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Winter of the Mind
The Experience of Severe Depression and Imminent Suicide
one woman’s perspective, as told to Paul Raworth Bennett
Although everyone with depression experiences it uniquely, a universally accurate metaphor would be “emotional winter”. Throughout this chilly time run two common themes: profound isolation and the risk of suicide. According to my close friend Suzanne (whose identity I’ve disguised), this is how depression feels…
Profound Isolation: The Unreachable Winter Party
Imagine you’re Suzanne. It’s winter and you’re slogging through deep snow in a dark forest, your cheeks stinging from the assault of a howling blizzard. You’re hungry, thirsty, cold, weary, and your body aches. You’re afraid of nocturnal beasts, and you feel all alone.
Eventually you spy a distant log cabin, covered in deep white drifts, smoke curling lazily from its chimney.
As you approach, you can hear music. When you’re perhaps 50 feet away, through open windows you can see a lavish banquet of food and drink laid out on long wooden tables. And there’s a noisy crowd of laughing, carousing, dancing revelers – a big, vibrant celebration.
The door opens and onto the porch steps the person who’s dearest to your heart. Who is that person – your husband? Wife? Mother? Father? Brother? Sister? Your son, daughter or best friend?
Then they call out:
“Hey Suzanne! Whatcha doing out there in the snow? Everybody’s here – come join us! We’ve got a great party happening… so eat, drink, and be merry! Come dance and sing! Play the piano for us… we know you can tickle those ivories… and read us some of your stories!”
Totally exhausted, you yearn to warm up inside that cabin. But you can only stumble towards it, for your legs feel weighty as if they’re made of stone.
But heaviness isn’t the only problem: you’re blocked by an invisible wall of ice. You pound that wall – but alas, you can’t even crack it. And you’ve no idea how thick the wall is; maybe it’s paper-thin, maybe it’s hopelessly thick. So you don’t know how much time or effort it’s going to take to break through, or whether that’s even possible.
Alone and in groups, other people appear on the porch, beckoning you: “C’mon Suzanne! We’re all waiting for you! You must be freezing to death!”
And you are – stuck in the snow, in the dark, in your misery.
You might desperately ask for help, pleading that you’d like nothing more than to join them. And their responses will vary widely: those who understand will reply with statements like “what can I do help”, “take your time, there’s no hurry”, or “I know how you feel”. But others will say things like “just pick up your socks”, “get yourself together, Suzanne!”, “what’s your problem?”, or “others have it worse than you!”
Or you might find that you’re mute, without a voice.
Or maybe, having given up hope, you won’t try to say anything at all.
After a time – minutes, days, weeks, months or years; you don’t know – everyone just heads back inside.
Your mind knows you’ve been inside that cabin before, but your heart has forgotten how good it feels. You’re fully aware that the cold, the dark, the heaviness of your legs, and the icy wall are the creations of your tortured psyche – but you’re numb, powerless, and your spirit is broken.
You realize that life’s better in the party and that you’d be warmly welcomed. But all you can do is watch the revelry from your own distant, private jail in the snow.
Eventually the door closes and the party continues as you shuffle away, into the frigid night on your one-way path to oblivion. And you become increasingly worried that you’ll succumb to the blizzard while help is tantalizingly close at hand.
For Suzanne, the worst part of depression isn’t the sadness; it’s the numbness, the disconnection. When she’s merely sad, at least she feels alive. It’s unpleasant, but she’s present to her soul and participating in life. But when Suzanne is in the pit of despair she feels totally disconnected, beyond hope, trapped in a living nightmare from which she can’t awaken.
This is anhedonia (“incapable of feeling any pleasure”) and it’s like being in a solitary prison cell with white walls, no door, no windows, no furniture, nothing.
To Suzanne, that’s how severe depression feels.
Approaching Suicide: Encountering the Wolves
Now let’s carry on with Suzanne’s wintry odyssey…
Lost, you’ve gone in circles and passed that cabin countless times. You’re completely drained and suddenly, your spine chills from the barking and wailing of a distant wolf.
Fear grips your chest and you don’t know which way to turn. Catching your scent, the wolf begins to track you, stopping every so often to howl again. You realize it’s getting closer and closer. Sometimes it seems to vanish for awhile, but then you hear it once more – this time, more loudly.
Eventually, you realize that several of them have been following you and they’ve got you cornered in a clearing. In a circle, maybe a dozen feet away, they growl in low voices and bare their teeth. And they just stand there, their beady, glowing eyes fixed upon your terrified ones.
Now you’re getting sleepy. Hallucinating, you begin to see the wolves differently. As they salivate and lick their chops, you start to realize how beautiful and kind they are and that they care about you.
Eventually you believe that your furry friends are silently telling you that they know the way out of the forest and will be taking you there.
And as the wolves continue to entice, mesmerize and seduce, you convince yourself that you must join them.
At this point, in real life, you’d be thinking about things like how to wrap up your financial affairs, part with your material possessions, and end your life both quickly and without leaving too much of a mess behind.
That’s how approaching suicide feels.
Now, death by one’s own hand isn’t exactly everyone’s favourite conversation topic. But depression can be fatal, so I felt it necessary to share with you how Suzanne feels when she’s on the brink. She’s never attempted suicide, but she knows all too well its powerful call.
Thus far, Suzanne has stared down the wolves by thinking of whose whom she loves and who love her. Her devoted little dog … her wonderful parents and family… her amazing daughter… her great friends… and all who stepped out on the deck of that cabin. Only by focusing on these loving souls – and contemplating the pain they’d experience should she end her life – has Suzanne refrained from those final steps. If loved ones weren’t around, she’s uncertain that she would be either.
Fear not that Suzanne is currently at risk of suicide, because the opposite is true. Barring a few reasonable ups and downs, with the help of medication, plenty of social activities and lots of exercise and creative activity, over the past few months she’s been on a stronger footing than ever, so hope is in Suzanne’s future.