal with their depression, through things like therapy or medication or therapy AND medication, or various hand-wavy things they'll never be able to explain to you. Maybe you've tried some yourself. Maybe you haven't. Either way, if I asked you why you weren't looking harder for treatment, you wouldn't be able to answer. I won't ask. I've been there, and I know how it feels. I'm not going to offer any solutions, because I know as well as you do that there isn't anything I can offer. I want you all to know that going in. It's pretty vital. That said, there's no reason to say that there's nothing I can do to help. Like I said in the previous entry, it's all about experience - the more experiences you have, the more likely that one of them will be the trigger that leads you to break the cycle and get help. All I can do is provide my own experience and hope it means something to you. So that's my plan - however long it takes, I want to tell you everything. I want to air every sordid detail of my life, particularly how it relates to my depression. Some of you may know how big a task that will be. Some of you may understand what that's going to mean. I don't know how far I'll be able to go, but if it helps even one person, it'll be worth it. And if it doesn't, then you'll know more about me than you ever wanted to.

I was going to start with a full timeline of my life, just to give you a chronology and put the future entries in better perspective, but there's something else I want to do first. The chronology of my early life will be the next entry in the series, but for now, I want to offer one more sign of solidarity, one more story that may resonate with you and offer a new perspective on depression. If you're one of the lucky people who don't suffer from it, it may give you a better understanding of what depression is like for those who do, and how they tend to interpret the things you do to try to help. If you're not so lucky, it could be a new way to think about yourself, and might suggest something meaningful. Parts of it will undoubtedly be unfamiliar to you - I'm not sure I know what every part of it means myself, but I'm just speaking from the heart and encapsulating my feelings in a metaphor. You've probably heard this metaphor before, but not like this. I'm going to stretch it so thin it'll snap, and then keep stretching until you can't see the first half from the second... just like this sentence. This idea is important to me for reasons that may eventually become clear, depending on how far I end up taking this project. Just keep it in mind for the future.

Depression, you see, is like quicksand.

Imagine it - you've spent your whole life walking around, from place to place, and the ground has always been pretty solid. You've never had any reason to think it wouldn't be. Sure, you've heard of quicksand, and you've seen it in movies or read about it in books, but it's something that only happens to other people. You've just always walked around and put one foot in front of the other, over and over, perfectly naturally. You didn't need to trust the ground to be solid because there was no other way for it to be. Maybe you've stepped in mud before, and gotten a bit dirty, but you could just step out of it again and wash your shoes when you got home. A minor inconvenience that happens to everyone sometimes, nothing more.

Then, one day, you take a step like any other and with a soft splash, your foot sinks into the ground. You weren't expecting it, and before you can catch your balance, you have both feet in the puddle. You're not sure what to make of your predicament - it takes you a while just to notice that anything's different, and then you recognize that you've stepped in mud again, just like all the other times. It's no big deal. You'll just step out again and go home and wash the mud off your shoes, and watch where you're going more carefully from now on. But it's not quite that easy - when you try to lift one leg, the other one just sinks deeper, and then the leg you tried to lift sinks to balance you again. You quickly reach the conclusion that trying to escape is only making you sink faster, but by now, you're up to your knees and no closer to finding a way out. The only course that makes sense is to surrender to your fate and remain as still as possible - but that won't get you out of the pit, and you're still sinking, just more slowly.

At some point during this process, it hits you - this is quicksand. Not just some random mud, but bottomless quicksand, the stuff of legend, the death trap that will suck you down to your doom. You run out of ways to tell yourself that it's not really quicksand, that you're going to feel the bottom under your feet any second, that maybe this is all a dream and you'll wake up safe in your bed and all the ground will be solid again, and you reach the point of accepting what's happening to you so that you can deal with it properly. You try to remember everything you've learned about quicksand and separate the fact from fiction - you remember that you're not supposed to struggle, but what else were you supposed to do? Nothing helpful comes to mind - you're having trouble just staying calm as you settle deeper into the quicksand. You recognize that this is a bad situation, but you have no idea how you'd even begin to fix it, and everything that seems like it might be a good idea will only make things worse.

