A few days ago I had the thought, “I’ve felt good for a while. Maybe that’s it…maybe the depression is gone for good.” A streak of black flashed by. The sky became a shade grayer. I dove deeper into drawing and ignoring. Then more swooshes of black in my peripheral vision. The oppressive heat and humidity wouldn’t allow a cleansing walk in the woods so I looked for physical tasks in the house to do, to keep moving. But they crowded in, surrounded me and began their job.
If you’re not a fan of Harry Potter you have no idea what I’m talking about. People have different ways of describing depression, different images to illustrate the experience: a black dog lying on their chest, a black cloud that envelopes them. For me it’s Dementors.
In the Harry Potter books the Dementors are dark creatures who are recruited as prison guards and allies of dark wizards. They are silent and you feel them before you see them. The air becomes colder and darker as they move in, one by one, gliding through the air in dark, ragged cloaks, circling their target. They feed on happiness, and if you can’t escape, your fate is the Dementor’s “kiss.” They draw out all of your joy and hope and love and leave you with a fate worse than death.
I only made this connection recently. A person with depression is constantly testing the air, making sure the coast is clear. Each daily setback could call them in, but often doesn’t. It’s generally when I think I’ve won, I’ve outsmarted them that the skies start to darken.
I thought my comparison was unique, but I’ve recently learned that J.K. Rowling suffered from depression herself, and created the Dementors to describe the experience. “That is exactly what they are. It was entirely conscious. And entirely from my own experience. Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It’s a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”
Reading this reminds me of my thoughts last night as I struggled with insomnia. Sadness is active. Crying is active, healing. Depression is passive. It’s a void.
What is it like to work with Dementors? They’ve taken your physical strength so you are empty of motivation. They’ve taken your self-confidence so you see your work as a waste of time, and your body as a waste of space. They’ve taken your hope so you assume this time they won’t leave and now you are nothing more than a burden.
For better or for worse, most of this happens when I’m alone. I work alone at home all day so I can ride it out in any way necessary. Iain only needs the slightest signal to take over with the dogs, the cooking, the dishes. We’re long past the routine of him attempting to cheer me up or fix things and that’s a relief. He knows what is helpful and what is not and he will do what needs to be done without judgement.
When do they leave? It can be a day, a week, months. But for me they always do leave in time, and I dive back into work, fill the house with groceries, check in with everyone I love.
In Harry Potter the defense against Dementors is the Patronus Charm, which requires the help of the best-feeling thoughts and memories to conjure a Patronus. Each wizard has a unique Patronus, like a spirit animal, that chases away the Dementors. Maybe it’s time to take the Dementor metaphor to the next step and start working on my Patronus.
‘Expecto patronum,’ Harry repeated under his breath, ‘expecto patronum.’
from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
by J.K. Rowling