Depression: On Being Swallowed Whole

To think of depression and symptoms of depression as a swallowing sludge of despair and sadness is to think accurately about the most formidable foe in the mental health world and the purpose of my writing here is to tell you that you are not alone. You are not broken. You’re so much stronger than you think you are. Your feelings are trying to reach you. They are communicating with you. 

You are not the problem; you just have problems to solve.  

It’s early morning and I’m sinking in my bed of sadness and despair and it makes no sense. I feel like the horse Artax from “The Neverending Story.” I don’t have Atreyu to yell at me and tug on my reins. “Don’t let the sadness of the swamp get to you. You have to try, you have to care… you’re my friend, I love you.” The heroic white horse that has carried Atreyu on his journey so far is sinking in his own despair, his own sadness. Atreyu’s journey has 10,000 miles to go. He is protected in the swamp by The Auryn, given to him by the beautiful Childlike Empress. Artax has no such protection. He continues to sink, never breaking eye contact with his panicking master. Artax knows that those miles are not his to travel. He knows other things as well but they will soon die with him in the consuming sludge of swampy depression. It’s not that the heroic horse is depressed, he is simply overcome at a vulnerable moment and as his options fade, so does he. He is trying, he does care, he has a friend, and he is loved. The swamp is pure sorrow and pure misery. Atreyu cannot pull him out. Fantasia is in danger of being fully overtaken by The Nothing. Artax is swallowed whole by sadness and despair in an onscreen death second to none. I remember the scene. I remember where I was. It was 1984. Geauga Theater, Chardon, Ohio. I was 10 years old, and upon the death of Artax I began my journey to adulthood much like many of my Gen X cohort, way too early. Falkor, the heroic Luckdragon shows up and rescues the grieving Atreyu and Fantasia is devoured by The Nothing with the exception of one grain of sand and the Childlike Empress. 

Depression doesn’t care how happy you are.

At the time of this post I am a 45-year-old man. My life is layered with burdens and joys and regularly fleeting moments of happiness and sadness. I’m like you. We’re in this together. Right? For the most part we are. Right? Do we have our darker moments in common? Is that something we can talk about? Where do you pencil in your darkness? How low do you go? Do you deal with it or do you drown it out with this vice or that one? Do you avoid it or project it onto those brave souls closest to you?

When it comes to depression, there’s always room for more.

I want to talk about depression. I want to talk about feeling depressed. I want to talk about the dangers of labeling feelings as positive or negative. I want to talk about the depressive struggles we all face and how we face them. I want to talk about how our struggles impact those around us. I want to talk about the successes and failures we have had in battling depression. I want to talk about it, but do you? Does anybody? 

Depression makes a mess and then dares you to clean it up.

Being a psychotherapist, I talk about depression a lot, on the couch and off. Sometimes depression is clinical. Sometimes it’s pathological. Sometimes it’s just symptoms ganging up on the host. Sometimes it’s at a healthy level, sometimes it’s not. Although I would argue that it’s always healthy to feel something. Unpleasant sure, but always healthy. Sometimes it’s part of a response to grief and trauma. Sometimes it’s from fatigue. Sometimes it just is… 

Depression doesn’t rely on reality to exist. 

Here is the common definition of depression: Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.

Depression holds you still while it pushes you down.

Heather B. Armstrong is a New York Times bestselling author and blogger and in 2019 wrote “The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live.” Published by Gallery Books. She is also the founder of the website “dooce.” Her story is remarkable. Armstrong gives an anecdotal definition of depression that is powerful: “Depression extinguishes our purpose in life – the purpose of anything in our lives – making it quite literally impossible to handle anything. Every day and hour and minute is an obstacle course of things we are supposed to handle; most people do so without any effort, but we can’t even see around the first corner. And so we collapse. Or we sleep for days on end. Or we yell at people who don’t deserve it.”

I have no idea how long I have actually struggled with depression and anxiety. I have no idea what healthy levels of each would look like for the average person. I have no idea what they would look like for me. There is a tremendous amount of time dedicated to affixing labels onto people and symptoms. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing wholesale. I am saying that there is this temptation to pathologize what we call negative emotions. At the same time, we expect the arrival of positive emotions as if we deserve them, instead of having to earn them. The reality is that our emotions are there for a reason, they are ours for a reason and the only real way to assess how we are impacted by them is to assess our level of functioning and the state of our meaningful relationships. As clinicians we have two reliable scales available to us, The GAF – Global Assessment of Functioning, and the WHO Disability Assessment Scale 2.0. Which assessment a clinician would use largely depends on where and when they were trained. I can tell you that assessing a client’s level of functioning has become second nature for me as an experienced therapist. Assessing my own level of functioning? That is a different story altogether. 

The healthier you get the more creative depression gets.