Once the novelty has worn off and you can be bothered to think of something other than quicksand, you finally start to notice the people around you. They're walking on solid ground all around you, just going about their days, with no thoughts of quicksand in their minds. Most of them don't even see you - you're below their eye level, so you're beneath their notice. Once in a while, one of them will trip over you, and then they'll turn around to yell at you for being in their way. They don't even seem to notice the quicksand - they think you're just a short person who's standing where they wanted to walk and got in their way. You want to apologize, but then you reason that it's their own fault for not watching where they were going. In fact, they should be THANKING you - if you hadn't been there, they'd have stepped in the quicksand instead of just tripping and going on their way. But it will happen again and again, dozens upon hundreds of times, and every one of them will yell at you and blame you for the misfortune they suffered instead of thanking you for averting the one they missed, until all you can hear is the yelling and everyone is yelling, and you're the only one who thinks you're anything other than a hazard, and you just can't argue with the entire world, because in the end, you really are standing in their way. The fact that you didn't choose to be waist deep in quicksand in front of them doesn't change the fact that you are, indeed, in their way and unable to move out of their way. You stepped into the quicksand and nobody else made you do it. It really is all your fault.

Not everybody ignores you completely, though. Sometimes, people will look down and see you, or maybe hear your attempts to get their attention, and when you tell them you're in quicksand (because, inevitably, they'll fail to notice until you've pointed it out), their reactions will never be quite what you're hoping for. Most of them just shake their heads or shrug their shoulders and move on; there's nothing they can do for you and don't want to spend too much time near you in case they misstep and get stuck in the quicksand with you, even though they can clearly see the edges and there's obviously no danger to them. That's better than the people who stop to talk to you, though. You get all types of people offering their advice or opinions on quicksand as if you care, as if they're the only people who have ever expressed such views. There are the deniers, of course, the ones who say "There's no such thing as quicksand. It's just made-up stuff they put in Tarzan movies for a bit of excitement." You can't really answer that one. You just stare down at the quicksand you're in and wait for them to go away. The worst of the deniers are the ones who use it as an opportunity to judge you. "You're too fat to be in quicksand," they might say. "How would you ever find a pit big enough to fit you?" Or maybe "You're too thin to be in quicksand. Do you even have enough weight to sink?" They'll pick any number of characteristics to prove that you're not the type of person who sinks in quicksand. As if there's a "right type". It would happen to anyone who happened to step in the wrong place. In this case, that anyone was you. Maybe they're just afraid that if they can't find anything wrong with you, some obvious flaw that would make you more prone to stepping in quicksand than them, then it means that they, too, might find themselves in quicksand someday. They don't want to think that they might have to spend their whole lives watching where they step, because what kind of life is that? A better one than finding themselves in quicksand, naturally, but nobody wants to spend their entire lives being cautious. You certainly weren't cautious enough, were you? And again, it's your own fault that you're sinking. If there's a "type" of person out there who's supposed to be in quicksand and you're not that type, then it's a blunder on your part, a mistake you made that never should have happened.

Some people know what quicksand is and understand that you're sinking in it, but treat you like an idiot for it, rubbing in the idea that it's your own fault. "What did you step in quicksand for?" they ask as if it were your choice. As if you picked this spot BECAUSE you knew there was quicksand. "Why don't you just get out? Do you WANT to be stuck there?" It's not that easy, but like the people blaming you for every other aspect of your predicament, once you hear it enough, you start to wonder whether maybe they're right, and the only thing keeping you in the quicksand is that you want to be stuck there. You can't get out - what other reason could there be?

Yet more people try to be helpful, but in ways that they have to realize are unproductive. They'll tell you how to recognize quicksand and avoid stepping in it. You have a much easier way to recognize quicksand - look down - and knowing how to avoid it doesn't help now that you've already missed your chance. Or they might suggest ways that you could pull yourself out if you'd brought a stick, or a rope. That would be great if you had any of those things, but you don't. You don't point out how useless their advice is, though, because if you do, they just get huffy and say "I was only trying to HELP," and act like it's your fault that they can't help you. Maybe it is. So many other things are.

You get experts who know everything about quicksand and revel in telling you all about it. "Did you know that quicksand is water flowing upward through sand or dirt?" Does it matter? What matters is that you're sinking in it, but they treat that part as a mere academic curiosity. "Quicksand is denser than the human body, so it won't swallow you completely. You'll just float eventually as long as you don't struggle." So they say, but you're chest-deep in it and you haven't stopped sinking yet. "You're not alone. Thousands of people have stepped in quicksand at some point in their lives." Well, fine. You're in good company. That doesn't make you any less alone. And the worst part is that the expert will walk away convinced that they've done something to help you, simply because they did something, and therefore it must have helped, right?

