Although there are countless creations trying to explain depression in comics, pictures, witty memes, posts, etc, the continuing creation and presence of these items suggests that it’s still misunderstood. And given that time to time I say something about my disorder, or a friend theirs, and we receive common responses ranging from “what do you have to be depressed about” to “I know how to fix that, it’s [“solution”]”, I see exactly why it’s suggested that depression is misunderstood.
And while I tried my best to spew Psychology Student information about depression, I got thinking about what might be a good analogy. Actually I got thinking about it because I have insomnia and you think about all sorts of things trying to go to sleep, but the point is, I thought of at least a decent analogy.
Say that there’s a huge problem in the world with people being cold – and I mean everyone in the world is at risk for being really, freezing to death really, cold, not the ones who actually are cold. Freezing is the worst ailment because you lose all feeling, become completely numb, have a background sensation of suffering, and then if it gets bad enough, you die.
So there’s a problem where people are freezing. And you’re walking along on the street and you’re nice and cozy warm, and encounter someone who is freezing, and they say to you, “Hey, I’m freezing!” and you say to them, “The solution is simple – put on a sweater.”
In this part of the analogy, I think a lot of the breakdown is that people seem to assume they get it already. “Oooh, I see! Depression is where that person doesn’t have a sweater!”
See if freezing is emotional despair, emptiness, all that stuff that is depression, then a sweater is favorable circumstances, good company, enjoyable activities, etc etc. And someone who is depressed may well have a sweater. They may have forty sweaters, all piled on making them look like Randy from A Christmas Story.
And maybe they don’t have a sweater. And all the “I can fix that” solutions people offer to fix depression usually seem to revolve around getting the person a sweater. “Let’s go buy one.” “I’ll make you one.” “You can have mine.” “A blanket works just as well in a pinch.”
But the problem isn’t the sweater.
You see, a sweater isn’t actually warm. It’s insulation. If you put a sweater on a snowman, the snowman wouldn’t melt, because a sweater isn’t warm. As insulation, the sweater would help keep in the cold, and thus a snowman who is wearing a sweater melts more slowly than one who isn’t. (They even did this on a Mythbusters show.) When you say, “A sweater will keep you warm!” the operative word here is “keep” because you, as a living being, generate heat, and the sweater keeps it in.
So when you’re feeling down, you’re generating warmth – happiness, contentedness, the ability to feel, so even anger, fear, sadness, etc – but having a hard time hanging onto it. The heat flows away from you and you feel cold. And when you put on your sweater – your favorable circumstances, good company, comfort food, pleasurable activities, the like – that insulates you, and the heat you generate sticks.
When you’re depressed, you AREN’T generating heat. You have lost the ability to feel. You are numb and cold and dead because you have lost the ability to generate within you happiness, anger, fear, emotions, feelings. So when you put on a sweater, nothing happens. It just insulates the void.
And it can become so severe, this nothingness, this coldness, that you die.
So no matter how many sweaters someone makes or buys for you, lends you, how many blankets make up for your lack of sweater, no matter how hard someone tries to show you the joy of life – the sweater and blankets are all still great, but in the end, there isn’t any heat. The sweaters don’t do anything.
So when I’m in the height of a wave of depression, I’m still wearing my, “I have a pretty great life” sweater. It’s got the knitted knots that are my superb family, the cute buttons that are my house and belongings, the decorative trim that are all the incredible, amazing people that I know, my friends and neighbors, and it even has a hood from all my talents that provide so many things I like to do. It’s thick and packed with love. I’m wearing that sweater, I’m aware of it, and I’m so, so grateful for it.
And I’m still freezing. Because something inside of me is broken. Something inside of me forgot how to feel. Something inside me doesn’t know how to make heat.
Thing is, I still want to be included, I still want to be loved. When you invite me somewhere, I’ll try not to drag anyone down with my depression, and I ask in return if it looks like I’m not having a good time, it’s just that I can’t so much right now, and you just leave it be. Just think of yourself as Pooh and I’m Eeyore. I’m depressed, but since you can’t do anything about it, continuing to be my friend anyway without trying to fix me is the best thing you can do.
The problem is when you look at me and think you can fix the depression and say, “Well come hang out and that’ll make you feel better,” or, “Let’s go get ice cream/pizza,” or, “Why don’t we watch a movie/go for a walk/read a book/play some games,” or, “Just count your blessings!” or, “Do something productive like do chores or work on your new garden!” or, or, or – what you’re saying is, “Here, put on this sweater.”