What Does Your Sadness Feel Like to You?

Melancholia. Watch it.

“I don’t know how to answer that. It’s almost like being really tired. And people seem to become more and more like animals rather than human beings.”

— XX

There are few things less important than a child’s sports game, in the grand scheme of things. Excepting the fraction of a percent of children who move up the ranks to professional teams, the outcome of the match and the individual performance of the players has absolutely no impact on the world or anyone’s future. Much has been written on how and why it is that grown adults, with stresses and considerations that far outweigh anything going on at their neighbourhood court, field, rink, ring, diamond, or sheet, nevertheless place such primary importance on the athletic performance of a bunch of confused and disoriented children. My retrospective guesses are marital trouble and latent alcoholism, but the reasons aren’t the point. The point is that children, being as they are stupendously gullible, have a remarkable tendency to internalize this thinking, and to get to a point where they too consider it of the utmost importance that they crush their opponents. My parents, thankfully, were fairly relaxed about the whole sporting situation, save for a general feeling that I should play some kind of sport, because that’s simply what normal kids do. But the atmosphere was still there. It somehow mattered that I play well.

I only remember two stories from my year of playing softball. In the first I’m guarding third base. There is little plot to this memory—I just have to pee. I hold it for what then seemed like a long time, before deciding that this inning is destined to go on forever, and therefore that I will never get a chance to use a washroom. So I decide to urinate where I’m standing, right in my pants. A runner comes to third base and mentions the large piss trail I have slowly making its way down my leg. I’m not sure how I respond. The inning ends and I head back to the dugout. The entire team is not blind, and so they notice too. So do my parents, who come and whisk me away, asking why didn’t I just ask to use a washroom.

In the second I’m at bat. I have no idea of the state of the bases or whether the outfielders moved in when I took the plate or what the pitcher looked like or if my dad managed to make it to the game. All I remember is that I swung wildly at every single pitch that came at me, and whiffed every single time. I immediately ran the count to 0-3 and was out. I started crying, and it was determined that I would be given another chance, a do-over. So I swung three more times, and again hit nothing. I was at this point at zero balls and six strikes. But my childish hysteria would not abate. And so it was decided that, since none of this mattered anyway, I would be allowed to use a tee. As in a tee-ball tee, which there was one in one of the dugouts. The tee was brought out, raised to its maximum height on account of my being too old for it, and everyone took their places. I wound up, swung, and managed to hit the tee a few inches below the ball, knocking it over, but leaving the ball more or less where it had been perched, hanging in the air for the briefest of moments before it dropped to the ground a few inches from my feet. I remember nothing after this.

Aside from their illumination of my later distaste for any and all competitive sports, these memories are essentially meaningless, offering, so far as I can tell, no insight into my current character. But imagine, for a moment, if these were your memories, and if you were socially expected to explain them to every person you met—how you felt, how you feel about it now, what you think of the social pressure to play sports given your difficult past experiences with them. Imagine if this one useless and embarrassing anecdote was the one thing every person you met was most interested in hearing about.

First, my admission, my diagnosis, my credentials: as best as I and a couple trained practitioners can tell, I have clinical depression. That much is fairly uninteresting, since lifetime incidences of depression tend to fall in the one-in-ten ballpark,1 and so you’d be hard pressed to find a social circle that doesn’t have at least one mopey sad-sack in it. Add to that the fact that depression dominates conversation in a way that alcoholism (with similar rates of incidence) and arteriosclerosis (with much higher rates of both incidence and morbidity) do not, and you get a situation in which you, I, and everyone else have probably heard a good deal more about depression than is good for us. But unfortunately, unlike any physical disease and many of the more extreme (i.e. scary or off-putting) mental illnesses, depression seems to require one’s own individual stamp vis-à-vis what, exactly, It feels like.

“It feels like I’m suffocating and I’m trapped. It feels like an ache in my chest that makes me empty inside. It feels like I have no escape, and all I want to do is run away. So I do. Through books. Through imagination. Through music.”

