Depression Feels a Lot Like Drowning

Last week, I went to a third doctor in yet another attempt to figure out what the fuck is happening to me. This time, in addition to the usual questions and me telling my symptoms in detail again, they gave me a “Depression Screening”. They handed me this tablet with a questionnaire like a fucking BuzzFeed quiz (an “on a scale of 1-5 how much do you relate to this?” type of deal). At the end of the page, it tabulated all of your responses and calculated a score immediately. There were five possibilities—each one a varying state of depression, each one worse than the one before it. I guess the purpose of this was to tell you just exactly how depressed you were in vague but quantitative terms.

I got the high score: severely depressed (cue unenthusiastic “woo”).

This high score was the opposite of satisfying; it disturbed me, it alarmed me.

I felt like it was shaming me. Deriding me. Chastising me. In its defense, it was probably only doing its job. I was the one giving it an absurd amount of power.

Still, I didn’t like it, and I couldn’t stand the thought of letting the nurse see that result. So, both panicking and thinking quickly, I decided to change one of my responses. I chose the one about suicidal thoughts, taking a 1 down to a 0—and, let’s be honest, I was already underselling it with the 1—and BAM. New score. This time it read only “moderately severely depressed”. Whatever that means.

Did you know you could do that? Alleviate your depression, kick it down a notch by simply changing one answer on a weird medical BuzzFeed quiz? Who knew?

I really don’t think they should be showing patients the results of this fucking quiz. Personally, this is one score I don’t feel particularly inclined to know about or keep track of.

I resented that test so much. It forced me to look at something I was trying to ignore.

What a dick.

But what really got me was the following moment. I handed the tablet back to the nurse, she saw my results, and she said nothing. Ok, I thought, maybe the doctor will talk to me about it when she gets in. That makes sense. But no, the subject was never once broached. They didn’t refer me to counseling or suggest medication. They just ignored it.

It was a very strange moment. I felt kind of abandoned, left for dead.

Because here’s the thing about Depression:

It feels a lot like drowning.

The water that takes you in is very inviting.

Crystalline, azure. Calm, smooth as glass. No signs of disturbance or turmoil beneath. Deceptive.

At the beginning, you float just atop the surface. But slowly, you ease in. And then you begin to sink. Some unseen force pulls you under, softly, gently, but firmly, with conviction and malice.

Until, at last, your fingers graze the soft silty sands of the ocean’s floor.

You are heavy, laden with burdens and treasure and doubt and exhaustion…you do not rise again.

At first you are comfortable there.

You’ve needed to rest for such a long time now.

Perhaps here, you can finally sleep.

You gaze up through the water. It is so easy to see the surface, so easy…so easy.

The sun shining up above sends down its dappled light, it refracts, it beams, it reaches you, caresses your skin—warm to the touch. Like a lover. Like a promise. Like a lie.

Eventually it fades, turns cold. You see through its falsehood and it no longer reaches you, nothing reaches you. Not here.

And all the while, you’re looking up at the those above you. Friends, family, acquaintances, strangers. Happy, smiling faces, connected, floating…They seem to have no trouble treading water. You watch as passerby stroll along the pier. Hazily, you wonder why you’re separated, why they can’t see you. And you reach out so desperately across that chasm but there is an entire atmosphere between you, something that transcends distance, a substance that widens and complicates the gap.

At first, no one notices you—and you haven’t yet begun to struggle.

That’s coming.

Soon the weight will become oppressive. The pressure in your lungs unbearable.

You start to kick, to flail. Frantically, you try to push upwards. You want to scream, but no sound can reach the surface from where you are. No, save your breath. Save your strength.

By now, you realize something is wrong. You are immobile, paralyzed. Crushed. Lying flat on your back, you can look up at the surface, witness all that takes place around you, but you can neither ascend nor interact.

You thrash, you give up for a time, you try again. Repeat.

And it’s so frustrating, help is so close, so tangible, so nearly touchable.

But it’s just out of reach and no one is extending a hand.

It’s not their fault, they don’t know. They may not even see you under there, so far down below the surface, so far from the shallows where they swim.

And those who do aren’t exactly sure how far they should reach, or how far they can. It’s difficult to see you, to understand.

It’s a delicate situation, to be sure, but a life hangs in the balance.

Perhaps someone finally notices you. It takes a moment for them to realize you aren’t just having a lark down there.

Once the peril of the situation dawns on them, they will (usually) try to reach you. They stretch out a well-intentioned hand into the water as far as they can go. But it’s nowhere near close enough to grasp. Maybe they’ll get boats, ropes, recruit others to help. Maybe. But none of this does any good really, you’re too far down and you can’t move.

Eventually, these rescuers will likely give up; they’ve done all they can.

An insurmountable weight anchors you to that cold, damp seabed.

You can’t speak, the oxygen is running thin, you can’t inhale. So you just hold on.

If you’re lucky, someone finally manages to pull you to the surface. Someone who knows what they’re doing, perhaps someone who has also touched the bottom of that bleak, rocky floor.

Or maybe, you manage. Something gives, the weight shifts, the moment of darkness passes, and you find yourself suddenly in motion, rising upwards.

It’s overwhelming.

You reach the surface—alone or grasped by kind, worried hands.

Gasping, choking, sputtering.

You retch water and bile and sadness and fear. It all comes pouring out of your mouth, bitter and burning, and you struggle to catch your breath, to fill your lungs, while the weight still threatens collapse, and you’re afraid of the water’s edge, but you’re here now.

It hurts to breathe.

Ragged salty breaths cut your already wounded lungs.

It’s grating.

You feel sick.

You probably throw up.

But you’re here.

Unsure if you are relieved or disappointed.


Which brings me back to the doctors, who played the role of passerby on the pier. They stopped; they saw me there below the surface of the water. Saw how far down I had sunk. Yet, with all the tools and knowledge at their disposal to help me, they didn’t even try to reach in and drag me out. They just walked on by, either uncaring or fooled by the illusion of the smooth, glass-like surface, unable to see the tell-tale ripples breaking beneath. It was jarring. I still don’t really know what to make of it, nor understand why they just left me there to fend for myself. Maybe I am just misreading the situation, maybe I’m just extremely ignorant of the protocol. But, then again, it seems like that’s the very essence of our healthcare system: figure it out on your own, we are not here to help.

After I got home, I wrote this poem, I don’t know exactly where to fit it in, but I feel like it belongs, so I’m just going to stick it here:


I can feel myself wading back into the waters of depression.


How you watch yourself go

As if from a distance


Unable to stop yourself


Unable to shout

For help

Not to others

Not even to yourself

You just stand there on the shore

And watch yourself


I’m trying not to kill myself

I’m trying




I wonder what it’s like to not have to try

To just be alive

And be happy about it

Or at the very least


Not to find existence an unbearable task.

But instead a joy.

A gift.

Not a burden.

But a pleasure.

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