Typical Individuality

Or How Diversity Unites Us

Lizz Schumer

Lizz Schumer
Buffalo, New York, USA
August 13
writer, editor, reporter, photographer, propagator and patron of the arts: all.
Author of "Buffalo Steel" (Black Rose Writing 2013), I'm the editor of a small newspaper in upstate New York, hold an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. I also freelance for several publications, both print and online.


Lizz Schumer's Links

Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 1, 2012 4:11PM

More than sadness: the depression problem

Rate: 16 Flag

I wish they would stop calling depression a mental illness. Because when I’m depressed, my mind is the last to go. I find it first in my body. On that morning when depression first descends, I wake up aching, like I spent my sleeping hours marathoning across my dreamland. Every movement hurts inside my bones, inside the marrow of my bones where I can’t touch it, can’t find it. And it settles there until it’s a part of my genes. That’s how deep depression goes.

My head feels blocked and it’s a physical blockage, like a head cold no tea will cure. Do you remember those commercials for sinus medication in which a man’s head is a balloon he holds by the end of a string, the kind that bobs around and gets caught in trees? That’s what depression makes my head feel like. The physical, flesh and blood and cavity part, not the inside. I don’t even know where the inside is, because the physical head of mine doesn’t feel like mine at all.

Next, I discover that someone has replaced my eyes with cotton balls, so thick and useless for anything but keeping my suddenly-fluid gray matter in. People have told me my eyes go dead when I’m depressed and I think it’s because my eyes are marbles, like they rolled back and revealed their flatter sides while I was sleeping.

And oh, am I sleeping. Depression is an exhaustion that settles in the marrow of my bones. It makes it hard to rouse myself each morning and sends me crawling to my bed in the evening, assuming I’ve found a way to drag myself from it in the first place.

When I’m depressed, I’m numb. The surface of my skin that is usually so alive with sparks from the ends of the tiniest wires I’m told are synapses go dead. No signal. It feels as though every touch is floating a few inches above me or like I am wrapped in invisible armor. Nothing can touch me.

And perhaps it is that armor that makes my body weigh more than it ever has. Arms and legs may as well be concrete cylinders, but less sturdy than that, the concrete cylinders that hold up bridges we’ve all seen collapsing under earthquakes.

And that sound, that same sound from that same television news bulletin, fills my ears. It’s part cracking, part static, part the loudest roar you ever heard, and it drowns out everything, even my own thoughts.

Depression isn’t the presence of sad thoughts. It’s an incapability to find my own thoughts. Or maybe it’s an inability to dredge them up from where they’re buried, under so much else that feels wrong, in the most visceral, physical sense that I cannot find the words to tell you how very not mental it is.

Know then, that when I tell you that you can't make me feel better just by telling me to think of something happy, that I'm telling you all the truth I can find.

And that’s why your well-intentioned offers to help make me feel helpless to help you help me until I’m circling the drain in a spiral of shame and self-doubt inspired by the weakness of both of our positions. Because depression would be easy, in the sense that I can say that from where I’m standing, if it was mental. But depression settles into every cell of my being, mental, physical and otherwise, and I have let to find a way to get it out and keep it out. Nothing gold can stay, they tell us. But if I can find a way to bathe myself in the sweet, elusive glow of arbitrary normalcy, I’ll live in for the rest of my bliss-enamored days. But until then, please don’t tell me to get out of my own head and consider yourself blessed that you don’t know depression except in all the ways I can find to tell you what it feels like, to the extent I know myself. 


Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
This is one of the best descriptions of depression I have heard in a long time - thank you.
Your description of depression is very similar to how I feel when I experience grief. Amazing writing, thank you for sharing.
Very good post. I explain this to people when they ask about my ex's depression. I say, "This is not existential angst we're talking about. It's physiological." Thanks for writing this down.
No cheery words here. I know that I fought tooth and nail against them. I'll just wish that little spot of normal for you, and for it to repeat often.
Brava. This, was a fine piece of writing. Fine.
Dear Lizz, I was a psycholigt before anti-depressant hit the scene.

To wit, I heard a lot a great deal about depression.

But not one of these many clients described it as fully and sadly as you did. Just one amazing description of something so visceral it IS
really hard to put words to it. You're post is simply amazing not to say beautiful educational... with love
Rachel: And thank you for reading!

Elizabeth: I think grief and depression have quite a few things in common. Interesting parallel. Thanks!

Maureen: I like your comparison between existential and physiological. It's a bit of both, I believe, but they're so tightly intertwined.

Gary: It is, isn't it? I 'd like to examine that dichotomy sometime. Perhaps in a future entry.

just phyllis: Thank you. And for you, as well.

