I’ve seen a number of cartoons or images with a similar theme, all trying to demonstrate how ridiculous (and plainly wrong) it would be, if we talked about various other illnesses in the way that we talk about depression. ‘Telling someone with depression to “snap out of it” is like telling someone with a broken leg to “get up and run” ‘.’Telling someone with depression to “just cheer up” is like telling someone with diabetes to “just produce more insulin” ‘.
The image that Fiona posted could have said ‘Saying to someone who has depression: “just cheer up”, is the same as saying to an asthmatic: “just breathe” ‘. But the image didn’t say that. It didn’t stop at showing how wording of that kind can trivialise what someone is going through. What it said was orders of magnitude more powerful, because it went right to the heart of so many other feelings that someone who has experienced depression, knows all too well.
“What have you got to be depressed about? You’ve got a great life!”. “What do you mean you can’t breathe? There’s loads of air in here!”. This doesn’t just imply that the depressed person should easily be able to choose to get better – it implies that they have no right to feel the way they do. It is utterly invalidating, and in a way that only adds to the sense of guilt that they may already feel. It’s not just saying “what you feel is trivial”, but “what you feel is wrong”.
A friend once told me “there are no hardship Olympics”, by which she meant that it is not helpful to compare our situations to those of others. But we cannot help doing so – in our distress as well as in our good fortune. I put off seeking help for years because I was aware that there were others who were ‘far worse off’ than I was and that on the surface of it at least, I had every reason to be happy. It is that sense of not having a right to one’s emotions and the feelings of guilt for having them; that sense of comparison and trespassing on the emotions of those who are ‘worse off’, that the image brings so powerfully to mind.
But I think the impact of the image lies also in the fact that unlike a broken leg or a malfunctioning pancreas, an inability to breathe is itself a striking and appropriate metaphor for depression. No other comparison brings out in quite the same way, the life-threatening, life-sapping, and suffocating nature of depression, as a difficulty in breathing. During one of the worst periods of depression I have ever experienced, I felt as though there was a crushing weight on my chest from the second I woke up in the morning, until the moment I fell asleep at night. Sleep was an enormous relief, as it was the only time I didn’t feel oppressed and unable to breathe.
Depression sucks all the joy and hopefulness out of one’s experience of life. They may appear to others to be all around you, in abundance, but you are simply incapable of seeing them and taking them in, much as someone with asthma is incapable of breathing in the air around them. Oxygen and hope are vital for sustaining life – without them, we start to die. Spiralling further into depression and hopelessness feels like a slow death – my horizon shortens and not just the next year, but the next month, and then the next day, feel impossible to get through. Enjoying good things shouldbe as easy as breathing, right? But nothing is easy for someone who struggles to draw a sustaining breath, either physically or mentally.
When every breath is a war, the presence of even an infinite amount of air available, is an irrelevance. What we need to win the battle is some relief - and to be able to inhale. The image is a powerful reminder not just of the suffocating nature of depression, but also of the lifesaving importance of validating people’s experiences and legitimising their pain.