I grew up in Midland in the ’90s and early 2000s. Depression was out there, and people were starting to have normalizing conversations about it, but it was (and still is) something very misunderstood by a large number of people. When I was young, it was talked about as a defect or some fault in the person’s psyche. Ultimately everyone assumed depressed people are “just sad” and that they should cheer up. But that’s not accurate.

If you want to recognize depression, both from the first-person perspective and how to recognize it in a friend, there’s actually an easy way to understand it from a peculiar source. There’s an ’80s film called The NeverEnding Story. It’s a bizarre, almost cult classic. Except for the song being revisited and thrust into popular culture by Stranger Things, I’d wager most readers have forgotten it. But in that film, there’s a character named Morla the Ancient One who provides an oddly profound look at depression in one scene (likely available online if you look up Morla the Ancient One). Morla is a turtle who lives in a gray swamp and stays half-buried in mud. Morla is originally mistaken for a mountain. Depression can be hard for others to recognize. The protagonist, Atreyu, visits Morla and asks for help, saying the world is going to end because the “Nothing” is consuming it.

Morla talks to herself. She removed herself from outside contact and talked to herself for so long that she’s convinced herself nothing matters—and she starts to sneeze, which she explains is an allergy to people. Isolation and pushing people away. Atreyu is bothered by Morla’s indifference and can’t decide if she is a villain hiding the answers he needs. He demands to know whether Morla cares about the outcome. Morla replies in the plural, “We don’t even care whether we care or not.” Numbness. Atreyu asks whether Morla knows how to help. Morla says, “Not that it matters, but yes.” Indifference. Atreyu begs Morla to help, if for no other reason than to save herself from the Nothing, saying she and the voice in her head will die. Morla is amused with the prospect: “Die? At least that would be something.” Ideations of suicide. Atreyu is frustrated and says he’ll do it himself—he’ll save the world and Morla even if she won’t help herself. Morla half-describes how Atreyu can help and makes it an impossible journey of 10,000 miles. Atreyu is entirely deflated and says, “That’s so far.” Morla sees Atreyu is defeated and says, “That’s right. Forget it.” Defeatism.

In that brief scene you can see how insidious depression is. A depressed mind convinces you that you’re defective and inadequate. It drives you away from people. That lonesomeness feeds the depression, and like Morla, you talk to yourself. Nothing matters. You sink deeper and deeper into the mud and grow numb. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but once you do, it’s as obvious as the giant turtle in the mud. Like Atreyu, you might find yourself caring more about the other person than they do themselves.

Had I known better, I would have identified depression more quickly in myself. As I got into my teenage years, I noticed there were times I started to feel a little indifferent about things. As the voiceover in the commercials would say in that canned, solemn voice: “The things that used to bring me pleasure didn’t.” I would find myself checking out mentally at the parties we didn’t have where we didn’t consume alcohol that one friend’s older brother didn’t buy for us. Some weekends I would isolate myself, more content to be doing absolutely nothing—not playing games on a computer or reading. Just nothing. That should have been a really big flag for a kid who was 17, owned a car, and had a huge mixture of friends from the football team and band, especially in the days before smartphones when there was—I think—one social media outlet. In 2007, I graduated and carried on until I started at Texas A&M University a couple of years later. That first fall at Texas A&M was when it hit me hard. I was in a new place with new people. I didn’t have anything to drag me into action, and I didn’t have anyone who could recognize I was slipping.

Normally when a college student is skipping classes you think, Oh. Day drinking or lazing around by the pool. I was 21 and spending my days in a dimly let apartment, usually in bed. Mostly I wished for sleep. I wouldn’t have to bear the lingering and meandering day. I wasn’t sad, angry, upset, blue, frustrated, or defeated. I just existed. Numb. When I got back home for Christmas break, I was a little energized because I was around people and didn’t have the option to lie around all day. However my effect was transparent to my loved ones, and I was slammed farther into the ground when I got that email I suspected was coming. “Mr. Shrauner, I regret to inform you you’ve been academically dismissed from the Texas A&M College of Liberal Arts.”

My dad was worried, and he insisted he keep the shotgun I carried with me to and from College Station. He was probably right in doing so. It’s between six and seven hours from Midland to College Station, and I made that whole trip back in complete silence. No radio. Windows up. Silent and thinking. I was forced to have “the conversation,” but the conversation saved me.

If you know someone whom you think is depressed, repeat this out loud: It is OK to ask if they’re OK. A depressed person likely won’t invite the conversation, and they’re so deep in the mud they won’t bring it up for fear of repercussion or driving you away. If you’re afraid of how to start the conversations, here’s my advice: “Are you OK?” That’s it. The hardest part is done, and a three-word question could change that person’s life forever. If that person is suicidal, make an immediate plan with him or her and then seek emergency help. If not, first and foremost say thank you for sharing. They’ve leaped over a valley bigger than most will ever see, and they confided in you to break the fall on the other side. You don’t have to have all of the answers—only the question.

If that person is an attorney, the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program is phenomenal. Most of the staff and volunteers are attorneys so they know the importance of professionalism and they exercise the sort of discretion both a reporting attorney and attorney suffering with depression or addiction would hope for.

If you are depressed—the first, hardest, but most urgent step is to ask for help. At the risk of sounding terribly millennial: It is 2020. Depression is real. Help is available. Anyone with the gall or ignorance to criticize you for being depressed or having the courage to open up about depression is not someone you want in your vicinity. If you’re worried about your family, employers, or friends finding out, I would suggest it’s much better for them to have an awkward conversation with you as opposed to a much more difficult conversation with a police officer or paramedic.

I was afraid too. I didn’t want to have the conversation for fear of judgment. So I talked to my parents. I was afraid of my father’s quick response, “What are you sad for? Get over it.” I guess it was painfully clear to everyone I wasn’t OK. Instead of criticism, I found support and affirmation because my loved ones care about me—just like yours care about you. They didn’t have all of the answers. Nobody would. What they did have—and use—were ears and heart, which is more than plenty.

They said I should talk to the doctor about it. So I visited a physician. He quickly identified the depression and gave me a small pill. I took it for 60 or 90 days (I can’t recall), and in just a few days, I felt the change. My energy was up. I didn’t realize how I was living—and had a brief regret for the years I had let slip past me. It wasn’t a high or some montage video. Real life still came in waves, and I had to re-learn how I spoke to myself and re-evaluate how I addressed problems. But I came off the medicine and didn’t have an issue. Since then I’ve gotten into law school, graduated, passed the bar, and have practiced for nearly three years. I reclaimed my life with one conversation.

I’ve talked to the counselors and professionals at TLAP. I still deal with anxiety and depressed moods, and I look for different ways to cope with that while practicing. While I would never presume to speak for a person with diabetes, I suspect a person who lives with depression is not unlike a diabetic managing his or her condition. Instead of testing blood sugar, I take a mental inventory. Instead of watching the sugars I eat, I watch what I tell myself and am sure to affirm that I am adequate, capable, and worthy of love and happiness. Instead of taking insulin, I took a selective serotinin reuptake inhibitor. Depression is strong when you’re alone in the dark. But it’s a coward. It runs from the light—and hides from help.

To get help with depression or other issues, call TLAP at 1-800-343-8527 (TLAP), text TLAP to 555888, or find more information at tlaphelps.org.