I spend a lot of time struggling with how to describe what depression feels like. Partly because I’m a writer and partly because I want my loved ones to understand me, I’m constantly trying to find the perfect explanation. I feel as though I’ve come close using darkness as imagery and trying to build on what people understand about sadness and grief.
Gabe Howard is a professional speaker, award-winning writer, and activist who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. Diagnosed in 2003, he has made it his mission to put a human face on mental illness. He is the recipient of the 2014 Mental Health America Norman Guitry Award, placed second in HealthCentral’s LiveBold competition, was a 2015 WEGO Health Awards Finalist in the Health Activist Category, as well as received a Best of the Web – Blog award.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
I’m always left wanting, though. The intended audience appears to have some level of sympathy, but I never really feel like they have any understanding.
Sympathy Toward Depression vs. Understanding
Once, during a speech, I told the audience that feeling heavy, hopeless, and alone isn’t even the halfway point of a depressive episode. Even though all of those things feel horrifying, they are still feelings. Being able to feel that suffering meant I was still able to feel something. Even though what I was feeling was painful and terrifying, it still meant I had a connection with my humanity.
The true horror of depression isn’t in feeling bad; it’s in not feeling anything at all. That level of suffering isn’t caused by being taken to a dark place. It’s caused by realizing that my mind is the dark place.
Becoming aware that my torment was internal was more than my fragile mind could handle and that’s when the real trauma began. I had mistakenly believed my suffering to be caused by an external force – something outside of myself. I was left trying to wrap my broken brain around the idea that the same mind I had to use to find an escape from the pain was the very same mind causing my misery.
It’s the equivalent of trying to use a broken tool to fix itself. It quickly became nonsense that demoralized me and the end result left me apathetic and unemotional. My deepest depression leaves me practically oblivious to my own consciousness.
When I finished speaking, I looked at the audience and many people had tears in their eyes. I was so pleased because I thought I had finally made people understand depression.
After the speech, many people came and hugged me and told me how sorry they were that I had to go through such a horrible ordeal. I realized, then, that they still didn’t understand depression – but they did now have sympathy for what I had gone through.
And maybe that’s okay.
In some ways, understanding is overrated. Just because someone understands something doesn’t mean they care about it. Besides, It’s not really possible to truly understand something unless you’ve experienced it yourself. So, while I do wish people understood what I go through when I’m depressed, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Understanding Depression Isn’t Necessary
To answer the question posed by the title — no. Someone who hasn’t experienced depression can’t understand it. That doesn’t mean people can’t be caring, sympathetic, and compassionate. We don’t need to understand the exact plight of another person to be kind.
While a person without depression may not be able to understand exactly what I go through when I’m depressed, I’m sure they do understand what it’s like to be scared, to suffer, to be lost, and to be alone.
Their understanding may be incomplete, but it’s not non-existent.