Explaining depression to people is really difficult for me. It’s not just because people experience depression radically differently and I don’t want people to get the mistaken impression that a variable experience can be summed up by a single person. It’s also because it’s such an experiential thing, something that requires living in your own body and mind, a difficult concept to understand abstractly. Depression isn’t just about being sad — sure, sadness is a part of it, but it’s about a more complicated relationship between your emotions, your brain, and the way you interact with the world.
But there is one aspect of my own experience of depression that I think translates well and can be understood. It’s the sense of slowness that fills me during depressive episodes, making me feel like I am fighting a sea of molasses. Everything becomes impossibly difficult, and tasks that were relatively basic before somehow stretch into endless chores. It’s not just that I find everything, from getting out of bed to completing conversations, daunting. It’s that everything takes more time, and that feeds my feelings of self-hatred and misery because I get angry at myself over my inability to be as efficient as I usually am.
It’s strange and unsettling to be out of time, out of synch with yourself, forced into a lurching relationship with the world around you. As a writer, for example, I know precisely how long it takes me to write about 1,000 words, including research, roughing out a draft, and polishing with a second edit. I know down to the minute — and yet, when I’m depressed, it takes twice as long, or more. A single piece can eat up an entire afternoon, or a day, when I could complete the same thing swiftly and elegantly in two hours or less most of the time. Worse yet, the end result just isn’t very good, even though I struggled with it and fought myself over every detail.
Depression feels like a lot of slogging with not very good results. It makes you want to throw in the towel, crawl under the covers, and give up. What’s the point. You might as well not start anything, because it’s going to take forever to finish, and even if you do manage to finish it, it’s going to be terrible, so you’re just going to have to redo it later. Under those conditions, don’t bother getting up. Don’t go to work, you’ll just bog down and hate everything that you do. Trying to do any sort of personal care is pointless; you’ll stand in the shower staring at the wall while your hair stays lank and greasy and you feel yourself slowing down, like a clock spooling more and more slowly. Reading takes forever and you can’t comprehend anything, so don’t pick up a book or a newspaper. For that matter, your brain is too muddy and sluggish to comprehend film and television, too.
People who are depressed often sleep a lot, which is a consequence of a lot of things. But one significant aspect of it, for me, is that I don’t really know what else to do. Everything around me is crumbling and turning to shit. I can’t do anything right. Everything is taking forever. In those conditions, I perform the bare minimum I need to survive, and then I stumble back into bed to sleep. It becomes more and more tempting to stay there, never moving, never leaving, and certainly never getting up long enough to make the bed (as if, the only time I’d make the bed when I’m depressed would be to change the sheets, like I had the energy to go to the laundromat to wash the sheets so I could make it in the first place).
It can be incredibly difficult to pull out of this insistent spiral, even though the deeper you get, the sludgier things become. I can watch it happening with horror and frustration, but at the same time, I feel powerless to do anything about it — I can’t make myself speed up, I can’t pull myself out of the mire, I’m just stuck watching myself sink down, more and more deeply. I see myself getting slower. I see myself slowly turning to clay, then stone. I seek for whatever it is that will unlock this, break me open, free me, and I can’t find it, no matter how much I scrabble. Instead I have to wait for my brain to free me, because it is my jailer.
We are all of us fighting a lonely fight, it feels, sometimes, and especially so when we are deep in depressive episodes and we are struggling to function and find our purpose in life. For me, with depression eating me alive, all I can think about is slowly pushing through the molasses, one step at a time, to the other side. I become hyperfocused, so that everything else falls away; it has to, otherwise I will not survive. And that, too, slows me, because I have no energy to dedicate to anything other than keeping my head up long enough to function.
It’s something to keep in mind when interacting with people who are depressed; we may be slow sometimes, we may have difficulty comprehending what seems like it should be pretty basic, but that’s because there is so much going on internally that all our energy is fueling our survival instincts. That sluggishness isn’t a put-on, a game, or laziness, but a last gasp.
Image: As Slow As Molasses, Marshall, Flickr