How do you depict depression?
One quiet day in the office the question arose. I was curious. I was also possessed by the fervent determination which overcomes an artist with a vision. But as the suggestions played out, I found to my disappointment that they were uncomfortably familiar.
Picture the isolated individual, head in hands, sitting in a darkened corner; the sad person standing in the pouring rain; the figure on the edge of the precipice, staring down into the void.
I searched for words, but even these fell flat. Ask me in the moment and I might respond with “down”, “depressed” or “sad”. These hardly illustrate the depth of the emotion. The NHS describes symptoms “rang[ing] from lasting feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness, to losing interest in the things you used to enjoy and feeling very tearful”. It’s spot on — but it is also superficial. No wonder the clueless say snap out of it. This language does not capture how dead I feel inside. We have created memes, alluding to the situation without scraping the surface.
So when at last I found my words, lets just say they were a tad too close to the bone.
That was fine. The matter at hand called for gentle, soothing graphics so I left my colleagues to it. I’m not the fluffy illustrations kind.
Yet I went away mind racing. What does it feel like and how would I illustrate it?
Who can see our hearts have turned to stone?
I am quite down to earth. I wanted to capture the physical sensation of depression. Often in life I am heart-led: my passions, my emotions, my excitements and disappointments all blaze from my heart. So when I am struck down, it strikes me here.
It’s like Medusa’s gaze touched my heart, rendering it a leaden weight palpitating alone in the hollow tomb of my ribcage.
It seeps out into the world around, draining it of colour. A place of joy and activity becomes small and oppressive. Wide green spaces become bleak and grey. Loved ones become strangers, their words of comfort hollow.
Finding the light
That night the scene came to me and I promptly sketched it out. I had in mind a composite artwork. I sourced photos and textures and devoured tutorials by the incredible artist Robert Cornelius.
But as I worked, it quickly became clear something was missing. Precisely because this piece focused upon darkness, I had to find the light.
Perhaps the most empowering revelation in my struggles with depression was the realisation that it often comes as an alarm bell decrying my situation. As Benjamin Sledge writes, “most of us assume mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and loneliness are evil entities that begin with a sudden onset. But … sometimes [they] are trying to help us.”
Too often I feel my work and relationships interrupted by these emotions demanding attention. Yet when I probe deeper, I uncover something else. A call to action, to act better or to speak my truth when grounded by fear, to get up and get active or to stop living someone else’s life and start living my own.
Sometimes though, depression is here to stay. The rot sets in so deep that no amount of soul searching is sufficient. In such times we must find the strength within ourselves to withstand it: the memories of love and joy and life to drive our dementors away.
Depression can be a wake up call, our body’s way of demanding change. A rebellion from the heart against a tyrannical brain too afraid to see the rot holding back our lives. It is dark and bleak, it will bring us to down to the ground. But some light remains, a small seed of hope, that one day we can be free.