Depression Is a Free Fall in Slow Motion

Slow Motion Fall

Once my kids pulled me with them up to a water slide. I don’t like sliding through winding tubes and hadn’t done it before. But I couldn’t back out of it once I was standing in a dense line at the top of a 50-foot high platform. Nowhere to go but down. So off I went, speeding into a panic of flailing arms as I desperately tried to keep myself from crashing against the green translucent walls.

Then the 12-year old boy behind me leaned toward my ear and calmly commanded: Keep your arms down. Crazy, counter-intuitive move, I thought, and glanced back at him. Then you’ll hold still, he explained. So I forced my arms down, pressed them against my legs and, sure enough, my body righted itself and slid down smoothly to be dumped in a sloshing pool.

I don’t move fast when I’m depressed. In fact, even when I’m well I don’t like to slide, roll, glide, ski down mountains, toboggan or luge. In panic I freeze or fall.

But depression is different. I slow down in every way, as if my mind can’t process a changing scene even at the rate of walking. Thought pushes one word at a time into speech like boulders uphill. Then each sound rolls slowly across tongue and teeth. My jaw’s like lead.

The worst nightmares are dreams of a long free fall. They remind me of the animated sequence that opens Mad Men. The clean order of the corner office starts to break, pictures slide away, furniture slips downward, the walls are gone, then the panicked figure of a man is falling free from skyscraper heights.

The contained frenzy of tense life finally breaks out. The straight lines of control collapse, and all the firm structures designed to ensure stability are gone. The high pressure life enclosed in measured space implodes, and I’m falling fast, oh fast. It’s the terror of limitless loss, not one firm surface to grab at.

Depression is distrust of motion. The warmth of live feelings slips away into a cold-sink. Slow steps and many pauses make living safer, bearable. Seeing people is fast, nerve-racking, unpredictable. I need one thing at a time, feet on the ground, maybe one person in the picture but not too near.

Even my vision slows down. Rapid movement is a blur. My mind can only process a still photo, not a movie. I want to catch one frame at a time, like old-fashioned film editing. You crank the film one frame at a time through a small viewer, stop, back up, cut several frames, splice the ends together. Edit out the confusion.

I want to piece the world together in visual patterns that stay put, like fitting words into sentences that don’t change until you rearrange and edit them.

Everyday living is the shove into that free fall. Anxiety, fear, exhausting action that’s too much to take in and react to. People need responses, feelings, words, smiles, laughter, sympathy, time. They need you, all of you, and I’m in retreat to slow motion solitude.

Spontaneous feeling, fleeting impressions, a shared story, moments of unconscious closeness – everything demands the energy of motion, and all motion is too fast, too tiring.

I get nervous, look at the negative, the annoyances, the things I need to slow down. All I can do is guard the perimeter, keep the inner domain safe, stay on the lookout for the sudden shift, the threat of a shaking earth or a high crashing surf.

Colors confuse, pulling my eyes and mind in too many directions at once. Shadowy sight is less demanding, less shrill.

But night has its own demands of total dark, a stillness too still. Depression pushes me farther in distrust of living toward no living at all.

That’s the thing you never stop fearing, that you’ll stop altogether. That you will end your life. Everything will be not dark, not unfeeling, not colorless, not slow, but simply not. Nothingness.

You can’t stop distrusting yourself, fearing you could take a final turn into the oncoming wall. I know wouldn’t do such a thing. I’ve never even come close to a sudden ending. There are other ways I’m more afraid of because I’ve done them in the past.

More likely, I’d return to slow self-defeat and gradual undoing of everything with value in life. Then I would be able to say: See, I knew nothing would ever work out. I must be cursed. I’m going to disappear. No loss, no gain. Let everything else go on, but I won’t have anything left.

So I try to manage in a slowed down way, not too quick in living, not too dead in emptiness. There’s too much fear in both directions. Little feeling, little motion is the field of survival.

In a way, it’s both a symptom of depression and the first stepping back from it. Finding that middle ground between full day and empty night is the last instinct of life that is left to you. That slow motion state suspends you in fluid amber for a while, preserved, trying to restore. Somehow life flickers back.

Trying to keep that middle path is high-wire stress. Tip to one side, and the speed of living breaks you. Tip to the other, and the deadness makes you disappear. I’m in retreat from both, looking for quiet and the space to find a bit of resilience.

Recovery is relaxing the frozen frame, going with motion, not trying to stop it. Suddenly, things speed up, colors brighten, words flow. I can look into your eyes and see you again, not just a glassy distorted reflection of my face.

Life in full motion feels good again.

Image by ξωαŋ ThΦt (slowly back…) at Flickr

14 Responses to “Depression Is a Free Fall in Slow Motion”

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  1. Donna says:

    Referring to your mention of high wire stress, Karen Horney said (my version), “It is hard to be spontaneous when you are walking on a high wire.” That line has stuck with me for years because it describes my life perfectly. I am sometimes impulsive out of sheer terror, but that is not spontaneity. Spontaneity is joyous freeform action borne up and out of an unworried undefended unplanned instinct. Not sure I have ever been spontaneous in my life! I am still thrashing about on the high wire, like you did in the translucent green tunnel, trying to achieve balance. It would help if I got back down on the ground. Depression doesn’t slow me anymore, it agitates me into a state of restless anxiety-driven inaction. Sitting but wanting to scream. Pacing but wanting to escape. I need a little boy behind me to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to go outside and play.

