Misbehaving in prison is a bad idea. The powers-that-be do not approve of bad behavior, and they have some unpleasant tools to discipline those who break the rules. Solitary confinement is the current punishment—along with extending the time to be served before the possibility of parole, but in the bad old days, they had The Hole.
The Hole was solitary with some other sadistic touches thrown in. It was usually kept dark, and sometimes sound-proofed so that even the noise of the other prisoners was muffled. Unheated and damp cells were often used, along with nothing to sleep on, and a bucket and/or a hole in the floor for a latrine. At Alcatraz, the prisoner’s food wastossed into a blender and reduced to a sort of wretched smoothie with some beet juicethrown in, so that whatever flavor there might have been, became beet. Food was passed in through a slot, so that even that necessary moment of interaction was deprived of all humanity. Guys often came out of the Hole not quite right in the head.
Nowadays, such practices are forbidden as being inhuman and torturous. But the Hole still exists—in the heads of people with depression.
It’s hard to explain to a person who has had the good fortune to never have experienced such a thing. But if you know someone with depression, odds are good that they know about the Hole and that they’ve done time there. The Hole is the place where hope and light and the view of tomorrow have all vanished. There’s just an endless gray expanse of I’m Screwed as far as your brain can see.
In the Hole, we lose the ability to remember what life was like before it. We lose the ability to project life after it. We can’t imagine that there is a way out of it. Life will just continue being a struggle—fighting to remember things, fighting to find the energy to eat (food tastes bad) or to walk (the Hole includes a level of fatigue comparable to having just completed a week of the flu). Interacting with other humans feels too difficult to contemplate—and even if that weren’t the case, the conviction that no one would tolerate one’s worthless presence except as a strained courtesy is part of the package.
It is a fundamental sense of having lost one’s humanity, of being the shivering dog in the ASPCA ads, alone and unwanted and covered in fleas. The Hole is why depressed people sometimes commit suicide.
This is why anti-depressants are life-savers: They put a floor in the Hole. As one sinks into the sense of detachment and enveloping shame—or worse, into the bog of numbness—there is a sudden stop. The sides of the Hole no longer rise so high you can’t see out; with luck—and the right dose of the right meds—you can even see that you could climb out, if you can find the energy. The sense that it will not always be like this is achievable, if not always automatic. Sometimes you can even conjure up a happy memory and think, “Life has not always been like this.”
If your brain is normal, you could take anti-depressants for a month and they wouldn’t give you a high. (You would have trouble sleeping and break a horrible sweat, and much worse is possible, so please don’t try it.) They aren’t the ‘pep pills’ that were used back in the 60’s to try to banish depression. They just keep your serotonin (and in some cases, norepinephrine) levels from crashing below the threshold of functionality. They don’t put you back in the normal world—but they do add a lightbulb and a window looking outside. This is literally life-changing for a person with depression. It’s no longer the Hole, just solitary confinement until we find our feet again.
I have extra experience with the loss of perspective due to brain irregularities, and this is because I suffer from migraine. Migraine is caused by abnormal electrical activity in the
brain—one book I read described it as a wave of electrical potential sweeping out
like ripples from a stone tossed into a pond. It causes some of the semi-automatic functions of the brain to misfire. In particular, it messes with the limbic system which affects memory; social cognition; rage and passivity; and overall emotional function. In
other words, it literally scrambles the circuits that add emotional flavor to our memories and ideas of the future.
There is a moment in the depths of a migraine when one has a wave of panic: “It’s not getting better. It’s always going to hurt like this. I can’t take this much longer!” and it seems as though the pain has been going on for hours. (For me, this moment usually hits about half an hour or forty minutes into the headache—right before the meds kick in.) This overwhelming sense that migraine is not a passing event but is the new reality of life—that is the closest thing I know of to the Hole in any other realm. It’s a comparable level of not being able to access memories or project a future outside the present emotional context. It’s literally not possible with your brain in that state to have the usual processes occur.
I mention this for two reasons. First, because I had a friend suddenly understand what the depression Hole is like, because I drew this analogy and she has migraines. Second, because the lessons I learned from migraine turn out to be useful in dealing
with the Hole of depression.
1) Accept that it is happening. You can’t make a migraine—or depression) better by just telling yourself it’s not real. This is not a weakness of character: It’s a medical condition due to unusual brain activity.
2) Get to a safe place. You can’t make it go away by trying to act as though it isn’t there. You have to take care of yourself and not try to do anything except get home (or to another safe place) and ride it out.
3) You can shorten the course and severity by taking your medication—and if you don’t have any prescribed, by seeing a doctor as soon as you can get someone
to take you.
4) While you can’t make yourself not feel like your life is bad, you can remind yourself gently but repeatedly that this has happened before and it passed. Sometimes that feels like stating utter nonsense, but the act of focusing on the
words, “This is temporary and things will get better” can help you stay out of the whirlpool of panic or sorrow. (For depression, I say that out loud; for migraine, sound is painful so I just think the words over and over.)
5) Accept whatever help you can get. For migraine, that means having my kid or spouse bring me my cold flax bags, going in a dark room, and lying very still until the medication has done its thing. If I am away from home when the prodrome (pre-migraine weirdness) strikes, I need to call someone to drive me home. Being in control of an automobile is not safe when I’m in the throes of migraine; and sometimes, when I’m in the Hole.
6) Have compassion for yourself. This is actually the hardest step to take, and one I am only now getting good at. If a friend was going through a migraine, or suffering from depression, I’d never expect them to be able to maintain a normal schedule! Try to grant yourself the same compassion you would show a friend. It’s not being ‘selfish,’ it’s being reasonable and fair. It’s okay to be fair with yourself, and it’s necessary to be reasonable if you want to accomplish anything lasting in life.
Some people have situational depression, that is, they are depressed because of something bad happening in their lives: the death of a loved one; the loss of a job; getting a bad diagnosis (or worse, having symptoms and tests and not getting a diagnosis, which is very scary). It’s a natural and common reaction to something shitty happening in life. Some people have affective depression, that is, their emotional mechanism (affect) is out of true due to neuro-transmitter imbalances in their brain.
Whichever is the cause, you can find yourself in The Hole. Sadly that’s how it is: You discover you are there. Like stepping on a rotted plank, you know after it happens that you’re no longer on the level but sunk in the mud. That’s okay, you know it now. Take a few deep breaths and then remember the six suggestions above. Accept it’s real; Get to a safe place; Medication; Remember it will pass; Accept help; Have compassion. In fact,if you have a friend or a loved one in trouble, you can help them with any or all of those steps—you can grant that help; you can provide transportation; you can reassure them that it will pass; you can get them their meds or support that trip to the doctor.
And please, share this article with them. It is great solace to learn that you’re not theonly one who has done time in The Hole, and a ray of hope to find that others have found their way out again. You’re not alone; this is not a dreadful fate meted out to you.
It’s a medical issue, and it needs to be treated as one. Nobody would tell someone with heart arrhythmia to “snap out of it.” You’d tell them—or yourself—to take your meds and take action, doing what is known to have helped before. And you would have compassion for their suffering..