When Your Mind Won't Let Your Body Move

Depression can prevent you from performing the simplest acts.

Posted Mar 15, 2015

One of the hardest things to explain to other people about depression is that it robs you of control—not just over your emotions, but over your body as well. There's a phenomenon called "psychomotor retardation" that occurs in many episodes. It can begin as a general slowing of your mental and physical processes and worsen into a near-paralysis. Of all the things I hate about depression, I think this tops the list.

I don't just mean that it's hard to move; I mean it's practically impossible. Let's say there's a bowl of frozen yogurt sitting in front of me, waiting to be eaten. I love frozen yogurt, and I believe it makes the world a better place. But when I'm severely depressed, I can't summon up the energy or willpower necessary to make my hand move to the table and grasp the spoon. The yogurt just sits in front of me, taunting me while it melts: "Who's frozen now?"

If I can't surmount the paralysis long enough to do something that gives me pleasure, imagine what it's like to face the unpleasant chores of daily living. Just the thought of getting out of bed and turning on the shower plunges me into despair. Then there's the ungodly rigor of brushing my teeth. The torture of fluffing the pillows. The agony of buttoning my sweater. It's all beyond me, yet it has to be done and I swear to you, I've laid in bed for hours just trying to toss off the duvet so I can tackle life.

I have infinite sympathy for the physically disabled, yet there's a wicked voice in the back of my mind that says, "At least other people get it." I've tried over and over to explain the horrors of psychomotor retardation to others, including my doctors, and I always feel like I come up short.  Like I'm whining about something ephemeral that's in my control—something I could master if I really tried.

And I've really tried.

That's one of the reasons I get upset when well-meaning people try to cheer me up by telling me about all the studies saying exercise can cure depression, or that it's at least as effective as anti-depressants are. Invariably, these people forget an essential modifier that's used in all those studies: "moderate" depression. Believe me, if I were only moderately depressed I'd be the first one to jump up out of bed and grab myself some sunshine. But when I'm depressed to the point of paralysis, I just hear that advice and blink with incredulity. They're kidding me, right?  If I could move, would I be lying here helplessly enshrouded by my duvet? If I could move, why the hell wouldn't I?

I saw the film The Theory of Everything recently, and I wondered if Stephen Hawking was constantly urged to exercise. Probably not. There's something evil about this comparison, and I'm sure I deserve to be struck down by lightning. But still, there's nothing wrong with my wish that people could see past my body and into my torpid brain. Maybe then they could truly understand that my failure to return emails, my inability to socialize, my lassitude, and my lethargy are not within my voluntary control.

Once when I was in a psychiatric hospital, I met a woman who was so depressed she was almost catatonic. She could barely blink, let alone groom herself or interact. Then her doctors prescribed her a new drug, and I'll never forget what happened next. One morning before a therapy session, I watched her pull her comb from her purse and start to brush her hair. Long, fluid strokes in a smooth, even rhythm—so beautiful that no ballet I've seen could compete with it. With that movement, I knew that her depression had ceded control and she was in charge of her life again.

I often think of that moment when I'm bound by paralysis. I dream of the day when I, too, will simply get up and brush my hair.