—XX

With “It” being some gossamer combination of both the experience of depression itself and the experience of being a person with depression in, to borrow the expression, “today’s society.” The general logic of this expectation isn’t entirely unsound—until we finally crack telepathy, the only way we’ll get any idea how another person feels is for them to express it somehow—but it isn’t exactly bulletproof either,2 and at any rate I’m never quite sure what specifics people are hoping for, especially since our lack of telepathy ultimately means the best I can ever give anyone in terms of information is to say that sadness feels, well, kind of like sadness. Ordinarily, complete and utter and guaranteed futility is reason enough for me to not even bother trying something—and yet, whether it’s our milieu of assuming the ideal amount of emotional communication is always “as much as possible,” or just the fact that a feeling of ouroborotic futility is part and parcel of depression itself and so I’m not likely to make anything any worse, I’m still somehow inclined to try. So, this is something like what It feels like; this is what I feel like; this is what you feel like, for me; this is how you’re wrong; this is how you’re right.

“It depends on the kind of sad. The most common feeling would be of a grey melancholy. Nothing seems important and my only thoughts are repetitive “what if’s” and other such wonderings. In this medium sad state I usually feel detached. Extreme sadness is a desperate feeling where someone is squishing my insides and I feel incapable of understanding/dealing with/expressing what has happened/is happening. This would be first impact with the grey to follow but sometimes the grey comes on its own for little or no reason.”

— XX

Probably the most salient point about depression, or just about any mental illness, is the notion that there is a stigma attached to it, and, corollary to that, that this stigma should be eradicated. The example clause in my computer’s dictionary entry for “stigma” is “the stigma of mental disorder.” Bell hosted a thinly veiled advertising campaign centred around the idea of “end[ing] the stigma around mental illness.”3 Even royalty has gotten involved, with this mercilessly boring video. I have nothing but respect for people who are trying to help their neighbours, and nothing but sympathy for those spokespeople who try to leverage their own struggles to help further their cause. And I make no pretence of understanding anything more than my own personal experience, so the following is not meant as a criticism of anyone’s attempts to end stigma, nor as a denial that such a stigma exists. What I do mean to say is that, so far in my life, I’ve never felt it. It’s entirely possible that my life is extremely unusual, and that my data point is therefore useless in the face of an overall statistical reality, and yet this life is the only one I’ve had the (~dis)pleasure of living: short of lying, all I can do is share my perspective, which is one filled with a nearly endless parade of parents, mentors, friends, teachers, counsellors, psychologists, pastors, and TSN hosts, telling me that they understand—or that they understand that they can’t understand—that I’m not alone, that there’s no shame in sharing one’s feelings, that there’s no shame in needing help, that depression is not a choice, but a disease like any other.

Which as general truisms I don’t actually disagree with. What I’m concerned with is the possibility that these statements end up fulfilling themselves: much like D.A.R.E. lectures which urged me not to do drugs or join gangs even though, the speaker reiterated, all my friends wanted me to, the main source from which I’ve heard of a stigma toward mental illness is those who are trying to end it. While most people give me the impression they’re happy to live and let struggle, Michael Landsberg feels compelled to spend several minutes telling me that no one understands me, and Bell Media’s PR department feels it’s appropriate to point out that fifty-one percent of Canadians don’t want to socialize with me on account of my diagnosis. I can’t help but feel like such well-meaning communiques may do more harm than good.

But even supposing these campaigns are as successful as they claim they can be, it’s still rather unclear what, exactly, we are aiming to destigmatize. If we want people to feel more comfortable going to therapy, or admitting their therapy visits to friends, I say good luck to us, and that we’ll need it. For all our better-world pontificating, I’ve yet to see one person or agency publicly reckon with the central inconsistency in this supposed ideal: these hypothetical patients, who plainly understand their own therapeutic needs, seek appropriate professional help, and freely share this journey without shame—these people don’t sound depressed. These hypothetical wonderpatients sound essentially like the confident, emotionally stable, healthy people we all (including me) wish we could be, and know we can’t. Which idyllicism not only once again reinforces the very stigma it tries to eradicate by emphasizing just how defective, burdensome, and self-defeating the depressive attitude is when compared to a healthy psyche, but it’s also a tautologically empty quip on the level of saying “depressed people would be better off if they weren’t depressed.” Though technically true—the world would be much more navigable by the wheelchair-bound, too, if we could just get them walking—I’m not sure we gain much from saying this.

