As I lay down, I feel the cold breath of despair wash heavily over me. Sleep invites me towards it–a welcome escape from the noisy crowd in my head and the heavy weight pressing down on my chest and stomach. My body involuntarily curls up, taking on the characteristics of an unborn child, totally dependent on someone else to provide its every need. But I can feel my umbilical cord twisting and tangling. Life itself is draining from me. Perhaps I am already asleep and this is a dream. I desperately try to wake up, but the more I try the more I realise this is my reality. Now I must sleep to escape its cold, hard stare. My soul–shrivelling, dry, lifeless. My essence–vanishing. Disappearing inside myself. All that remains is a broken shell.
My first encounter with clinical depression was the most terrifying experience of my life. The term ‘depression’ is misleading to many, after all, we’ve all felt down, sad or ‘depressed’ at some stage and managed to get over it. How bad can it really be? In fact, mild depression bears very little resemblance to severe, clinical depression. In its most virulent form, depression is dark, terrifying, paralysing and potentially deadly. It’s more than just feeling sad or blue. Clinical depression is the darkest possible shade of blue–the shade that teeters on the edge of total blackness.
According to the World Health Organisation, depression may soon be a major disabling illness worldwide. Around one in five women and one in eight men will personally experience depression at some stage in their lives. Even more disturbing is the fact that children are now increasingly diagnosed with depression. And it’s estimated that up to one half of sufferers don’t seek help.
Despite what is known about this condition, there is still a huge stigma attached. Not only is the sufferer ashamed of their condition, their shame is perpetuated by society’s profound lack of understanding. Along with their shame, they often feel they are sinking into the quicksand of madness. And the fear of madness can be worse than the fear of death.
So where does this severe form of depression come from? There are no definite answers but there seem to be countless influences on depression, ranging from religious beliefs to weather changes. Some of us are genetically predisposed to depression with evidence showing that more than one half of a person’s vulnerability is in their genes. A person with a sibling or parent with severe depression is more than twice at risk, with that risk increasing to about five times if that relative fell victim before the age of twenty.
There are certain life events that trigger around two thirds of depressive episodes. The other one third of episodes appear to come from nowhere. No matter the risks or causes, no-one is immune.
It is, without doubt, an illness inconceivable by anyone who has not found themselves in its terrifying grip–a frightening and paralysing despair, bordering on madness. To many, suicide is the only escape; ultimate victory comes at a supreme price and a tragic loss to loved ones.
What is it like to find oneself in the depths of severe depression? Many, in their efforts to describe it in words, have found even their best attempts to be lacking. Throughout history, philosophers, writers and poets have attempted to portray the dark terrors of the most severe form of depression. They have found that the ‘indescribable’ can only be depicted through the metaphor. It was Winston Churchill’s ‘black dog”,Julia Kristeva’s ‘black sun’, William Styron’s ‘darkness visible’, and John Milton’s ‘cascading darkness’. Emily Dickinson’s eloquent description of a depressive breakdown in I Felt a Funeral in my Brain is packed with metaphors. Marie Cardinal in her autobiographical novel, The Words to Say it, gives a poignantly honest and descriptive portrayal of her long struggle with clinical depression which she calls the ‘Thing’. Then between the metaphors, writers carefully place the subtle gaps and silences, containing that which is ultimately inconceivable. There are no words to describe it, only concepts that come together to give the reader a glimpse of what it might be like.
The depressed desperately need to be understood, but to have personally experienced the suffering of depression is the only way to truly know and understand. The support of family and close friends is also vital but how do they help someone whose illness is inconceivable and whose behaviour is misunderstood?
The depressed person is already carrying an unimaginable weight of shame, guilt and self-condemnation. Their illness is neither of their choosing, nor is it their fault. It is a serious and almost inexplicable illness, often more frightening than death itself. Sufferers of depression need as much love and support as does a cancer sufferer. Please don’t be hard on them. Avoid telling them to pick themselves up and get over it. To do that is paramount to telling an epileptic to take control during a fit.
The depressed need their loved ones to love them unconditionally and forgive them for their mistakes. The world of the depressed is dark and unimaginably terrifying, but even the tiniest flicker of light can guide them out of their world of darkness.