I think one of the symptoms that is most core to the experience of depression is the state of feeling lost. Depression strips you of your life compass. You don’t know which way is up or down. Your brain starts to play tricks on you and begins to feel sick, as any other organ in your body might. When depressed, you second guess, you doubt, you unravel. Mental illness is, at its core, an unraveling. But it is not an unraveling that is beyond repair.
Before we get to the repair part, a few more words on the unraveling. Having depression is like descending a maze of rickety, wobbling staircases. On bad days the staircase you’re on is steep, and the paint is chipping off, and the railings are on the verge of crumbling. Down, down, down you go on the staircase, into darkness. Eventually, you can’t see anything, and you’re reaching out, hoping someone will grab your hand and show you the way. Often you don’t find the hand that pulls you up and out for many months – sometimes years, if severe.
In the beginning, it usually takes you a long time even to realize that the stairs and the darkness have a name: d-e-p-r-e-s-s-i-o-n. All you know on your first few trips down there is that everything sucks and you’re just plain irritable – all. the. time. You’re not sure why, and neither are the people around you. Something usually distracts you enough that you find your way out of the maze. But as soon as something external triggers it again, you’re back underground.
So you’re down there, fumbling around in the darkness looking for the light switch. You don’t hear anyone else down there, so you scale the walls in the dark, into different rooms and corners, hoping for some light down there to illuminate the darkness. You don’t know when the dark rooms and rickety staircases will end. You don’t know how to get your feet back on solid ground. You lose your ability to help yourself. You don’t know what you need, and you’re too shut down and isolated and ashamed and brain-backwards that asking for help doesn’t even cross your mind.
When you’re down there in the depths of it, you start to notice the unique shape of each room and the texture of the walls. You begin to notice and name the rooms – one is named Guilt, the other Rumination, the other Indecisiveness. Or Apathy, Hopelessness, Isolation… Another is named Self-Contempt, and that’s the one you spend a lot of time in. You think you are the one to blame, so shame and guilt become your friends. But you’re lost and it’s dark and all you want to find is the room named RELIEF. The more you demand relief and rest everything holy upon that deliverance, and the longer it doesn’t come, the worse the depression gets. You desperately try and figure out how you got down there, thinking that answers will solve it, but the answers seem foggy and out of reach. Making sense of things does not come quickly in the dark.
But while there, you also begin to learn strategies for coping. You learn how to make your way around the rooms and the stairs and the corners as best you can without your sight. Things feel wobbly, but you learn to live with the unsteadiness. You learn to exercise, for example. Come hell or high water, you will move, because the alternative’s of insomnia, restlessness, further depression, or panic attacks are so much worse than the workout itself. You learn that you need to hang out with friends and engage the world even when you don’t want to. You also begin to become more familiar with the warning signs of descent – waking up at 4 am and being up for hours, losing interest in activities you usually love – and you begin to practice what you need to practice when you notice those warning signs.
And sometimes, instead of focusing on how lost you are, how much you hate the darkness, and how badly you want relief, the best solution is to be patient with the darkness. To surrender to it enough to find out what there is to be learned down there at the bottom of the staircase so that you can emerge stronger. In this surrender, and with some help and guidance, you can begin the process of repair. You take out your hammer and nails and patch up the loose boards on the stairs that got you there in the first place. On good days, you start climbing a more stable staircase and finally feel the weight and steadiness of the floor below you. You gradually begin to regain your ability to feel joy, to think positively, and to be ok with yourself. You begin to learn what helped you get back on solid ground, so you can practice that again the next time you find yourself underground.
I do believe there is a purpose to the time spent underground, to this beast called depression. Sometimes our depression is trying to communicate something to us that we might not be ready to see or able to cope with yet. Or perhaps it is protecting us from painful feelings of anger or sadness. (Although these suggestions do not capture the entirety of depression’s complexities, by any means.) As Tan and Ortberg put it in their book Coping With Depression, “depression is a process that can be productive or unproductive.” You might even emerge afterward functioning more effectively. So, sometimes your job is to be open to depression’s message, even though it seems to be coming through in toxic hieroglyphics. Depression is no doubt a painful, harmful, and in many ways, I believe, downright evil experience of suffering. But it is not one beyond the reach of redemption and purpose.
**If this article feels true to your experience, you might be experiencing symptoms of depression. If you feel beyond the reach of hope, or if you are so used to this brain-sickness that it has become your new “normal,” please reach out to your loved ones and/or a professional counselor. You are not beyond hope, even if stepping into change feels scary. **
Written By: Virginia Hood, Counselor (NCC/LPCC)
To connect with Virginia, or to learn more about her private practice, visit virginiahoodcounseling.com