Sabrina Benaim’s poem, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother” is sweeping the internet. I can’t help but think that proves just how powerful the poem is. And how common depression is. For those of you who haven’t watched it yet, here it is.
I can’t say that’s exactly what my depression and anxiety are like. Her metaphors and expressions are different. I am not confined to my bed. I am chained to my emotions. I am dragged down by sudden onsets of fear, rage, weeping, and more. I force myself to go out for that same keeping busy that she mentions, and I do have fun until the instant when the outing is over. Then, I rage at myself and beg people who aren’t even there to forgive me for my stupidity and worthlessness.
No, her story isn’t exactly like mine. A detail here. An idea there. But it isn’t the details and the ideas that make her poem so strong or give it the voice to speak to my heart and make it crumble. It isn’t her metaphors. It isn’t her mother’s questions although God knows anyone who has tried to explain depression to someone who doesn’t have it has heard a series of problem-solving questions so similar that they might as well be identical.
These questions and suggestions echo with variations on the theme that you are weak. That what is happening to you is your choice. Your fault. Until you feel like you need a tattoo on your forehead: I am not a problem to be solved, and there is no off switch for my depression.
And that is the key to her poem’s power. Not the details, not each moment, but the feelings behind them. It is her emotions that we remember, and it is those emotions that are the same. The despair of being understood. The frustration as each explanation is twisted and misinterpreted so far from your meaning that you have to wonder why you bothered to speak at all. The sly, lying voice that delights in destruction that tries to convince you that they’re right so that you can have one more thing to feel guilty about.
As if feeling guilty for existing is not enough
Whether you hide under the blankets, run from one party to the next, distance yourself with drugs, or any other escape – the pull downwards, the darkness and the bear, the nagging voice of self-doubt and self-despair – the emotions that trap us or send us running are the same. Like links in a chain. People with depression bear similar burdens like jumpsuits in a prison.
If you cannot understand the why of depression, if you cannot understand the reasons or reactions that come from it, please, try to understand at least this: the emotions are real. Whether you understand them or not, they are real, they are strong, and they can easily become overwhelming. Fighting against them is a struggle, and there is never a finish line where you can check off a victory and forget about them forever.
Even if you cannot understand, you can respect that they are. Do not dismiss them. Do not wave them aside as fantasies or delusions. Do not act like there is an easy fix. There isn’t. There are behaviors that can help. There are treatments. But there is no simple or permanent solution.
Instead of seeing a depressed person’s reaction and thinking, “Why is he so upset over nothing?” Think “He’s really upset. What would it be like to feel that upset over something you ‘logically’ know isn’t important?” If you can do that, if you can put yourself into that other person’s shoes and feel that frustration, pain, and despair for that lack of control over your own emotions, then you will have an inkling of what depression is like.
And if you can do that, I challenge you to watch Sabrina Benaim say her poem about explaining depression to her mother again without feeling some of that same pain and despair. Can you? I can’t.