Depression is not a binary system

Sarah Rainone
Jan 2, 2014 · 6 min read

What happens is that you, all of a sudden, cannot do anything. You cannot do anything because on the other side of anything is everything. To do any one thing is to deny an infinite list of other things. Your life is a tree and you are an ant on the trunk of the tree contemplating all the beautiful leaves before you.

But it is a tree with a catch. You can only choose one branch and once you have chosen you cannot pick another without first walking backwards.

Walking backwards is hard. You know because you’ve done it before. You’re not sure you have the energy to do it again, so you better pick right this time.

So you stand there on the edge of the trunk, and you look out before you and contemplate all that could be if only you could decide.

But you can’t decide.

You. literally. cannot. decide.

You take a few steps out onto one branch, and it feels great until it doesn’t anymore, so you walk back to the trunk, which is warm, at least.

It’s warm at least.

You stay there for a few days until the warmth is oppressive and your legs have grown heavier than before, less capable of making the journey. You try another branch, and it seems to make sense, and you feel stronger, you feel the support of the branch, but soon it narrows, narrows, narrows, and back you go.

And you remember what happens when you step out.

Nothing.

You will never make it to the leaf.

And it’s getting colder besides. There’s no certainty that even if you made it all the way, the leaf will still be there.

So you stay where you are. You take a step forward, a step back, a step forward, a step back.

Soon, you are walking in circles, you are pacing, you are crying, you are on the floor, you are looking at the knife.

You couldn’t, you couldn’t,

but maybe you could.

You are not on the tree.

You are in your apartment.

You are in your bed.

You are not


This is depression.


The idea of writing any more about it is exhausting. You don’t want to run through the history of therapy and treatment. You don’t want to turn it into a project. You just want to say, Yes. Yes, I deal with it. Yes, some of you probably knew that, but I want to say it anyway.

You want to tell people that working on a novel makes it both easier and harder.

You want to tell people that you’re still responsible, you still get shit done.

But you want people to know because it’s a part of you, and to deny it is the worst kind of lie.


You can keep it at bay, to a certain extent, with diet, with meditation, with exercise. But when the days are shorter, it gets harder to stay vigilant, it gets harder to leave the house, it gets harder to remember why what you do matters. You know it does, you know it does, but your brain is foggy with the cold, and so you can’t remember why.

Context is everything, but you can’t see the forest for the… you know.


You’ve been afraid to write about it because you don’t know how your depression compares to other peoples’ depression, you don’t know if yours is bad enough to “count,” you don’t want to be an authority on the subject because, from what you can tell, the way it comes on is too personal, too tied up with your particular dreams, neuroses and blood sugar levels to be the same exact affliction as the one that affects more than 14 million Americans.

But then you remember how much time you spend wondering whether you should leave your bed, your pajamas, or your apartment—and you know that you are one of them. You remember that this is not something that just started happening today, or over the holidays, or when your mother died. It’s always been there, waiting, until you’re too tired to go through the extensive (and expensive) set of self-care rituals and routines required to keep you going.


You’ve been afraid to write about it because you fear you won’t get work anymore.

But at this point, you’re more afraid to not write about it. It seems to want to be written about.

Even writing these words made you feel better.

You did something today.

You must congratulate yourself for that.

You feel like an idiot, but you must congratulate yourself for the small things.

Writing this was no small thing and, some days, that might be much more than you can handle.

On those days, you must congratulate yourself for getting out of bed.

For showering.

For leaving the house.

For going to the gym.

For reading a book.

For staying in bed because, the thing is, today, you needed to.

For telling a friend you need help.


These may seem like things that should be easy.

But for you, they’re not.

You have to tell yourself:

It’s okay if easy things are hard for you.

Because many hard things are easy for you.

Who divided the world into easy and hard?

Depression is not a binary system.

It knows infinity all too well.


On good days, your brain’s ability to contemplate infinity is a gift. It means you can create entire worlds out of the words that come to you in your dreams, in the hours between darkness and light. It means you can hold two opposing views at once, you can “go with the flow,” you can forgive others their trespasses.

It means you can see opportunity when one door closes. In fact, closing doors have always seemed a kind of blessing because even if you can’t subtract one from infinity and get a manageable number, your brain doesn’t know that.

On good days, you can have fun with your brain. You can indulge it, let it go, watch it soar to the far reaches of the universe. You can see the story inside piles of data, you can see the symbols hiding between the lines, you can see…

The connections—

oh, the beauty, the power, the mercy of connections! Your synapses are firing, lightning, fireworks, serotonin, dopamine, the whole deal. You can see how everything comes together. You can do it, you can really do it, you can create something so much bigger than yourself.

It is mostly a gift, and you want people to know that.


But some days, you get lost in it. The easy things are hard. The tree is too infinite. Those days, you need the warmth of the trunk, you need to step back from the branch which sways with the breeze. It’s not giving up, it’s self-preservation. It’s this dullness, perhaps, which allows you, at other times, to shine so bright. It’s during this flatness, these times when you can’t feel anything, perhaps, that you build new armor for the times when you will feel everything, much too much.

You want people to understand that. That for some of us, maybe all of us, retreat—even retreat that you do not choose, retreat that is imposed upon you—is a necessary part of growth.

When you allow it, when you accept that life is not all forward-motion, when you realize that your personal brand of depression seems to be a fallow period that follows and precedes bursts of creativity—it’s the time when your body forces you to process everything you ignored while you were busy busy busy—you feel as if you could really make it to your destination.


You want to press “publish,” but on the other side of that choice are reminders of your privilege and narcissism, reminders of the stigma of depression and the repercussions of talking about it, reminders of the importance of “staying positive” and “not complaining.” There are an infinite number of reasons not to publish this, an infinite number of paths to choose instead.

But maybe you’re wrong.

Maybe the choice, maybe all choices, can be broken down to “yes” or “no.”

Let your record speak for itself.

What others make of it is their own business.

Nothing has changed, you need no kid gloves, you can handle everything that comes to you

You just want to be honest about what you feel

Sadness beyond sadness

Guilt beyond guilt

Flatness, nothingness, the weight of the world

Because you think others might feel it, too

And you don’t think it makes sense for any of you to be alone

You press “publish”

maybe


When thoughts are heavy

When they have a physicality

When they have a weight

Your job is to do your best untangle the branches.

Take your time, be kind to yourself

And just see the branches for what they are.

See life not as a tree, but as ivy.

Beautiful and sad and twisting

with leaves along the way,

it sometimes needs a trim

and sometimes stepping backwards leads up

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