Depression has often been talked about as though it is a dark cloud hanging over your head. The commercial I remember best was a Zoloft commercial many years ago. I perceive this cloud as preventing me from seeing the blue sky and sun, but it is not the only cloud I experience in my life relative to depression and suicide. There are several types of clouds. They may be light and wispy, thick but spaced, large and looming, or a complete covering. In my own life I have found that thinking about where I am in terms of clouds helps me determine the level of severity in my depression and suicidality.
It has been a little over 15 months since my last hospitalization. I started my month-long stay in a local hospital, and I was transferred to a highly specialized facility in Washington, D.C. Things were pretty grim back then. I struggled in many ways to keep myself alive when I had no desire to live. At that time I was experiencing some dense, heavy and overwhelming clouds. I have accepted depression as part of my life as I have had some level of depression for as long as I have had awareness of my feelings, but recently I have had more experience with those stormy clouds. So, I thought I would share what depression and suicidal thinking looks like with a more in-depth cloud metaphor.
First, there is the cloudless sky: Blues stretching from pale to intensely brilliant shades. These are the times in my life when depression and suicidality are not present.
Next, cirrus clouds are those really light, wispy clouds that streak across the sky and appear almost see-through. They easily float along in the sky without obstructing the sun. We see these clouds all of the time and think nothing of them because they are so non-ominous. The catch with these clouds is that they are typically a sign that worsening weather IS on its way. So, when life is moving along for me as these clouds do, I begin to see the warning signs. I become fearful and get caught in a thinking and feeling loop. I do not usually consider suicide during these times in my life, but I feel the weight of depression, stress, and shame.
Those brilliant white cotton balls in the sky are called cumulus clouds. They are the clouds that you lay on your back and gaze at to determine what shapes, animals, or objects you see. I used to watch clouds all of the time from a tree in my backyard. These clouds do not frighten me the way the cirrus clouds do, but they do block out the sun every now and then. When I was a child I would play in the pool for hours during the summer. These clouds would slowly move past the sun throughout the day and there would be a sudden chill in the air. When I experience this type of cloud in my daily life I have waves of thoughts about self-harm or suicide. They are just brief thoughts, and they are not necessarily serious nor do they obstruct my daily life. I consider these to be the passive suicidality I experience a lot of the time.
The cloud I imagine the Zoloft commercial was trying to depict was the stratus cloud. Stratus clouds are the clouds that completely cover the sky. They produce the drizzle that seems to ruin outdoor picnics or days at the park and during the winter may cause slowly falling snowflakes. These clouds are like a fog that settles higher in the sky. Stratus depression and suicidality is persistent but not necessarily intense. Just like we can tolerate a light drizzle for a day or two, if it persists for several days or more it becomes more and more unbearable. I am reminded of how pain is tolerated in the body. If we experience a sharp, stabbing pain that lasts for a second at a 9/10 it is painful but livable. If we experience a dull pain that lasts for 6 months as a 3/10 we begin to believe the pain is greater than the former. Stratus clouds begin to feel painful over time and wear on my ability to cope.
Finally, there is the nimbus cloud. This is a type of raincloud, but it is not just any raincloud. It is a dark, giant cloud. It can produce thunderstorms and tornadoes. This is the stabbing 9/10 pain, but it also seems to last longer than I can tolerate. I also think of the idea of a tornado. When there is a tornado warning we are told to go hide in the basement or an inner room with no windows. When facing extreme feelings of depression and suicidality I act as though there is a tornado ripping through my house. I find a place to hide physically, mentally, emotionally, or any way I can. This is a dangerous place to be.
There are many variations of these clouds. Combinations of these clouds occur such as an altostratus or cirrocumulus, but the basic idea applies. There are also varying sizes, densities, and altitudes of clouds which have an additional effect. There is no exact Science to how I am feeling or what I am thinking and how someone can help, but this is my attempt to bring a sort of awareness to the struggle with depression and suicidal thinking that I face regularly.
With all of that said, I will acknowledge that I am currently experiencing a cumulonimbus cloud in my daily life. There is a persistent cloud covering of dark gray rainclouds with the regular blowing in of a thunderstorm and threat of tornadoes. I am struggling. Some days I fight myself and my thoughts and emotions with everything I have, and some days I need someone to carry that weight for me. This is the place I fear the most. These are the clouds I fear the most. Suicidal thoughts are not just passing by quickly or sporadically. No, suicidal thoughts are persistent, intense and have an impulsive component.
I am committed to effort and asking for help. I am committed to anchoring, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and self control, but I need help. I do not need pity, fear or anger responses (if that is what you experience when I talk about these things, just walk away), a cheerleader, or a babysitter. I do not need someone looking over my shoulder, someone to tell me I can do this or get through it, and I certainly don’t need someone to tell me what I need to do. I do not want to talk about it nor do I want to hide from it. I need others to recognize that all of the things I am doing are purposeful. I need others to realize that I need connection, but that I cannot ask for it and may even turn it down.
Most importantly I need others to know that when someone, anyone seems to be doing well that does not mean they no longer need support. I had a lot of support when I was discharged and was fighting to stay out of the hospital. I am fifteen months out of the hospital, and I am rarely asked how I am doing, authentically. We all need to get better about checking in on people, myself included.