Revisiting this topic on the anniversary of Robin Williams’s passing.
It’s taken me quite a long while to get this post together, so please bear with me.
At the time I wrote the original piece, I didn’t even think that this is the caliber of impact that that post would have. I speak of the long treatise on talking about depression, linked here.
I don’t even remember how I came up with the analogy the first time, but let’s talk about the condition of depression as a coat.
Let’s make this an exercise. Look into your closet. Look at the heaviest possible coat that you have. Feel free to even put it on for a moment, just so you know how the weight of it feels.
Now imagine that it’s alive. Imagine that it has a purpose, and its purpose is to break you. Imagine that it’s heavy, heavier than lead, heavier than the protective lead blanket you get when you’re X-rayed at the doctor’s office. Imagine that its sleeves are so heavy and tough that you won’t be able to lift your arms if you ever put it on. Imagine that this coat can put itself on you – on its own – and button up tightly. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of how you feel on a regular, everyday basis. Regardless of anything you may or may not want. If the coat says, “I’m putting myself on you”, you cease to have a say in the matter.
Now think of the condition of clinical depression as that coat.
Imagine that the coat suddenly ended up on you, and it’s so heavy that you have trouble moving. You’ve worn a heavy coat before. Think back to that moment. Remember how it weighed you down? Remember how it was different to move around, that you weren’t as free as before? Yeah. Exactly like that. But the coat of depression is even heavier than that. It confines you even more than that. You know you can remove it, but you can’t lift your hand to the button to open it, it’s that heavy. You struggle to reach up. You know you need to remove the coat. You know you absolutely have to, that it doesn’t feel right to have something like this on you all the time. You try your damnedest to reach up and unzip it. But you can’t. It’s too heavy.
And that’s what the coat wants.
The collar of the coat interferes with your line of sight and scope of vision, and it covers your ears, so you are also limited in what you can see or hear. Everything you see and hear comes through muffled, as though it’s being blocked out by a thick hood that gets pulled over your eyes.
But that’s what the coat wants. It doesn’t want you to see the world outside its limits, even though you know it exists, and it doesn’t want you to hear anything that might break its grip on you.
The coat weighs you down. It limits you. It pushes you towards the ground, it forces you to fight against it, and it still gets heavier. The more you try to fight it, more so if you do alone, the heavier it feels.
It’s also not a coat that you can take off and put on at will. You wear it when you sleep. You wear it when you go to work. You wear it when you’re out with friends. It’s a coat that all but welds itself onto you, and it does it so well that no one seems to notice that you’re wearing the coat. You want to scream, “Take this coat off me!” but you know – and the coat knows too – that the first thing someone will say is, “What are you talking about?” “What coat?”
You know the coat’s there. The coat knows it’s there. Very few others will ever even be aware that it’s there. But… that’s what it wants.
And eventually you get used to it. Your shoulders, though they ache constantly, will get used to the weight of the coat. Doesn’t mean it’ll hurt less, but you learn to accept the physical aches and pains of it, just as you accept the mental aches and pains of it too. You just don’t have the power that is necessary to fight back against the coat, so you just buck up and keep going, and keep living with it.
But the coat doesn’t stop there.
The coat can get heavier, on its own. Or lighter. You can be lulled into thinking that the worst is over, but in reality, it only just got started. It may feel lighter some days, so you may try more than usual to remove it, but it’s not going to allow you that. Just after you try to lift your hand to at least pull back the hood, you will find that the next day, it will be so heavy that even the thought of attempting to get the coat off is not even close to a viable possibility.
It’s not something that anyone would forget if they were to go through it.
Don’t confuse depression with sadness, or “the blues”. Don’t confuse depression with a reaction to a life event. It’s neither of the above. It’s an insidious condition, partly due to a chemical imbalance and partly genetics, and getting rid of it does, sometimes, take medical intervention. Depression is one of those things that does not at all discriminate. You can have the best life you can imagine, be surrounded by friends, family, have a loving spouse or significant other whom you adore…but it will still find you, and wrap itself around your brain.
Please note that no two people exhibit the same depression symptoms, just as no two people process dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin alike. These are the three main hormones of the human body that determine mood and happiness, and you will find that in depression sufferers, at least one of these hormones is not getting absorbed properly or in the correct amounts, without fail.
In terms of mindset and mental symptoms, it’s not easy to describe what depression feels like. Often, you hear that it’s hopelessness, guilt, overwhelming sadness, loss of interest, and so on. While these things are applicable, there is one thing that goes underneath it all: oppressive, mind-numbing indifference. Even if you have a great life around you, depression just drains the joy out of it. It’s not that everything is gloomy and negative, it’s just devoid of color and the sensations that you would expect from your life ordinarily. It’s not that you don’t want to feel happy, but you’re just plain not capable of it. You want to be as into things as you used to be, as into your activities, hobbies, etc., but instead, you feel like you’re going through the motions without there being any substance in it. You know what it all should feel like, but the problem is… you. just. can’t. feel it. Instead, there’s this numbness that doesn’t really lend itself to any sort of a description.
