Swimming in an Endless Sea

I like to describe my depression as an endless sea. I describe living with my depression as floating in said endless sea. I also describe my depression spikes–the times where it gets all-consuming and I have to put all of my effort into not letting it swamp me–as storms on that sea. I feel the metaphor works well because I do not feel like my depression is an emotion or something that comes and goes. It is always there. It changes the way I interact with the world and how I evaluate every decision I make. When it spikes, it turns a relatively simple and routine task into an all-out fight.

A lot of my metaphors for dealing with my depression center around this image. It comes out mostly in my poetry, but also in the way I talk about it to the people close to me. Just like describing my anxiety as wind (which can be anything from a gentle breeze or even still air to raging tornadoes and hurricanes) or my OCD as a spiral (thanks to the lovely imagery from John Green’s Turtles all the Way Down), I try to find a good image based on something that other people can relate to. It usually works really well because mental illness and our experience of it are subjective. There’s no way for someone else to describe someone else’s experiences with an illness that exists in the realm of their mind. There are biological descriptors and terms we can use that deal with diagnosing and treating the illness, but our experiences are our own. The same is true of physical illness. Sure, you can diagnose and treat a broken arm based on certain tangible facts and descriptors, but you can’t describe someone else’s experience of having a broken arm.

I’ve always liked my depression metaphor because it does a great job of conveying the weight of it. I am treading water in an endless sea because I can manage my symptoms, but I’ll likely never be entirely free of them. My depression colors every thought I have, it weighs in on every decision I make, it is as much a part of my life as being a guy is. It is a part of me. If you can imagine being stuck in an ocean without land or a boat in sight, you can imagine the sort of helplessness and hopelessness that can strike me when I’m struggling to manage my depression.

The endless sea metaphor also lends itself well to the ways I try to manage or interact with my depression. It can pull me down, which is a lot like going under the water. I can’t breathe, but I know that I can hold my breath for a while and swimming in the right direction will bring me back to the surface. When I’m on the surface, I can work on assembling rafts from what I find around me as I float.  It takes a lot of work to make one and they rarely survive a storm, but they let me take a break from needing to work at treading water constantly.

When my depression gets bad, because my anxieties start a storm or I get caught in a thought-whirlpool, it gets more difficult to tread water. Can you imagine how a raft might not survive a storm, dashed apart as the waves swell and crash? Or how it might get tossed aside after getting sucked down a watery vortex? Then I’m back to sinking or swimming under my own power. What if my anxieties and OCD start acting up at the same time? A raft would be useless in a hurricane. Which is why I prefer an anchor to a raft. It might not help me stay on the surface, but it keeps me from getting swept away in a storm or pulled into a whirlpool so long as the rope is strong enough. Even in a hurricane, the anchor will remain. I may not be able to breathe under the water, but I can hold my breath for a very long time at this point and the ocean is always calmer under the surface. Clinging to it often means going under a bit during a storm more frequently that I’m used to, but it also means I always know which way leads to the surface.

The metaphor isn’t perfect, as no metaphor is, but I’ve spent years and years thinking about this and it is so far the best one for me. If I ever come across a better one, I’ll immediately switch to that, like I did with my OCD and thought-spirals. I used to describe it like being unable to stop making a ticking noise with your tongue: it is annoying as shit to you and can get on the nerves of the people around you; it interferes with communication but can be worked around if you try hard enough and people are patient; it is something you know you should be able to avoid doing but can’t for reasons you’re unable to explain (which also frustrates you); and feels like an involuntary bodily reaction once you’re sort of accustomed to it. Spirals is so much simpler and so much more accurate because it gets at the core of what my OCD is and how it affects me rather than being focused on the symptoms.

For a long time, I was tempted to see the people around me as rafts. I could invest myself in their lives and problems, trying to help them and support them, so that I could use my effectiveness at helping them as a means of buoying myself. My past romantic relationships and closest friends were rafts because I could lean on them when I needed help. The problem with that is that I can’t rely on other people to get my through my depressions spikes. Not because other people won’t do it or that getting help from people is bad, but because I can’t expect them to fix me or be emotionally available all the time. They have their own problems to deal with. They can’t be there all the time and that’s fine. That’s a normal part of human relationships. We like to say that we’ll always be there for the people who mean a lot to us, but “always” is a tricky word. That’s a lot to expect from someone else, even if you’ve married them.

I don’t mind asking people for help and I do it when I need a little boost. If what I’m asking won’t cost them too much and will help me through the latest storm or whirlpool, then of course I’m going to ask for help. I just don’t expect it. I also need to be ready to handle all of them on my own because I’ve had times when no one was available to help me and they could have gone horrible wrong if I hadn’t been prepared for that.

There’s a fine line, there. I want to be willing to ask for and accept help from the people close to me, but never in a situation where I absolutely need it. There are resources for those moments, help lines and therapists, but those are people with training for those moments. Putting the need for that level of help on people close to me would be an incredible amount of pressure. I think they’d all be willing to do it if I said I needed it, but, having been in the situation of someone needing that from me, there is a cost that comes with it. I’m glad I have people who’d pay it, but I’d prefer they didn’t have to.

None of this, of course, is to say that I’m in a situation where I need anything. I had a depression spike yesterday that is carrying through today and was made worse by an unfortunate connection between some of my mental health issues and the movie I saw with my girlfriend, but I’m doing fine. I appreciated being able to ask for some comfort from my girlfriend while we watched Rise of the Guardians to clear the other movie from our minds, but it wasn’t something I expected to make me feel better. It helped in the moment and it gave me an hour’s reprieve from the storm I was fighting (we couldn’t find the movie anywhere but on 20th Century Fox’s website and they only let us watch an hour of it), but I eventually left and had to deal with it on my own again. If there was more she could have done to help, I’d have asked for it, but sometimes the only thing that helps me is time.

Before I went to bed, as I meditated on my depression and my girlfriend’s wonderful offer to help me if she could, I couldn’t help but think of the ways I’ve dealt with and talked about my depression over time. I went from dealing with it on my own in an unhealthy manner to relying on other people to dealing with it in a constructive and nominally healthy manner on my own. Even if the metaphor hasn’t changed and I sometimes need to remind myself that it is okay to ask for help as long as I’m not putting too much pressure on people, it is nice to see how much better I’ve gotten at handling it.

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