Disclaimer: The following is an opinion piece that reflects the view of the author, and not necessarily Affect.
Many people who have been fortunate to never experience mental illness share one burning question: What does having a mental illness feel like? What exactly makes it so debilitating, and what sets it apart from normal "bad days"? These are a few examples from friends who have battled depression:
Depression feels like emptiness.
It felt like I didn't have much of a purpose.
It's kind of like you're always at war with yourself.
There are many other popular comparisons. Depression feels like a wet blanket that smothers your ability to feel. Sometimes it's a heaviness that makes it impossible to sit up, let alone get out of bed. Or it's just a large creature that you can't shake off no matter how hard you try.
The Bell Curve
My nerdy side led me to a different analogy. (I say my nerdy side, but I am just a huge nerd.) If you took high school chemistry, you may remember something called activation energy. Simply put, it defines how much energy is needed for a reaction to take place. Usually transferred in the form of heat, the exact activation energy varies between reactions. Note that each molecule in a sample has its own amount of kinetic energy. Like the results of a (very difficult) exam, we can draw out a bell curve starting from zero. Because of the principle of activation energy, only the molecules to the right of the dashed line are able to react.
In nature, there are surprising ways to game the system. Consider the substances known as a catalyst that creates another, faster pathway for the reaction to take place. This lowers the activation energy, allowing more molecules to perform the reaction and thus increasing the reaction rate. (This explains the prosaic use of the term catalyze, defined as "causing an action or process to begin".)
Catalysts have awesome implications in real life as they allow you to work faster without adding any more reactants or additional heat, another common method of increasing reaction rate.
I believe that people with depression go through life with something akin to an unnaturally high activation energy. It's not that they're lazy or coming up short; they simply need to push themselves much harder to do normal things. That's why I get so frustrated when critics say they need "get over it" - that seems just as futile as yelling at your water to boil when it's on low heat.
As for catalysts, I believe they signify the role medications and therapy can play in treating depression. High-quality mental healthcare should lower a person's "activation energy" to normal levels, so they can enjoy life without constantly tiring themselves out. Nobody deserves to live with the emptiness of depression, and I hope these catalysts will one day be available to all.
Footnote: My Personal Disclaimer
To say depression is complicated is an understatement. This essay is not meant to simplify the struggle against mental illness. Rather, I meant to share my way of understanding with you. Every one of us perceives the world around us differently. While it can lead to disagreement, I believe that it's a beautiful thing. It's fascinating to ask 10 people about the exact same issue and get 10 unique answers.
I am science-oriented. I have always seen things through this lens. (For example, when I was studying French in high school, I thought of each sentence as an equation. By looking at the first few words, I could deduce how to complete the phrase.) Mental health is no exception, so I needed an analogy based in topics I knew well in order to understand it for myself. If you found my theory insensitive, I apologize and promise that that was not my intention. Please let me know the best way to think about it in the comments below.
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