Hyberbole And A Half And Invincibility

Allie, the author of Hyberbole and Half (probably my favorite non-atheism-based blog), posted on depression today.

First, I’m always happy when high-functioning, high-profile loons represent. It reaches out to people who feel trapped by mental illness and lets them know they’re not alone. It also helps to normalize mental illness and remove the stigma.

Her piece was beautiful. It captures a lot of what it means to live with clinical depression. For me, one of the hardest initial parts was trying to understand how I could be depressed when my life was so good. I would later learn why that was the case, and that I was not the only one. Allie paints those feelings perfectly.

Some people have a legitimate reason to feel depressed, but not me. I just woke up one day feeling sad and helpless for absolutely no reason.

She also does a spectacular job describing the phases we go through. We so often hear from people who know nothing of the subject that we just need to try to be happy, as though we aren’t.

…trying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back. A fundamental component of the plan is missing and it isn’t going to work.

You can no more will additional serotonin into your brain than you can will more white blood cells into your system.

Anyway, it’s all there: the self-loathing, the inability to leave the house, the feeling that you’re weak because you are depressed over nothing while people in the world are experiencing real hardships. In my case, it’s also the inability to eat, the distortions in the mirror, the paranoia that no matter how good a person I am/become that people will only see that I’m fat. It’s not just being sad, it’s a separation from reality that you cannot navigate despite the commitment of your full-scale efforts and desires.

The only part that made me truly sad was the end of the piece, and it made me sad because it was painted as a victory, but I saw it as sinking deeper into depression.

I’ve always wanted to not give a fuck. While crying helplessly into my pillow for no good reason, I would often fantasize that maybe someday I could be one of those stoic badasses whose emotions are mostly comprised of rock music and not being afraid of things. And finally – finally – after a lifetime of feelings and anxiety and more feelings, I didn’t have any feelings left. I had spent my last feeling being disappointed that I couldn’t rent Jumanji.

I felt invincible.

I’ve been there. That’s when you decide to binge eat, because fuck it, you don’t care. It’s when you decide to cut yourself, because don’t feel and it’s time to explore that. It’s when you initially don’t mind being isolated in your room, because fuck it, you don’t need other people. The problem is that the not caring is mixed up with the self-loathing so that it’s become a homogenous ball of lack of self-concern. She even describes it as a rebellion, which is definitely how it feels. You take all these things that plague you and you run in the opposite direction. The bad part is that it doesn’t last forever, and you always go back to caring, and then your situation is worse and even harder to climb out of. This is where lives get ruined by mental illness.

After months of living with depression, of living every day without being able to get it out of your mind, I can understand where emotional insensitivity would feel like deliverance. That’s a large part of why the cycle is so hard to break out of. The answer to clinical depression is not emancipation from feelings. The answer is getting treatment just like any other disease. There’s a reason morphine, though often administered, is never prescribed as a cure. Numbness, both in your extremities and your synaptic cleft can make physical pain and emotional pain go away for a time, but it does not fix the injury. There is a beautiful world and the chance for genuine happiness that is kept from those with a malfunctioning brain, and we can do better than just being numb – we can get the treatment that helps us to lead a life as close to normalcy as possible.

That is why Allie’s ending didn’t make me cheer for her, it made me sympathize and worry for her.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Today's session.
MENTAL ILLNESS: Today's session.
MENTAL ILLNESS & PERSONAL: Pictures of my brain.
MENTAL ILLNESS: I see affection as a competition.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Melanie

    I’m glad I tweeted you about Allie’s new post. Great post about it JT.

    That’s when you decide to binge eat, because fuck it, you don’t care. It’s when you decide to cut yourself, because don’t feel and it’s time to explore that. It’s when you initially don’t mind being isolated in your room, because fuck it, you don’t need other people. The problem is that the not caring is mixed up with the self-loathing so that it’s become a homogenous ball of lack of self-concern. … The bad part is that it doesn’t last forever, and you always go back to caring, and then your situation is worse and even harder to climb out of. This is where lives get ruined by mental illness.

    This. This go around I said screw it and stopped going to class and missed an exam and several quizzes. Started caring again and I have to drop the class. Guilt about the waste of money starts the cycle again.

    • Jenny

      Melanie, they have wonderful pills that help with that.

      And Zoloft is generic now! Cheap!

      I just use a little 25 mg dose (1/4 the normal dose). Works wonders without the side effects of a full dose.

      • Melanie

        I know they do Jenny. :) But I’ve been on lexapro and it made me gain weight I’d fought so hard to lose. It’s really hard to try again with something else.

        Plus, everyone in my family thinks I’ve been doing so much better and admitting I’m not is hard. They didn’t even know until 7 years into this shit because I was so ashamed to ask for help.

        I also realize my sick brain is rationalizing reasons not to get help. I think when I go see my doctor next I’ll bring it up. Hopefully.

