JK Rowling must be thanked for opening up the idea that the mental is real. In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Voldemort, the villainous dark wizard, kills Harry Potter. Well, technically. I will not expose the details. Read the books.
One quote stuck with me more than any other, 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 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. Analogous to explaining color to a dog: there comes a point where our explanation falls apart. Decades ago, the analogy would have been trying to explain color to a dog, and the dog had a deeply ingrained belief that color was a lie told by lazy people.
We are making progress as a society in being able to explain deeply personal and varied experiences to those who do not possess any reference points to aid in their quest to empathize.
So what does depression feel like?
That is a tricky question, and no, I will not leave you with that middling observation. It is a tricky question because unlike most understood physical ailments, 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 well-defined; symptoms of depression are feelings, and with feelings the entire gradient of human experience must be considered.
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. While feeling sad there will be moments where the mental pain manifests as a physical sensation. Often, that sensation is someone slicing my body with a pairing knife. 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.
Other depressives feel frostbitten, still others feel as if they’re slowing being crushed to death.
Why the variation? Because our brains interpret things differently. Harry might have talked to Dumbledore in the waystation from this life to the next, or his brain was trying to make sense of the masses of conflicting signals and sensory inputs that result from immense physical pain.
While this makes it difficult to explain the lived experience of a mental illness; it is by no means impossible to do so. If we maintain a non-judgmental attitude and keep what Albus said when asked if this was all in the head:
“Why on earth should it mean that it is not real?”
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Featured Image Credit - Dawid Planeta