The Colander of Depression
Imagine you are at a busy event with people spread everywhere. You are right in the middle of the group, surrounded by all your family and friends. Suddenly, someone puts a life-size black colander, with large holes all the way around, right over the top of you. There’s still heaps of light coming in through the holes so you feel fine, but when you go to stand closer to the people you love there now seems to be a large barrier preventing you from quite fitting in.
You are able to get around well enough, you can see everything because there’s plenty of light shining in and you don’t feel like you’re missing anything. To be honest, no one even really seems to notice you are trapped, which is totally fine because you don’t want to talk about it. You feel mostly OK – it just seems to be taking a bit more effort to get through your daily life now that you are stuck inside this big black dome.
Fast forward a little bit to a rough patch in your life and some of the holes in the colander’s sides have been covered up, making it darker inside. There’s enough light still coming in, but you’ve noticed you are definitely finding it harder to cope. You feel like you’re being pinned down and suffocated a little bit, as the colander has a heaviness that has started to infiltrate other areas of your life. You feel like you’re still doing OK though until something else happens and suddenly more than half the holes are covered up. It’s now quite dark – there are less openings for you to talk to the people you love, and when you do it seems like they aren’t quite sure how to help you. You actually wonder if they can even see the colander, and you don’t think they can because when you ask, people just say things like “you seem fine to me” or “it’s all in your head.” They genuinely want to help, but it can be so difficult to try and explain what it’s like being trapped inside this huge heavy cage, especially while you’re still stuck inside. Eventually you feel like it’s too much energy to try explaining and there’s other things in your life you’d prefer to talk about, share and enjoy.
Sometimes you may notice out of one of the holes that there are some other people stuck in their own colanders, with varying degrees of light shining into them. You find it helps to hang out with these people – they understand how you are feeling without having to say it, and together you can help each other open some of those holes for more light. Things that make you happy, whether it’s animals, exercise, music, plants, whatever it might be – these things seem to open up some of the holes in that colander and let light back in, which is a good thing. Sometimes, though, you might find you just don’t enjoy these activities the same way you used to or something might happen, like breaking your ankle or having your pet pass away. These things can hit you harder than they hit other people. There’s less light than before.
When you find the right combination of psychiatrists, medications and therapy for you, it’s a wonderful thing. The amount of light and darkness inside the colander is much more stable and not constantly changing. If things are going really well, you might even find that there’s a door on the inside you’d never noticed before, and you can walk outside and be on your way. You can leave this big black colander in your spare room with a pile of your other discarded items, and it can sit dormant for awhile. But then a stressful life event may happen, or several of them, or sometimes nothing at all, and you realize the medication is no longer working and you are trapped inside again. The process of trial and error to change your medication and get it right is brutal – the effects of starting/stopping can be severe. Some antidepressants will make you sleep for 20 hours in a day, others will not let you sleep for a week. You feel like zombie or a space cadet, like someone has put your head in a bubble and it’s not connected to your body at all. While research has shown that depression can be treated over time and managed, there is no “one size fits all” approach to mental health, and often the journey to find the right treatment for an individual can be more exhausting and stressful than the initial problem in the first place.
When things are really bad, back inside this big black colander, you notice in the limited light that someone has graffitied the inside of the walls with things like, “You’ll never be good enough” or “You’re a failure” or “No one could ever love you.” You know these aren’t true – but you start to believe them because there’s not much else to think about stuck in this dark lonely dome. You know depression lies. It twists your thoughts, feelings and beliefs until they’re not yours anymore… but you still find yourself obsessing over them as if they are. You might also see photos up on the wall to remind you of your failures, your regrets and all the times you’ve hurt people. If you have a good day, there might be plenty of light shining in, but there seems to only be a few happy photos stuck on the walls – not nearly enough to cover up the graffiti you can still see underneath.
Anxiety is like someone is pouring water over the top of the colander – you are stuck inside, and water is attacking you from every angle. As the water level gets higher and higher inside, you are terrified because there’s nothing you feel you can do to change this situation. You just get tossed around and around in this water, trying not to drown and doing your best to prevent the few happy pictures of the people and things you love from getting drenched or washed away. When the panic finally subsides, you are exhausted and weary with no idea how to find the strength to pick yourself up and stand upright. If your anxiety is particularly bad you might notice a small amount of water stays on the ground around your ankles – no matter how often you try to shovel it out it just stays there as a lurking reminder of your inability to cope. Anxiety feeds anxiety so this water can rise quickly to give you a constant sense of panic, dread and drowning feeling. Even though you may understand that all these things you are worrying about can be broken down into smaller and more manageable chunks, it doesn’t feel like you can do this because you’re too busy trying to tread water, chase the light and keep your head above the surface.
Especially when there’s not much light coming in, you may be feeling numb and disconnected, worn down and like there is no color left in the world. Everything keeps on going – work, study, friends, family – but this barrier around you is so heavy that it’s all you can do to survive the next half hour. The weight of everything inside is so huge you can’t even think about what comes after that. You feel lost, broken, and maybe the sensation that you’re just silently screaming.
It gets tougher when even less of the holes are free and the floor beneath you can turn into quicksand. The sadness, loss and pain is swirling around, and you feel like you will never escape because these feelings are everywhere, but there’s no one to pull you up from the ground. If you can, you may have to use up some of those few remaining holes of light to reach out for help, to change your medication yet again, to talk to people about the dark and intrusive thoughts you are having. You have to go back to taking the most fragile baby steps until you can remember what it feels like to be a person and to be alive. This is exhausting to the bone, especially when you feel like you have nothing left to give because this just keeps happening to you, over and over again.
If you are stuck in the quicksand inside this colander, you might feel too far away from the wall. Even if you can fight your way across to the edge, you still may not be able to use one of the holes to call out to someone. Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough left in you to actually survive until you can get back on track. What you might do instead is cradle that last little bit of light you feel you have left, close in around yourself for protection, and hope you can wait out this storm through the pain until the next day. And the next. And the next.
In memory of Kristen Hardy.
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