A few months ago, I did something really ambitious and herniated a disk in my back. I probably shouldn’t have done it, but in my defense, it really did seem like a good idea at the time. I picked up my infant son and put him back down. I know, I live on the edge.
Anyway, the pain was excruciating and immobilized me to the point where I could not even get up to go to the bathroom. Thankfully, my loving husband was willing to help me with the 30+ minute procedure of helping me out of bed (5 minutes), helping me hobble to the toilet (5 minutes), helping me sit on the toilet (5 minutes), going to the bathroom (5 minutes) . . . Anyway, you get the picture.
At one point, I tried to be brave and get off of the toilet myself. I promptly threw up. My husband came in to give me a hand and I threw up again (not on him thankfully) and then blacked out for a few seconds standing over the toilet. I know that I blacked out because I had a dream and then when I woke up, I realized that I was still standing over the toilet. Then, I blacked out again.
When I opened my eyes, my face was pressed against the cool tile of our bathroom wall. I was sitting on the floor underneath the toilet, puzzled as to how I had ended up there. It was at that point that I decided to go to the hospital because that’s what you do when your pain is so severe that it knocks you out, right?
I contemplated how difficult it would be to walk down two flights of stairs and to climb into the car with a back that spasmed every five minutes. I had a momentary vision of myself passing out and tumbling down the stairs and opted to call 911 instead. The paramedics came and used a portable chair lift to slide me down the steps. Then they transferred me to a stretcher and drove me to the hospital.
This entire experience was both utterly humiliating and excruciatingly painful.
But why on Earth was it worth sharing with you?
It is a challenge to explain depression. Unlike my herniated disc or other physical illnesses, you cannot find depression on an MRI, an x-ray, or a blood test. Also, depression shares many of the same characteristics as other more common moods like sadness and anger and boredom, which makes it especially difficult to describe because those are universal emotions that everyone experiences.
The problem with depression is that it is NOT sadness. It is not sadness or anger or boredom. Depression is the leech that drains the life out of life. Depression is not a competition between happiness and sadness; it is a competition between life and nothing. It is not so much that you are sad because sadness is a feeling. Depression is the absence of feeling. It is emptiness. That emptiness is what makes suicide so appealing. Death seems like the next logical step when you are not really living anyway.
As I was laying there in my hospital bed, I thought, “My back hurts, but if I was given the choice of having this pain for the rest of my life, and dealing with my depression for the rest of my life, there is no contest.” At that moment, I would have gladly accepted debilitating physical pain over my ongoing mental anguish.
This is not meant to say that I can compare myself to someone who lives with chronic physical pain. Comparison with others is never helpful. Ever. I cannot compare my experience or my pain to another’s because everyone experiences pain differently. But in that moment, I could measure my own physical agony against my own mental agony, and I would have chosen the former.
Everyone understands back pain. Everyone can relate to back pain. You never feel ashamed to admit that you have it. I could easily tell people that I went to the emergency room for a herniated disk. It was much harder to confess that I was committed for a mental health emergency. No one judges you for back pain. No one considers back pain to be a personal failing. No one looks at you like you are crazy.
In the emergency room, they did an MRI of my back. The doctor told me that herniated disks are relatively minor and that although they can be very painful, odds were very good that it would resolve itself without any intervention. He prescribed me a muscle relaxer and a pain reliever and sent me on my way. Thankfully, in a few days, I was completely back to normal. No more pain. Well, at least not in my back. If only depression worked like that.
What is your most embarrassing reason for going to the hospital?