When I started this post yesterday, I wasn’t intending to write a two-parter. I was talking about the reasons the mental health conversation is so hard to have, even in an ideal world where everyone is kind and supportive and wants to understand. While talking about how the symptoms of depression make depression hard to talk about, one of the things I mentioned was how depression saps your energy. Of course, I then ran out of energy and wasn’t able to finish the post. Hence a two-parter. Fingers crossed I’ll finish today. In this part, I want to talk about what may seem like a more abstract, or philosophical, reason it is hard to talk about mental illness. Please don’t let that deter you. I think it’s pretty simple once you see it. I’m going to talk about the way experience and language work together (or sometimes at cross-purposes).
The heart of the matter is that the experience of mental illness is quite unique. People often point out that a diagnosed case of anxiety is different than just being worried about something. And those people are right. It’s not even just a matter of degree or intensity. Worry might be similar in some ways to clinical anxiety, but they are not synonyms. This is where the difficulty lies.
With any experience, it is impossible to describe it in itself. We are stuck describing it by referring to other experiences. Color is probably the most famous example of this. No one can describe blue. All we can do is point to blue things and say, “That. Right there. That’s blue.” It’s a step harder with feelings. We can’t point to a feeling. So, we talk about times when we had that feeling or times when we think someone else had the feeling. If it’s excitement, we might talk about Christmas morning as a kid. That’s a fairly common experience of excitement for lots of people and allows us to communicate the feeling.
Mental health experiences are intensely personal. I talked about isolation yesterday. I’ve even described depression as feeling solipsistic. And the thoughts and feelings involved are unlike other thoughts and feelings that I’ve had. When I’m having a depressive episode, I can’t say, “It feels like that time. . .” because it doesn’t. It feels like depression. So, it’s way harder to talk about than regular experiences and feelings.
The best I can do is use metaphors. I’m a writer, so I like metaphors, but they’re not entirely up to the job. I can talk about the feeling when I’m depressed that my body is a machine that I’m clumsily piloting. When I’m functioning well, my body and my self are one. I think the image speaks to the disconnect and the remoteness and the slowness of depression, but I can’t be sure. I don’t know if that metaphor explains anything at all. It’s frustrating.
So, that’s where I am right now. I want to have this conversation. I think it’s important that we do. But it’s hard. I’ll do my best. What do you think? Was my metaphor any good?