Imagery from Homeless Youth
CONTENT WARNING: Depression and suicide.
This is a true story. Steps have been taken to protect confidentiality.
When I worked in the youth shelter system, I used to co-facilitate a workshop on depression with a young peer worker. It was about trying to build awareness that depression is not just a thing you “get over.” So, we asked people to use a metaphor to describe what depression felt like to them. As we went around the circle, incredibly, most shared a completely unique, powerfully visual metaphor. Next, we would watch a Buzzfeed video where an illustrator paints three peoples’ descriptions of their depression.
If the group was game, we would get them to draw or paint their own metaphors. Once we patched them together to create a poster for the shelter to keep up during Mental Health Awareness Week. Another time, a young artist in the group volunteered to draw our discussion, improvising on a flipchart. The results sat in the corner of the group room for awhile, reminding me of how brilliant the youth were and how much they’d been through.
When I went home after the first time we facilitated the topic, I wrote down what I could remember. Some are just there in my brain after all these years.
Her biggest trigger for depression was compliments. (She hated the word trigger; it had lost its meaning through Tumblr.) Compliments started inner torment and all she could do was debate them. Her nice sweater was just a random pick from a donation cupboard, not a sign of good taste. She didn’t read the “to be or not to be” soliloquy beautifully; she stumbled over her words and she really should have it memorized by now. She couldn’t say, “I’m intelligent” only “I’m not the dumbest person in the world.” When she was a kid, she was in the gifted class and the other kids thought she acted like she thought she was better than them. But really she thought she was stupid so those kids must be stupider than her.
Depression for her was walking in circles backwards, amongst other profound imagery I didn’t write down.
Depression is like hanging off a cliff for dear life but everyone watching thinks you’re fucking Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.
Someone in the room hadn’t seen the film and also didn’t deal with deep depression. She looked at him quizzically. He explained, “It’s like everyone looks at you and says, ‘Wow, he’s go this.’ But you don’t got this.”
“Oh,” she said.
For Devon, depression was like having a whole new person possess his body. Then when he was manic, it was like a different stranger took up residence. When he woke up in the morning, he would wonder which version of himself he would be that day.
He told a story of a time he was in a depressed phase of his bipolar disorder. He went to see his friend downtown. His friend was devastated by a break-up. So Devon bought a case of beer and hosted his friend for a homemade dinner of barbecue chicken. He liked to cook and he liked to help people. He recalled thinking, “Is it really for him or is it for me?”
Once he barely left his bed for three days and his friends showed up to not only drag him out into the sunshine, but to fly him to Las Vegas.
For her, depression was like trying to get out of bed when a bear is lying on top of you. She had struggled with depression for years, leading up to a recent epiphany. The epiphany boiled down to “Fuck it.” She was done caring what people have to say; she was done with helping them. “I’m just going to do me.” She planned to be selfish; to do whatever made her happy. I observed that people’s strategies change, and that while “Fuck it” protected her now, some day she may find it makes her too disconnected from herself and others. Some day, I muse, she may want to start caring again.
She didn’t think so.
Depression is like being sunk into the middle of the earth and it’s hot and you’re tired and you’re hacking away at the rock with a blunt axe trying to get out.
It’s like being a mouse in a bathtub and the surface being too slippery to climb up, so you get a little way and fall back down. The rest of the world is just beyond the porcelain and you can’t get to it….
I truly wish I had written more of them down. There were so few cliches, and with each new metaphor, I was struck with how heavy depression is; how much despair had gathered under one roof.
Of course we also talked about what helps when you’re depressed, and some listened earnestly, as if hoping for a magic fix. They rolled their eyes when we suggested talking to a friend. “What friend?” They cast their eyes to the snow outside when we said, “What about exercise?” They groaned when we proposed journalling. (I may never suggest journalling ever again in my life.)
Kiersten joked, “Yeah, people tell you to take deep, calming breaths. I’m like, ‘Okay’” — and she mimed taking deep drags on a joint. We all laughed. She was right. There’s something silly about asking a girl who feels like she’s fallen into the middle of the earth to “use healthy coping strategies.”
But the group itself DID help. It gave them permission to talk about something you’re not supposed to talk about. It helped them externalize pain. It helped them feel their feelings when they were sober. It helped them connect over a shared experience.
Frances came up to me afterwards and said, “I like your groups but they don’t make me want to live.” We talked, of course. She didn’t have a plan for suicide that day. She had support - shelter staff she liked, a counsellor, and a psychiatrist. We ended up discussing Shakespeare and laughing.
I had the privilege of getting to know her better when she became a trainee in my peer program. She is one of the smartest, most interesting people I ever met.
Probably a year later, I heard that Frances had made an attempt on her life. I sent her an encouraging message through my colleague, who was able to go see her in hospital. Then months later, she popped up out of the blue to visit at the shelter. We happened to be making masks out of plaster at the time. She sat comfortably as a youth artist/peer worker plastered her face. She then built the mask up into the shape of an owl’s face. I invited her to come back when it dried for part two - painting the masks.
She didn’t - and that is a metaphor for shelter youth work.