Sometimes I try to explain depression with the analogy of back pain. Suppose you have a bad back. You can do lots of things to help it, right? You can form good habits to keep yourself out of crisis. Get up every morning, work out enough to keep the core muscles tight without straining your back. Practice good ergonomics. Don’t wear heels that are too high or carry your purse on just one shoulder. Bend your knees when you pick up something. It’s just the same with your mind. Keep it engaged, but don’t overdo things. Practice meditation. Don’t shut yourself off from the world, but don’t overshare either. Develop routines that keep you grounded.
Maybe your back hurts badly enough that your workout routine just isn’t holding it together. Then you go and see a physical therapist. Your therapist will show you specific exercises targeted to your problem, often performed using special equipment. You probably have to go back regularly, maybe several times a week for a while. When you have any sort of psychological issue to work through, you have to build a relationship with a good therapist first. They are all different, and you have to go through the painful process of baring your soul (kind of) to one after another until you find one right for you (kind of). It’s almost fashionable to have one, at least in a city like New York, and with the prices they charge (mostly uncovered by insurance), it can feel like a luxury. But it is more of a necessity than food sometimes.
Then there’s full-on crisis mode. I mean, if there’s shrapnel stuck in your spine, no exercise is going to ease the pain, is it? Taking medication for the pain inside your brain feels like the biggest defeat of all. You tell yourself it’s like insulin for diabetes. But the truth, as researcher Brene Brown states in her well-known TED talk about vulnerability, is that we cannot numb fear, shame and unhappiness, without also numbing their positive counterparts. If you have respect for your own feelings, or if you just want to not think of yourself as someone with an illness rather than a temporary problem, you’ll resist medication. Until the clawing pain leads you to surrender. To accept. To go through the agony of finding the right psychiatrist, the right drug, the right dosage. And finally, when everything is in balance, you’ll wake up one morning and see the sunshine, and think, is this what “normal” people feel like every day? That moment won’t last, but you will have experienced it. And the next time you find it unbearable to contemplate another five years of your own existence, you will remember that you experienced it. You will put five years, or fifty, out of your head, and focus on the next five minutes. You will live.