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What Depression Really Feels Like

12/04/2013 12:45 EST | Updated 02/03/2014 05:59 EST

Imagine that you lived in a land where the sun never shone. Maybe it rained all the time, the water dripping constantly into the sodden vegetation. Maybe there was always fog, always obscuring the next corner, always making everything just that much more confusing. And maybe the house you lived in was a rickety, smelly old place, with a leaking roof and broken windows. Maybe that house was all you ever saw, because living in this land means that you can never leave.

Imagine sadness is a real, physical place, a country, even, a name that you might find stamped on a passport. ... I like to think that I keep a sort of vacation home there. Like, oh, you winter in Florida? I, myself, winter in Sadness.

To many people with depression, Sadness is a physical place, and I'm someone who lived there for many years and was able to make the journey back. That's why reading this book, by Anne Theriault of The Belle Jar Blog, resonates with me so much. My Heart is an Autumn Garage isn't just about what it's like to be depressed; it's about what it's like to find the borders to Sadness and finally cross the barbed-wire fence back to Real Life.

Everyone's experience is different, but the depths of depression are pretty much the same no matter how you get there. Anne's descriptions of always feeling "bad", as a young child and then as a teenager, are heartwrenching. Feeling "wrong", "bad", or otherwise just not adequate, are hallmarks of what depression does to you.

It steals your self-confidence. It tells you that no one and nothing matters, and what's more, the people who are supposed to love you probably hate you and think you're annoying. And this is a burden that depression makes you carry alone - because telling people will cause more annoyance and more hatred. It whispers to you that everyone wishes you were dead, anyway. And tears came to my eyes, page after page, as reading young Anne's struggle with these horrible feelings came to a head in this passage:

My cousin, who was fifteen that year, sensed how unhappy I was and taught me her favourite prayer. She said that whenever she felt that life was unbearable, she would bow her head and ask God to put her out of her misery. That way, she said, she wasn't really asking to die, which is, of course, a sin - she was just asking God to choose whatever He felt was the best solution to her problems.

... After that conversation with my cousin, I started praying. I would get down on my knees every night, just like they did in the books or movies, and I would beg God to let things get better or else let me die.

Anne's year of hell, or her self-styled "annus horribilis", was in university. Coincidentally, that's when my depression got the worst, too. She had a failed relationship with a young man who didn't care for her and she spiraled out of control. While much of depression can be situational, a lot of the bad episodes that can happen when you're depressed are just outward, spiked manifestations of the horrible thoughts that always lie dormant within. And so Anne spiralled, losing all energy, losing all her will to fight.

In the weeks that followed [the breakup], everything seemed like a chore. Even mundane, day-to-day activities were overwhelming, so I did as few of them as possible; I didn't get dressed in the morning, I didn't cook any meals, and I didn't shower or brush my teeth. Instead I slept all day, read sad books, and occasionally ate packets of instant oatmeal.

... So not only was I pretty fucking sad, but I was also deeply embarrassed and angry with myself for how sad I felt. I didn't understand why I couldn't get my life together, and I bought into the old lie that it was somehow the result of laziness or the lack of willpower.

And that is what is so hard to understand about depression. I can remember well-meaning friends, even family members, imploring me to snap out of it. I saw my failing grades in those years at university that I spent in the land of sadness. There are entire periods of time that I can't remember because I took enough Gravol to make me sleep for hours and hours. I kept plunging myself back into darkness, neglecting my hygiene and my dietary needs, because not sleeping meant I had to face the fact that my life was falling apart and I could do nothing to make it stop -- not only that, but I trusted no one to help me in the way I needed to be helped. No one understood.

When you get to that point, it's beyond hitting "rock bottom". There really isn't a bottom; you just keep falling. And so Anne, in her period of deep shadow, realized that she needed help beyond what any of her friends could give. She voluntarily checked herself into the psych unit of the local hospital. It's then that the story takes a darker, traumatic turn.

I could describe it for you, but the fact is, I never had to be inpatient at the hospital, though I probably should have been one memorable time in my third year of university where I hallucinated constantly and lost a ton of weight. And describing a traumatic experience belongs to the person to whom it happened to.

Anne's stark prose illuminates what it's really like when you give up control of your life to someone who has their own interests at heart, to someone who toes the party line and follows the status quo. Nameless, faceless patients that pass through our hospitals may experience extremely similar things, but to the rest of us, they're just people in movies, people in books, until you hear their stories from their mouths and realize that not only does the medical profession still have a long way to go when dealing with the mentally ill, but they also have a long way to go in seeing mentally ill people as human.

The hope in the story Anne tells is that there is an end to the land of sadness. There's a border and on the other side, you can see what life should be like. Crossing that border takes an inordinate amount of effort and help from not only the people around you, but from yourself, too. And I won't say that it doesn't matter how you get there -- it matters completely.

Because the land of sadness, though maybe your little wooden house has been boarded up for years and you rarely even think of it anymore, shapes how you deal with depression and anxiety in later life. You never quite forget how deep that darkness goes. You never quite erase just how low the human soul can go on its quest to stay alive.

Read it, if only to understand what it's like for people with depression. It's not something you snap out of and it's not something you can turn off and on. Read it, if only to understand what being inpatient at a hospital for psych patients does to your own psyche and your own ability to believe in your sanity. Read it even if you know those things already - because reading it lets us into a woman's soul and a story that's told constantly, silently, screamingly, in front of our eyes all the time. We just don't listen. It's easier to ignore it until it happens to you.

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"My Heart is an Autumn Garage", by Anne Theriault, can be found on Amazon and iBooks.

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