depression and the power of language

depression is a state of subtraction, says catatonic kid,

depression is not an approachable thing. it seems, in fact, to be precisely the opposite. it has a power to repel that is apparently so strong that it stops our mouths before we have even thought to speak of all that runs through its dark night.


there are barriers around the whole experience of depression, and that’s unfortunate because it means we don’t have language, yet, for the most common states of it. it’s like the apocryphal story of how very many words eskimos have for snow…

in this cross-blog conversation with catanonic kid, maybe we can break down the barriers, make it more approachable.

wordwide, depression is the leading cause of disability and the 4th leading contributor to the global burden of disease, affecting 121 million people altogether. we better find a few words for it!

and we do have words. a sample from catatonic kid and her commenters

a grey wash over everything, a strange and fuzzy cloud, a bell jar, an emotional topper, a thick wall between the individual and the rest of the world …

depression is a barren space, a shore that no-one wants to swim to. i understand that so well. i feel contagious when I am so sickened. i would not want this awful mind to be visited by even the worst people…

a shapeless mess

in a previous post, i observed how words of numbness and emptiness are most common among people who describe depression.

the point i see is that – these are words.  maybe words that we don’t like, maybe words that describe something that makes us feel uncomfortable, but they are valid nevertheless. and i belong to those who think that language, meaningful language, can be a tool in dealing with depression. by leaving depression in the darkness of wordlessness, i give it more power; like a wet rag left in a warm kitchen, this darkness is a perfect breeding ground for dis-ease.

meaningful language. meaningful language is powerful language. ever been to a workshop where the facilitator writes on a flipchart? know that irritable feeling when they re-interpret your words (you say “brother” and they write “sibling”; you say “joyful” and they write “positive”) and, conversely, the great feeling when you see your own words?

i think it’s the same with depression (and with any mental illness, and, indeed any experience).

let’s find, express, use and stand up for our own words for depression. whatever they may be. numb? bleak? empty? what’s wrong with those words? darkness. dust. suffocation. “paralysis” is a word that happens to fit my personal experience with depression.

the more we can use these words, the more we invigorate our own experience, the less helpless we need to feel when it seems that others want to engulf us with their language – the language of those who are well-meaning but really don’t understand the experience, or the language of the overprofessionalized DSM-IV. why accept a word like “anhedonia” if it doesn’t fit the bill? it’s like letting your pharmacist name your cat. (that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t use those words, too – but i don’t think they’re enough.)

when we are right in the depression, perhaps at first we cannot take charge like that. however, when there are recurring episodes of depression, we learn, over time, to pick up some tools, and train ourselves in more powerful times to respond in helpful ways when the depression hits again.

and language, many say, is the most powerful tool ever invented by humans. why not use it?

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