        • Amy

          Lexapro is actually meant to have a calming, “downer” type of effect, and is usually prescribed for anxiety/irritability types of symptoms. For a lot of us with the type of clinical depression that Allie describes (apathy, sadness, lack of motivation to even sit up…), this is not very helpful! Talk to your doctor about a medication that has a more stimulating effect such as Wellbutrin. And good luck! As happy as I am to know I’m not alone with this ridiculousness, I’m sorry to see so many people who can relate…but at least we can all be there for each other!

    • stuartvo

      Oddly enough, back in varsity, on the days when I was at my very worst, I was the least likely to skip class. I was always very conscientious, and to skip class would have meant actually making a decision, and a conscious effort. It was, in fact, easier to just follow the routine than to act any different. But there was an element of “who gives a fuck” nonetheless: I was ruder and sarkier than normal to everyone, even my lecturers.

      FWIW: For two decades of depression, every medicine I tried lifted my mood somewhat, but none were any better than the rest, and nothing worked particularly well. Then I was finally diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy and Aspergers. Since taking my new anti-epilepsy meds and getting cognitive therapy tailored to the Aspergers my mood has lifted immensely.

      Moral of the story: If you’ve been suffering depression for too long, there may be something else wrong with you, possibly in addition to clinical depression. So a second opinion and some new diagnostics might literally be what the doctor ordered!

  • Pteryxx

    … I have no words, so instead I’ll just save Hyperbole-and-a-Half (and this post) in a couple of browser tabs and later read them repeatedly while curled up beneath the couch.

  • Steph

    So weird. I read that about an hour ago and was going to email it to you.

  • CC

    I agree 100% with your comments. I thought the piece on Hyperbole and a Half was brilliant in that it showed how depressives torture themselves more than anyone else ever could and how futile it is for them to try to ‘just get over it.’ I too was sad with the ending, however. Going from feeling miserable to feeling nothing is not progress. That’s when you really start to mess your life up. I hope another installment is to come where she starts to feel positive feelings again.

  • Commander Shepard

    My name is Commander Shepard, and I’m going to have to disagree. What I got out of it is not to do anything because it doesn’t matter, and she was liberated by this not caring. I took it as this is bothering her, and maybe the only way to get through it is by acceptance, not disregarding.

    Acceptance of the depression. Maybe I interpreted differently since, as Commander Shepard, have been going through depressing times myself. Went through a very difficult break up with someone who I thought I was going to marry. Ultimately, her entry really touched me.

    I was feeling inadequate of my appearance and my personality, that I would find no one else for acceptance, and spiraled into sadness. Reading this, I realized that I don’t need to care what other people think, that they can accept me, or not, but I can’t let that hinder me.

    My name is Commander Shepard, and this was my entry for this blog post.

  • Matt

    While I sympathize with your conclusion, I feel that the first step to living a normal life after clinical depression is a self-confidence and self-awareness that CANNOT spring freely from a prescription (though it is a helping hand that many can benefit from).

    The line “Judge me all you want, stupid-face. I don’t have feelings anymore,” is telling of the first step toward self-confidence, but most people take long enough to get through the depressive cycle that they forget all those reasons they have not to be sad. Life isn’t about not being sad, because you never know when an impetus will come along that requires grief, sadness, and possibly even intense suffering. The key for me to overcoming my depression was not numbness, but an awareness that I’m just as flawed and doomed as every other mortal soul I pass by on the street. That we are all part of one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, as Bill Hicks put it. That no matter what, there will always be reasons to be sad, or angry, or overjoyed. It is the balance between these affective states that we must harness in order to live beyond depression.

    I understand being worried about Allie because of the ending, but there is hope in every dark corner of the world. All you need is the strength to open your eyes, which can be so much harder than it sounds.

    One love.

  • watry

    @Commander Shepard–the difference here is that Allie, and I, and JT, likely never experienced one depressing event that led to everything else. Much of clinical depression has to do with brain chemistry and serotonin. It’s that feeling of ‘fuck it, I don’t care anymore’ that led me to not get out of bed to go to class, failing almost everything for two semesters, not being able to appeal on medical grounds, and here a year and a half later still dealing with the consequences.

    And yes, I was on medication. Upping my dosage is what got me out of bed again.

    As for representing, I’m proud to, because depression and anxiety nearly ruined my life and I don’t want it to ruin anyone else’s.

  • http://www.twitter.com/thedudediogenes thedudediogenes

    I didn’t see the conclusion as a negative. This line was key for me: “And that’s how my depression got so horrible that it actually broke through to the other side and became a sort of fear-proof exoskeleton.”

    I interpreted this as a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” type FEELING. That is, once you come to a Stoic- or Buddhist-like acceptance – of death, of one’s depression, whatever you’re dealing with in life – everything becomes easier. You can’t be hurt (as easily) because you’re going to die anyway. You don’t care if people judge you poorly because of your depression because WHO CARES what other people think.

    Just my two-cents as a philosophy major who has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

  • http://wanderinweeta.blogspot.com Susannah

    “She even describes it as a rebellion, which is definitely how it feels.”

