I’m just finishing my book about mental illness (schizophrenia specifically), and we’ve been dealing with some hardcore issues of mental illness in my family the last few months (clinical depression), and all I can say is wow. Just…wow. I don’t understand how anyone can crawl out of that dark, depressive hole, and yet many people do, and the people I know who deal with depression and overcome it are some of my new heroes. The people who don’t, or can’t, are some of the most tragic figures I know.

Depression is one of the most insidious things I’ve ever encountered–your brain decides that its going to start interpreting good things as bad things, or to brush good things aside with the certainty that they don’t matter because life is all bad anyway. Depression is a disease that specifically combats its own treatment, because one of its core symptoms is the belief that nothing you do will matter, so why bother getting treated or taking medication? It’s like if cancer had the side effect of making you never want to get better. That’s not something most of us can even understand–a disease that changes not your body, but the way you see the world. It’s like catching a cold that makes you speak another language; it doesn’t make any sense at all. And yet it’s frighteningly common, and every single person reading this post probably has a friend or family member (or yourself) who struggles with it every day.

We see those commercials for depression medication all the time on TV, especially late at night (when, I suppose, depressed people are still watching TV), but how many times do we actually listen to them? One of the symptoms they list is “thoughts of suicide,” and that’s just about the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard–a disease that can make you want to kill yourself. How do you get out of that? How do you take that first step and say “even though I’m completely convinced that life is horrible and nothing I do will ever matter, I’m going to do something anyway”? Seriously–that’s one of the most heroic acts of will I can even imagine. It’s like climbing Mount Everest just to get out of bed in the morning. The people who fight back against depression and overcome it are absolutely amazing.

The family member who sparked this post has not made that decision. He has retreated from the world so thoroughly that sometimes I think he can’t possibly go any further, and then he does, and it’s just heartbreaking. He’s so cut off from life that he barely even eats anymore, and the doctor who most recently examined him said “when it gets this bad we can still treat him, but only if he wants to be treated, and the mortality rate is about 35%. He’d have a better chance of surviving Leukemia.” And as terrible as that sounds, that’s just par for the course in his inner landscape–every news he hears is that bad, because his brain convinces him that it is. When we brought him home from the hospital he walked away without a word, actively running away from every attempt to help him. I just don’t understand it.

I think it’s about the most horrifying thing in the world.

14 Responses to “Depression”

  1. Brian says:

    Mental illness of just about any form is just simply horrible. The grandfather of a friend of mine acquired sundowning dementia five years before he died. During the day he was himself — old and ill, but good-spirited and funny as he’d always been — but after about 6pm his character would change horribly: he would become angry and violent, shouting profanity and insults at his wife and daughter, striking them, and resisting their efforts to care for him. It was, simply, shocking to observe. It was so painful for *them*, too, to see the good man they loved change in this way.

    I hope and pray your family member is able to find the strength to choose to take the steps back toward the light. A good friend is on anti-depressants to deal with clinical depression, and they can indeed make a world of difference.

  2. It is horrifying. Every day I watch for signs my son is fighting, climbing the mountain, because it was hell watching him sink into an abyss, and it was a battle to construct a way for him to pull himself out, and it was miraculous to see him reach for the rungs and pull.

  3. Dan, I sympathize. Depression has a tight grip on my older brother. It has for years. The challenge for my brother has been to keep going when he takes the step to take medication. It is a back and forth process. He gains some ground one day only to retreat into darkness and paranoia the next. Compared to some sufferers of depression, I know his is a very mild case. I know the pain, frustration, even resentment this can cause for the other family members involved. My prayers go out to your family.

  4. One of the things that was difficult for me to grasp about my wife’s depression during its early years is that everything we see and how we feel about it is dependent upon fragile chemical reactions happening at high speed in the minuscule spaces between the 100 billion cells of our brain. If the chemical reactions are working properly, we see in a sunny morning the promise of a good day ahead of us. If the chemistry is the tiniest bit wrong, we can gaze at the same sunny morning and see only a bleak landscape of dark despair stretching into eternity, a place without the slightest hint of hope.

    What is the solution? Fortunately, compared with the onset of my wife’s depression more than 30 years ago, medical treatments for depression are amazingly improved. Unfortunately, finding the correct medication is still very much a process of trial and error.

    Some types of medication require time – several days to 2-3 weeks – to work and trying those can involve a difficult emotional roller coaster for both the depressed person and those around him/her. At first, with new medication, everyone is hopeful that at last a solution will be found. Then, as the days, then weeks pass with no improvement, the depressed person drops back down into even darker despair and those around him/her taste that discouragement.

