Explaining Depression: The Donkey Down the Hole

There is a story that I heard in Mexico, so it’s possible that not everybody reading this will be familiar with it, but here it is.

A man wants to get rid of his donkey. So, he digs a very deep hole, pushes the donkey in, then begins shovelling dirt on top of the donkey. To the man’s surprise, as the dirt begins to fill the hole, the donkey merely shakes the dirt off and steps onto the rising pile of dirt until he is able to climb out by himself.

The moral of the story: when life throws dirt on you, simply shake it off and overcome.

Nice little story. There are many others like it, often touted in self-help books and inspirational videos. Persistence beats resistance! When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! And so on.

But there is something else to the story about the donkey and the others. The unspoken question that if a donkey can do it, what’s stopping you? Donkeys are typically thought of as dumb animals. Calling someone a jackass usually means that person has done something that you think is stupid. The story is obviously a metaphor for life, and the story is about the donkey. So let’s unpack this metaphor and examine it a little more carefully.

The hole is a low point. The man is life. The donkey is you. You are in a low point and life is dumping more dirt onto you, trying to bury you. If an animal as dumb as a donkey can figure out how to overcome its obstacle, and a human being is far more intelligent than a donkey, then any person can overcome any obstacle if they just apply his or her mind to it.

This sounds reasonable. But is it really?

Let’s rewrite the story just a little.

A man wants to get rid of his donkey. The donkey is very sick and cannot move around on his own. So, he digs a very deep hole, pushes the donkey in, then begins shovelling dirt on top of the donkey until it is buried. The donkey dies.

This second story is unlikely to appear in any self-help books or inspirational videos. This second story is cruel and an inhumane way to treat a living creature, enfeebled or not.

The second donkey couldn’t help being buried. He was sick. He couldn’t move on his own. Nobody reading the second story would blame the donkey and nobody would expect anybody to relate to that man.

So what makes the first story any different?

Our society has come to believe that, unless physical incapable, a person should be able to shake the dust off and succeed. Physical illness is an acceptable reason for failure. Mental illness, however, is not.

An acquaintance of mine, let’s call her Betty, is an entrepreneurial, physically active, intelligent, charming, and always positive member of society. When I last saw her, she had recently donated a kidney to her mother. When she was getting ready for the surgery, her doctors gave her some literature to read. Betty was told that one of the after-effects of the surgery would be depression. Betty scoffed. She had never been depressed a day in her life. Depression, to her, was a sign of weakness. A laziness of the mind and spirit. She would find out that she was wrong.

Three weeks after the surgery, even though her mother’s health was improving every day, Betty began to feel an odd sensation of exhaustion. She found that, even though her body was healing, she could not shake the feeling of not wanting to get out of bed. People would stop by her hospital room to tell her how amazing they thought she was but she would tell her family to send them away. Being very social by nature, this was alarming to her family. Betty lost her appetite for food, for sex, and for human contact. She didn’t want to bathe. She didn’t want to see her children.

Betty told me that, until that point, she thought that depression was something that people made up. She thought it was a fake illness, one invented by pharmaceutical companies to sell people more drugs. When she confronted the reality of depression, she said, she suddenly had incredible empathy for those people who suffer from depression all their lives.

Betty’s depression was temporary; an after-effect of her body getting used to working with only one kidney. Once her body adjusted, however, the depression slowly faded, never to return.

Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a real and serious illness. It is not the same thing as feeling sad. Feeling sad is something you feel naturally in reaction to an event or circumstance. A friend dies and you feel sad. You suffer a break-up and you feel sad. You don’t get promoted and you feel sad.

Depression makes you think that you are worthless, that the world doesn’t like you, and that you deserve every bad thing that happens to you. Depression makes you feel guilty for all of the worry you cause those who care about you. It makes you feel ashamed of not being able to shake off the dust. It drains you of your motivation, your optimism, and it makes you believe that the world would be a better place without you.

But if a donkey can climb out of his hole, why can’t you?

Because someone with depression is not like that donkey. Someone with depression is more like another donkey — Eeyore. If he lost his tail, Eeyore would say what’s the point in looking for it: “Most likely lose it again anyway.” For someone suffering from depression, the world is eternally bleak, dark, and unwelcoming. Life is pointless. Meaningless. Lonely.

We know this is true. Medical professionals confirm it, yet we persist on believing the notion that our minds can overcome anything. Books like The Secret only make things worse, because now depressives are left with the chilling thought that they are manifesting this reality for themselves. “I must be really messed up if this is the reality that I’m creating for myself.”

Personally, when I heard the story of the Donkey down the hole, I didn’t think, “What a clever donkey.” I thought, “What a stupid man.” Imagine going through all the trouble of digging a very deep hole, pushing a donkey into it, and then burying it, just to get rid of it. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just sell the donkey, or give it away?

But we don’t ask, “Why is life so stupid sometimes?” We don’t ask, “Why is life trying to bury me?” Instead, we expect ourselves to think our way out of a hole. Snap out of it! Cheer up! Look on the bright side! It’s a beautiful day outside! Go out there and seize it!

Luckily, there are mental health professionals who can help people with major depressive disorder. In most cases, with therapy and medication, a person with depression can keep the depression at bay. There is no cure, however, and medication and therapy don’t work 100% of the time.

If you feel yourself falling down into a hole, or if you are already down there, ask for help. Nobody can fix it for you, but they can be there to help you on your way.

If you suspect someone is falling into a hole, or if you see someone already down there, remember that you cannot fix depression. Instead of advice, offer them understanding, love, and support. Be compassionate. Be patient. And remember that the depression is not that person any more than any other disease is the person whom it afflicts.

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