TheBadScot: Great username, for one. And thanks!

wendyo: Thank you, I appreciate your comment!
Very personal. Thank you for bravely stating the feelings. I have a tendency to eat lots of sugar, get the high, then get the low and cry. I actually feel better letting the sugar blues in and out. sigh....
Thanks very much for this. I've been there. Yes, depression is something like being stuck in a pit of grief, but the grief is unrelated to anything going on in your life. And that is very isolating, because no one cuts you any slack for it. You're told to cheer up and go shopping, or something. And that makes you feel like such a freak, so it gets worse ...

I really wish someone would come up with a new name for clinical depression. People who haven't been there don't understand that the disorder depression is not like the common emotion depression. It's not just being sad. So uninformed people can't understand why you can't just get over it, like they did when their dog died.
Though the physical effect of depression varies from one body to another; It does affect the body in all individuals, at least the slightest.
Beautiful post, mate!
Powerful sentiments, rendered quite angrily. Know that depression is anger turned inwards. And most western females turn to this instead of expressing anger in an assertive fashion. Thus we have incredible rates of auto-immune illnesses and cancers. You think you can express anger in a missive? In your work? No.

You need human touch and empathy. We all need recognition of our feelings, but we need to be recognized by those people we are intimate with. You are young, most probably healthy and vital. But you have turned to writing as if that will cure you. You crave the attention and praise your work garners, but when its over- you need another hit.

As a clinician we talk about depression ONLY in terms of behaviors that can be evidenced. Feelings of being depressed, sad, resentful and the like will change in an instant given the right stimuli- You have just been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship or you parent dies...

So what I see is mostly anger towards well-meaning people who want you to get over it. You are _____ (fill in the blank). And you don't live in war torn Afghanistan or are from an oppressed class here in the U.S. You have white privilege. You have advantages most human beings will never see. Yet you feel_____.

So the answer? Join a free support group. Join hands with others and dig in the dirt (work in a community garden, volunteer in a soup kitchen). Pray. And express your anger in a meaningful way to your family of origin and to those closest who matter. Take care of your body. Drink more water.

It is the behaviors of someone acting as if they were well, and the behaviors that will indicate to yourself and others you are.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
Spot on, Lizz. Been there . You nailed it.
I understand this too well. I don't like it when people say, "Just make up your mind to be happy" or they think I'm lazy because I just don't feel like going out and sometimes unable to go out, it's too much to dress myself and my body feels as if I have added 200lbs of baggage that I must carry and it hurts. Those days feel like they will never end and there is no light at the end of my tunnel, but I wait. I wait for a glimmer to hold on to that eventually comes to drag me out of my hole.
Dear Liz:
WOW! As I read your post--I FELT your words. It is rare that a writer can capture the physical feelings of coming undone. So appreciate your
honesty and unedited description of one life's inevitable struggles.
I've definitely been there http://open.salon.com/blog/jacqueline_m_cohen/2008/11/22/bad_self

I know exactly that feeling!
Carl Richardson wrote, "I hate too call it an illness too, because it's not. It's a state of mind and it won't change without a strong need for it, because it's been wired into our heads. "

Um, no, it's not just a "state of mind." You don't seem to have read the article very well.

These days depression is called a "mood disorder," which is closer to reality than it being a "state of mind" or "mental illness." It affects the whole body, not just one's head. Deep depression is not something that people can "get over" just by thinking correct thoughts or changing their attitudes. I have found medication really does help.

I suspect that eventually medical science will find a neurological cause, and then maybe they'll start calling it something other than "depression." That by itself would dispel a lot of ignorance, I think.
Different people experience depression in different ways. Yours is so visceral that I could taste it from your description. My husband's is similar on a smaller scale. His interacts with spinal stenosis, which causes referred pain and neuropathy, too. Then, there's post-traumatic stress which complicates depression, too, so often.

Unlike you, some of my patients really do well physically, like running,, which serves as anti-depressants, too. Yet, they are emotinally repressed, sad and hopeless, cry a lot, stop doing their jobs and other hobbies, and withdraw from people.

Either way, it's always painful and hard to treat. Even if you can never fully escape from this plight, I wish for you that it will last for shorter and shorter periods with time, like the woman I read about who used to be depressed all day every day and now is depressed once a month for an hour.
Clearly marshall4j has never experienced depression. Your description was spot on. His comment speaks volumes about his own anger toward all of those people that he has neatly packaged into stereotypes. It must be easier for him to feel superior to these shadow reflections of his own weakness.
I read a study recently that explored the role of stress on depression. They found the chemical released in the brains of rats during a pleasurable activity. When they associated this chemical with what would otherwise have been a neutral choice for the rats, the rats quickly began to make the choice reinforced by this chemical. After they stressed the rats they found that the rat's brains had changed. They not only did not enjoy the activities that used to make them happy, they avoided the areas where these pleasurable activities had taken place. It's too bad they didn't have the benefit of Marshall's advice. They could have formed little rodent prayer groups to overcome the chemical changes taking place in their brains. Oops, I'm sure that he considers any woman disagreeing with his point of view to be further evidence of western female anger and aggression.
Lizz. Thank you.

