Being buried alive is one of the most terrifying experiences human beings can imagine. The mere thought cranks out chiller-flick frisson and nightmare sweats: the meat box nailed shut inches above your nose, oxygen swapped for gulps of toxic CO2, screams and adrenaline jacked up by their own futility.
Depression can feel like that—suffocating in a subterranean trap, the earth that buoyed you for so long now just ravenous and wolfing you down. Sometimes those psychic casket walls crowd you so tight you can hardly move. Just getting out of bed or off the couch can seem tougher than busting out of a Precambrian crypt. Much as you want to escape this claustrophobic living death, your hope thins like canned air with every breath you take.
Finally the only hope left is for oblivion, not the experience of nothing but the eternal shutdown of experience, of consciousness and being themselves. A big old ontological goose-egg.
Not exactly a consoling metaphor, huh?
But wait just a casket-plankin’ minute there, laddy-buck. Because what if you could trade those pine pajamas for glad rags and cakewalk out of the bone orchard?
Okay, maybe it ain’t a cakewalk. But doable? Damn straight. Millions have done it. I’m one of them.
It helps to start with a dose of inspiration, and you might be surprised where you can pick some up. Here’s one of the things that worked for me:
In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 2, protagonist Beatrix Kiddo is buried alive by one of her enemies. The only mercy this demonic cheap-shot shows our heroine is the gift of a flashlight to illumine her final air-starved hours. At first Kiddo does what anyone would do—she shrieks, she weeps, she beats on the lid with crazed, ineffectual panic. She succumbs to the emotional chaos that is usually our first response to impending death.
But Kiddo has had elite training with the venerable kung fu master Pai Mei, and she knows how to quiet inner turmoil even in the teeth of extinction. She recalls an early training session when her master placed his hand three inches from a thick mahogany board and struck it. His fist exploded through the splintering wood. When he asks Kiddo to do the same, she demurs, explaining that she can’t hit hard from that close. “And what if your enemy is three inches from you?” Pai Mei demands. “Do you curl up into a ball? Or do you put your fist through him?”
Kiddo straightens her fingers, the tips against the board, then furls them into a stony fist and belts the wood. Her knuckles split and bleed. Pai Mei catches her grimace. “It is the wood that should fear your hand,” he says, “not the other way around. No wonder you can’t do it—you acquiesce to defeat before you even begin.”
The insult is merely a part of the training, a challenge to her essential fierceness. Kiddo answers the call by walloping the board harder, battered knuckles be damned.
Years later when she’s been buried in a tree suit and left for dead, the memory of this training crackles in her mind, her arms, her weaponized fist. There’s no capitulating to defeat even though it’s “logical” to see her plight as hopeless. After her initial panic, she quickly calms herself, realizing that, like Sun-Tzu’s successful warrior, she can be surrounded by chaos or despair without being subject to these adverse states of mind.
She uses the pressure of the belt that binds her legs to wriggle out of one of her boots, and then shuffles off the belt itself. She’s able to shimmy and push her boot up to where she can grab it. She fishes out the blade she keeps there and uses it to cut through the ropes around her wrists.
She caresses the plywood of the coffin lid, finding the weak points, and when she’s ready she speaks to her master: “Okay, Pai Mei, here I come.” Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western anthem L’Arena ramps up its strings and rich brass as Beatrix begins to pound the lid—this enemy three inches in front of her.
She pulverizes the plywood until the earth pours through. L’Arena lifts into a rousing crescendo as she worms her way up through six feet of packed earth, her hand finally breaching the surface like some new ecstatic crop, and she hauls herself gasping up to her second shot at life.
Gainsayers might object that Kiddo’s escape from the grave strains credulity too much. Mythbusters actually tested it and found it far from plausible.
But come on, do we have to be so literal-minded here? Don’t let your misapplied empiricism drain the power from a great metaphor. Who really sets their suspension-of-disbelief dial at “Naturalism” when they’re watching a story like this? Comic-book heroism and mythical archetypes dramatize timeless truths—those that repair and energize the human spirit. The so-called “laws of nature” shouldn’t constrain inspired narrative.
If being buried alive and its psycho-spiritual cognate, depression, are kinds of metaphorical death, it’s also true that religion and mythology have long linked burial to regeneration. The way Joseph Campbell described it, “You put someone back into the womb of Mother Earth so that they can be reborn.” And there was that mystical, whip-smart carpenter’s kid from Galilee who made a similar observation: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
It ain’t the physical dying you need, but dying to the squint-eyed, grasping, foot-stamping ego that shoves you into the grave because it’s not getting what it wants. What it wants is not the same as what you require to have a good life.
So just try to dig this ageless agrarian scoop, will you? Because it applies—to Beatrix Kiddo and to you, kiddo. Beatrix’s undertaker had murder on his mind, but this woman-seed he planted kicked up her own resolve and bloomed stronger than she’d been before.
Look at the burial of depression this way: Maybe you’re catatonic, clapped tight between emotional bedrock and topsoil. Maybe you’re bummed-out dead on the root-crop vine. Those blue devils have jabbed deep and driven you down.
But you can still wake from this dirt nap and pilot yourself back to the pinwheeling, sun-soaked world.
Maybe you had no Pai Mei, but you probably had someone, at some time, teach you to how calm down and then ramp up. If not, you can teach yourself.
You grok at gut level that depressed thinking is a sham. Plenty of us have been deep-sixed here before, and we’ve scrabbled back up to that plane of high-feathered, productive life.
Shine your flashlight on these sharp, clear truths—use them to cut the ropes from your hands.
Then caress that coffin lid, find the seams where light bleeds through the despair, where air can be siphoned even through packed earth. That’s where you start—knowing there’s nourishment out there, beauty and strength that can be yours again, and fresh sources of meaning or pleasure that you can’t even anticipate. Even if right now it’s less than 1% of your withered mind that can absorb that truth, still you know it. Maybe you can catch only thin whiffs of that sustaining atmosphere, but it’s there on the surface waiting for you, millions of cubic meters of sustenance to take in. Your season of psychic death will wind down, and you can hasten this end of the winter.
So depression’s dark-thought author plunges you into a grave and tries to tell you that you can’t buck up out of it, that life can never be good again. Okay, let him talk—sometimes you have no choice. But don’t buy his shit. He’s Mephistopheles. He’s Avidya, a jive-ass hoodwinking crap merchant. Once you catch on to his con, you won’t need to take him seriously anymore.
Here’s the truth: Life will never be perfect, and rough times will come and go like seasons and tides. But odds are the good and great times will roll out to you too. You’ll see the ocean again, that miracle of froth and power roiling under seabird cries. You’ll watch the sinking sun toss up splatters of gold and vermilion and crimson and violet to make your heart dance the Watusi.
Odds are you’ll be lit up by a lover’s touch or warmed by the eyes of a kind friend. You’ll awake, taste the kicky java, and see the scrim of sleep dissolve as the world’s palette flashes bright again. People will go on loving you, and you’ll go on loving them. You’ll find new souls to treasure and tread the earth with. You’ll be gratified by the solid, honest work that you do. You’ll have the opportunity to help others who are suffering. Most likely, some or all of these things will happen again, and you’ll be grateful.
Watch that scene of Beatrix Kiddo defying the fate that her enemy thinks he’s imposed on her. Let these resurrectional sounds and images kick you into gear. No matter that you’re boxed in, that you feel like a desert-dry carcass. These bones shall live again.
Okay, Pai Mei, here you come.