Oppressive, mind-numbing indifference, none of which is your choosing.
It doesn’t happen overnight. It starts slowly. You sit down with your morning cup of coffee, which you normally love, then pause between sips, and next thing you know, your coffee is cold. You stop and think, It was piping hot a minute ago. You look at the clock: it’s two hours after you first sat down. You think to yourself, Well, gee, I must’ve lost track of time. But you feel no rush to get to work, even if you’re running late. You just don’t care. You just sit there, and think, My coffee’s cold. What happens after that just fades to a level of meh in terms of relevance.
This process takes days, weeks, if not months, before you realize it is robbing you of your life.
You just simply stop giving a damn. Everything around you gets reduced to, “What’s the point?” Cancel plans? Yep. Break a date? Check. Forget to pay bills? Yeah, happens. One thing after another gets pushed to the backburner in the name of what’s the point? and you realize that really, you feel nothing.
And the next thing you know, this stretches on over months, if not years.
Your body begins to respond as though you are, indeed, wearing a coat too heavy for you. Depression symptoms can also extend into physical problems as well. So you may start feeling an ache in your back or shoulders that hasn’t been there before. Your hands, perfectly sound, will feel stiff and achy. You’ll have random headaches that you can’t explain. Your doctor will give you a physical and say, “There’s nothing wrong with you” – possibly so, but those aches and pains have some sort of an explanation, right?
And the fatigue.
It’s often been said that the brain is the first and foremost influence on the body. And when the numbness sets in, you will find yourself psyching yourself up just to get out of bed and up to make your morning coffee. But that takes effort with the coat on. You can’t just get up and make coffee. You actually have to spend time to convince your brain that there’s some benefit in coffee being made; your brain in turn finds that the body won’t just do anything without motivation. Just get out of bed, you tell yourself. Pull back the covers. Put your feet down onto the floor. Push against the bed and stand up. Something that you would do on a daily basis suddenly takes an inordinate amount of effort – not physically, but mentally. And you almost immediately think, when you’re up and standing, I’m so tired…
You just woke up. But you still want to just get back into bed, because facing the rest of the day, and life, is going to take too much of energy that your brain is not capable of allocating at the moment. You just can’t do it. It’s not lack of desire, it’s not that you don’t have things to do, but simply put, you are just. not. able to. You have just spent however much time yourself psyching yourself up into getting out of bed. You just haven’t the energy to keep going and going through the motions of life.
The thing is, the other symptoms of depression are a direct consequence to this indifference. You aren’t capable of giving a damn, so you don’t do what you must, then your subconscious immediately launches into a guilt trip about not doing anything…which hits the indifference and escalates from there. All the symptoms listed in the typical, This is depression narrative are a cascade that results from the oppressive indifference and suppressed emotional spectrum.
While it hardly bears explaining, it needs not be said that mental conditions and any and all conditions that are classed as ‘invisible disability’ will never, ever get the same treatment as physical injuries. You can’t take a leave of absence from work to treat depression or anxiety; you’re pretty much guaranteed to get the weird looks if people will find out that you have a mental condition, and I’m confident that if you do bring up having a mental condition at work, your bosses may think twice about keeping you employed.
But really, it’s not as though you can control it when your brain stops functioning as it should. If your dopamine and serotonin receptors don’t work as they ought to, then is it your fault, or only your brain’s?
People may ask, “What’s the difference?”
There’s a whistling gulf of difference, actually.
One of the greatest misconceptions about depression, anxiety, etc., or any mental condition or disorder, is that all of those conditions are at the choice and control of the sufferer, when it’s the exact and direct opposite. No person is ever truly in control of their brain, but instead, it is their brain that controls the person, and considering that all conscious control that a human being exerts on their thought process is reactive to the subconscious processes coming to the surface, there’s really no way for any one person to be able to say, “I am in full control over what I feel”. No. A person is only in control of how they react to what’s around them, and the feelings are a direct result of both the chemistry within their brains and the reaction thereto. And the insidious part of the control that depression exerts over mood and emotion is that, quite frankly, you cease to react.
And truly, this mentality of “just snap out of it” defies any and all logic; the people who think that a depressed person can just “snap out of it” have never once considered that there is no person on this green earth who would choose this condition. Would any reasonable person choose to not be able to feel? Or do you suppose that they would voluntarily sign up to be so fatigued that their entire body starts going out of whack just because their brain decided that now’s a really good time to play hell with oxytocin absorbption? If you have a misfire in the synapses that suddenly causes your ordinarily level head to spiral into a torrent of anxiety, I have every reason to doubt that it should fall under the category of things that can be controlled.
