I have JK Rowling to thank for opening up the idea that mental illness is a real condition. In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Voldemort, the villainous dark wizard, kills Harry Potter. Well, technically.
I won’t go into the details. Read the books, they’re worth it.
One quote stuck with me more than any other in the thousands of words I’ve read by Rowling, and it comes from Albus Dumbledore:
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
This answer came during a conversation in the afterlife with the recently deceased headmaster of Hogwarts, or Harry hallucinated an entire conversation so his mind could be distracted by the immense pain delivered by a killing curse. Like I said, read the books.
The problem for depressives, like myself, is that our vocabulary tends to fall flat with people who do not have the same lived experiences. It’s analogous to explaining color to a dog.
Decades ago, the analogy would have been trying to explain color to a dog and the dog didn’t believe color existed. So we’re making progress as a society in being able to explain a deeply personal and varied experience to those who don’t have any reference to said experiences.
So what does depression feel like?
That is a tricky question, and no, I’m not going to leave you with that astute observation. But it is a tricky question because unlike an understood physical ailment, mental illness is unique to each person living with it.
The CDC lists “fever, chills, sweats, headaches, and nauseous and vomiting” as some of the symptoms of malaria. For depression, someone can expect to experience “feeling sad, feeling anxious, feeling irritable, feeling restless, and feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless.”
Malaria symptoms are clear-cut and defined; while symptoms of depression are feelings, and with feelings come with the entire gradient of human experience.
A better question to ask may be: What does depression feel like to you?
I experience depression as a searing pain. It is hot, sharp, quick, and relentless. I will feel sad and feel as if someone is sliding a paring knife across my chest.
I will feel restless and have the sensation that lines of fire are being traced across my face. Sometimes, I see flashes of light paired with the fiery cuts. Like the aftereffect of being punched in the face.
I’ve spoken with other depressives who feel frostbitten; and others who feel as if they’re slowing being crushed to death. Why the variation? Because our brains interpret thing differently. Because Harry might have talked to Dumbledore in the afterlife, or his brain was trying to make sense of masses of conflicting signals and sensory inputs.
As the headmaster sagely put it: “why on earth should it mean that it is not real?”