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The Experience of Depression

by Dorothy Rowe - Deceased(more info)

listed in depression, originally published in issue 52 - May 2000

Extrated from the book Breaking the Bonds – Understanding Depression, Finding Freedom

What would you say if I asked you, 'If you could paint a picture of what you are feeling what kind of picture would you paint?'

Does your image have the same meaning that all the images mentioned here have, namely, I am alone in a prison.

If you are simply unhappy, your image would not have the quality of you being alone and trapped in some kind of prison. For instance, an unhappy person might say, 'I feel that I'm at my attic window looking out on a cold, wet day'. If asked, 'Can you leave the attic?', the unhappy person will say, 'Yes, I can go downstairs and be with my family', whereas the depressed person will say, 'No. The door is locked on the outside and in any case the house is empty'.

The Experience of Depression

It is this sense of isolation which is the essence of the experience of depression.

It is a powerful and compelling sense of isolation which is different from all other experiences of aloneness and isolation. In those other experiences you could, if you had chosen, have contacted other people. From your camp in the woods you could have gone back home. From your lonely college room you could have found a phone and called home. But from the prison of depression there is no path, no telephone that will connect you with others. All paths peter out, all telephone lines are down. You are surrounded by a wall which, though it is invisible, is impenetrable.

Outside the wall those who know you realize that the wall is there. They reach out to you and, though their hands may touch your flesh, what they feel is the wall which resists all their love and entreaties. Their cries of, 'You're shutting me out', and 'I can't get through to you', are not empty clichés but reports of real experience. To them the wall is as palpable as it is invisible.

Banging our head against a wall is frustrating, but what makes the wall around a depressed person doubly frustrating is that the person inside knows and the person outside senses that in some way the person inside wants to be there.

The prison of depression is so terrible that it seems inconceivable that anyone would choose to enter it.

Yet, as anyone who has been there knows, inside the prison of depression you are safe from all those forces on the outside which threaten to destroy you. All the horrors and the disappointments of the outside world lie far beyond the walls of your prison and have less power to frighten you or even claim your attention, and all the demands, importunings, expectations and criticisms from your loved ones do not penetrate the walls to inflict their usual hurt.

So, as the prisoner and the jailer, you stay safe in your prison.

Each of us experiences depression in an image which is idiosyncratically our own, and yet which shares a meaning with all other people's images of the experience of depression.

'I'm at the bottom of a black pit.'

'I'm trapped inside a black balloon.'

'I'm in a glass cage. The glass is blurred and I can see people only vaguely and they can't see me.'

'I'm wrapped in a thick black cloth that I can't undo. I'm trapped and helpless.'

'I'm alone, immobile and weighed down by a huge black bird sitting on my shoulders. Even when I'm not depressed I can feel that bird hovering over me.'

'I'm trudging across an empty desert and I can't find water. The desert is endless.'

'I'm lost in a swirling black mist.'

'I'm in an empty boat on an empty ocean. No sail or oars, and night is coming on.'

'I'm locked in a tomb and no matter how much I cry out nobody hears.'

'A hole, grey, very grey, a closing greyness like a cave, a hole that goes down for ever and it holds on like crazy. The hole is inside me and I'm inside the hole.'

Further Information

This book has been reviewed on page 5 of this issue. If you wish to purchase a copy, please turn to the Books section in the Catalog..

* Extracted with permission from Breaking the Bonds – Understanding Depression, Finding Freedom published by Harper Collins 1991. ISBN 0-00-637565-0. £9.99.


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About Dorothy Rowe - Deceased

Dorothy Rowe was a clinical psychologist, well known for her work on depression. She was the author of 12 books, each concerned with how we create meaning, and was a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, television and radio. She died in 25 March 2019. Her website is

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