How can you describe depression to someone?
Shakespeare’s Hamlet had it in act 1:2 and then later in his soliloquy, act 3:1. He was suffering great anxiety and despair at the untimely, nefarious death of his father. He wanted to end his life because of his grief, but the fear of what lay beyond life was unintelligible, not to mention unconscionable in the law or faith of his time.
Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.– Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
How many of us have felt such great despair as to want to end it? Too many. I lost a cousin to his despair only a few years ago. I’ve lost two acquaintances to theirs. I’ve witnessed the suicide of two strangers. My husband saved the life of a homeless man who tried to commit suicide by stepping in front of our moving car.
Despair is everywhere. It surrounds us. It sneaks up on us. It lives in us. But since we all experience it at one time or another, what makes one individual survive it while another gives in? That is the eternal question, one people have tried to answer for eons. People have even come up with medications to attempt to resolve the despair of those who cannot cope. I tried to answer it in an earlier version of this blog. I attempted to give a background to my life and the things that have led to my depression and desire to die. But I couldn’t explain it, at least not in intelligible words that would make you capable of understanding. As much as I could explain my reasons, they do not apply to everyone. People experience their own levels of depression for their own reasons. Sometimes those reasons are so convoluted that they cannot be understood by anyone else.
This is why the depressed don’t share what makes them depressed. Hell, I wrote three pages before I realized that no one would truly get it. It took years of therapy, daily describing my thoughts and feelings no matter how random to try to glean some wisdom and understanding from my therapist. When I left there, he had more understanding than I did, and he helped me to face my future troubles with new perspective.
Slowly and effortlessly, however, new contributions with which I am unable to cope in the last six years have tossed me deeper and deeper into depression again – things over which I have no control. And as the depression sinks in, the likelihood of my having any ability whatsoever to deal with these things lessens and true, deep, Hamlet-style despair sets in. Well, of course, we all know what happened to Hamlet in the end.
Outwardly, however, I seem approachable. I am giddy, silly, intelligent, wise, humorous, creative, and have always a smile on my face. Who would know? Famous children’s poet Shel Silverstein wrote:
Underneath my outside face
There’s a face that none can see.
A little less smiley,
A little less sure,
But a whole lot more like me.
This is why people often don’t recognize depression in others. We hide it. You see, we can’t explain it in a way you’d understand. We want more than anything for someone to listen and to understand and above all to help, but we know that they cannot truly grasp the depth of our despair – that the words of comfort they have to offer are not good enough. In exposing ourselves to them, we open our wounds but find they cannot be healed. It took years for my therapist to grasp my need and help me. What would one conversation with a friend do but grieve the friend? We want to spare you.
Sometimes that despair we feel becomes too much to bear alone – too much to bear at all. We want to reach out. We want to cry out. We want it to be fixed – to go away. But we can’t do it alone and we can’t make you understand, so there is only one option remaining.
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,
’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
Is this a personal cry for help? No. I can’t be helped right now – perhaps ever. Too much needs to change for help to truly find me. But I’ll keep seeking resolutions to my problems; I’ll keep pressing on no matter how hard. I didn’t write this in order to solicit your personal help, (no matter how much you may want to give it), but rather to illustrate that your friends may not be okay – that the threat of suicide lurks where you least expect it, leaving you to wonder what causes loved ones to take their own lives.
Robin Williams took his a few years ago and left the world to wonder at why a wealthy, seemingly happy, benevolent, gracious man with a loving family and dear, close friends would want to end his life. That’s the question those left behind wonder. Could we have prevented it? Why would my dear one leave me like this? It’s impossible for us to understand the pain and despair of another. All we can do is not take for granted that an individual is okay. We must make ourselves available to them. Watch the signs. Encourage. Help in any and every way we can. It might not be enough, but then again it might be just what is needed.
I guarantee I will have friends who are shocked in reading this that I suffer in this way because I have never given an inkling of it. And if I were to take my life in desperation, the questions would abound. Such is the way of it. But they need have no immediate fear because I have something many emotionally vulnerable people don’t have. I have a husband who is resolute in seeing me happy. He stands by me when I lose a job or call into work because I can’t cope with my depression. He rubs my feet when he knows I need that little boost of dopamine to take the edge off. He makes a nice meal for me when he finds I haven’t eaten all day. He encourages me to go out with him when he knows I need a change. He makes it comfortable for me to talk to him about my every thought so that he is only a step behind me. He cannot understand my feelings because I cannot express them fully enough. But he knows my thoughts, my worries, my concerns, my actions, my experiences and he can justify my feelings based on those. I am an open book to him. This wasn’t always so. It took an immense amount of courage to open the pages of my despair to him. I did it out of love for him and out of desperation. You see, I don’t want to die. I want to live! I don’t know how to live, but he helps me.
Years ago I attempted to describe to someone the state of a friend who was so deep in despair she was close to suicide. This someone’s response was, “Why doesn’t she just get over it? When I am sad I just get over it.” I tried to explain further, but this person just couldn’t relate. That’s oftentimes the fear behind sharing what we are experiencing, especially when, as I said earlier, the reasons are so convoluted.
I attempt to liken depression to that point during the grieving process (something most of us can relate to) when you are angry and oh so sad and you’ve heard enough comforting words from people – too much, actually. So you avoid people, or you get testy with them, or you allow them to say to you just one more time, everything will be okay, and you cringe at their words while the anger and sadness over your loss is renewed in you again. How can they understand your feelings? They didn’t know the relationship you had with that person. They don’t comprehend your loss. How can they tell you everything will be okay when you know full well that the loss of this person in your life is not okay?!?
Depression is a related but much greater feeling to that stage of mourning – a hopelessness that cannot be placated with simple words. The people who are in it do not want to be there, but they are overwhelmed by the impossibility of their situation and their inability to deal with it. So if you simply say, “Everything will be okay,” you’ll find it could hurt more than help. It’s like telling them you understand when they are convinced you do not –cannot– understand.
So what can you do?
First, remember that what your friend is experiencing is not simple sadness. It is deep tragedy, intense grief. Then, think back to my husband. His gentleness. His desire to bring me small joys – a foot rub, a meal, getting me out of the house. I’m not saying your friends need a foot rub, but they might need a boost of dopamine in the form of something that brings them joy. Laugh with them. Give them a reason to laugh, reminding them of some of the joys in life they have temporarily forgotten. Don’t give up on them. Don’t ignore them. Don’t worry over them. Don’t smother them. Don’t try to fix their problems. Just be present and ready to save a life through your love. Be available. Listen. Learn. Love. Leave nothing to regret.
A final note.
If you are depressed, please do one thing: talk to someone. Open yourself up to someone you trust (or a therapist), showing each and every page of your despair. Do it without expectation. It will take all of your bravery and you will likely have to muster that bravery each and every time. But do it. Don’t close yourself off. People love you. Do it for them. Do it for you.
a tiny voice