“Don’t really see your interest, as it’s mostly generic. Sudden sadness is in all the familiar places, dry throat, burning eyes, weak joints sometimes from the shock. Sometimes the stomach jumps like you took a drop on a roller coaster or a rolling road, just before the point of it feeling like nausea. That’s usually if I realized I hurt someone and am sad for it.”

— XX

Unless, of course, I have it wrong, and what we’re really trying to destigmatize is the experience of depression, or the depressed psyche itself. Perhaps the goal is to see such struggles, without shaming them, as faultless illnesses foisted upon people by genetics or societal problems or some sort of quantum randomness. There are, no doubt, unsympathetic psycho-deniers who could stand to gain from shifting a few degrees toward this viewpoint. For everyone else, though, who is in the confused-but-with-correctly-placed-hearts majority, I think more could be gleaned from a deeper understanding of how selfish, melodramatic, culpable, and genuinely dickish the depressed person is.

Now then, consequent to my initial admission/diagnosis/credentials, it’s possible the reader may feel that last sentence is just an example of my depressed brain misfiring, focussing exclusively on my moral, emotional, and interpersonal failings, and ignoring all of the many times I’ve been selfless, steady, innocent, and kind. I, naturally, am disinclined to agree, but supposing this is true, and that accurate self-appraisal is basically last on the depressed person’s list of skills, I’ve opted to focus externally, on three examples I’m less at risk of having prejudged.

The Depressed Person is a short story by David Foster Wallace4 in which is given a brief snapshot of the life and mindset of the titular Person. The narrative is minimal, and (for us, at least) not really important. Glimpses of treatment plans, parental neglect, and strained relationships flash by, but what holds them together, the driving and organizing principle behind all this, is the Person’s psyche, and the peculiar way it bends the world in towards itself, not unlike a black hole on a sheet of spacetime. Wallace, smartly, never pretends the depressed person’s problems are illusory or unimportant or simple to fix, and yet he makes it clear throughout whence cometh our Person’s real problem: bracketing, for a controversial moment, notions of fault, our hero is at the very least the cause of her own downfall. The depression itself may be an unfortunate accident of genetics or childhood trauma, but her actions from that point on, whether you deem them under her control or not, only worsen the situation. To avoid turning this digression into a mid-length literary essay within an already-lengthy-enough personal essay, I’ll summarize what I see as the main source and reflection of conflict: our Person’s phone calls. She makes these calls, often late at night, to members of her Support System—trusted and supportive friends on whom she can emotionally rely. The call is allegedly an attempt to share her experience, or at least to receive a few kind words, but the majority of the conversation is spent not on sharing or Support, but on apologizing for calling, apologizing for needing Support, apologizing for being a burden, apologizing for interrupting the other person’s no doubt fantastic day. After some conversation with her therapist, she realizes that even this apologizing could be seen as (and, of course, is) a manipulative ploy to keep whichever friend she’s coldcalled guilty enough to stay on the line—and so she begins to apologize for manipulating people into continued and unending Support.

So far, so self-centred. Which is, so far, a perfectly competent, measured, and accurate portrayal of depressive narcissism, but where The Depressed Person evinces its late author’s singularity is in its treatment of the expected climax: something absolutely, unbelievably, undeniably terrible happens to someone else, and the self-centred Person realizes just how self-centred she’s been. This does happen. The terrible thing is that the depressed person’s therapist commits suicide. And the depressed person, to her credit, recognizes this as the tragedy it is. And she recognizes how little she knew of her therapist’s struggle, and thus how little concern she had for another person who was, ostensibly, her friend. This newfound self-awareness would almost seem to be a hopeful ending if it weren’t for The Depressed Person’s bone-rattling finale, in which the depressed person confesses her selfishness and inconsiderateness to a friend who is, at that very moment, slowly dying of a terminal illness. Tell me honestly, she says to a doomed and retching woman, Am I Broken? The central and sickening conceit being that the depressed person has managed to make even sympathy for another person’s pain into yet another reason for everyone to focus exclusively on her own.