Truly, if evidenced by the number of asinine “pull yourselves by the bootstraps”-esque commentary that depression sufferers have, it cannot be any more obvious that not one of them had ever stopped to think that there’s no person alive who would take this condition upon their shoulders voluntarily.
Disguising the condition.
If there is anything that Robin Williams’s death had taught us, it is that a carefully crafted smile fools even the most perceptive of people, and that depression is something that has made actors of nearly everyone who had ever experienced it. Because a sufferer doesn’t want to be told to “snap out of it” – even typing it in quotation marks makes my teeth grate in irritation – and because a sufferer does not want to be branded as “crazy” because they are taking SSRIs or any antidepressants, they will go to great lengths to hide their condition. You will see someone with the brightest possible smile, one that reaches their eyes and lights up the room, and never once will you suspect that that person had to struggle to get out of bed for nearly an hour because everything in their mind was topsy-turvy.
Depression makes Golden Globe-caliber actors of anyone it touches. No one knew that Robin Williams was suffering. No one knew just how bad it was, because he was one of the people whom we have consistently relied on in our daily lives to make us laugh. No one stopped to think that maybe, underneath the candor, something was seriously wrong. But know this – that’s exactly the effect that the stigma of depression has. This is what it forces people to do. Instead of seeking help, and possibly getting their way out of the quagmire, they are forced to put on the masks so that the people around them do not intrude.
Going back to the coat theory, it is a similar to-do. Picture, again, going around your day with a heavy coat everywhere. Do you want people to point out that you need to take it off? “Can’t you just take off the coat?” they ask. As though you hadn’t tried. So you disguise the coat. Or you make yourself as invisible as possible so that no one notices. Or you throw it all into an exuberant personality, with making jokes, being a social butterfly, so that no one who’s talking to you will ever take the time to point out that you’re wearing this huge coat; they’re too caught up in and dazzled by the wit, the charm, the grace, and the smile to suspect anything might be out of sorts.
The media has done an excellent job of perpetuating the myth that depression is something that one can just easily snap out of. In reality, depression is most like Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh. Eeyore is not happy; he probably will not be happy, ever, but he’s accepted exactly as-is. None of his friends comment on his state of mind. None of his friends want to change him. But the simple fact that he’s accepted is what makes the situation work.
And that’s what the stigma of depression makes nearly impossible to do. By portraying the condition of depression as something that people just need to ‘snap out of’ or ‘pull out of’, it’s actually making it a lot harder for actual depression sufferers to find a niche where they can find acceptance, support, and if need be, treatment. By mislabeling depression as something that the sufferer controls at will, it has been so much the more difficult for those same sufferers to get taken seriously when it comes to treatment.
Similarly, by stigmatizing treatment, this makes things a lot more difficult for sufferers. If they may not be able to break through the depression without medication, does it help them in any way, shape, or form if they’re convinced that they’ll be branded a certain way if they’re on anti-depressant medication? It doesn’t. You know it doesn’t.
But that is the circumstance that depression sufferers find themselves in.
Now consider this: it’s something that will, without fail, take lives if it’s not taken care of. If someone dies of cancer after battling it for a number of years, we speak of them as an inspiration. But what about if someone dies from a mental illness? We always see how they “should’ve gotten help” or “should’ve reached out”.
Except they already do.
Robin Williams did get extensive help before the condition got to him. He got treatment. He stopped drinking. He went to rehab. But it was not enough.
Philip Seymour Hoffman tried to self-medicate. Probably he got help as well. But it wasn’t enough.
Amy Winehouse fell apart and was trying to put herself back together. Perhaps, to an extent, she did. But it was not enough.
We see it all the time with people who make a living in the public eye: they have a breakdown, spiral downward, and it’s all very amusing until you stop and realize that if someone who didn’t live in the spotlight was acting this way, your first impulse would be to say, “They need help”. But such is our voyeuristic society that we were very entertained when Britney Spears lost it in 2007 rather than stop and say, “This girl needs help – now. She doesn’t need to be in the spotlight. She needs to have some time to sort out her head”. But instead, we made popcorn and watched.
But what about the people who don’t live in the spotlight? Their scream for help could take a vastly different form.
And here’s the thing: until such a time that they tell you what’s going on in their brains, don’t make the assumption that they have a condition. But when they do decide to trust you with it, listen. Don’t offer platitudes. Just. Listen. They will tell you what they need, even if they will say no clear words to that extent.
But most importantly, let’s start treating depression and all other mental illnesses as actual illnesses. Because that’s what they are.
The only difference is that the organ suffering is the brain, which in turn cascades into everything else.