The following is a brutally honest discussion of some subtle and severe depression symptoms I repeatedly experience but never hear discussed. Warning the following may be triggering. This contains open and honest discussion of suicidal thoughts. I write this so someone may read this and not feel alone, or so others who cannot empathize may gain insight. I believe this is especially important for teenagers to be warned about in clear language. I first experienced not wanting to live as a teen without warning or safe avenues for support. The first few waves were in some ways the hardest and most real. If circumstances were different then, I would not be alive today.
No one ever told me, “For many people the recurring experience of hopelessness and wanting to die is a normal part of life.” I have experienced this feeling so many times it is as familiar and undeniable as hunger.
The arrival of depression is often surprising like running into someone I haven’t seen or thought about in a while. You know when you’re in the shower, or in a car and something suddenly occurs to you? I’ll be waiting in line at the store or doing dishes, feeling “fine” when suddenly an inner voice whispers, “I want to die.”
It feels like a revelation of all-encompassing hopelessness. Like suddenly solving a riddle with a devastating solution. The good times appear to be a dream. It’s the opposite of waking up from a nightmare to feel relief. The logical part of my brain may conclude there is plenty to live for. But deep in what feels like intuition, there is a sense of knowing things are hopeless.
Physically the sensations are heavy, corrosive and sluggish. It feels like chilled acidic ink in the veins pooling in the chest, between the ribs and settling in the gut. This creates an uncomfortable gravity pulling towards an unseen abyss. To keep from falling in, a tight grip to hold on develops. An agile mind becomes a clouded. Disoriented stuttering thoughts swirl in confused fragments. In subtler forms a faint background fog is omnipresent. Impending tears rise like waves in the dark and must be suppressed with people around.
A repetitive inner world of alarming thoughts zip by like birds. I remember waiting to cross a busy street on the way to university, wishing passing buses would swerve and end me. When hearing about someone who died I felt jealousy. Some days jarring and violent images of committing suicide flash in the brain and disappear like a firecracker leaving behind an acrid puff of alarm. After weeks and sometimes months of this, contemplating the inevitability of death conjures a deep a sense of relief, a merciful feeling of “Thank god this isn’t forever”.
There is sometimes a sense of fearless invincibility. If you’re not afraid of dying it is hard to be afraid of much. There is a who cares, nothing to lose numbness.
Destructive behaviors often appear medicinal. In teenage years I would sometimes drive dangerously fast late at night by myself to feel adrenaline instead of everything else. One reason I used to smoke cigarettes was an unexpressed death wish. The first inhale of smoke provided a momentary ray of light through a thick blanket of cloud. I would drink and smoke to forget the misery, go into another world. The aim wasn’t to alter consciousness but to turn it off.
Since this experience is mostly invisible and not spoken about, you can’t exactly call into work or school and say, “I feel like dying today, going to rest and I’ll see how I feel in the morning.” When someone breaks a leg, or has the flu, the visible symptoms allow others to see something gripping a person beyond their control. This feels just as out of control. As a result of not verbalizing the inner world, a profound loneliness arises. Psychologist Carl Jung once said, “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding views which others find inadmissible.”
For many years and for over a decade I would use slang or sayings to point towards these inner experiences without really describing them. Saying words like darkness, blues, down, depressed danced around the unadulterated truth. The one repeating thought that hurt the most but was hardest to say is, “I feel like dying.” Even to doctors, I had fears of being committed, controlled, labeled or the information leaked beyond our conversation. There is fear of making things worse by alarming people.
The people I feel close enough to share this with I care about the most. There was a story in my head that telling them I am suffering will make them suffer, which will be my fault and I’ll feel worse than I already do. This story was untrue, especially with friends. They encouraged me to talk about it once I made the leap and some could relate. I always felt somewhat better afterwards.
There is fear that talking about the above will cause overreactions. Fears people may trust me less, judge me as unstable, unable, defective, broken, look at me differently, watch me closely. This is ironic since I know through experience, I can have suicidal thoughts and go to school, pass university courses, go to work, holidays, date, meet for lunch while not wanting to live. This is evidence of strength not weakness.
The most difficult part of talking about all this is the beginning. To go from silence or idle chatter to discussing not wanting to exist felt like an impassable canyon. But with practice I found paths to begin the conversation like, “I am experiencing something really intense I know I should talk about, even though I usually don’t. I know I will feel better if I talk about it. It is okay, but brace yourself I just want to share and since you care about me, I know I can talk to you...”
I always feel significantly better after verbalizing this inner storm. I don’t want the other person to try to fix the solution or feel like they should do something. What is most helpful is just having someone there to listen, to not be so alone, and maybe a hug.
In years of experimenting to not feel the above I attempted self-medication through vigorous exercise, ambitious projects, writing, art, all genres of drugs, uppers, downers, legal, illegal, prescribed, psychedelic, being a hermit, talk therapy, electroshock therapy, talking to friends, talking to family, dating, ending relationships, beginning relationships, one night stands, porn as a distraction, denial, meditation, studying, reading, morning routines, evening routines, breathing techniques, Netflix binging, overeating, fasting, special diets, quitting jobs, moving to the city, moving to the forest, moving to new climates and screaming underwater. All of these helped in some way, but many of them had severe drawbacks.
Eventually the desire to want to die subsides every time. Good times come around again feeling like waking from a bad dream. It lifts slowly or suddenly. Motivation and hope increase like warmth in the air as the sun rises. The heaviness in the chest gives way to lightness. Luckily this always happens whether I talk to someone or not. After there is often confusion, wondering which existence is “real”? Are both experiences real? Are neither?
In teenage years and into early twenties, the trend of depression became increasingly intense and prolonged. I believed if the trend continued I didn’t have a future. If things kept getting progressively worse, I didn’t see how I could ever have a family, a job, or keep from killing myself. Luckily and to my surprise, the trend peaked and slowly began to reverse in intensity. Many factors contributed to this including seeking professional help, talking with loved ones, psychedelics, systematically changing destructive habits, slowly building healthy habits, meditation, community involvement and new environments. In my early thirties I still periodically experience all the above symptoms but far less intensely. The experience is increasingly manageable instead of crushing, shorter in duration and I have tools to stay dry and warm until the storm inevitably passes. Oddly enough the bouts are sometimes even helpful.
In many ways I am often grateful for all of it. No thing lasts forever, waves crash, hope blooms. Death is consumed and becomes life again. I hope this was helpful in some way. Depression is not all of existence although it can sometimes feel that way. I am grateful this body and mind still exists to live, learn, discover and share. As Carl Jung said, “Our darkness is contributive in the same way that manure is essential to the rose.” Goodluck to you.