“Sometimes it feels like a heavy weight on my chest that I can’t get rid of… though crying sometimes helps with it. Sometimes it’s all encompassing and overwhelming and I just can’t escape it. And sometimes it just sits there in the back of my mind, popping up at typically inopportune times.”

— XX

Once again, I don’t want to speak for anyone else, and couldn’t even if I wanted to, so my gravitation to this description isn’t meant as an insult toward or a criticism of any other person struggling with depression. But I will say that the narcissism that informs The Depressed Person rings truer than most other descriptions I’ve read of the depressed experience. Take, for example, the Twitter feed of @endthestigma, or this article from a blog called Wife.Mom.Superwoman. The former, as it stands, is composed mainly of retweets and the usual impenetrable ASCII smorgasbord that is Twitter. But those tweets which manage to contain some actual substance (and aren’t apologies for not tweeting more often) form a pattern. “You’re a good person,” one screencapped Tumblr post reads, “no matter what anyone tells you. Putting yourself first when you need self-care is never wrong. Your mental health is more important than anything.” The emphases in that quote are mine, so you may already be able to glean where I’m headed with this, but just in case, here are some more representative examples.

Nearly every entry that isn’t an empty platitude to make things better for the mentally ill basically says the same thing: you, depressed person, you are a hero. Your struggle is vast and beyond the reckoning of normal men, but you make it through. And the surest sign that you’ve won the day? You focus, above all, on yourself.

This grandiosity has obvious limitations in its effectiveness—its characterization is seldom deeper than that of a Halloween costume—but this inefficacy is probably a blessing given how such messaging implores people to behave. True happiness, it seems to imply, comes from two things. First, you must consider your own needs.  Second, other people must consider your own needs. The idea that happiness about one’s own situation comes from interacting with others’, or that empathy might be muscular and trainable, or that there might be situations where one’s own needs are just not the point, or that purposefully ignoring one’s internal tempest in favour of just doing something constructive anyway might be beneficial—these aren’t considered. All that matters is the singular consideration, by me and the rest of the universe, that my immediate feelings dictate everything.

“[It] feels a lot like heaviness a lot of the time. Like I’m being squished from the inside. Sometimes if it’s sad enough it makes all my muscles tense like I’m in actual pain. It feels debilitating. Exhausting.

It feels vulnerable too. because I’ve opened myself up to care.

Allowed it to make me sad.

It often makes me feel helpless. Because you can’t choose feelings.”

— XX

Wife.Mom.Superwoman does more or less what its name suggests, and takes this thinking to the furthest extremes of its flawed logic. Its poetically entitled “8 Things You Should Never [Ever] Say to Someone Struggling With Depression (Plus 8 Things You Could Say)” enumerates exactly that, in the opinion of its author Dierdre Guillory. What proceeds is actually a list of things that either aren’t a big deal, like the fairly innocuous “I know how you feel,” or are so hilariously insane that I can’t imagine any actual person saying them—“You’re depressed again?” or better yet “You don’t need medication.” All of these are glossed with helpful tips and alternatives that vacillate between the sort of treacly-sweet nothings that you’d expect from a website with an endlessly repeating floral-esque pattern background, and an angry snark that hearkens back to the more petulant of my teenage tantrums. The overall impression this leaves is stark: other people are stage four idiots. Why else would they say such stupid things all the time, ignorant of the labyrinthine interpretive network the depressed person will use to misconstrue awkward attempts at sympathy into some sort of personal attack? How could they not know, as per list item number four, that the obvious solution to the depressed person’s problem is for you to cancel your vacation plans and ask if there’s any way you can “serve” her?

“Awful.”

— XX

What’s ultimately the most flabbergasting thing about @endthestigma’s and Wife.Mom.Superwoman’s monumentally deadpan lack of self-awareness is that, in order to write numerous tweets and full-length blog posts all about one’s own situation, one must simultaneously be incredibly self-interested. That such self-interest seems so seldom to result in any useful insight is probably the strongest argument against our current overriding assumption that somehow focussing on one’s own needs first is the best way to help those around us.5

