Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD

Jonathan Rottenberg Ph.D.

Charting the Depths

What Is It Like to Be Severely Depressed?

The answer in a simple cartoon

Posted May 09, 2013

I am a psychologist who studies depression. People like me can tell you about the symptoms of depression, the contributing causes of depression, the treatments for depression. We can tell you about how many people get depressed and what their prognosis is. We can tell you about the brain, about social functioning, about cognition, and even about the emotional changes that are typical in depression.

In short, we can tell you many interesting facts. But we cannot answer a fundamental question.

What is it actually like to be severely depressed?

It turns out that this is a very difficult question *for anyone* to answer.

It is even a hard question for depressed people to answer. Part of why that is is that severe depression is a foreign state that does not fit into everyday experience, and part of why that is is that the depressive experience involves horrible, uncommunicable solitude. Depression is a black hole, a destroyer of meaning.

Of course many brave sufferers have tried to describe it and we have many fine literary accounts of depression as a result. A good example is Styron's Darkness Visible, which I heartily recommend as nicely conveying depression's foreign awfulness.

But, in my view, not half as well as this incredible blog called Hyperbole and a Half. Told through a simple cartoon storyline, the narrator is a child wrapped in a blanket whose mind is of a much older person. I know of no better depiction of the guts of what it's like to be severely depressed: clutching your blanket, you are born into the baffling, boring, disorienting state that is depression -- radically out of phase with the rest of humanity, unable to understand the concerns of other people, nor able to communicate yours to them. I know of no better depiction of the depressed person's pathetic struggle to explain his or her predicament.

There is also a beautiful sequence in which recovery from depression is laid out in real terms, as a confusing, banal, and non-linear journey back to the world of the living.

If you've been severely depressed and what to remember what it was like, or if you know someone who is and you want to know more about what they are experiencing, please read Hyperbole and a Half.

I guarantee that you will find it to be provocative and true.

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