There’s no effective way to describe depression to someone who hasn’t suffered from it. They inevitably try to empathize with it as sadness. In fairness to them, it is sadness-adjacent, an emotional pain marked by feelings of despair and sorrow. But in fairness to depression, it’s so much more. During my last great bout of depression, I took to comparing how I saw the world to the signature closing sequence of the Looney Tunes cartoons in which Porky Pig pops into view in the circular center of a set of bullseye rings and delivers the line “Th-th-th-that's all, folks!”
Why? Because that’s truly what the view from behind my eyes kept reminding me of. I suppose it sounds pretty innocuous, a children’s character with soft piggy flesh and a non-threatening nasally stutter. But if you’re in the midst of a depression, this vision is foreboding.
The gradient of the color rings gives it a depth that puts Porky apart from you, separated by nothingness. This is how I viewed life around me, through a kind of tunnel vision. It’s not that I could only focus on feeling one way (bad, real bad), but I could only focus on seeing things one way and in a very limited scope. I was seeing life at a distance, as if I were isolated from it in a ring of darkness, on the outside looking in. Depression is not a basic emotion. It’s an overwhelming worldview. Like with any worldview, it can be extremely difficult to understand why everyone around you doesn’t share it or isn’t even willing to try. When I was depressed, I was perplexed by people smiling, people laughing, people walking around as if everything were fine. In other words, people being completely normal. I felt like the end of this tunnel I was looking through was spotlighting reality, and no one else could see it.
This closing Looney Tunes shot derives from the “iris out” transition in the first years of film, where a circle contracts inward from the edge of the frame until the whole screen is black. Early (and often extremely racist) animated WB shorts used the iris out to punctuate the end of a story, often with the final character interacting with the iris by doing things like saying a phrase, holding the iris open, or squeezing through it to walk around on the other side before exiting the black screen.
When I’m in a depressed frame of mind, the iris out terrifies me. It’s a stark and lonely end. It’s a snuffing out of light. It leaves you, the viewer, by yourself on the other side, in complete darkness and silence after drifting swiftly and conclusively away from life as you knew it. So, obviously, it reminds me of my worst imaginings of death.
And oh g-g-g-god, is that all? Is that really all there is? From here, the spiral only goes downward.
I didn’t get the impression that this metaphor really landed with people as I attempted to poorly explain it with tears filling my eyes and my feeble voice cracking. Maybe it was way off base for anyone who wasn’t in my head, but to my depression-addled mind, it was the only way to try to convey my mental state.
The worst things in my life happened when I was not experiencing depression. My life has been hit with death, near death, and more death, and in those times I was on my knees with grief that felt like it would wrench my heart from my chest and my eyes would shrivel up and fall out from the torrent of tears. This is not an exaggeration, and this was not depression, but sadness. There are differences between situational sadness and chemical depression, and those differences in no way invalidate each other. Both can break your heart and break your spirit. I am not intending to put depression higher on the hierarchy of misery than sadness, but trying to show that depression is a worldview, while sadness is an emotion.
As I’m on the black side of that screen though, I try to tell myself over and over that, while irises close, they also open. The tiny pinpoint of life that is left will eventually expand out to reveal the entire screen again, as much as it seems certain it won’t. The next scene in your life could begin with an “iris in,” and it could be wonderful.