A few people actually DO try to provide help that's actually helpful, or at least not so clearly useless. "I heard you can escape from quicksand with slow swimming motions." "Have you tried lying on your back?" "Maybe you can push the quicksand away from your body and dig your way to the surface." Simple things that you can actually DO without the tools everyone says you need. None of them work, and most of them just make you sink deeper, but at least they give you something to do other than sit there and sink, and they do give you the temporary hope that maybe there's something you can do after all, until it all deflates and you're left with nothing but quicksand again.

Perhaps worst of all are the people who actually really offer you help that works - mostly people who have been in quicksand before and at least have some idea of how to escape it. These are the people who will reach out and offer you a hand, but seem confused when you can't reach them because they're just too far away and you're shoulder-deep in quicksand and can't really reach very far anyway. They grab branches to extend their reach, but don't seem to notice that the branches are covered in thorns - trying to grab that will just rip your skin right off and leave the rest of you where you are. Or they throw you ropes and vines that turn out to be venomous snakes, and when you shy away from them for fear of being bitten, you just sink a little deeper and leave your would-be rescuer hurt and confused as to why you don't just accept their help. They were pulled out of quicksand, and they want you to be back on solid ground so much, but nothing they do works. It doesn't take many iterations of this before you just stop asking for help, because it only ever hurts and never helps. You stop even telling people with muddy legs that you're in quicksand, because you know they'll try to help, and you can't accept that.

There's one more type of person who might show up - a guy who stares at you for much longer than you're comfortable with, then pulls his pants down and says "Hey, I've got something for you to grab." It's pretty clear to you what he really wants, but it's more attention than you've gotten from anyone else and maybe if you please him, he'll pull you out, if only to increase the range of things you can do for him - as it is, he has to sit down at the edge of the quicksand just to interact with you at all. You do what he wants, and you might even enjoy it, and for the first time since stepping in the quicksand, you feel like someone cares about you, and everything will turn out okay, because someone's here with you and he's watching out for you and won't let anything happen to you. He might even offer to climb into the quicksand with you, but you push him away immediately - you care too much about him to let him share your fate. He might stay with you for hours, or years, but in the end, he stands up and walks away and you're still in the quicksand, unable to follow him or convince him to come back, and everything you've done with him feels so hollow that your heart weighs you down and you sink deeper still. Maybe he's gone forever, or maybe he's still standing there watching you, but he can do nothing for you and he knows it, and that disappointment is the thing that hurts most of all. It takes all your effort even to care whether you live or die, and if there's ever going to be a time when you want to just give up and let yourself be sucked down, this is probably that time.

(I picked a man for that scenario because the sleazy come-on line was exactly the sort of thing I was going for and doesn't work with a woman, and I believe most depression sufferers are women, but you can picture anyone you want there, and I suspect most of you already have someone in mind.)

And your moods really do affect your buoyancy - sometimes, the quicksand really feels like it's sucking you down and you have to cling to solid ground with all your might just to stay afloat. Your arms get so tired that you're tempted to let go, because sinking would be so much easier and painless, but you struggle on and endure the pain because... well, you really have no idea why sometimes. It's just what you've always done. Then your mood lightens, and you think it might be safe to let go for a while. And you do, and you're elated to find that you don't sink any deeper. The relief is palpable. Perhaps you've finally hit your deepest point, and you've finally displaced enough water weight to float from now on. You let your arms rest for a while, and you stop minding the useless people trying to help you for a while, because life in the quicksand really isn't all that bad anymore. You feel like you can go on this way forever. It might even be better in the quicksand than outside - nobody approaches you too closely, and nobody can really expect you to go anywhere or do anything. There's nothing to do but rest, relax, and enjoy the comfort of being held in a full-body embrace. Then something happens - one insult strikes you the wrong way, or a tectonic plate moves, or a butterfly lands on your head and throws your weight out of balance, and you plunge downward until you grab at the edges again and all the pain comes back at once, and you find yourself again wrestling with the temptation to let go for what you know will be the final time.

