It feels like….

“Depression must surely be the first cousin to hell on earth, for in the midst of suffering, the soul often feels hopeless and separated from God.”—Dr. Beverly Yahnke

After speeches, people will often come up and ask me, “David, what does it feel like to be depressed?”

This was, in fact, the exact question a first responder asked me on August 31, 2011; the day my body was pressed against the suicide barrier on the 730-foot-tall Foresthill Bridge.

To be clear, no one had ever asked me that question before, and to have it be posed there, on a dark spot on a tall, tall bridge, was a complete and utter surprise. So much so that it pulled me free from the grip of the monster known as clinical depression.

I stepped back from the rail, and everything decelerated; my mind, which had been spinning, slowed its cognitive rotation, my heartbeat eased, and my breathing settled.  

And then, turning left, towards my rescuer, I answered. 

At the time of my suicide attempt, I was co-directing a large, nationally recognized animal sanctuary. I shared that for me, depression felt like how I imagined one of our dogs, Winston must have felt before he came to the sanctuary.

Winston was a small, 20-pound black and white colored Boston Terrier. This sweet soul arrived at the sanctuary absent the normal off-the-chart enthusiasm and sturdy build the breed is known for. Instead, Winston was forlorn, frightened, skinny, scared and barely alive.

Up until the point he came to the sanctuary, this precious pup had been used as a bait dog; a smaller, weaker, less agile dog whose sole purpose is to give a bigger fighting dog the chance to practice mutilating other dogs.

In this tortuous role, Winston did his best to fend off the repeated savage attacks, but the long succession of bites and tears took their toll on his small frame. In time, his entire physicality was compromised, and absent full use of his senses, Winston couldn’t tell when or where the next attacks would come.

Ultimately, with his body ravaged and his very essence drained, all Winston could do was retreat into a fetal position, curl up as tight as possible, and split apart his awareness into another realm until the attack subsided.

Being depressed is much the same; it’s like being bullied, beaten, mauled, and violated by an attacker much larger than yourself. It’s tapping out for mercy, but relief never granted. It’s crying out for help, but that plea silenced since the monster has his hand firmly across your mouth. It is dying a slow and painful death, like being buried alive while at the same time fully conscious of your nightmare.  

And, to make sure the damage inflicted is felt at the level of your soul, as you crawl on your belly towards complete and precarious hopelessness, the monster convinces you that you are the cause of your suffering.

That’s what depression feels like.

And yet, I have come to know, depression is neither my identity nor a death sentence.

Over the last 2,703 days, thanks to putting my self-care on a pedestal, and being blessed with a magnificent therapist, a truly unique Jungian psychiatrist, a passionate support group, and a spectacular family, I have been able to navigate the path from mental “hellness” to mental wellness.

And while the monster still occasionally knocks, most of the time, I don’t answer the door. But, when I do, he sees my posse behind me, and promptly turns and walks away.

Healing is possible, recovery is attainable, and hope is real.

We are #HereForYou

David Woods Bartley

Mental Health Speaker / Trainer / Writer / Advocate

David BartleyCBHDA