‘Battling Depression’ and other Metaphors that Reveal Truth Yet Obscure Understanding

battling depression

“The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

Story Break

Someone recently asked me, “Why do people suffering from depression always call their struggle a battle? What are they battling?”

I thought about it, a good question. And then said, “I wonder if you understand the importance, and complexity, of this question.”

Sure, I use those words about depression. “It’s a battle.” I’ve heard them. Read them. Where did it come from? Why do I/we say that?

I’ve never been to a battle. Never seen one. Certainly haven’t fought in one.

I doubt most people with depression have.

Or anyone has.

I’ve been to battle sites. My dad, character, dragged us to them exclusively on holidays, assuming our young minds would render the bucolic scenes into a visual of struggle and devastation, heaps of bloody blue and grey wool uniforms sacrificed for country. And somehow that should give us a vital sense of our nation’s history.

What do Civil War battlefields of my childhood have to do with depression?

“Battle” is a metaphor.

So when I say, “I battle depression,” I expect it will mean something to you. But you asked what it means, indicating the metaphor fell short. This is much more significant than it sounds.

For one, it means that the words we’re using to describe something incredibly important, esoteric, and conceptually illusive like depression aren’t thoroughly doing their job.

In that gap between what is expressed and what is real, there is ample, fecund room for confusion, misunderstanding, and, ultimately, dismissal.

Susan Sontag criticizes the use of metaphors regarding cancer patients in her seminal Illness as Metaphor.

“Illness is not a metaphor, and the most truthful way of regarding illness  and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”

Sontag suggests metaphors are so conceptual they lead people to perceive illnesses as conceptual, too—not as biological or pathological but as something patients brought upon themselves due to abstractions like personalities, moods.

That people ever believed this about cancer is utterly ridiculous (but true). That they might believe it about depression is actually (dangerously) conceivable, due to the nature of depression.

First, depression is not (always) symptomatically visible.

Whether we want to or not, humans look to visible indicators for the existence of something. Depression is real. What I have, what fifteen million Americans suffer from, is real. Smiling, being positive, even embracing Jesus is not going to supernaturally adjust my clinical and chronic depression.

Except, depression doesn’t make my hips hurt. My hair doesn’t fall out. I cannot list my medical complaints so you can visualize them. I cannot show you depression under a microscope or draw a diagram of what’s happening in my brain (although I know something demonstrably is).

(The best I can do is observe what it looks like from the floor, which I’m looking to for comfort.)

Second, depression is an incredibly invisible illness.

Depression brings shame and a smothering disbelief in one’s worth. The natural instinct when one feels vulnerable is to retreat and hide. Or to fake it. At tremendous cost. Thus, many people who are depressed present the opposite of being depressed.

So, if we cannot physically manifest it and are compelled to hide it, the best we can do is write about it. Which is why we use metaphors in the first place: they give us power, expression, meaning. And, as poet Wallace Stevens’ observed “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”

Except, when we relegate something to a metaphor, it renders it conceptual. And when something is conceptual, it is susceptible to becoming mythical. (You see why this is complicated and frustrating.)

What’s worse, once we register the metaphor, we (humans) don’t let it go.

This is called the Stroop Effect: the idea that it is impossible for us to ignore the literal meaning of words. (And in similar studies by the Department of Psychology at Princeton University, Sam Glucksberg proved it’s highly difficult for us to ignore the metaphors of words, too.)

In his wonderfully illuminating book I Is an Other, James Geary argues one of the ironies of etymology is that the less conscious we are of metaphor as metaphor, the more literal it becomes.

Literal interpretation prevents nuance, and it is in nuance that truth lies.

“Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions, worn-out metaphors, powerless to affect the senses.” Friedrich Nietzsche

When you cannot see the truth of depression, that affects how you see me and how you treat me as a depressed person.

So, let’s say you’ve heard the depression = battle metaphor and internalized it, and that is how you imagine depression.

But for me, depressed person, it’s more like being stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits. Thick, solid, timeless, and inescapable in their viscous filth.

Although, for ease and expediency, I settle on it as a battle, and I don’t change your visual.

So you still picture J.M.W. Turner’s, The Battle of Trafalgar, 1822, the bright, powerful painting I choose as this post’s photo.

You ask me how I am. I say, “I’m stuck and tired.” You (imagining a battle) immediately think of strategy and tell me things to do, how to win. Rather than what I really need (which is more clear from my metaphor): someone to hold my hand, so I don’t sink further.