And yet even after all this, I’m still inclined to think of my own depressive experience as somehow more real, more worthy of discussion, than anyone else’s—q.v. this essay, which is, at the end of the day, all about me. Such is the danger of diagnosis, and of endless pages telling me that my feelings are now categorically distinct from those of mere mortals. Such is the danger of an illness that shatters logic and makes doublethink appear self-evident. I am uninteresting, talentless shit, but I also, deep down, probably think I’m smarter than you, and someday, sooner than you expect, you assholes will realize that. I have nothing to be depressed about, and thus no useful info to impart, but I still think my experience, whether despite its incongruousness or because of it, can be and must be communicated. I’ve developed sophisticated arguments as to why and how there is nothing to be gained by my focussing on myself, and yet I write. I know that my original premise for this piece—the title being “A Simple, One-Sentence Explanation of What Depression Feels Like” and the body being a single sentence that stretched on for at least a thousand words, looping back and contradicting itself—was self-aggrandizing and beyond my skills as a writer, and yet here is an excerpt.

“A frightening peace, a peace not emergent from the lack of pain or threat, but the peace of complete isolation, peace from anything, joy or sorrow, except the faintest gnawing sense that you are defected, the peace that comes after an earthquake or hurricane have left only the tiniest limp brainstem of humanity behind to simply survive, free from threat by all being too hungry to threaten anyone else, and too hungry to care if they are threatened—but except no, it’s not so tranquil: that feeling you have in the morning when sounds are still barbed and painful to hear, there’s an analogue in the other senses—everything is sharp edges and so are you.”

— XX

I don’t think the problem is doublethink, though. More likely, the issue stems from how it is applied. It can be used to remodel every situation into an excuse for self-pity, yes. But it might also be necessary, applied in a different way, to deal with depression. The depressed person must realize, to escape his situation, that his problem is unique enough to require actual, possibly professional help—but he must simultaneously recognize that his diagnosis doesn’t make his experiences any more real or important than anyone else’s. She needs to focus on her own mental health, but not deify it. He needs to communicate his experience nakedly and honestly, but also not pore over it as if the world needs more navel gazing. She must accept the most demeaning part of her disease: that it robs you of agency—but also ignore her own helplessness, and do the very best she can anyway.

The nondepressed, on the other hand, need to simultaneously accept that it matters what they do to and around their depressed friends, but also that there’s nothing they can do to eliminate their friend’s illness. That we need to be vigilant at understanding, finding, and fighting depression, but also that a medical diagnosis is a double-edge that can lead to both acceptance and ostracism, whether from within the depressed person or from without. That the depressed people around you have a fundamentally different experience of life than you do, but also that they don’t. That this isn’t my fault—I have an illness, after all—but also that the sorts of reasons for not getting better that go on in my head are often entirely volitional. Perhaps I can’t imagine how I might get better, or I doubt any treatment will help, or else maybe the treatments seem like too much effort or expense. But more likely than all of those is that on some level I want to be this way. That it’s important you hear me, for both of our sake’s, but also that you probably can’t believe a word I say.

She’s still staring at me. She’s said something. I haven’t. She expects a better answer.

“I said are you alright? What’s up?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah what? Yeah you’re alright? I can barely hear you.”

“I’m fucking sick of the cute little chain email little pictures that people send me telling me I’m sick and I’m struggling and no one understands and I’m actually helpless like the only way this is real is if it’s insurmountable. Fuck that.”

“Oh. O.K.”

“I’m in here.”

“What?”


  1. Anade, L., Kessler, R. C., Caraveo-Anduaga, J. J., Graaf, R. d., Bijl, R. V., Kohn, R., . . . Kawakami, N. (2003). The epidemiology of major depressive episodes: Results from the international consortium of psychiatric epidemiology (ICPE) surveys. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 12(1), 3-21. doi:10.1002/mpr.138

  2. “So, Mrs. Ferris, after long deliberations we’ve decided that, due to your unique, first-person knowledge of what it’s like to have leukemia, you are the most suited to perform your bone-marrow transplant.”

  3. Their best guess as to how to do this? Connect with family and friends via the largest wireless network in Canada.

  4. Available here or, better yet, as part of Wallace’s collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999).

  5. Plus also against the romanticized notion that somehow mental illness breeds worthwhile creativity. Such has never been the case for me, and I suspect it’s not the case for other people as well.