And it only gets worse following a heart attack. Excuse me a "Myocardial infarction."

Then late in the night or the early morning the gray dome lifts, the mind flies free and the angel of promise points toward tomorrow. I'm me again. All of me again. Sleep is the enemy. Morning brings the battle. Over and over again.

Again, thank you. At least I found a place to say it. Thank you.
You're absolutely right to point out the physical effects of depression.

The trouble with depression is that it is one of those things that has to be experienced before it is properly understood. A bit like an Adam Sandler movie.
I have been meaning to join OS for some time. Lizz’s post encouraged me to do so today. Your description of depression is sensitive, beautifully told, painfully accurate and shared with bravery, candor and compassion.

As a “western” male who has battled chronic depression for decades, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, I want to weigh in on the over-simplified, “anger-turned-inwards” scolding by marshall4j. Lizz is probably too polite to tell marshall4j, “Thanks for making my points for me.” The “anger-turned-inwards” theory was postulated by Freud in 1917. Anger-turned-inward” may be a symptom of depression but to name it as the prime cause for clinical depression shows willful ignorance of the current evidence about neuro-chemical activity in the depressed person’s brain, a stunning insensitivity to the pain and destruction caused by depression and an obscene trivialization of a serious condition by one who “clearly” has no experience with it beyond that which is easily cherry-picked from pop-psychology websites,
the certainties of religious narcissism and the flippancy of 12-step

With breathtaking irony, this particular gem, by marshall4j, sums up the ignorance and cruel stereotyping that people with depression face on a regular basis: “Feelings of being depressed, sad, resentful and the like will change in an instant given the right stimuli.” To call depression a “feeling” is to call a tsunami a splash on the shore. To equate it with “sadness” and “resentment”
further reinforces marshall4j’s ignorance: In my own struggles with depression, true “sadness” and “resentment” are feelings which reside on the other side of plate glass windows, visible, practical and necessary reactions to life, “normal people feelings” that are beyond my reach for the numbness and exhaustion of the true depression.

And “the right stimuli,” which marshall4j promises would change Lizz’s (and my) depression “in an instant” are the cartoon fantasies of the magical thinker and the psychology dilettante. His admonishment to “Drink more water” would be as hilarious as Christopher Walken’s call for “More Cowbell” in a trivial context.
But this is not a trivial context.

In closing I reiterate my admiration for Lizz’s ability to capture and relate an essence of this real condition that is evidently still “understood” by some in the most parochial of worldviews. I also hope marshall4j sees this response as a productive, healthy (and masculine?) outward expression of my anger at his stupidity.

Drink more water.
Thank you for this. We suffer from a chronic illness whose symptoms can look like laziness and self-absorption, to the point where even sufferers half-believe we should be able to cure ourselves through willpower. Even the name "Depresson" is counterproductive. It's a bit like calling diabetes "Sugar Eating." It sounds like something everybody has experienced, and that better people than we have chosen to get over it by changing their behavior.

When I was diagnosed with depression (against my adamant insistence that I was merely tired and not "crazy," during which I cried through most of the box of Kleenex in my doctor's office), the shame of the diagnosis was like a kick in the stomach. Even the shrink admitted that he was sometimes tempted to tell his depressive patients to snap out of it. "I know better," he explained, "but I can't pretend to understand."

I've tried to explain to friends who are coping with a partner's mood disorder and want to understand. At its worst, chronic depression feels as if you are grieving for an unbearable loss, but with a certainty that the grief will never abate. You resist treatment because you "know" it won't work. You begin to rationalize suicide, not because you don't care about the horror your suicide would inflict on those who love you, but because the despair simply can't be borne. (You would run into a fire to save those you love, but could you stay in the fire indefinitely? Would your body let you endure that much pain, even to spare someone else?)

At my medicated best, I am capable of knowing moments of joy, and even if those moments are few and brief, they are a reason to hope. Between the moments are a vast landscape of time, divided between okay days ("okay" can feel like a victory) and Gray Days, when even the simplest chores require all the will I can muster.

The saving grace of having been successfully medicated and dragged into the light from a near-suicidal darkness, is that I will never again suffer from the illusion that there is no help for me. Hopelessness is a trick of the brain; a leak of Hopeless Juice somewhere in the plumbing of the mind. I know that now, and I am no longer reluctant to seek help when I need it.

Good luck to you, dear. Maybe you and I live to see the breakthrough that not only treats us, but cures us.
The hope of instant relief: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/10/04/162299564/ketamine-relieves-depression-by-restoring-brain-connections?ft=1&f=100