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.
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.