Of course, you still have biological needs, and while being in quicksand doesn't prevent you from taking care of some of them, you find yourself hungry and with no food in reach. At first, you just ignore it as one more problem you can't do anything about, but as time goes on, your stomach starts to take over your thoughts and you realize that you're going to have to find a way to eat. What happens next, you don't know or understand - you simply stop paying attention to your surroundings, and when you look up again, you're in line at a restaurant - still in quicksand, but it seems to have moved to a new location and taken you along for the ride, or vice versa. As soon as you get your bearings, you reach up and grab the counter so you can haul yourself up to the cashier's eye level, order some food, pay with muddy bills and coins, and drag your tray over to a table where you can pull yourself into a seat, your feet still trailing in the quicksand but no longer really getting in the way of anything you're doing. As you sit there, wiping the mud off your hands with a napkin so you can eat, you realize what this means - you can get on with your life and go about your regular business while you're still in the quicksand, and nobody will ever notice. Then, as you take your first bite, another thought hits you - if you can get along in life without escaping the quicksand, you're going to be dragging it with you everywhere you go. You're never going to be free because you don't need to be. Every bite of your meal tastes like sand.

Now that you've figured out how to move around while still in the quicksand, and you know that it's possible to hide it from people, you start to notice the other people around you who are also dragging quicksand around with them. You've never looked at their feet before - quicksand wasn't something you needed to be concerned with. Some of them are people you've known for a long time, and you just never realized what they were dealing with, but now that you're in the middle of it, you can see it for what it really is. They'll favor you with a kind smile when they see that you recognize them, and you can swap stories about your respective experiences, but ultimately, neither of you can really help the other - without solid ground under your feet, you've got no leverage. But at least you feel a little less alone.

From time to time, it comes to light that a famous person everyone cares about was in quicksand and nobody knew until they finally gave in and submerged. It's just the thing that makes everyone, even people who don't believe in quicksand, start to notice it everywhere. Suddenly, they're afraid - not that the quicksand is a threat to them, but simply because it reminds them that we're all human and death inevitably comes for us all, and that there are clearly things in the world that they can't understand. Quicksand could take anyone away from them at any time, and there's nothing they can do, but they have to do SOMETHING. They have to control their world. The useless advice and interactions from people increase. It's not that they see YOU any more than they used to, but they see the quicksand and they have to fight it, so they start telling everyone they see everything they think they know about quicksand and how awful it is, as if the people they're trying to help didn't already know from personal experience. But now there's a new message in the mix - "Don't you dare stop fighting it. You have to survive." You'd forgotten how tired your arms were; the effort of holding yourself up felt much more natural for a while, but now your shoulders are aching and people are insisting that you ignore it because they've already lost someone they care about and they don't want to lose you, too. Even people who have hated you your whole life want to see you keep struggling because they'll have to feel bad if you die, and they don't want that. It's not you. It's them. And it's easy for them to tell you to keep fighting as they stand on solid ground, taunting you, while you're the one whose arms hurt so much. Oh, they don't really expect you to hold yourself up forever - they'll happily tell you that it's easy to get out of quicksand, and there are thousands of people who can help you - and then they'll walk away, secure in the knowledge that now that they've told you help is out there, there's absolutely no reason you won't call for it. In their minds, you just didn't know that if you asked for help, you'd get help, or maybe you didn't know the right thing to call out, or you didn't notice the crowds of people around you who could potentially rescue you. They don't understand that you haven't asked them for help because... wait, why was it again? You think over your time in the quicksand and can't recall any reason that you didn't ask most of those people for help. You've been neck-deep in quicksand for what seems like forever... because you just didn't think to ask for help? No, that can't be right. There MUST have been a reason. And what's changed now? Nothing has changed. Whatever reason it was still applies, and you can just picture some poor soul tearing their arms out of the sockets trying to free you from the quicksand and inevitably asking "Why didn't you call out for help sooner, when it would have been so much easier to pull you out?" And you won't have an answer for them. Better to avoid the question altogether by not even attracting that much attention. You've been propping yourself up for long enough that you don't need help or sympathy - even though other people only see quicksand as a death trap thanks to the recent news, you're surprisingly comfortable with it. The knowledge that you're still hanging on while so many others have given in is probably the only source of pride you have left, but it's something. Every time you hear about someone drowning in quicksand and you don't join them, you feel a bit more secure in your own survival - as if you're literally standing on a pile of corpses to keep yourself afloat. Just try not to think too hard about that, because it's a disturbing way to look at it and might drag you down again.