  2. Laurel Wiig, Ph.D. says:

    Excellent description of how depression feels– Everything feels slowed down. Feeling tired, slow, numbness, empty and disconnected are common symptoms of depression. The difficult thing is that these symptoms also make it difficult for people who are depressed to find the energy needed in order to seek the help that they may require. Depression can be a vicious cycle.

    Glad to hear you have found your “motion” again!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Laurel –

      You’re so right about not have the energy to seek out therapy. in addition to the loss of energy. After being out of therapy for years, I resisted starting again, at first by denial, but also by listening to the cutting voice of zero self-esteem. A lot of people also fear “stirring up” their deep feelings, as if that would make them feel worse than depression does. Or they actually get to a doctor and understate everything because they think they’re exaggerating. We’re very inventive about this!

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. Frances says:


    Thank you for this post. A blogger once stated that, “Depression is a weary clockwork job.” I guess that’s true.
    Do continue to stay at the surface and if ever you’d ever fall from that slide again, please do keep you hands down. 🙂

    If you don’t mind, I would like to ask a favor from you. Can you evaluate this counseling site? I need other people’s opinions whether their services could deliver well for our mental needs. This could also be a good resource in your future posts. Thank you so much. Have a nice day.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Frances –

      Thanks for your comment – I’ll definitely take that advice.

      I’ll have a look at your blog as soon as I can.


  4. Anonymous says:

    This post is quite informative.

    I’ve read about a blogger saying,” Depression is a clockwork and weary activity.” I guess that is true.
    When you said,”Recovery is relaxing the frozen frame, going with motion, not trying to stop it. ” I am glad that you were able to resurface from the seemingly abyssal freefall.
    I hope that you’d stay on the surface from now on. 🙂

    If you don’t mind, I would like to ask a favor from you. Can you evaluate this counseling site? I need other people’s opinions whether their services could deliver well for our mental needs. This could also be a good resource in your future posts.Thank you so much. Have a nice day.

  5. Donna-1 says:

    Strange that for all those years depression massively slowed down my thinking, my movements, my reactions. I was literally in slow motion, even my speech was slow. I felt like my IQ dropped about 20 points in a short period of time.

    Now that I am “in recovery” it is a challenge to get used to the normal speed of life again. Some days it makes me want to scream! Maybe be akathisia? No, I don’t need any more medical labels. It is just a sense I must be more aware of what’s going on, where I am headed, how fast I am paddling my boat. The stream of consciousness I’m in now is moving at a greatly increased speed and seems a little more dangerous. But I’m sure I’ll like it once I adjust.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      Getting used to the speed of things again – that’s interesting. I guess I’ve had problems with the stress that comes with speed – at least when coupled with pressure to produce things on a job. On my own now, work online all the time, the increased energy I have and the speed work well. But I can still cut back whenever I want. So I guess gradually getting used to “normal” pace has been important for me.


  6. Deborah says:

    Ah I see, I wasn’t sure if various people wrote in. Well, thanks for sharing that story. Judging by some of your other posts, you know more than enough about recurring depression. I’m gonna try and do the smart thing this time round and get some help before things get more horrible. Now I just need to find a decent doctor or therapist . . . honestly that’s sometimes a struggle in itself! But yeah, it is nice to see that it isn’t just “me in my head”.
    all the best

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Deborah –

      I sympathize on the problem of finding a good doctor. Most insurance plan primary care docs will refer you to a psychiatrist for medication management only and a therapist for talking things through. It depends on how much choice you have within their networks of providers and – even harder – if the best ones are open to new appointments. Then it’s a matter of finding someone you trust – all that’s pretty hard these days!

      Best of luck on that – getting help is crucial.

      My best to you –


  7. Deborah says:

    Whoever wrote this blog entry, you have perfectly captured my depression. Thank you for writing it. I can’t honestly say there is light in the end of the tunnel yet, but at least I am not so completely alone in the dark.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Deborah –

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad this post captured something for you. You are definitely not alone. If you hang around this blog for a while you’ll hear from a great many of us who know exactly what you’re going through.

      By the way, I’m pretty much it as far as the writing staff goes.


  8. Donna-1 says:

    Excellent post!

    Odd that you should mention things moving frame-by-frame. When I first became psychotic, that’s how I started seeing life. I couldn’t even judge the speed of other cars on the freeway because they were only moving like a line of still shots.

    And one of the first things to go was movies, which I had loved before depression/psychosis. In the full swing of mental illness movies seemed like all the sensory input was divided into separate streams — the dialogue, the music, the scenes, the smell of popcorn. And I could only pay attention to one at a time, so movies were very disjointed and made no sense to me. Now, I just can’t sit still long enough for a feature film.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      I can understand the fragmentation of sensory streams, though I’ve never experienced it as you have. That impresses me all over again with the deep complexity of how the brain manages to integrate such vast amounts of information so quickly. But what a shame about movies! They’re a huge source of relaxation for me and often reminders of issues I still have to work on. As a one-time amateur actor/director and good friend of a director of feature films, I look at them also for the craft. That helps with writing too. So I look at them for lots of things.


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