Why depression is like quicksand
Trigger warning: Discussions of depression, suicide and suicidal ideation.
Why depression is like quicksand
"In my dreams, I ride a great grey wolf"
My waking life with depression's sand and silt
In my dream, I rode a great, grey wolf over dirt paths through a Hanna-Barbera, mustard-yellow canyon, to find a train to go...somewhere. It wasn't hot or cold, and there were no smells. It was wonderfully and comfortably sterile. I rode the wolf to a station in the rocks. While I waited at the station, a beautiful Japanese building of almost black wood with wide slats through which light spilled, I discussed sideburns with Jack Black. We were cowboys in what must have been the Wild West. We laughed and complimented each other, and I was happy for the train to never arrive.
When I wake, I lie in bed and wonder why I had to leave that world for this one.
I suffer from a disease called Clinical Depression. I was diagnosed in my twenties. For that decade, I was defined by my unwillingness to let depression define me. Now, older and less successful in society's eyes (and my own), I have accepted that clinical depression will sometimes ride me. My brain and its chemical imbalances will sometimes be in the saddle I so vehemently claimed as my own in my twenties.
Why my clinical depression is like quicksand
In the few times I'm asked what clinical depression is like - which is rare, though I am open about my diagnosis - I explain that depression is like quicksand. It is, I suspect, different for everyone. But for me, it's grains of sand that slowly, inexorably fill up my limbs, my stomach, and my chest with increasing weight. After wandering around with heavy limbs, the sand reaches your gut, and you don't want to eat. You're full of whatever the grains are – sadness, apathy, nihilism. You cease to feel hunger. Then the sand keeps filling you up, and it's too hard to raise your head from the pillow, too much effort to shift your living sand dune out of bed.
I have been there, in my bed, utterly unable to move. The weight of everything, of my own uselessness, holding me in place. When that happens, I become acutely aware of my heart beating. And, as I lie there, I will it to stop. I hope it will just cease beating, and in one thudding moment, I will be there, and then I won't.
Sometimes, there's a heat you don't feel inside you, and that sand becomes glass. And there's a moment when you can see your way to breaking that glass and being free. Just one fragile-glass-shattering moment and all that weight, that feeling of taking up valuable real estate in existence, will be gone.
I have experienced this several times in life. Once on a tube platform, waiting for a train. As I saw the lights in the tunnel to my right and heard the faint roar and rhythmic rattle of the carriages, I felt that glass in front of me then, one step away from breaking through it to a sense of mental peace. I am still here only because that train took one second too long, and the glass melted back into the sand. I was left sitting on the dirty tiles of the underground platform, staring at the tracks, ignored by hundreds of commuters.
Read more: Depression feels like drowning
Other times, the sand is wet, like silt; tiny grains cling to every part of you, of your mind. It's not sadness, not for me, so much as an understanding of failure, of the pointlessness of persistence. An entirely rational and logical equation of what I bring to the world and what benefits my absence would bring. That's when the sand is at its most dangerous. When the silt sits inside you, not heavy like sand, not a present, tangible weight. When it swirls in your blood, in your brain and heart, like an invisible, undetectable tumor.
That's when the sand is most dangerous. Because it's not a building apathy, it's not the glass-forming and breaking split-second of action. It is a constant affirmation of your rational, logical thoughts. A calming reassurance. You are correct in your equations. Your math checks out. It is not irrational or insane; it's not a cry for help. It's not a cowardly moment. The silt tells you you have reached a carefully considered, well-reasoned decision.
"Depression is like quicksand: grains of sand that slowly, inexorably fill up my limbs, my stomach, and my chest with increasing weight."
It was a sunny day when I sat on the worn steps in the cemetery opposite my house, drinking an iced coffee, and I weighed my life against the silt. It wasn't an emotional, knee-jerk thing. It wasn't a cry for help. It was a carefully considered and deliberate equation. It was, at the time, and to me, perfectly rational. I weighed the good I felt I could bring, the joy I could derive from continuing to live against the weight of the sand, the silt in my body. The sum was unmistakable and unquestionable. There was literally no benefit to anyone in my continuing to live. Least of all, to me.
I sat in the cemetery and very calmly worked out exactly how I was going to do it. It wasn't particularly original, and in fact, a much more intelligent, better, and more creative man than me had just done the same thing less than a week before. Nevertheless, I sorted it all: where, when, and how. The Thames, four in the morning. Rocks in my pockets and a walk into the frigid, slow-moving water. I'd hold my breath until it hurt, until I couldn't anymore. And then water would flood my lungs, and I'd cough once. Only that would let more water in, and I'd start to fade, my mind and life drifting away as my body drifted towards the Thames Barrier, some miles to the east.