So, have you been reading "depression" every time I said "quicksand" this whole time? That was the premise of the whole ridiculous story. It is, at least, ridiculous to think of quicksand that way, but at least quicksand is something that anyone can understand. Depression makes as little sense when it's not actually happening to you. Nobody would really look at someone in quicksand and tell them to pull themselves out, or do most of the other things I've described here, because quicksand is understood. Obvious. Familiar but not normal. If depression worked that way, the people on the outside would probably be a lot more help. There are a lot of holes in my metaphor that aren't just surreal things like walking around while still sinking in quicksand, but that's because I wanted to try to capture as much of the experience of depression as I could in as much detail as possible rather than sticking with the usual tired, uninformed "Depression is like quicksand because you can't get out without help and if you're not careful, it can kill you" line that doesn't help anybody understand anything. I hope it's clear from the last entry and this one that I know what I'm talking about. I've been through this, and I'm still going through it, and I'm not going to be shy about describing everything if I don't absolutely have to be. I'm going to go on at length - far too much length, I'm sure - about my experiences and what my life has been like, what my depression has been like, and how I've learned to deal with it all and get back to walking on solid ground most of the time. If my story sounds enough like yours in the essential details, then maybe you'll find the same ending I have. If so, then it'll all be worth it, whatever horribly embarrassing secrets I've told you about myself. So, with that in mind, let me add an epilogue to the story from above, a more hypothetical scenario that's less likely to be something you've experienced (even setting aside the quicksand metaphor), but hopefully something you will experience over the course of this series.

You've been in the quicksand for so long that you've forgotten what it was like to stand on solid ground. It's become part of your life - you and the quicksand are inseparable, and you feel like there's a mutual understanding even though it's inanimate and doesn't really have a mind of its own. You've given up ever finding a way out and resolved to live in it as best you can. People still pass by and say the same old things they've always said, and by now, you've learned to tune them out rather than try to argue with any of them. But one day, someone stops nearby and sits down near you. "It looks like you're in quicksand," he says, and before you can point out how obvious that is, he continues. "I was trapped in quicksand before, too. I know how you feel." You tell him that he can't possibly understand - nobody who can walk around possibly could. "I know because I was there," he insists, and he tells you the story above in stunning detail, the story of your own struggle. "I learned how to escape," he says, and he turns, showing you a spool attached to his belt, with a rope wound around it. "I have to carry this with me at all times, because it's still out there, waiting for me. I can escape, but I'm never free." He takes a step backward and immediately begins to sink into the ground. Without pause, he ties the rope into a lasso and snags it on a nearby branch, then pulls himself back out of the pit. "See? It's possible." You gaze longingly at the rope, and with sorrow in his eyes, he tosses the end to you. The moment it comes within reach, it turns into a snake. "It looks like something you can't touch, doesn't it?" he asks knowingly. "So many people tried to help me, but I couldn't accept it. I promise you that it's still a rope, and if you grabbed it, I could pull you out. But I can't ask you to grab it just like that. Nor can I give it to you - it was made for me, and it took me a long time and a lot of effort just to learn how to use it. But there are plenty of tools out there - surely you can learn to use one if you want to. There are people who can teach you. I'm sure you've met many of them already, but didn't think they could do anything for you. I hope seeing me and hearing my story has shown that they can." You ask him how you can find your tool, but he only shakes his head. "I'm sorry, but I can't help you with that. It takes an expert in quicksand to figure out what kind of tool you can use. I only know enough to use my own. But if you ask enough people, you're sure to find someone who can help you. It's the asking that's the hardest part. I know, because I had more trouble asking for help than I can tell you. If you can just get over that one hurdle, you'll be well on your way. Until then, you can find me around. Feel free to ask me anything - I don't know what might help you, but I'll tell you anything I can. If anything I say helps you work up whatever it takes to get help and end up back on solid ground, it's worth it."

And for now, that's where my story ends. Where it goes from there is up to you. The rest of the series is going to be very uncomfortable to write (and frankly, this entry was as well), and it will likely be just as uncomfortable to read, but let's take this journey together. It would mean a lot to me if it leads you to where you need to go.
Tags: depression

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