Writers Describe How Depression Feels

depression stock photo

I was first diagnosed with depression in my early 20s. In truth, I’d probably experienced the symptoms years before, but the diagnosis came about when I was working a highly visible, pressure-cooker job as a TV news anchor and reporter. I found it increasingly harder to be “on” when I needed to be, to get out of bed every day and keep a professional smile while doing stressful work under intense public scrutiny. So I sought help and got it.

KPIC 1990

Me, putting on my brave face, but depressed as hell.

Hearing the diagnosis – and hearing there were medications and other treatments proven to help – lifted me immediately. I called the doctor the next morning and said I thought the medications were already helping. He assured me they don’t work that quickly, but if there was some combined placebo effect with the relief of knowing I would soon feel better, that was great news too.

As writers tend to do with profound life moments, I brought my experience to the page. I did a week-long series of reports on depression and revealed my own experience. Some people thought I was oversharing and warned I might be sorry for going public. I never was. When appreciative feedback came in from viewers, I knew I’d made the right decision.

My only fear was that it would become my identity – that people would think of my depression when they thought of me or my work. That didn’t happen, either. My last day on air, when the news team did a tribute, the depression thing didn’t even make the cut. So there’s that. Speak up. It’ll be okay.

Back then, it was highly unusual to talk about depression. Today is different, though possibly no less scary. There’s still a stigma to overcome. You have a problem with your thyroid or bowels or plantar fascia or carpal bones? Talk it up! A problem with your brain? Eek. Talk about that and people might think you’re broken.

It’s probably no coincidence that writers are often the people to push through the stigma and describe depression in a public way. Why writers? I don’t know. Our ability to put experience to words? A function of the kind of interior life that leads one to write in the first place? A proclivity for navel-gazing?

Some still write anonymously when they can, like the woman who’s been tweeting as “So Sad Today” since 2012. She’s since been more public about her identity, but started initially with a keen interest in avoiding possible judgment while sharing thoughts like, “trying to act normal feels lonely,” and “is gravity getting heavier.”

Writer Tim Lott shared in The Guardian that depression for him feels like, “There is a heavy, leaden feeling in your chest, rather as when someone you love dearly has died; but no one has – except, perhaps, you.”

David Foster Wallace famously shared that his depression felt like severe nausea in every cell of his body. It’s being trapped in that moment before throwing up, the unbearable full-body sickness, but the vomiting never comes. Like other depressives, he knew the non-depressed had no capacity to fully understand it. A severely depressed person who chooses suicide, he wrote, is like the desperate person who jumps from a burning high rise. The fall is still terrifying, but it becomes slightly less terrifying than the flames. So “nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

Wallace eventually jumped from the flames too, joining the legions of famous writers whose brains ultimately murdered them.

Other writers from Stephen King to Mark Twain and Sylvia Plath are known to have struggled with depression. This perplexing and mysterious illness has been around us forever, and still we understand so little. Experts still debate whether depression is a physical illness, brought by faulty brain chemistry, or a strictly emotional illness, arising out of faulty thought habits. Famous thinkers and writers offer a clue to this question as well: most, like Twain, came from families that contributed both the social and biological ingredients: both nature and nurture.

Whatever the cause, no matter how mysterious, we know that this disease resided in some of the most brilliant and influential minds ever to put pen to paper. People who write – people both famous and unknown – can describe depression in all of its nuanced shades of black and gray.

For me: depression is a heavy, cold clay encasing my body. My eyelids and facial muscles are harder to move, my limbs are heavy, and all is futile. Effort, hope, plans become folly, as I’m convinced they’re powerless to add meaning to the utter absurdity of life.

To my brilliant writerly friend: depression is a continuous tape loop of negative messages going around and around and around in her brain. You’re not meant to be here. You’ll never be good enough. You’re a fraud.

For Margaret Atwood: “I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead.”

To JK Rowling: “It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope.”

To Jonathan Franzen: (the description most similar to my own experience) “Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is merely a mask for depression’s actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity.”

As detailed as these descriptions may be, depression likely always will be a deep mystery to the non-sufferers. To my one blood relative who likely has never experienced depression: “Maybe you should just eat a nice piece of fruit and you’ll feel better.” To those who would throw peaches as life-preservers into our stormy tides: go back to your happy place, please. Leave the dark stuff to the experts.

