What it’s Like to Have Depression and Anxiety: An Analogy

I think we can all agree that we just came out of an extraordinarily long winter. For many with depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, or any number of other mental or physical disorders, it has likely felt like an eternity. A super crappy, never-ending eternity.

At least, it has for me.

For those who have never experienced depression or anxiety as a mental disorder, and who do not have someone close to them with depression or anxiety, it can be hard to understand exactly what it is and how it manifests. I came across a meme not too long ago that summarized depression pretty perfectly. (I’m afraid I don’t know who to credit it to.)

What it's like to live with depression and anxiety: A Super Mario Brothers analogy

Yeah. Depression and anxiety are super fun in the sense that you can be depressed or be anxious and the only explanation is… you have depression and anxiety. Makes total sense, right?

So I created an analogy that (hopefully) helps to explain depression and anxiety. I have to start with a disclaimer, though: It’s not a perfect analogy, and everyone experiences the disorders differently. It’s very hard (and generally not appropriate) to generalize these disorders, so I’ve done my best to describe how they affect me personally.

The Analogy: It’s time to dust off your Nintendo

What it's like to live with depression and anxiety: A Super Mario Brothers analogy

Think of your life like a game of Super Mario Brothers–the old school, first version of Super Mario Brothers that was played on the original Nintendo system, where you sometimes had to blow into the cassette to get it to work (because I’m an 80s baby, yay!).

You are going along, like Mario, living your life, minding your business, gathering your coins and bumping your blocks.

You’ve grabbed a mushroom and are big when a duck suddenly rams into you. One tiny bump, and you are small again. It’s okay, it’s early in the level, and you know that there will be other mushrooms throughout the game. You eventually get to one and are big again. It’s early in the game and the levels are easy. You leap onto the top of each flagpole and are moving along nicely, with only an occasional duck or toadstool set back. You go through this routine, through the levels, over and over again. Big, small, coins, blocks, big again, fire power, toadstool, small… and on and on.

Eventually, you are feeling a little worn out. Maybe you aren’t able to hit the top of the next few flagpoles. Hitting the middle or bottom is still okay, though, because it is progress. You are still moving along, and you are still enjoying the game. You face a few Bowsers along the way and advance to subsequent worlds. You take a few hits, have a couple setbacks, but you are ultimately successful.

Then, out of nowhere, the next level is a lot harder than the previous ones.

The clouds turn against you and start dropping bombs on you. You can’t seem to stay big, and the next mushroom you find gets away from you. You are on high alert, going slowly and taking care so that you don’t get hit by a toadstool or rammed by a duck. Because you are going slowly, time has gotten away from you. The music speeds up, and now you have to rush so you don’t run out of time. You no longer stop to grab your coins or hit your bricks–you are in survival mode and just need to get to that flag pole. Your heart is pounding as you hurry along. Only a few seconds left.

You finally make it to the flagpole, but just barely.

You go on to the next level because that is what you do when you are playing Super Mario Brothers–you keep going. Sometimes the levels are easier, but you are getting tired. They ultimately become harder and you kick in to survival mode more often than not. Sometimes there is help–you are able to skip a level or find a secret stash of coins. That makes you feel good, but it’s often just temporary, because the next duck, toadstool, ninja, carnivorous flower, beetle, or Bowser is just waiting around the corner.

And then, at one point, you try to jump over a chasm–but you are little and it is just too wide. You fall in. You weren’t expecting that. You thought it would be a ninja that took you out, because that is what would make sense. So now you’ve lost a life, and you have to start the level over. You really don’t want to start over; what you really want to do is throw the controller down and give up.

You are tired of the highs and lows, tired of the fast music, tired of being little, and tired of facing challenge after challenge.

But you can’t give up.

Your family and friends are watching you play and they want you to win. You are really good at hiding your frustration and stress, and they aren’t watching you so much as they are watching the screen anyway, and they often don’t notice that you are exhausted, worn down, and ready to throw that game controller against the wall.

And the cycle keeps repeating: easy levels, challenges, being big, having fire power, getting knocked down small, getting big again, defeating the ninjas and monsters, cloudy bomb-filled levels, levels with clear skies, and sometimes falling down a hole and starting over. And you keep going not just because you have to, but because deep down you really do want to. When it’s hard, you sometimes forget how much you love the game, but you really, truly do.

But wouldn’t it be nice if sometimes, every now and then, someone stopped watching that screen and took a good look at the person playing the game?

It’s hard to do, I know, because everyone is playing their own game at the same time, and are facing their own challenges. But maybe whenever we are all on an easy level… maybe we can use that time to glance away for a moment and make sure no one we care about is trapped under a cloud-filled sky or falling down a chasm.

And if they have, maybe try to help them pause the game, take a break, and find the strength to try again. It may be hard to understand depression and anxiety, but even the smallest kindness can make a world of difference.


Caroline is an Arizona native who moved to Iowa in 2007 ‘for love.’ She and her husband live in Coralville with their 8-year-old daughter. Caroline works full-time at the University of Iowa and recently earned her MA in Higher Education Administration. Caroline is a self-taught sewer, fabric hoarder, Starbucks lover, wannabe graphic designer, and avid reader. Her greatest aspirations are to raise a kind, strong, and fearless girl and have a clean house.



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