When depression is labelled ‘all in your head’

A little girl is dressed in a white frock and white shoes. She is holding a white football in her hands and smiling.
‘It’s all in your head,’ she said in a tone of wilful ignorance. This wasn’t the first time I was hearing such a statement – at the time, I had been under the treatment of a psychiatrist for almost two months – so I wasn’t going to give in so easily. ‘Do you know suicide has become the number one cause of death for people between 10-24 years of age?’ I asked rhetorically. ‘Don’t you think we could have saved those young men and women if only they received help sooner?’ She shook her head in almost-defeat. But she didn’t concede so fast. ‘I don’t think they need psychiatrists – if only young people would have stronger will.’

I’ll spare you the rest. All you need to know is that the doctor in the story knew my family’s history with depression and was trying to help. Yes, help…by invalidating my suffering. After all, she had no clue whatsoever of my four-year battle with suicide.

I vividly remember the spring of 2012, when I confessed to a family member: ‘I don’t want to live anymore. Please take me to a doctor.’ The finality in my tone did nothing to convince her of the seriousness of my condition. ‘Buck up! You have your life ahead of you. Join a dance class. I know you love dancing.’ She had responded with an aim to brush aside all of my negativity, just as  smoke rises upwards and is consumed by the troposphere. I had taken off the mask of feigned normalcy. I had not expected understanding; instead, I was looking for what I now recognise as validation. Validation that what I suffer from is not a figment of my imagination, but is as real as any other illness.

Depression runs in my family. Each one of us has had a breakdown because of this invisible illness. One would expect the other to have some understanding of this invisible monster, but this is a big fallacy. One depressed person may not recognise the depression of another, just as one person with cancer does not necessarily understand the cancer of another.

My invisible monster took hold of me at the age of eleven-and-a-half. After I suffered a traumatic loss, it found shelter in my grief. A child, I begged for a curse to consume my living days and nights. And so began my journey of nourishing, fighting, talking and dancing with this monster.

I don’t blame the monster entirely though. I was not a particularly happy child. I was shy, friendless and more often than not lived in my own universe of imaginary creatures and parallel universes. Reality interested me little. So the newfound monster easily became a part of my body and mind.

In his short story The Depressed PersonDavid Foster Wallace takes the reader through the inner workings of a depressed mind. The protagonist is ticked off at the smallest of turns of fortune, and is seen as a hapless leech by other people. My only problem with this understanding of depression is that we are not always down in the dumps; we are also creative geniuses, entrepreneurs, actors, engineers, and people with jobs, leading independent lives.

Society puts immense pressure on each of us to have the perfect job, smile, clothes, state of mind. It shames us the moment we seem even a tad imperfect. So when a bad phase takes us to the edge of the abyss, we are expected to turn inwards and hide alone while the dark clouds pour down and drench us.

Unlike what most people think, depression does not equal sadness. Sure, unfortunate events such as the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a career crisis or family tensions can trigger a depressive episode. These are not the same as the feelings of depression. Depression does not necessarily follow the principle of cause and effect. Something doesn’t necessarily need to go wrong for a person to feel depressed. It can strike like lightning that opens a vacancy in a person’s soul where a monster called depression creeps in.

When depressed, a person feels a growing void, experiences a confused state of mind and worst of all, loses interest in everything that once was enjoyable to them. We become the carriers of a monster. It continually craves our attention, pulling us deeper into the bottomless pit that it resides in. Once there, we become martyrs to existential questions. We become overwhelmed with the task of finding meaning, purpose and reason. Such a heavy burden leaves us exhausted and troubled. We can often be seen crawling on a cold bathroom floor, drifting about like zombies in a crowd or drowning in our boats that have become too heavy with the weight of our monster. Essentially, we feel nothing.

Friedrich Nietzsche just about sums it up in Beyond Good and Evil: ‘It is dreadful to die of thirst in the sea. Do you have to salt your truth so much that it can no longer even – quench thirst?’

I went against people’s advice and decided to find a doctor. I found myself one after a life of suffering. I am not ashamed to be taking anti-depressants that my doctor and I have concluded are good for me (after trying three different combinations). Some days my boat refuses to move, but as long as I’m on the boat, I’m content.

As someone who has drowned many times – and resurfaced – my advice to you is to hang on. You are not alone, and your life is precious. You can kick the monster off your boat, one step at a time. Every time you wake up, take a bath, smile, work, breathe, you are defeating the monster.

If your loved one suffers from depression, please accept that their suffering is not anyone’s fault. Listen to them, make sure they eat well, take them out, and stay hopeful. Do not give up. You can help row the boat just by doing that.