“What idiot called it’depression’ and not ‘there are bats living in my chest and they take up a lot of room’, ps. I see a shadow.” – Melissa Broder, poet
“Reasons to Stay Alive”, by Matt Haig, struck a chord with me. In fact, it struck so many chords, it practically played a whole aria in my head. This post is double the usual length of my posts, but it is mainly made of Matt Haig’s words (all the stuff in italics) rather than mine. (In fact, I recommend that you stop reading this post, and go read the book instead. These are the words that spoke to me, but I don’t know which words will speak to you.)
There was, in fact, too much material for one post. I’ll probably be posting from this book for weeks to come. Why do I quote so much of the book? As Haig points out, the experience of depression is extremely personal. So these words may not exactly describe my personal experience. But I empathize with every one of them.
Maybe you have read this all before. But I have never seen it said in quite this way, in these words. It’s only words. But words, spoken or written, help.
Let me say that I read this book (and wrote this post) while I was not actively depressed.(“Not actively depressed” — I am grateful every time I get to say those words. I am grateful to be able to feel grateful.) So I’m not quite sure how you’ll feel if you read it while depressed. But I would hope that you’ll feel a tiny bit better.
Haig writes about this own experience with major depression and anxiety. He intersperses chapters of tales from his life, with short essays about depression. The effect is… something else.
First, there is the way he describes depression, putting into words what cannot be put into words. Lucid. Staggering.
[Explaining depression] is like explaining life on earth to an alien. The reference points just aren’t there. You have to resort to metaphors. You are trapped in a tunnel. You are at the bottom of the ocean. It is mysterious even to those who suffer from it.
I have compared depression to chronic back pain before. But Haig points out the difference. If you have a bad back you can say “my back is killing me”, and there will be a kind of separation between the pain and the self. The pain is something other. It attacks and annoys and even eats away at the self but it is still not the self. But with depression and anxiety the pain isn’t something you think about because it is thought.
We use “depressed” as a synonym for “sad”, which is fine, as we use “starving” as a synonym for “hungry”, though the difference between depression and sadness is the difference between genuine starvation and feeling a bit peckish.
The weird thing about depression is that, even though you might have more suicidal thoughts, the fear of death remains the same. The only difference is that the pain of life has rapidly increased. So when you hear about someone killing themselves it’s important to know that death wasn’t any less scary for them. It wasn’t a “choice” in the moral sense. To be moralistic about it is to misunderstand.
Then, there are the words that help you peek into the life of someone who suffers from depression.
At its worst you find yourself wishing, desperately, for any other affliction, any physical pain, because the mind is infinite, and its torments — when they happen — can be equally infinite.
You can be a depressive and be happy, just as you can be a sober alcoholic.
If you have ever believed that a depressive wants to be happy, you are wrong. They could not care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain.
You don’t have a second. You don’t have a single waking second outside of the fear. That is not an exaggeration. You crave a moment, a single second of not being terrified, and the moment never comes. The illness you have isn’t the illness of a single body part, something you can think outside of.
There is his own experience…
I wanted to be dead. No. That’s not quite right. I just didn’t want to be alive. Death was something that scared me. And death only happens to people who have been living. There were infinitely more people who had never been alive. I wanted to be one of those people. That old classic wish. To never have been born. To have been one of the three hundred million sperms that didn’t make it.
I remember once shouting angrily at my mother, “The worst thing you have ever done to me is giving birth to me! I never asked to be born! You did this to me.”
I could not cope with the relentless self-torment any more than I could cope with my hand on a hot stove when I could see buckets of ice all around me. Just the sheer exhaustion of never being able to find mental comfort. Of every positive thought reaching a cul-de-sac before it starts.
I stacked the [good] days up like Jenga blocks, imagining I was making progress, and then — crash — along would come a five-hour panic attack or a day of total apocalyptic darkness, and those Jenga days would topple back down again.
(It’s a weird thing, depression. Even now, writing this at a good distance of fourteen years from my lowest point, I haven’t escaped. You get over it, but at the same time, you never get over it. It comes back in flashes, when you are tired or anxious or have been eating the wrong stuff, and catches you off guard. …)
And there are his unique coping mechanisms…
The concept of a “bank of bad days”: Well, this feels bad, but there have been worse. And even when you can think of no worse day — when the one you are living is the very worst there has ever been — you at least know you are banking a day.
There are statistics…
One in five people gets depression at some point in their life. (Though obviously more than that will suffer from a mental illness.)
Incidentally, I have quoted this statistic before, but I don’t know what percentage have chronic depression. The kind that comes and goes, and when you come up from the cold tumultuous relentless waves in that ocean for a breath, you dread the second it will drag you under again.
Suicide is now […] a leading cause of death, accounting for over one in a hundred fatalities. According to the World Health Organization, it kills more people that stomach cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s. As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planer. It kills more people than other forms of violence — warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime — put together.
Think of that. Just let that sink in.
And there is philosophy…
It turns out that we are not only made of the universe, of “star-stuff” , to borrow Carl Sagan’s phrase, but we are as vast and complicated as it too […] The price for being the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness.
And finally, there is hope.
Depression is also… Smaller than you. Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing over the sky, but — if that is the metaphor — you are the sky. You were there before it. And the cloud cannot exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.
“Reasons to Stay Alive” is a remarkable book. Perhaps even life-changing. Read it.