In real terms, you might say, “Have you tried…” while what I want you to say is “I’m here, hold on to me.”

The result of this miscommunication is you don’t understand my suffering, and I feel more alone and unheard than ever (which reinforces my feelings of worthlessness, etc.).

No wonder a common complaint among people with depression—otherwise articulate, smart, and socialized people—is “No one understands.”

So, are we just using the wrong metaphor?

Don’t get me wrong, a “battle” metaphor makes sense:

  1. It’s part of something larger (a war). Even if you win, you don’t win.
  2. It has an enemy (depression), which is a nice way of seeing ourselves exclusive from the illness.
  3. It is immediate, constant, sustained, exhaustive.
  4. Most importantly, death hovers, lurks, and is even, at times, welcome.

But we quickly realize how inane, how impotent this metaphor is when people throw it back at us:

“Keep fighting!”
“I know it’s a battle.”
“Don’t give up!”

Like, this is all under my care, and all I have to do is fan out my troops in the right formation and I’ll be right as rain! Having won.

So let’s change metaphors, back to what I prefer. “La Brea Tar Pits” makes more sense for me, but it would induce the same cringe-worthy aphorisms wedded to that metaphor: “You just gotta pull yourself out!” Yuck.

No, the problem is the metaphor itself: ‘battling depression’

When I use a metaphor, there are years of personal experience behind it, behind what it actually means. I call on it to round up all the nuance and deliver it to you (saving myself the tedious effort of details).

But that communication is unidirectional: when people without depression use it, they are at best using it because they heard it, or, at worst, as a way to avoid talking about details, difficult things.

Metaphors can keep people from the truth and from each other. For people with depression, that is extremely dangerous.

When my husband and I first got together, he knew I had depression, but I hid it because you do. Finally, in a moment of trust, vulnerability, and because I just couldn’t not need his help, I let him see me, full-depressed.

He had no idea what was going on. I had explained it, illustrated it, drawn it out, and he still had no idea. He was gobsmacked, shocked, and scared.

I screamed at him:


Our disconnect, to put it mildly, threw me so deep into the pit (there’s that metaphor) I didn’t know how to get out. It was horrible, for both of us.

Not his fault. Not mine. The metaphor’s.

And that is the real answer: we have to talk about depression in real terms.

Not in metaphors.

The original question posed “Why do people refer to depression as a battle?”  is so perfect, so important, because it throws aside metaphors and says, “That doesn’t tell me enough. What is it really like?”

You know, no one asks me that. No one. This individual did. It’s like being seen and noticed.

So, hopefully without metaphors, this is what depression is like:

  • It is unique to everyone, and it comes and goes, in sync with events, in my case, that correspond to feelings of worthlessness.
  • It makes me hate myself.
  • It makes me angry, extremely angry. Sometimes violent, but only against myself.
  • I cannot get out of bed. I cannot find a reason to get out of bed.
  • I might sleep sixteen to eighteen hours a day. I don’t want to be alive. It is either sleep, or kill myself.
  • Thoughts of killing myself, sure, all the time. Quite detailed, I’m visual. It’s only when I imagine my parents’ or husband’s faces crying that I snap out of it. It’s never come to action.
  • I have a hard time separating myself from depression. I forget I have it and think it’s just me.
  • I cry until I have no tears left. After that, I feel nothing.
  • I have moments where I feel like I’m caught in an emotional ray of light and I think, “Life will be better.” But, like light, it fades, I go back to bed. (Sorry, that was a metaphor.)
  • I do not care about anyone, anything. Except one thing that I have kept sacred since childhood, and it’s the only thing that can get through to me. My bear. 🙂
  • It can last a week. A few days. Months. Everyone is different.
  • Even when fine, I think, “When will it return?”

I love metaphors. I deal in metaphors. I used seven dozen in this post. Geary estimates we use one for every ten to twenty-five words.

What richness!

Each part of speech is capable of being beautifully enhanced by something it is not or capable of lending itself to another in need. And in all this interrelated, polymorphic chaos, they function so amicably, so economically!

I want to learn combinatorial mathematics, so I can visualize the possibilities.

However, mental illness has to be expressed in real, true terms. Terms that make sense to everyone. If they obscure, we must ask,  “What does that mean?”

If we distance ourselves too far from what it is, we will cease to see it all together.




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