By Melissa Grant
It can be hard to describe depression or anxiety to someone who’s never experienced it.
Most people genuinely try to relate, but it’s like being married or pregnant — if you haven’t been there yourself, it’s pretty difficult to grasp.
In my desperate attempts to be understood by people in my life who truly care but can’t comprehend my depression, I’ve found a few analogies that people can relate to. Sometimes my metaphors help my family and friends understand, and sometimes they don’t. But I’ve discovered that metaphors allow others to hear what I’m saying without being bogged down in an uncomfortable conversation about the despair or darkness I’m feeling. And even when people don’t quite relate to my analogies, it’s helpful for me to come up with them because they force me to articulate — and validate — my feelings.
If you’re struggling to explain your depression — or if you love someone who is depressed and want to understand — try on these metaphors for size.
1. Depression is like a severe bloody nose that won’t stop.
When you have a typical nosebleed, it’s nice to have someone hand you a tissue. But if your nose starts bleeding profusely, instantly saturating anything you try to use to stop the flow, you start to panic. You become desperately focused on stopping it, not realizing someone is still standing there offering you tissues — nor do you care, because this is beyond tissues. You’re in crisis mode, and you need something entirely different.
Often, when someone is depressed, loved ones are truly trying to help and do what they can — like offering a tissue. If you are slightly to moderately depressed, you can acknowledge their efforts and even express appreciation.
But when you’re in full-blown, severe depression mode, nothing they do or say can help. During these episodes, they can feel helpless and frustrated — and, worse, if they feel you aren’t acknowledging the help they’re offering, they can throw up their hands and walk away.
To those who love us and want to help:
When we’re in a severe depressive state, there sometimes isn’t much anyone can do. We can be lost in negative, irrational spirals, and even though we fully know we are loved, we can still feel completely unloved and alone. Don’t be offended if we, in those moments, don’t acknowledge your attempts to try to help or can’t feel your love. We can’t feel anything just then. Be patient, and when things ease up, we will once again be able to see and appreciate your help.
2. Depression is like getting knocked down over and over ... and over … until all you can do is crawl.
As we walk through life, all of us get knocked down from time to time. Eventually, we can usually get ourselves back up and continue walking forward.
When you have depression, an episode may knock you down, and you may stay down for a while or crawl along until the depression or anxiety lifts. When you’re ready, you stand back up and move forward.
As depressive episodes come more frequently and last longer, getting back up just to be knocked right back down takes a psychological toll. It becomes more difficult to stand back up because you know it won’t be long before you are right back down. The effort it takes to fight to stand back up only to get knocked down again is energy you no longer have. Getting up stops making sense.
These ups and downs can start to wear on you as much as the getting knocked down. And soon, it’s easier to not get up at all – easier on your body, easier on you psychologically and easier because you have less energy. So you just stay down. But your innate nature is to continue to try to move forward, so you stay down and crawl. Pretty soon, that can be your new normal — crawling through life.
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3. Depression is like trying to fight your way through a dense forest.
Imagine a dense forest in a remote part of the world — so dense you can’t get through because there are so many thickly tangled branches. You try to muscle your way through, but you end up even more stuck, scratched and cut.
This is what life can feel like for a depressed person. Normal tasks seem impossible — getting out of bed to get your children up, getting in the shower, meeting your friend for breakfast, or any of life’s necessary, even pleasant activities.
What you need is a machete to cut down those intertwined, impenetrable branches. This might come in the form of antidepressants for those who benefit from them. It might be the right diet, hormone replacement, thyroid medications, exercise programs, or other tools.
But for some people, nothing is sharp enough to cut through those branches and make a path. And for those that are helped, it still requires a lot of work, energy, and endurance. Effective tools don’t get rid of the forest, but they make it possible to cut a path forward.
4. Depression is like having to do your least favorite chore all day, every day.
I have a brother who is extremely disciplined when it comes to certain things, but has one thing he despises more than just about anything else: yard work.
