When talking about mental health conditions, about the emotional pain and turmoil that goes on in your head, elucidating the experience often depends on metaphor and analogy. This is what sets apart depression, say, from the flu or a broken leg. People can understand the experience of flu without metaphor – you have a splitting headache, aches and pains, a runny nose, a sore throat, and an awful cough. People get why it’s a terrible experience. Also, even if you haven’t broken your leg, you know that it must be intensely painful. Plus, you can see the cast the person is wearing and how their injury makes it difficult to function as normal.
The pain and debilitating nature of depression are harder to get across. So, in an effort to find a suitable metaphor for the condition, I’ve thought about what it is that depression does when it manifests itself.
The dementors in Harry Potter are based on author J.K. Rowling’s experience of depression. They are shadowy, soul-sucking entities. They take your life away from you. I think dementors are an apt and helpful metaphor for depression. Reflecting on this metaphor, I came to think about how depression, for me, is like the ultimate thief.
Any ordinary, unscrupulous thief might rob you of all your material possessions, steal your identity, or empty your bank account. But at least you’re the same person, albeit stung and devastated by this injustice. Depression, on the other hand, is a thief who does his dirty work behind closed doors, in your head, behind the eyes, and so no one on the outside can really see the consequences.
When it’s severe and in full swing, depression can take away everything that makes life worthwhile: pleasure, joy, excitement, energy, motivation, hope, meaning, connection to others, your social instinct, your personality, your ability to feel anything – essentially, your very humanity. The colour and vibrancy are drained from reality. In its place is a grey and flat world, with you as an empty shell, just going through the motions, barely alive. Andrew Solomon, the author of The Noonday Demon, a book that describes the experience of major depression in all of its raw, horrific detail, says, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.”
This, of course, is hard to communicate. On the outside, you may be smiling, laughing, joking, and getting on with things, albeit perhaps in a less enthusiastic, slower, and more withdrawn manner. At least if your car was stolen or your house was raided for everything it’s worth, people could sympathise with the way you had been royally screwed over. Depression’s cruel ransacking can really only be understood by you and anyone else who has gone through – or who is currently experiencing – this ultimate robbery.
The difficulty in communicating this pain is, understandably so, quite isolating, and it makes it difficult for both you and others to treat the condition with the right level of understanding and compassion. This is why I think analogies help. If you can imagine what it would be like for an invisible thief to take away your personality and humanity with no hope of ever getting it back, then you can see how ruinous depression really is. An emotional or spiritual robbery is not something to be taken lightly.