Why I Struggle to Describe What Depression Feels Like


I’ve lived with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for most of my life. Since I was 10, I’ve dealt with intrusive thoughts and complicated rituals. OCD and I have been together for so long that you might say we’re old friends or, at the very least, frenemies. I know this disorder well. Fortunately, in recent years, my symptoms have been manageable. This is cause for celebration, but I’ve also experienced a new setback. I’ve been dealing with symptoms of depression, which have overpowered me so much that it took me nearly two years to get help.

Unlike OCD, depression feels more mysterious to me. When it comes to describing the illness, I feel inadequate to the task. I only remember the feelings I had and out of those feelings come metaphors, but the metaphors are incomplete. I’ve settled on the idea that depression is like being mummified, being wrapped head to toe in a deceptively thin gauze – deceptive because the gauze is so thin you think you can escape its clutches. But you’re bound; your hands and feet are rendered immobile. You can’t push or kick the gauze away, and your mouth is covered, your breathing labored. Ultimately this way of being becomes your new normal. You become inured to it. And then there’s the forgetting.

It’s not simply that I had forgotten how to feel happy. I essentially forgot myself, and the contours of my personality. But of course I only know this because I’ve (hopefully) regained who I am. I didn’t know how bad it was until the gauze started loosening. This I attribute to a course of medication that seems to be working. I say “seems to” because I don’t want to jinx it, as if modern medication is susceptible to magical thinking. After the initial side effects wore off, I started to think more clearly. I no longer woke up every day and muttered, “I hate my life.” More promising still, I no longer had thoughts of death. With thoughts like these, it might be surprising to realize that I didn’t know how bad my depression was. But that’s part of the forgetting. You simply live within the gauze; you walk around in a shroud.

The reason my inadequate metaphors bother me so much is because I believe that understanding how mental illness feels is important. To elicit empathy is to help someone understand what another is going through, and the experience of mental illness is so visceral that a person might not completely comprehend a disorder without knowing how that shroud feels on our bodies. Even I couldn’t understand it without being removed from the pain. To be sure, I knew something was wrong. I knew I wasn’t living a good life. But I felt immobilized.

When people tell us to “cheer up” or view us as lazy because we want to sleep all day or we haven’t cleaned our homes in weeks, they haven’t grasped the magnitude of depression. To counter that, I can only offer words, which are a stand-in for the pall that depression brings. And I hope that’s enough.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via lolostock


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