But to those who have tread water in those stormy seas, take heart. The essence, in Franzen’s words, of the “overwhelming estrangement from humanity” is a brain glitch. It’s a lie. There is good company in those dark waters. Reach out. They’re there.




How to Remember Harambe


As with so many issues in our public sphere these days, there’s no lack of outrage over the death of Harambe, the 17-year-old gorilla shot to death after a four-year-old boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Well, good. There should be outrage.

But, as with so many issues that inspire outrage these days, the rage may amount to nothing more than a spasm of public fit-throwing and agenda-pushing, unless we carefully channel this anger into something useful.

This tragedy reminds me of a wrongful killing that happened years ago when I was board president of a large animal shelter. A German Shepherd-type dog was admitted to the shelter. His people were located and they were coming to get him. In a nearby kennel there was a very similar shepherd-type dog, but his people weren’t coming to get him. He was slated for euthanasia. But, on the morning of the euthanasia, a confused staff person grabbed the wrong dog. They killed the dog whose family was enroute to get him.

There was a terrible uproar and it was an excruciating time for everyone involved. The family contacted the media and the shelter spent a couple of weeks under an angry spotlight. None of us slept much, and when I was lying awake I was, of course, grieving for the dogs involved, for the people who lost their dog, for the poor staff person who had made that mistake. And I also wondered what a brilliant public relations mind could do to help shape this narrative.

The question was this: how can we use this anger? You would think I’d want the public to stop being angry, since their anger was directed at the shelter. But who would want to  live in a community where people didn’t get angry about a thing like this? I wanted them to be angry, damned mad, in fact.  And I wanted their angry gaze to last long enough for them to connect the pieces.

At the time (though thankfully these days are long gone) the shelter euthanized several thousand dogs and cats a year, and nobody seemed to mind much. The public continued to bring their animals to the shelter’s front door, about 12,000 times a year, 1,000 times a month, 230 times a week, and leave their dogs and cats to this potential fate. The public seemed okay with this reality as long as it happened in a building on the edge of town where underpaid nonprofit employees accepted the community’s burden and kept quiet about it. Statistics showed the community as a whole had some of the nation’s lowest rates of charitable giving. People were contributing 12,000 animals a year to the problem, and alarmingly little to the solution.

The outrage over the one dead dog is like the public outpouring of concern for the occasional cow who escapes a truck on the way to slaughter, or like the current communal roar of grief over Harambe. Our challenge as advocates is to capture that anger, maybe to fan its flames just enough, and then to show the angry mobs what’s behind curtain #2.

Let the martyred animal become an ambassador. Let his memory speak for the untold others who have no voice.

Leaders are trying to do this in the wake of Harambe’s death. Captain Paul Watson from Greenpeace issued a commentary condemning the humans who contributed to every level of the tragedy: the careless mother, the “gawkers” at the zoo who kept screaming and elevating the hysteria, the zookeepers who should have seen Harambe’s gentleness and concern but rewarded it with a bullet. Ultimately, Watson writes, Harambe belonged in the lowland jungles of Africa, not in a zoo. And now a child will have to live with having witnessed the tragic death of the gentle giant who held his hand.

In contrast, my friend Wayne Pacelle of The Humane Society of the United States wrote a blog post with less emotion and a stiff shot of his characteristic philosophical eloquence. Rather than debate the rare crisis scenario that makes for good conversation (Would you redirect a train to kill three animals but save one human? Would you kill a gorilla to save a child?) let’s focus instead on the daily decision we all make that have even more impact. Perhaps they make for less interesting conversation, but that’s because these are mundane, easy choices.

Would you kill an animal for a meal if there was another perfectly good animal-free meal available to you? Would you kill an animal for a pair of shoes or a purse if there were equally good non-animal ones available? Would you buy products that are tested on animals if the products on the next shelf over are cruelty-free?

The Cincinnati Zoo will remain under the angry hot spotlight for a few days, and then the attention likely will drift to the next distraction or cause for outrage. But what if we were able to do it differently this time? What if we turned the hot spotlight into a broad floodlight and used it to take a good long look at our entire relationship to animals?

There are other gentle giants to save, if only we will look long enough to see them.