Why you shouldn't quarantine yourself when you're depressed

Date

Alice Wild Williams

Illustration by Allie Brosh from her blog Hyperbole and A Half.

Illustration by Allie Brosh from her blog Hyperbole and A Half.

In May this year, Hyperbole and A Half’ blogger Allie Brosh posted a second instalment addressing her wrestle with pervasive depression. To people who’ve experienced depression, the eighteen-month gap between posts spoke as loudly as her brilliantly rendered account of the malady. For the few who haven’t read her blog, (firstly, welcome to the Internet! Can I interest you in infinity pictures of cats?) Brosh produces simple posts, paired with deceptively rudimentary Paint illustrations, with a deftness that is at once achingly hilarious and disarmingly honest. Her entries about depression struck so many chords they could have been produced by Phil Spector.

To write sensitively about depression is hard, to write sensitively about depression while still being so funny that people (me) have banned themselves (myself) from reading your work on public transport, is an art. 

Firstly she touches on the bone-crushing boredom depression can invoke. Sure, hating yourself and crying takes up a lot of time and energy, but something people hardly ever mention is just how wretchedly dull being depressed can get. For the person trying to wrangle it, and for everyone close to them.  At the depths of my own depression, after months and months of things just not getting better, cracks appeared my infinitely patient sister’s equanimity. I knew all the things she was really thinking, ‘Gah! Just get it together! Be normal, be fun, be how you used to be!’ – knew, because it was exactly what I was thinking too.

Illustration by Allie Brosh from her blog Hyperbole and A Half.

Illustration by Allie Brosh from her blog Hyperbole and A Half.

In his new book, The Depression Cure, Dr Steve Illardi explains this with the idea that the brain mistakenly interprets the pain of depression as an infection and sends messages to the sufferer to self-quarantine. It makes a lot of sense, I suppose, but because you’re an actual human with a living brain, not doing anything all the time is still going to get incredibly boring. A sensible explanation as to why you’ve spent your Sunday afternoon staring at the wall beside your bed doesn’t make spending your Sunday afternoon staring at the wall beside your bed any more fun.

It’s one of the trickiest elements of depression – at exactly the time you most need to be around other people, you lose all ability to effectively communicate with them. It can also be completely random, you can have a perfectly normal dinner with friends, where you speak in all the right parts and listen in most of the right parts and even make a few semi-cerebral or entertaining points and then wake up the next day totally exhausted, feeling like you spent the night before speaking a language you’ve already forgotten.

Mostly though, you end up impersonating yourself like a body snatcher in a bad 80s movie. I remember meeting new people at the time and wanting to say, ‘Oh this? This isn’t my personality, it’s just a rental! HaHa. I’m far more engaging, really.’

It makes no sense, but then depression is a disorder that houses a multitude of ironies. One of the most confounding being when it chooses to make its entrance. 

While depressive episodes can certainly be triggered by major life events, more often than not, they aren’t. Which also serves to make most depressed persons feel totally guilty – what even is that? It’s like the mechanics of depression were designed by the same people who create Big Brother. Ok contestants, on one hand you’ve got this exhausting nothingness raging inside of you – but you also have to feel really selfish about it!

Depression, like all mental disorders, is caused by a complex and still poorly-understood combination of factors. Knowing this, you can make the rational assessment that your depression isn’t your own fault. That’s the first step out.

The rest is frustratingly hit ‘n miss. For Allie Brosh it was medication and time. Dr Steve Illardi’s book is anti-drugs, but has a lot of sensible advice about fish oil and exercise. Even the ridiculously good-looking French guy who fixed my TV recently had a theory, "Lexapro helped, but ditching Univeristy and moving to Australia" was the only thing that worked for him.

Pills weren’t great for me but I know plenty of people who disagree. The only thing that brought me back to life, when I couldn’t even be bothered finishing a movie /apple /sentence, was forcing myself to do work I was proud of. Everything else I dealt with in increments. I placebo’d myself into being social again by hanging out with friends I didn’t really know that well, who weren’t a part of my history and so didn’t ask me any big questions. I got up in the morning. I showered and got dressed, even if I was only planning to stare at the wall beside my bed all afternoon. I also live with a very good psychologist, so I got lucky there.

What works for one person, may not work for the next. Usually it’s a combination of things. You have to keep trying until you hit the right mix, which when you’re at the base of Mt Depression staring up, seems like the hardest thing in the world to do. But really, you don’t have a choice. You have to put your boots on and start climbing because the alternative doesn’t have apples or movies or friends or ‘Hyperbole and a half’. 

* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

15 comments

  • Having realised only in the last few years that for the past 30 years I have had a low level but invasive depression the remark that it is boring was a light bulb moment. I thought it was only me. It is boring to think that 'this is all there is' and the day is only just beginning. The lack of desire to be social but craving someone to talk to, and now knowing that medication can help but not wanting to be on drugs to maintain that, is also boring. Overall a good article for this 55 year old male.

    Commenter
    rc
    Date and time
    September 12, 2013, 8:20AM
    • Excellent piece. This is exactly how I have felt, many times throughout my life. Thank you.