    Ah, yes. That’s when I decide to hell with the diet (which is a life-threatening decision, because I’m diabetic) and go binge on carbohydrates; breads, rice, pasta, tacos, even chocolates. It feels so strong, so in control, so good! Until the panic sets in; what have I done? Look at my sugars! Should I go to emerg?

    I’m not really clinically depressed (at least not recently), but I still suffer these days or weeks of dull despair that usually end in the fridge.

    It’s odd that this is a problem of the good times. When life gets really, really bad, the rebellion sets in for good reason, and I plow through; I’ve been there already, anyhow.

  • Sneffy

    I hope she’s OK, it sounds like it really could go either way.

    I can see what she means about the fear-proof exoskeleton; I had a moment like that myself. My anxiety/depression was telling me that everyone thought I was useless and couldn’t hack it at uni, so I thought, “I might as well tell them I’m mentally ill, it’s not like their opinion of me could get any lower”. Then of course they were all lovely and understanding, I got help and things got better. I hope it works out that way for her.

    • Pteryxx

      Ah yes, getting help is so important. Meanwhile one’s mind is going “Help? What is this ‘help’? Why are these people not attacking yet? This is some sort of trap, right?”

    • stuartvo

      “Fear proof exoskeleton”? Bad idea!

      I started using my depression as a defence against the world. Nothing could faze me, because I was already “at the bottom”. Even death scared me less than some things that were merely inconveniences.

      The problem with that is that I ended up retreating into depression at times when I could have been “ok”. It removed much of the impetus to get help and to fight it off.

      Like giving up and drowning instead of swimming and maybe reaching the shore.

  • Lindsay

    JT, you so perfectly expressed here what was subtly bothering me about that post by Allie. I read it, didn’t get a sense of full victory at the end, and was confused at all the happy “yay-glad-you’re-better” posts in response to her blog. I think you’re right that there’s an important difference between self-confidence and recklessness that stems from going so deep that you don’t care or feel at all anymore. Thanks for your insight.

    Also, it’s been a while. I’m sorry about that. I hope you are doing well.

  • Anonymous

    I must’ve missed this the first time around. I don’t disagree with any of it, and can certainly empathize with the feelings described. But my experience was somewhat different.

    I tried to fix my depression with meds; that would’ve been much easier. I was on a string of them with really no relief. I had a cousin with bi-polar disorder so the doctors were certain some chemical imbalance was to blame. And oh how I wanted to believe that.

    After a particularly bad episode that left me feeling very guilty about how I’d treated a good friend I looked into therapy. I distinctly remember thinking “the one thing I need to tell this guy (therapist) is the one thing I never can.” I feared mandatory reporting laws, and being blamed for breaking up my family. My brain lied to me too. It said “if I can just never think of this again, I’ll be ok.” Quite the opposite.

    I couldn’t keep it in for long, fortunately. The family breaking up thing didn’t go at all how I thought it would. I thought they’d stand with me, even if they resented me for it. I was wrong. Family breaking up was really just me breaking off. I was already barely functioning from keeping the secret, not getting support when it came out sent me into a tailspin. I didn’t cut myself because I couldn’t feel. I felt every bit of it. I struggled to do it. People say “oh they just do that for attention.” Sounds terrible when you say it like that. Some situations need attention. No one ignores physical abuse, the evidence is right there in your face. Sexual abuse, especially of kids, is easy to ignore. And it seems people actively want to (how many weeks since the last cover up scandal?) I guess people don’t like to think about it and will avoid that at any cost. I know avoidance all too well.

    So I wanted to share that, it may not be relevant, but I felt the need so I went with it. Think I’ll leave my name off it though. Fortunately the story has a happy ending. I managed to finish college through the worst of that, which still amazes me. I nodded in solidarity with the commenter above who would skip classes and tests (because there’s no way I can go in public right now) and then have to drop the class. I lost a whole semester that way. And fortunately after college I was able to keep it together enough to get through the work day. The betrayal kept me down long after the sting of the abuse faded. But as much as I feared breaking up the family, for as long as that kept me silent, that was exactly what I needed. I spent 5 years in a pit of despair, but what the meds couldn’t fix time did. I can now say that I’ve never been happier.

    • Amyc

      I’m late to the post here, but I too have lost two college semesters due to depression. It’s the “I don’t give a fuck” phase that does it. By the time I was dragged in to counseling and got diagnosed (by someone who loved me too much to see me destroy myself), it was too late to drop my classes. Even the nurse practitioner couldn’t understand why I didn’t just drop the classes. I took a semester off. I’m back in school, but it’s a county college now and not the uni, so I don’t have the same access to affordable mental health care. I’ve been off my meds now for a few months, and the thing that terrifies me the most is losing control again. My boyfriend knows what signs to look for and generally how to help me get motivated, but none of my family knows. I’ve been debating with myself whether or not I should tell them.