Wednesday, September 5, 2012

If you could see how I feel and depression metaphors from the nondepressed

Yesterday was my first day back at university.  School is good for me, I get structure, and human contact, I can actually have my sense of humor active, and people laugh, and generally speaking things go well.  And then the responsibilities of actually getting the work done come to bear and that sometimes ends in abject failure, but aside from that school tends to be good for me.

Anyway, in one of my classes it started with someone talking about how way her skin looked totally failed to reflect the pain she was in.  Depression often seems to be like that, it's invisible (like all mental illnesses) so it doesn't get the respect of something visible.

It makes me think of when I sprained my ankle badly and needed crutches.  There was no cast to weigh me down, and the crutches did their job admirably, and the end result was that I wasn't disabled at all.  With the exception of very specific things that I never needed to do anyway (e.g. hop up and down on my right foot, carry heavy things for great distances in my hands instead of my backback) there was nothing I couldn't do with one good leg and crutches that I could do with two good legs.  And yet, the crutches, a visible symbol of injury, made it so that everyone was ready and willing to make accommodations for me and wasn't about to dismiss my medical problem as not mattering.

Yet depression, something much more debilitating than a badly sprained ankle, and something that's been going on for more than ten years as opposed to the quickly healed ankle, does not get recognition as a serious problem, does not get respect or accommodation from most people, and does get dismissed all the time.

There is a certain desire that mental problems could be somehow visible, that people could see how I feel and thus know how seriously they're underestimating it.  And not just mental problems, all invisible problems.  Traumatic experiences, for example.  Ana Mardoll has discussed this desire a few times, most recently here:
there are times -- sometimes very long stretches of time -- where you feel that your closest friends and family genuinely do not and cannot understand what you've been through. And then you feel guilty for being hurt and angry about that, because really, do you want your friends and family to understand? Wouldn't that traumatize them, too? Yes, it would. But no, that doesn't make you bad for wanting them to understand regardless. It makes you a person.
It is possible that people without will never truly understand what people with have been through/are going through, but there is a vast gulf between totally ignorant and understand to the point of being traumatized, and so attempts are made to give some level of understanding.

And discussions like this often come from the direction of what people with the problem might say to give people without it some inkling.  I don't know how well those attempts work, though I would like to highlight Lonespark's "Invisible Staircase" metaphor as an important thing anyone depressed or non depressed should read.  If you're not depressed it'll bring you closer to understanding.  If you are depressed it may well give you the words to describe something you've previously been unable to communicate.

Also the thing from Shakesville about turning the key but not having the ignition start is good, in my opinion.


But the other thing that makes coming back to school a good thing is that it reconnects me with a teacher/friend who seems to be better able to respond to what I've been going through than people who have known me my whole life.  Probably the only offline non-professional I know who seems to understand, and she also seems able to help, though I'm not sure if she's aware of that.

When I approached her at the end of one semester, down and ashamed because I had to request an incomplete on the grounds that my brain wasn't working, I'd fail any test and there was no way I could write a paper, she understood, she granted the incomplete (which gave me a full extra semester to get it together) and managed to make me leave the conversation feeling energized, positive, and hopeful.  There are not words to describe how impressive that is.

As far as I know she's never suffered from depression, so where does her, in my experience, uncommon understanding of and respect for the very real problem that it can be come from?  Well, I was operating under the assumption that's just the way she was, but yesterday she told me how she got that way and it took effort on her part.

She recognizes that mental health problems tend to be underestimated in a way physical health problems aren't.  At some point she recognized that she was not immune to this.  So now she makes a conscious effort to think of mental health problems like physical health problems.  Would one be dismissive of a chronic physical illness (unfortunately, for some people, yes; but for her: no) so one shouldn't be dismissive of a chronic mental illness.

I believe she said, "You wouldn't tell someone with cancer to just get over it."

And for her, that works.  It works incredibly well.

Does she understand what it's like to be depressed?  Probably not.  Does she respond to depression in others in a way that is respectful and helpful?  Yes.


That's a direction I hadn't really thought about before.  When trying to explain depression it makes sense to think of it as how depressed people explain what they're going through to non depressed people.  I have never really put much thought into how non-depressed people explain to themselves how to think about depression.

My teacher and friend provided one example.

So to non-depressed people in my audience (do I even have any?) what has worked for you to get a better grip on how to respond to depression in others?  Are there specific metaphors you use to make sense of it in your own mind?


  1. So to non-depressed people in my audience (do I even have any?)

    You do. I've said so in the past.

    This bit from the Shakesville post struck a chord:

    I am fully capable of sitting for hours, thinking periodically, "I need to pee," then, "I really need to pee," and eventually, "Damn, I need to pee," before being able to jump start the part of my brain which engages with the task of getting up and walking the ten feet to the bathroom, and initiates the movement which allows me to do that.

    Because I have had this exact thing happen to me. It happens to me rarely (maybe once every year or two) and for short periods (a few hours*), when I've contracted a flu. Getting through each day would indeed be heroic for someone stuck like that.

    *Which is to say, short enough that for pretty much everything except peeing, "wait until this goes away before doing it" is a reasonable and workable plan.

    1. You do. I've said so in the past.

      My memory is sort of crap. Sorry.

      This bit from the Shakesville post struck a chord:

      When I manage to stay hydrated (the same sort of thing tends to apply to getting up and getting a drink so it takes planning to get enough water) that bit from Shakesville describes a typical morning. When I fail to stay hydrated the plus side is not having that problem, but that comes with needing to find something else to get me out of bed, which can (though, thankfully, usually doesn't) take hours.

      For whatever reason, my body doesn't seem to realize that there should be an area where one is neither dehydrated nor having to go pee all the time. I have noticed that other people do not seem to have that problem, I have envy in their general direction.

  2. OMG! Chris the Cynic highlighted my comment! I feel famous and awesome and I shall fangirl about all night.

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