This post was inspired in equal parts by Ken White of Popehat, who has eloquently and forcefully advocated for more frank discussion about the experience of living with mental illness, and my own entrenched solipsism, which figures that, since I can’t think about anything else, I might as well pretend that other people will have any interest in the inner workings of my brain.
Humans have a knack (and a need) for creating narrative structures to illustrate their understanding of the world. Which is why, despite the fact that a person’s impression of their own mental health is perhaps the ultimate subjective experience, I’ve been groping for an applicable metaphor to illustrate the way my brain has been working. After lots of aimless pondering, I think I’ve finally hit on one.
Imagine that in your hands you have a bowl. In that bowl is a pile of nondescript iceberg lettuce, the kind that combines the crunch of wet cardboard with the taste of a damp dishtowel. If you nudge back one of the leaves, there’s a little dollop of Thousand Island dressing that came out of a packet you found under your car seat. It’s a pale, baby aspirin orange, with flecks of some anonymous seasoning that will be completely undetectable to your taste buds. That bowl is the nadir, the bottom of the barrel, the worst of all possible salads. It will keep you alive, but you’re not entirely sure it’s worth the trouble to eat it.
The obvious solution is to get a better salad, right? There are all kinds of ingredients that would improve your experience. Rich greens, fresh veggies, savory proteins, an endless variety of dressings. (I bet you didn’t know that many kinds of crouton even existed.) Clearly that’s what everyone else is enjoying. They’re into their salads in a way that, if there was such a thing as a state legislature in this metaphor, would swiftly be made illegal. You should throw that bowl over your shoulder and go join them in a revelatory salad experience.
What depression does is tell you that you can’t. There isn’t enough salad for you, you don’t deserve it, and anyway you’d probably just spill it all over yourself. Those other people with their different, better salads? They clearly possess some ability or worth that you lack, otherwise you’d have a great salad too. Depression says that you’ve got a perfectly serviceable salad right there, and no amount of effort or desire on your part is going to result in any improvement.
On good days, you recognize that this isn’t true. Sure, nobody is going to just hand you a better salad, but you can get your hands on some veggies, and you’re capable enough to make them into something tasty. You might try a combination that doesn’t work so well, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hit on something fantastic if you try again.
On other days, you’re convinced that your shitty diner salad is all you’ll ever have. You might as well eat it, and stop thinking about improving the experience in any way. Not only will you fail if you try, but you’ll probably end up losing your lousy lettuce in the process, and then you won’t have anything at all.
The salad represents pretty much anything you can think of. Your job, your relationship, your living situation, your health, your stress level, any of the things in your life that you might consider working on, but which require some effort (and some hope) to really change. It represents fun, creativity, productivity, any activity that you might find enjoyable or fulfilling. No matter how bad or good your actual situation is, depression will make you feel like growing or improving or finding fulfillment is completely beyond your ability.
Everybody gets down and discouraged on occasion, but depression takes that feeling and makes it chronic. Feeling hopeful and capable becomes a fleeting experience. If this resonates with your experience, you’re not alone. I don’t have any great coping strategies at this point. If I come up with something, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if having someone to talk to would help, I am happy to listen, with no judgment. Thanks for reading.