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How These 5 Types of Clouds Explain My Depression and Suicidality

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Depression has often been talked about as though it is a dark cloud hanging over your head, like in a psychiatric medication commercial I remember from many years ago. I perceive this cloud as preventing me from seeing the blue sky and sun, but it is not the only cloud I experience in my life relative to depression and suicide. There are several types of clouds. They may be light and wispy, thick but spaced, large and looming or a complete covering. I have found that thinking about where I am in terms of clouds helps me determine the level of severity in my depression and suicidality.

It has been a little over 15 months since my last hospitalization. I started my month-long stay in a local hospital, and I was transferred to a highly specialized facility in Washington, D.C. Things were pretty grim back then. I struggled in many ways to keep myself alive when I had no desire to live. At that time I was experiencing some dense, heavy and overwhelming clouds. I have accepted depression as part of my life as I have had some level of depression for as long as I have had awareness of my feelings, but recently I have had more experience with those stormy clouds. So, I thought I would share what depression and suicidal thinking looks like with a more in-depth cloud metaphor.

1. First, there is the cloudless sky.

Blues stretching from pale to intensely brilliant shades. These are the times in my life when depression and suicidality are not present.

2. Cirrus clouds.

Next, cirrus clouds are those really light, wispy clouds that streak across the sky and appear almost see-through. They easily float along in the sky without obstructing the sun. We see these clouds all of the time and think nothing of them because they are so non-ominous. The catch with these clouds is that they are typically a sign that worsening weather is on its way. So, when life is moving along for me as these clouds do, I begin to see the warning signs. I become fearful and get caught in a thinking and feeling loop. I do not usually consider suicide during these times in my life, but I feel the weight of depression, stress and shame.

3. Cumulus clouds.

Those brilliant white cotton balls in the sky are called cumulus clouds. They are the clouds that you lie on your back and gaze at to determine what shapes, animals or objects you see. I used to watch clouds all of the time from a tree in my backyard. These clouds do not frighten me the way the cirrus clouds do, but they do block out the sun every now and then. When I was a child, I would play in the pool for hours during the summer. These clouds would slowly move past the sun throughout the day and there would be a sudden chill in the air. When I experience this type of cloud in my daily life, I have waves of thoughts about self-harm or suicide. They are just brief thoughts and they are not necessarily serious, nor do they obstruct my daily life. I consider these to be the passive suicidality I experience a lot of the time.

4. Stratus clouds.

The cloud I imagine the medication commercial was trying to depict was the stratus cloud. Stratus clouds are the type that completely covers the sky. They produce the drizzle that ruins outdoor picnics or days at the park, and during the winter may cause slowly falling snowflakes. These clouds are like a fog that settles higher in the sky. Stratus depression and suicidality are persistent but not necessarily intense. Just like we can tolerate a light drizzle for a day or two, if it persists for several days or more it becomes more and more unbearable. I am reminded of how pain is tolerated in the body. If we experience a sharp, stabbing pain that lasts for a second at a 9 out of 10, it is painful but livable. If we experience a dull pain that lasts for six months as a 3 out of 10, we may begin to believe the pain is greater than the former. Stratus clouds begin to feel more painful over time and wear on my ability to cope.

5. Nimbus clouds.

Finally, there is the nimbus cloud. This is a type of raincloud, but it is not just any raincloud. It is a dark, giant cloud. It can produce thunderstorms and tornadoes. This is the stabbing 9 out of 10 pain, but it also seems to last longer than I can tolerate. I also think of the idea of a tornado. When there is a tornado warning, we are told to go hide in the basement or an inner room with no windows. When facing extreme feelings of depression and suicidality, I act as though there is a tornado ripping through my house. I find a place to hide physically, mentally, emotionally or any way I can. This is a dangerous place to be.

There are many variations of these clouds. Combinations of these clouds occur, such as altostratus or cirrocumulus, but the basic idea applies. There are also varying sizes, densities and altitudes of clouds which have an additional effect. There is no exact science to how I am feeling or what I am thinking and how someone can help, but this is my attempt to bring a sort of awareness to the struggle with depression and suicidal thinking I face regularly.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Originally published: September 5, 2019
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