Referring to Depression as a Third Person: Does it Help?

It can be really hard to understand depression. We might not understand our own thoughts and feelings, or be able to identify with what’s happening to us.

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This is perhaps why so many of us use metaphors to try and get our heads round depression. Winston Churchill described his as a black dog, and that metaphor is still used by many people today. We might also think of it as a kind of fog or darkness.

Making sense of depression

I’ve tried to make sense of my depression in a number of ways:

  • an intruder – one who sometimes sneaks in round the back and sometimes tries to smash the front door in
  • a scary movie that plays in my head, and I’m trapped in there watching it
  • a pirate, who has hijacked my boat
  • a wasp, which turns up uninvited, buzzes around my head and ruins my picnic
  • the Emperor from Star Wars – a shadowy menace, who sends his sidekick, stress (Darth Vader) ahead of him to pave his way for domination.

But the way I usually end up describing my depression is as my alter-ego, Paul Brookes – a misspelt version of my own name. He’s both my enemy and part of me. It can be very hard to know which of us is which.

Creating this alter-ego helps me to understand why depression is so difficult to deal with. This enemy knows me inside out, and when I am alone with him, his voice is persuasive; his presence is pervasive. He knows my weaknesses and feeds off them.

Sometimes these metaphors help me and other times they don’t.

When does it help to think of depression as a third person?

Understanding your depression helps you work out how to manage it – a classic case of ‘know your enemy’. The more we can get to understand depression, the more we know the signs to look out for, and the more we can recognise what’s caused by depression and what’s part of our personality. I read Tim Cantopher’s great book, Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong (3rd Edition): Volume 3 (Overcoming Common Problems), which showed me that a) I wasn’t weak to have depression, and b) other people were going through similar things. This helped me pin down what was the depression talking and what was me, and helped me to define myself as the hero with Brookes as the villain.

Often, you’ll find that depression is lying to you about what you’re capable of and who you are. When I realise that, and think of Brookes as a bully, it makes me want to do something about him. I don’t like bullies. I don’t like them getting their way.

There have been times when this has helped me. For example, running. A few years ago, I’d signed up to do a 10K run, but was struggling to get motivated to go training. What fired me up was the thought that Brookes wouldn’t want me to do it. I couldn’t run for myself, but my stubborn side thought “There’s no way I’m letting Brookes win”. Rallying against your enemy can be immensely satisfying.

When isn’t it helpful to think of depression as a third person?

Depression is draining, so the idea of constantly fighting an enemy in our own heads can feel exhausting. We have enough of a battle on our hands just to function sometimes.

We can also feel like we’re being stalked by this enemy, adding to our tension and anxiety – rather like that black dog following us around. I can find myself over-thinking and obsessing about the threat of my enemy.

Do what works for you

Our experience of depression is unique to us, and so is the way we cope with it. It might help you to think of it as a third person, or it might not – or, like me, you might find that sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t.

For now, if you’ve read to the end of this blog post, give yourself a pat on the back, and give your enemy a poke in the eye.

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