It’s 4:30 am. I lay in bed and my eyes open. Not slowly but quickly. I blame some piece of ambient bright light that breaks into our bedroom from who knows where. I remain still and look straight up at the ceiling. This is how my depression picks a fight with me. This is where I am vulnerable. Not weak. Vulnerable. I have four amazing children from 2 years old to almost 20. I immediately wonder how they’re doing. Are they sleeping peacefully, are they okay? That line of thinking is interrupted by thoughts of my lovely wife. What is her day going to be like? Is she happy? These thoughts first present as worry, even anxiety, but they’re not. They move way too slow. Way to heavy. I then check the baby monitor so I can see my 2-year-old. That only brings awareness, not relief, because I then have to wonder if my other two children are even in the house? I have 50/50 custody of my 13-year-old son and my 17-year-old daughter. It is not something you ever get used to. It’s unnatural. It doesn’t matter what I know when I go to sleep, when I wake up the depressed delirium of being a post-divorce non-custodial parent always wins. I don’t have the luxury of having baby monitors in their rooms, although I would give anything for that peace of mind. So I only know who is where when my senses return and reality emerges. My 19-year-old daughter lives in Austin, Texas and I can only hope, in that early morning moment, that she is safe and okay. I feel heavier in the bed. My mid-section seems to sink faster as if I’m being swallowed. This initial pattern of thought happens very quickly, yet it seems to move like cold maple syrup. Then everything stressful begins to hover over me like a mothership of despair. Despair tells you that everything is wrong and nothing will improve. All of the stressors in my life become this gelatinous mass with no beginning and no end, no origin or antidote. I become so focused on the mass that it begins to consume me and I’m transformed into this thick batter and all I can do is wait for the waffle iron to clamp down on me. My purpose fades, access to my spirituality fades, desire fades, motivation fades. I think of the love in my life and I feel less than. I feel guilty. I feel found out. I then have to believe lie after lie after lie after lie. That way I remain physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually immobile. This is the struggle, and I know if I ignore the struggle, suffering will follow. I have to remind myself that this is the price that has to be paid for having love in your life. For having precious things to lose. Just telling myself that reduces the weight I feel. 

“Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.” 

― Andrew Solomon, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression”

I awake… I’m flooded… I’m consumed… I sink… I rally… I interrupt… I challenge… I arise… I move… I heal… I love… 

That’s how I win. That’s how you win too.

What is so vexing here is that in these depressive moments reality is of no help. I know that as soon as I get up and get moving I will begin to shake off the dour blueness that peeled my eyes open prematurely. It wasn’t until my earliest 40’s that I even acknowledged anxiety and depression in my life. My therapist asked me once in session, “what are you afraid of?” For a host of reasons that opened the floodgate for me and I will forever be thankful for that moment, because up until that moment the answer was nothing and that answer was valid, accurate, and inaccurate all at the same time. I lived a lifetime without the option of fear or panic and it caught up to me like a runaway train. It caught up to me because I finally had room in my life for healing. Sometimes depression gets the best of me. Sometimes anxiety gets the best of me. Sometimes joyfulness gets the best of me. Sometimes fear gets the best of me. Sometimes, most of the time, happiness and gratitude gets the best of me. Ultimately depression is about loss. The fear of loss. The memory of loss. The anticipation of loss. 

Depression makes all fear permanent and all loss immediate and inevitable.     

This is what depression looks like for me, and it comes in moments. What does it look like for you? I have heard depression described as “drowning, except everyone else around you is able to breath.” Inside the symptoms of depression there is total isolation. A numbness that rivals a foot fast asleep from the weight of one’s body sitting upon it. It’s as if an absence of life befalls you for the duration of the symptoms and all you can do is ghostly wander. When I go to sleep at night I am typically full of gratitude and I daydream myself to sleep. My fight is in the morning. My youngest son is two years old and sleeps in a wooden crib. He sees no value in occupying that sleep cage. From the moment his eyes open, he wants out of bed but his feet just can’t hit the floor. From the moment he began to grow teeth his instincts were to gnaw his way out. His crib is littered with precious attempts to chew his way to freedom. Earnest and desperate teeth marks as an exhibit to what was once his best attempts at just getting out of bed. I don’t know why, when I struggle, I struggle this way.

Depression is like drowning, except everyone else around you is able to breath.

The Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda explains it best, “Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.” 

I regularly have clients in my office who will say that they are worried because they are feeling depressed or full of anxiety. My response is always the same, “well do you have anything in your life to be depressed or worried about?” Depression and anxiety exist for a reason. They are trying to tell you something. A symptom is your friend, I repeat, a symptom is your friend. Now if your functioning is impaired regularly and that persists for two weeks or more, we need to reassess and consider additional levels of care. Different symptoms will cluster around people differently but largely they are similar. Changes in sleep. Increase in agitation. Decrease in activity. Bodily pain associated with inflammation. Feelings of hopelessness and guilt. Lack of concentration. Suicidal thoughts. Thoughts of self-harm. Withdrawal and isolation. Changes in appetite and an increase in fatigue. These are symptoms. They are trying to tell you something. They are simply problems to solve. Difficult problems to say the least, but problems to solve.

Depression does not define you, your response to it does.

Depressive Disorder, which can be a devastating illness. The good news is, it’s treatable. Successful treatment relies heavily on early intervention. Get help. Non-disordered depression is no different. Get help. Lean on people. Have things in your life that work. Populate your life with healthy, genuine, and predictable people. Awareness, support, psychotherapy, medication, lifestyle changes, spiritual practice, meditative practice, and a good ruling out of medical contributors is the treatment plan. It’s a good plan, period. Care enough about yourself to take care of yourself. You matter.

If you think you don’t matter… you do, you matter to me.  

If you know someone who is struggling, do something. Say something. Get involved. There is no line of people behind you who would rather do it. If you are struggling start leaning in some healthy directions. Loved ones, friends, a counselor, support groups, a spiritual leader. I know it’s easier said than done. That’s why I’m saying “just lean.”  

“Because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” 

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Care enough about yourself, to take care of yourself.

Please, just lean.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can also order free publications and other information.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK [8255]) is a United States-based suicide prevention network of 161 crisis centers that provides a 24/7, toll-free hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. After dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the caller is routed to their nearest crisis center to receive immediate counseling and local mental health referrals. The Lifeline supports people who call for themselves or someone they care about.