Here’s how I explained depression to him: Imagine every morning you wake up you have to do yard work. You have no option to do anything else, and you are obligated to do only yard work. Day in and day out, every waking moment you have to do yard work. You force yourself to do it, because there is nothing else and there are expectations that you do it. But there is literally nothing else in your life.
Eventually, there comes a point where getting out of bed feels nearly impossible. The misery of continuing one more day doing the thing you despise and knowing that every day will be the same just gets the best of you. You can’t do it. You just can’t force yourself out of bed that day. Tomorrow, maybe you be able to drag yourself out to do it yet again, but today, you lose the battle.
Depression is like this. Everything feels like a chore, and every day you try to force yourself to get out of bed and endure yet another day while feeling constant dread, darkness, worthlessness, despair, and hopelessness that this will never end. Some days, you muddle through the day, not fully present. Other days, you lose the battle and just stay in bed.
5. Depression is like having a broken leg.
People often try to be helpful by telling depressed people that if they just got out of bed, or did something they enjoy, or exercised, they would feel better.
We know you mean well, but consider this. Would you tell a Type 1 diabetic to just eat better to fix their illness? Or would you tell someone with a broken leg to get up and walk around to help him or her heal faster? You wouldn’t, because you know these things wouldn’t be possible.
Now, I’m not saying diet and exercise couldn’t help a depressed person, because often they can. But severe depression 1) can’t be cured by these things, and 2) keeps people from being able to do these things.
A person who really enjoys hiking but who has a broken leg would love nothing more than to go for a hike — but they can’t. Their leg is broken. Similarly, most Type 1 diabetics would probably love to avoid insulin injections by making a few dietary changes. But this wouldn’t be enough — and it wouldn’t cure the underlying illness.
A depressed person, despite wanting to engage in life, can’t just snap out of it. Their illness gets in the way of doing the things that would make life better.
6. Depression is like a clogged sink, only the sink is your mind.
In many cases, those of us who are clinically depressed understand how irrational our thought patterns can be. We intellectually know that the thoughts swirling in our minds don’t reflect reality.
For example, I’ve often had the feeling that no one cares about my suffering, no one is interested in helping me, or no one loves me. I know this is not true, but it is exactly how I feel. I know I need to count my blessings, think positive thoughts, and remember I am loved. But I don’t know how to stop the other swirling thoughts and feelings that are getting in the way.
It’s like one of those big basin sinks with a rubber stopper. When that plug is in place, everything that gets dumped into the sink, both good and bad, all combines, circling around and mixing and interacting, but none of it goes anywhere. It all just swirls around in one big mess.
In the same way, everything that enters the mind of a depressed person — thoughts, feelings, tools for managing thinking, anything good or bad — gets trapped in a giant soup that goes nowhere. Finding something that can prick a hole in that rubber stopper — or better yet, remove it entirely — makes all the difference. All that stuff now can move and be processed.
7. Depression is like never-ending PMS.
Those lovely things called hormones! All of us women know just how much hormones can mess with your mind. One day you look down at your legs and feel utterly disgusted, when the day before, you were perfectly happy prancing around in shorts. Women know all too well the irrational thoughts, the extra sensitivity, the foggy mind, the exhaustion, and the negativity that can come from a hormonal surge.
What does depression feel like? It can feel like the worst premenstrual symptoms — but they never go away.
Awareness Leads to Support
Metaphors can be serious or silly. My hope is that these metaphors can help loved ones of depressed people get a glimpse of just how difficult it can be and why people act the way they do.
Awareness is key. It’s key to creating a safe emotional space for sharing true feelings. It’s key to being able to offer the right kind of support. It’s key to helping depressed people feel more accepted and loved despite their distorted thoughts and thinking.
Raising awareness is a powerful tool in healing frustrations and misunderstandings between depressed individuals and their loved ones. This awareness can lead to improved relationships and relieve the burdens both sides feel as a result of depression and anxiety.
Help raise awareness by sharing your own metaphors of what depression feels like to you, whether you experience them or care for someone who does. Use the hashtags #depressionfeelslike or #anxietyfeelslike and tag Lives Unencumbered!