      Commenter
      David783947
      Date and time
      September 12, 2013, 8:27AM
      • I adore Hyperbole and a Half - and when Allie Brosh posted about her depression I cried as well as laughed. I read them over again occasionally, and they still make me cry - they bring back everything I felt while I was depressed with stunning clarity.
        One of the worst things about being depressed was an overwhelming feeling of isolation. It was not being able to understand what was wrong with me, not believing that anyone else would understand, or that I might even be able to talk to anyone else, coupled with a crippling guilty anxiety that maybe I'd secretly wanted this, that maybe I was enjoying this - or else why couldn't I shake it off? This meant that I struggled to relate to people, and to myself.
        I read with interest the mention of Dr. Illardi's idea about self-quarantine, but I'm not sure if this completely encompasses the feelings of grief and loss and confusion that characterised my depression. I felt like I didn't want to be around people (because they didn't understand, because somehow I wasn't like them anymore) but was also feeling incredibly lonely. I've read elsewhere that spending at least an hour a week with an old friend makes a big difference for prevention of depression in women - I'm sure that feelings of isolation, whatever the cause, do impact heavily on mental health in everyone.

        Commenter
        Erin C
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        September 12, 2013, 8:59AM
        • This is absolutely spot on - it made me a bit weepy at work. It helps so much to come across articles like this and Allie's blog - talking about it and shedding light on it is the only thing that will help. Thank you.

          Commenter
          pilot78
          Location
          Thornbury
          Date and time
          September 12, 2013, 9:40AM
          • Thankyou thankyou thankyou, that is by far the most accurate and real article i've ever read explaining what it' like to live with depression. Mine was not cause by a major life event, mine is like so many others that people forget about - it's just there, in your mind, and it isn't going anywhere, no matter how many therapy sessions or drugs you take.

            The element of boredom and dullness in depression is huge. I too can find myself sitting in solitude with not a single sign of stimulation around me and yet i comfortable stay there for hours. I expend all my energy when I go out with people trying to get the flat look of myself and act upbeat, exciting and fun, even though I know I am, I just can't communicate it on those days where things just don't work. And it's random - why can I 'work' and be myself some days and not other?? It's a constantly surprising battle.

            The only thing that takes me away from feeling the never ending dull drone is exercise. People mistake it as vanity, but it's the only thing that saves me. Sometimes it feels like theres nothing a 15k run and a good weights session can't fix. That'll get you feeling something.

            Commenter
            bee bee
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            September 12, 2013, 10:06AM
            • So many theories, so many contradictions. What a minefield for the 'depressed' or 'melancholic' individual. The condition known as 'Anhedonia' is basically the inability to 'feel pleasure'. The destruction of dopamine receptors is a threshold for this condition. And alcohol is also thought to have an adverse effect upon the neurotransmitter GABA, gamma-aminobutyric acid, which governs inhibitions in the mammalian nervous system. The purest stimulator of dopamine is cocaine with alcohol close behind, though it is in some respects (alcohol) considered 'dirtier' and more complex because it triggers more receptors than just dopamine. What a complex system we all live with.

              Commenter
              Clive Deverall
              Location
              Perth
              Date and time
              September 12, 2013, 10:36AM
              • Great article that got me thinking. For me it's a combination of Lexapro and other strategies. I needed the pills to help force the dark thoughts out of my head. Some of them still linger but most of them only visit and move on now. I guess I try and avoid words like boredom because the time passes and I've done nothing and more nothing - and then I hit the frustration wall caused by all the nothing which brings me close to slipping further down.

                But I totally relate to the quarantine feeling. It often happens to me when I decide I should catch up with friends via email. Then I'm hit with how meaningless my life is and how I've got nothing to say that they want to read - and the simplest email to just say hello doesn't get written. Picking up the phone is still too hard.

                This article has definitely helped me refocus - I just hope there is action to follow the intention.

                Commenter
                Sakura
                Date and time
                September 12, 2013, 12:04PM
                • This is a stunning article, I can’t say I have ever suffered from depression but reading this gave me the feeling of having some relatable insight into what it might be like. Like a deeply sad time in my life but magnified. Hope you are doing ok.

                  Commenter
                  L
                  Location
                  Melbourne
                  Date and time
                  September 12, 2013, 12:34PM
                  • This is what it's like (I have depression after losing my job because I fractured my back and I was "too disabled" to do my duties. 22 year career down the toilet). I suffer constant chronic pain which, along with not being able to work caused depression. So here goes: your partner gets up and gets ready for work. This is when the crying starts due to guilt as you're still in bed and not earning and you're sure they're thinking 'lazy cow' which I'm sure they're not, I hope. Then you think why bother getting out of bed, I have no life so I may as well stay here. When I do get up I sit on my lounge and cry for most of the day when the pain is bad which is frequent. U don't answer the phone, you close your Facebook acct coz you don't care about everyone else having a good life and prefer no contact with anyone. On bad days I put all my pills in front of me but I'm too much of a coward to swallow them and finish not only my own misery but that of those around me who I am a burden to (parents, kids, partner, friends). That is not 'the easy way out' as people say. I've stopped having medical check ups like Pap smears, blood tests coz I don't care if I'm dying. Then you wake up tomorrow and do it all again. It is hell which I wish I could end. Perhaps one day I'll get the courage but you look forward and you see nothing but a crap future. I am a nothing, no one, and never will be again. I'm not even 40 yet and my life is over. That's depression.

                    Commenter
                    Anon female
                    Date and time
                    September 12, 2013, 5:49PM
                • What happens when you have no desire to fix anything because you know it's pointless and eventually something will happen that will just put you right back where you were in the first place? Very hard to have the motivation to fix yourself when you come to the realisation that the human race sucks.

                  Commenter
                  Radiohe4d
                  Location
                  Earth
                  Date and time
                  September 12, 2013, 1:11PM

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