    Other medications may help, but the side effects are so severe that the depressed person is unable to tolerate them. Because the proper medications and combinations of medications are so varied, I have become convinced that the chemical problems of depressed people are also extremely varied. This can also be a frustrating disease for doctors to deal with when so many of their treatments can fail.

    This may not be the case for others, but for us, spiritual help was extremely critical in surviving the difficult times, particularly fighting suicidal thoughts, and in rebuilding our lives when, after 25 years of serious depression, my wife was miraculously healed, literally overnight.

  5. anon says:

    Dan, your post resonated with me today. I’m struggling with depression, and suicidal thoughts right now. Have been for a long time. Luckily I can still see that they don’t make sense. I hope everything goes ok with your brother. Love him. If I didn’t know the anguish my family and friends would go through, i might have offed myself already.

    BTW The Serial Killer books have helped me fight a brain that does things I wish it wouldn’t. Thank you.

  6. Mette says:

    I suffered with depression for several years and one thing that helped was that the people around me whom I trusted kept telling me that the way I saw the world was skewed. Not wrong, but too bleak. And then it just seemed to go away, a completely physical relief. Honestly, one of the things that kept me hanging on was family history: a sister-in-law committed suicide and I saw what it did to her family. I told myself that I might be a terrible mother, but I wasn’t going to do THAT to my kids.

  7. Darin Calhoun says:

    To be honest, losing my mind is my greatest fear. Some may joke that “sanity is overrated”, but when faced with the reality of mental illness like in A Beautiful Mind, I’m sure many would not find sanity funny anymore–but a gift.

  8. One of my best friens sufferes from depression…it makes you feel so helpless. She’s been on different medications and is not probably as good as she’s going to be..but she still sleeps alot, is unable to be in a room full of strangers or a lot of people period..and for some one like me who has never known a depressing day in her’s really hard to say and do the right thing all the time..lucky for me I make her that helps.

  9. Mom says:

    Dan, I went through several months with a severe clinical depression that you won’t remember – you were only four years old at the time. I never felt suicidal, but I knew I wouldn’t survive because I just couldn’t possibly ‘live’ from day to day. I had to wait a month for an appointment with a psychologist and I knew that life would just stop before then. Luckily, it didn’t and the counselor was great and I have never had a recurrence. But with all of my health problems over my life, nothing has been as scary as that black, bleak episode.

  10. John Brown says:

    I call them the brain nazis.

    Don’t know if you saw this, but sounds like you already have a handle on it:

    I truly, truly, truly hope this family member can break through the distortions.

    Your piece up above frames it in a good way, a way that I think resists letting the person suffering from this devil to twist it all around and say: see, only losers get this . . .

    One good thing, if you’re any indication, is that he has a troop of angels about him waiting to bouy him up with the truth about himself.

  11. Arlene says:

    Depression sucks. There’s nothing like beginning a day crying before even getting out of bed. Thankfully, friends and family were there to help me figure out what was wrong. It only took a year and a half. Not bad considering how many people deal with depression for a life time.

    As a side note, all women out there reading this should strongly consider the type of birth control they choose to use. The hormones used in them, even in the smallest increments, can really screw with your emotions in spite of what your doctor might tell you.

  12. sarah says:

    I’m dealing with this right now. Maybe it’s not as severe as some peoples, but I still look at life and think “what’s worth living for?” Some days I wish I could just get it over with.

    But there are too many people out there who want me to live, who want me to be to be here. So I keep going. One day at a time.

  13. Arlene says:

    It’s worth it, Sarah. Even though its contrary to what you feel like doing. Keep going. It’s worth it!

  14. Jennifer says:

    Yeah, depression is nasty. I have a mild case and am trying to fight it without medication because everything I’ve tried makes it difficult to concentrate or write. In the bad times, it’s like everything anyone says to me is an insult. If someone says to someone else “your hair looks good”, I interpret the comment to mean my hair is ugly. If someone tells me my hair looks good, I think my hair must look ugly and they’re patronizing me or the rest of me looks ugly. If someone says they love me, I will automatically assume it’s a lie. They’re saying it to remind themselves why they have to put up with me. Obligation.

    It’s so frustrating. It feels like you’re trapped behind this glass wall. Other people walk and talk in front of you, but no one can touch or reach out to you without everything becoming distorted. You even know your interpretation of events is skewed, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

    I hope your family member can pull out of it. But if he can’t, don’t blame yourself. Nothing you can say or do will help if it can’t get past the wall.

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