When the Whole World Is Depressed

A few things I have learned from feeling like shit with no end in sight

Several years ago, a friend of mine, a psychologist, went through an especially rough series of personal struggles. One day, she found she could not motivate herself to get out of bed. She felt hopeless, exhausted, like there was no actual point to going through the motions of her daily life. Those feelings lasted for about two weeks before her typical cheerful disposition returned.

The next time I saw her, it was with a small group of friends gathered around the table in her sun-filled, plant-lined, candy-colored kitchen. She described her two-week dark night of the soul, and then shouted (lovingly) at me and another friend who suffered from depression: “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME IT WAS LIKE THAT?”

There are a lot of possible answers there, all of which felt too mean to say. (I thought you knew? Don’t you have a Ph.D. in psychology? It lasted all of two weeks, and you think you actually get it?) But the whole point was, words can’t convey the experience any more than a description of searing pain can convey the experience of a kidney stone. You can understand that it’s real and it sucks, but you don’t know.

Yesterday, I texted two friends (who have agreed to be quoted anonymously, “as long as you identify us as the smartest and coolest people you know”): “I just had the rather grim thought that maybe those of us who have lived through depressive episodes have the advantage here, because we know we've survived feeling this bad or worse. All the people screeching at us to stay positive are feeling it for the first time, poor slobs.”

“Oh, absolutely yes,” replied one. “We are like, ‘That's right fools, sometimes the entire earth grinds to a halt, and you have to just stare into the abyss for MONTHS, what of it?”

“I’ve had that thought a lot,” said the second friend. “On the other hand it means that I’m just like, ‘Oh I know how to do this! I’m just gonna sleep for several months!’ So I’m not interested in doing all the cute gardening and sourdough making and whatnot everyone else is doing.”

“Yeah, I do not care about getting an A+ in quarantining,” I said. “I would be happy with partial credit, i.e., survival.”

I never anticipated that world events would create a shared taste of depression for all of us, but here we are. Feeling trapped? Agitated but unmotivated? Overwhelmed by uncertainty? Desperate to feel better but clueless as to how you’d start? Unable to concentrate? Sleepy all day and wide awake all night? Hopeless? Useless? Failed? Annoyed with yourself? Annoyed with everything, including things you used to love? Hungry all the time or not at all? Drinking a worrisome amount? Irritable as fuck? Angry and helpless? WELCOME TO MY HOME. It’s terrible here. Sit down and make yourself uncomfortable.

I’ve been well-medicated for years, which has been an enormous help in terms of productivity and the ability to feel joy. But much like capitalism, the structures in place to support my mood are not built on a strong foundation. At the moment, I feel… okay. But when you have depression, “okay” sometimes means “numb,” which can easily give way to “not okay.” Which is it? Who knows! Depression means your brain lies all the time, but also, we’re living through a pandemic under a kakistocracy, and I’m currently grieving a parent, so maybe “numb” and “okay” are exactly the same thing right now?

I am struggling massively to work on a book that is due very soon. I’ve been sharing all those “You don’t have to be productive” memes, but I’d be taking them more to heart if I had been more productive over the last two years. Again, shaky foundations; I struggle with executive function on my best fully medicated day, so if you throw any new variables into the mix, whatever I might have achieved goes to hell. Dad died; I got sick; the whole world got sick; everything closed; my social feeds started filling up with obituaries; the president suggested injecting our lungs with bleach; and suddenly, my usual strategy of spending ages researching, filling notebooks, and ruminating, then 3 months actually writing the thing, seems a lot less sound! It only works if you can really focus in those last three months! Ha! HOW FUNNY! So much of our world and so many of our habits turn out to depend on a bunch of things all going right at once!

But I am not here to depress you more. I’m actually here to offer a tiny, broken shard of hope.

First, I need to acknowledge that not everyone survives depression, just like not everyone is going to survive this whole situation. At this writing, more than 56,000 Covid-19 deaths have been reported in the U.S. Several of my friends and mutuals have lost parents and grandparents; one has lost a sister, who was my age. It’s bad. I don’t mean to downplay either illness—nor the collateral effects of income loss, unpayable bills, hunger, and fear.

But if this is your first time feeling this fucking awful for this long, the main thing I want to tell you is that it will end. One day, you will feel something other than numb or hopeless or sad or all three again.

The shitty thing is, you don’t know when that will be. With clinical depression, that’s because it comes and goes as it pleases. With the pandemic, it’s because we don’t have enough information to know when it will be safe to end lockdowns. Here in the U.S., we don’t know if we’re getting a new president in November, or if things are going to get even uglier, simultaneously more incompetent and more authoritarian. And no matter what happens, a whole lot of things about the way our society worked two months ago are going to have to change. We’re all going to suffer for a while, to put it mildly, and some people, as always, will suffer much more than others. But eventually, changes will come about that ease the suffering. Our job is to sit with being relatively helpless, love the people we love, and wait.

Bonus points if you can find the energy to push our leaders to lead, but again, this is a pass/fail situation. (Blair Braverman, always wise, has more good tips for people who still have energy.)

There’s a ton of advice on the internet about living with depression, but here’s the one really useful tool I’ve found: a choose-your-own-adventure guide to meeting your own basic needs. Short version: Take a shower. Eat something. Drink water. Nap as necessary. If you’re a caffeine-drinker, caffeinate. If something hurts, take a painkiller. Set a timer for 5 minutes of tidying. Don’t beat yourself up for doing or not doing any of it.

If you’re struggling with an Impossible Task (thanks to bestie Molly Backes for that coinage), ask somebody else to help or do it for you, then ask if you can do their Impossible Task. It is often much easier to muster the will to help others than to help yourself.

If you’re not one for meditating, simple video games, needlework, and puzzles are all great ways to empty out your head for minutes or hours.

There is no thinking your way out of this. There is only getting through it.

You are not wasting time.

There will be no reward for what feels increasingly like a punishment. The reward is not dying, which is the greatest possible reward but will somehow feel like much less than we deserve.

If the only life you save is your own, you will have accomplished something of enormous importance.

It will end.

It will end.

It will end.