Eventually the quicksand of depression will return
This is my experience of depression. It is a cancer that has already metastasized the moment it has formed in your brain. There is no cure for it. There is only management. To stave off the sand and hold back the silt, you must medicate or talk to someone regularly to reassure them that your experiences are not creating an equation where the answer is zero. You must sit in a place that is not yours, on a chair where hundreds of others have sat, and embarrass yourself. Confession without even the pretense of anonymity. Bare your soul, confess your sins: self-doubt, self-loathing, self-hate, apathy, misery, anxiety, being overwhelmed by breathing. Penance? One hundred milligrams of sertraline. See you next week.
There is no relief, of course. No therapy or treatment can cause complete remission. Only abating of symptoms. Flushing of the sand, perhaps, so you can get out of bed, eat, and sleep. A pharmaceutical filtering of silt to help your brain do the math and not reach a zero-sum. Eventually, be it days or months, as a trickle or a torrent, the sand will return.
I take my medication and undertake confession to combat what is, in truth, a physical medical condition. My brain does not create enough serotonin, a hormone responsible for happiness and appetite. Also, it helps regulate the body's sleep cycles. When my brain does make it, my nerve synapses absorb it so quickly that the happiness is stolen before it is truly experienced. It's like an auto-immune disease; my body feeds on the hormones it creates so aggressively that I am incapable of experiencing things the same way as others, if at all.
Depression is still viewed as 'not real.'
And yet, this neurological lupus, this synaptic cancer, is still viewed as 'not real.' The great joke is that someone suffering from depression may often not be recognized as having a disease. Because the language to discuss depression is still lost to us. We have moved from the word insane to the term mental health. Still, that euphemism doesn't offer insight or avenue to empathy, any more than a physical health issue allows one to differentiate between a sprained ankle and cirrhosis of the liver.
As a society that claims to be increasingly focusing on the importance of mental health (while, of course, either not investing in it or, in some cases, defunding mental health programs), we must be able to openly discuss the specifics of the various aspects of depression, of borderline personality disorders, of anxiety, of psychosis, among others. Those suffering from these potentially life-threatening illnesses must be empowered to speak about them. And know that society will understand and recognize that these diagnoses are as life-changing as any other chronic sickness or illness. These conditions are life-threatening. They contribute to the second most common cause of death in men under 45: suicide. In the UK, the rate of suicide in women under 25 has increased by almost 94% since 2011.
With thousands dying every year from issues relating to mental health, from the sand that fills them until it hot-freezes to glass or drags them under with its weight, how is it that as a society, we continue to dance around this subject? Who are we sparing from not encouraging men and women to speak up when they struggle? Who are we helping by this strange, unspoken agreement to sanitize the difficult conversations if any conversation is to be had?
Lip service to help is not enough. Saying that we care but then not actually plowing money into research and treatment saves no lives.
Empowerment of my depression
For me, being empowered to say I am struggling. I am scared that the silt is overwhelming me. The math is coming back to one answer, without it resulting in awkwardness, in coughing and subject changes, can save my life. It means that, in the words of the late, great Scott Hutchison – who lost his battle with the silt and the sand in 2018 – I think I’ll save suicide for another day.
And yet, I am one of the millions of people in the world struggling with 'mental health issues that have nowhere to turn, no free and readily available avenue to find support.
Society needs to encourage open and honest conversations about mental health and push young men and women to share their feelings and anxieties. To witness them, not look away, brush them under the family carpet. If someone announces they have a terminal disease, we research and learn how to support them. We drive them to appointments, and we are open there for them. We, as humans, need to learn to do this for other illnesses: anxiety and depression, for PTSD, and BPD.
Perhaps, one day, I'll wake up and not feel the silt swirling in my veins, the sand's weight holding me to the bed in defiance of the stark reality of my misery. I genuinely hope so. Until then, I will continue to hope that I stave off my own demise. And I will find my joy in riding that great gray wolf in my dreams.
"Depression is like quicksand; the more you try to free yourself the deeper you sink."
Justin Carroll, the author of "Why depression is like quicksand," has published several books, including the award-winning "Hemlock Jones & The Angel of Death", as well as several short stories. He also lives with clinical depression and is keen to continue to drive people to have those difficult conversations about mental health and illness.