depression in metaphors


paul piece

At age 11, gravity suddenly became extra strong, pressing my back against the carpet of my parent’s bedroom. The ceiling was my field of vision. Off-white with bucket lights that needed dusting. Ceilings would become a familiar sight. I didn’t want to leave the house, or the room, or the floor.

I didn’t want anything. It would all feel the same.

My older brother came into the room. “C’mon Paul. Let’s go play in the yard.”

It was a sunny day in the Pacific Northwest. The kind of day you have to make the most of before the Sun announces its retirement in October yet again.

“I can’t.” I replied.

“Why not?”

I didn’t have words for it then.

By age 23, this was as close as I could get to explaining my depression to people.

Imagine you are floating on your back in the ocean. The sun is bright. Your friends and family are floating close by. Everyone is having a great time. Then you feel the tug of the undertow.

It’s gentle at first, but firm. A steady momentum that must have been pulling for a while before you noticed.

And suddenly, you’re below the surface.

No one sees you go under. Instead, they talk to you as though you’re still floating next to them. As the current drags you further and further below, they keep talking. You nod back at them underwater, even as you watch the light from the surface dimming. You want to get back up there. Your limbs thrash as you struggle to rise back up against a current that is simply stronger than you.

You grow sluggish. There’s no point in exhausting yourself more.

As the air begins to run out in your lungs, you realize you have no idea how long you’ve been underwater. The surface is so far away, and so little light filters down that you begin to question if you were ever really up there at all. Your friends are still up there talking to you. Some notice that you’re underwater. They tell you to just kick your legs and swim back to the surface. You can’t explain the current to them. How hard you’ve tried to swim back up and how exhausted it’s made you. You hope they stop calling to you. They’re having fun and you don’t want to ruin it.

So instead, you curl up into a ball. All you can do now is hold onto your breath. And it aches. Nonstop. It radiates outward from your core through your limbs into your bones until it’s all you are. Ache.

And you start thinking about just letting your breath go. Maybe it’s worth allowing the water to flood in. The thought is completely rational. Trading a few moments of pain for an eternity without it. You’ll never have to look up again at your friends beckoning you to swim to them. Never have to feel like you’re holding them back as they wait for you to resurface. You’ll be free.

But you don’t.

Because that stale breath aching in your center is buoyancy. Keeping it in, however you can, is the only way to return to the surface.

That’s the metaphor I used for my depression a decade ago.

Everyone I know who suffers from it has their own unique description. They tell me it’s like having a black tar beneath their skin that they can’t scrape away. It’s like being homesick for a place you’ll never visit, or heartbroken over a person you’ve never met. Depression births metaphors because you get tired of telling people without it “I hurt all the time from nothing and I’m kind of tired of being alive. Really, I’d just like to slip into a coma forever.” People can hear the words, but it doesn’t help them understand the difference between “sad over a specific situation” and “haunted by a ghost forever judging you with a thumbs down ‘Booooooo’.” Metaphor lets them live it, if only as a concept. They’ll never fully get what depression is like, but at least they have a vague idea of the shape and weight of what you’re carrying. 

And what you’re carrying is enormous. Depression takes a lot out of you. Life is no longer casual. Friendships become a burden as you try not to ruin their fun, so you pretend you still see the world like they do. Relationships become a struggle as you try your hardest to be the person they fell in love with, instead of letting them down by being who you are now.

And depression changes over time.

I’m happy to say that a decade later, at age 33, depression is no longer an existential threat to me.

Suicidal thoughts used to be like a TED Talk: convincing ideas that your entire brain nods along to. They’re well presented, with all kinds of evidence leading to one conclusion.

These days, suicidal thoughts are more like ideas spit-balled in a writer’s room: an option that could work for this situation, but it’s not what the group is going with.

The intensity of the undertow doesn’t drag me nearly as far down, and the occurrences are further and further apart. I can’t explain why this is. Maybe it’s that I drink less than I used to, or that I eat better, or that I decided to no longer do jobs that made me wake up sighing. I started doing stand up comedy, getting better at sharing how I felt, and got outside as much as possible.

Or maybe it’s like Modest Mouse sang in “The View”:

As life gets longer, awful feels softer. Well, it feels pretty soft to me.

But even with awful feeling softer, it’s still hard. The weight of depression still sits there in the back of my mind, subtly reminding me that nothing I do is right, nothing matters, and that my friends will leave once they figure out who I really am. That my life will not end well because it doesn’t deserve to.

Or, as Rodney Dangerfield put it


I still fight against depression. There are days where I feel like a piece of packaging someone forgot to put a human inside. There are months where I’ll spiral down, getting obsessed over one thing going wrong and applying it to all other parts of my life. I’ll talk to people I love, but can’t feel loved back or understand why anyone would care about me. There are long, uncountable minutes where I’ll be crouched in the shower, staring at the porcelain until the water runs cold.

But I don’t regret having it. It’s partially responsible for the numerous deep friendships I have. Depression gives you perspective that people value. An honesty in how you see the world. An appreciation of happiness and love like only the truly hungry can have for a great meal. A willingness to really listen and relate to people’s problems. A greater compassion for the many strangers you see every day that are valiantly holding it together in secret.

And it gives you an understanding for why people take their own lives, as have too many people I’ve known in my short life. There’s no anger at their decision. No questioning of why it happened or why they didn’t reach out to anyone. As painful as it is to be sobbing on the floor again, you can’t begrudge them. It’d be hypocritical to say you hadn’t thought of it many times. If you didn’t have your family support, your friends, and your health, you might make their same choice. That one thing hasn’t gone wrong yet for you.

Or as David Foster Wallace put it:

The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

Finally, if you’re suicidal, please tell someone.

You are not a burden.

You are not alone.

You are loved, and worthy of being loved.

You can call the suicide hotline. It’s anonymous and they’ll listen without judgment. Here is the number:

1–800–273-TALK (8255)

And when you get through whatever it is your brain is telling you is unfixable and return to the surface, know that there’s light up there, brighter than you remember.

And you’ll appreciate it in a way that no one else can.

I miss my friends who never resurfaced.

I’ve cried over them more than they’ll ever know.

Paul Barach is a writer and the author of a the book “Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage” available on Amazon. In his spare time he enjoys running, bicycling, and hiking. His two greatest achievements are earning his black belt in Karate and only falling into the La Brea tarpits once. You can read more of his writing on

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