In which I take a moment to talk about depression.
Before I begin, I’m going to redirect you for a moment to the works of Allie Brosh and Jenny Lawson. These two women have spoken on the subject of their own depressions with more wisdom and earnestness and humour than I could ever muster. Brosh’s especially, augmented with her crude, wonderful illustrations, provides a better window into how she experienced this illness than any Rolling Stones song or personal anecdote ever could. I have recommended it to many students over the years, both those coming to terms with their own depression, and those desperate to understand the depressions of family and friends. My own musings on the subject are pale compared to these.
Depression is like art, or pornography (even the Korean kind, viewed keenly on a library computer): it’s next to impossible to describe, but you know it when you feel it. It is exceptionally hard to commiserate with others about depression because everyone who feels it feels it in a different way. Medical definitions of “prolonged feelings of sadness, lack of energy, or thoughts of suicide” are only the most general of starting points. They fall too broadly, and lack the intimacy that depression requires. It isn’t a sinus infection. My depression will only superficially resemble yours. My depression today might bare little similarity to my depression next year. Trying to explain your depression to anyone else can be as hard and as fruitless as trying to explain music to a deaf person or colour to the blind, and often results in a wild mixing of metaphors. And trying to explain someone else’s depression can be as insulting as a racist slur. This is why it is such a difficult illness to come together on, because it takes so many shapes and sizes, so many flavours and blends. There is no tumor, no broken synapse, no fractured bone. There is only an anonymous thing, an opaque presumption of no fixed address. And no amount of empathy can ever truly make another person understand what that means for the sufferer.
The following is my experience, with no presumption of universality. The following is my depression, as I have understood it, as I have come to know it, as I have been living with it. It took me a long time to realize that I was depressed, and longer still to admit it to myself, let alone others. There were periods in my life when depression held majority rule, and where my behaviour was shaped solely by what was so obviously the dark universe version of myself. It even had a beard. My behaviour was shaped by it, and it was shaped by my behaviour. A decision made in the depths of self loathing, or misanthropy, or hollowed neutrality would cause the further suppression of my native disposition. I was so lost in the grip of a depression at one point, that I assumed it was my native state. That the ornery, passionless humbug of a human that I ballooned into was the real me. That there was no better version. That belief did not do wonders for my self esteem, let me assure you, and this Hyde-like persona kept burrowing deeper and deeper, leaving my own true self no safe quarter.
I cannot tell you what inspires depression. If it were as simple as hearing a flat-D note, or smelling roasted chickpeas, or getting a phone call from a Pacific North-westerner named Ruth, then depression would be as easy to avoid as a mound of dog dirt left on the sidewalk. Depression is not an on-off switch. Depression is the mental illness equivalent of chaos theory. A butterfly flaps it’s wings in New York, a typhoon is formed in the south China sea, and a man named Burt in the midst of tying his left boot lace is suddenly overwhelmed by the idea that nothing is worth any effort anymore. Depression is a flock of sparrows; at first, there is one bobbing lightly in the garden. Then two, then ten, then a Hitchcockian plague have blackened the sky and begun the Death By A Thousand Pecks. Looking back at my periods of depression, the one uniting and defining trait is that they all lack a definite beginning, and a definite end. There is no Franz Ferdinand of the soul being shot, and no Treaty of Versailles bringing peace once again. I could not tell you when the depression encroached, only that at some point in the midst of it, I recognized that I was lost. And while it would be narratively fulfilling to say that Knowing Is Half The Battle, and that realizing I am depressed means I can work my way out, more often than not realizing you are in the midst of a depression just makes you more depressed. The depression ends when it ends. When it has run its course. Or, when the drugs kick in.
One of the greatest challenges facing those with depression is that those who don’t have it constantly want to help. But they think depression is just being sad. And that the easiest way not to be sad is to be happy. To sleep on a bed of puppies, or have The Sex, or read the collected works of Wodehouse. These things might work on a Thursday night sadness, but depression isn’t a stubbed toe or a catty remark from a coworker. Depression is a cumulative disassembly of every facet of your life, and reassembling it in a way that makes it aesthetically displeasing. Like having a favourite meal cooked by someone else, and they’ve swapped out a key ingredient that makes the meal taste completely different. Depression swaps out a key ingredient of everything. You keep eating, but it just tastes wrong. Some people keep eating and complain; some people push their plate away from them and refuse to eat any more. And some people, if the taste is bad enough, opt to leave the table entirely. I, and I am eternally thankful for this, have never been so far gone to have considered leaving the table. Even when I hate the meal, and assume that every meal for the rest of forever is going to taste horrible, I have always been able to maintain that the table is still where I want to be.
Everyone’s depression causes them to react in different ways. For some, they get tired, they recede, they cut themselves off from life. For some, it cripples their ability to do anything. Some people think that the depressed sit around thinking about the meaning of life and how nothing is worth anything anymore. Those people are confusing the depressed with Philosophy Majors, and having spent time with both groups, I’ll take the depressed. For me, I have always (thankfully) been able to remain functional. My depression saps my ability to take any enjoyment from anything. Books take longer to finish, and I only read them instead of experiencing them. TV shows start to pile up on the DVR because I can’t be bothered to watch them. I stop writing. Even my occasional bouts of flustered (and borderline comical) rage, which were at least the result of a blinding passion, are reduced to a thousand empty annoyances. Then these tiny grievances fester and keep up the inertia of the spiral. Everything becomes The Worst. Back when I lived years like this, it just became the person I was. I was angry ol’ MR. Clark, he of the long rant about the stupidity of rakes, or the pointlessness of cyan, or WHY IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T YOU HAVE YOUR SHOES ON? People accepted it, played into it, and laughed it off. They saw it as affectation, which meant they didn’t see that I 100% believed everything I was saying. That when I went home I was still as pissed about cyan as a reasonable person might be about… the Trump presidential run. And because I come from deep, old world British and German stock, when it comes to all matters emotional, the appropriate course of action is to keep everything to yourself, repress what you can, and just get on with what is expected of you. Which meant that I just stayed angry, and depressed, and lacking the ability to perceive an upside.
Most recently, I noticed something was wrong in late July. I took a break from this site. I do that from time to time, when there is nothing to write about. I step away for a week or two, recharge creatively, and come back. But something felt different. Since then, on multiple occasions, I would tell myself that I needed to write something. And just never do it. At first, I chided myself for laziness. After all, I’ve seen Kobo and the Two Strings, Magnificent Seven, the start of Westworld, and the announcement that the new Star Trek series has been pushed back to next year; all things I could have easily written long articles about. I wasn’t strapped for content. But it was more than laziness. It wasn’t just this site. Hyde was back. I was angry again. I was dismissive again. I was depressed again. It didn’t start in July, or August. It almost certainly started earlier than that. And twice now, I've felt like I might be coming out of it. The first time it was soiled by a random playing of “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” by CCR on the radio going to work, and despite loving that song and having heard it hundreds of times, it drove me harder and faster and further into the depression. The second was the emotional equivalent of a trip wire: something insignificant and nearly invisible that dropped me right on my face. Writing this article has taken more effort and energy than anything I’ve done in the last three months. And I know that I’m not out yet. I do not feel better. I expect that this bout will ruin Halloween for me, one of the few holidays in the year I actually enjoy. I’ve been depressed for shorter amounts of time before, and for far longer. When I lost my job, I didn’t get depressed. When I had to pick up my life and move to an entirely new corner of the map, I didn’t get depressed. Those events energized me, because regular me thrives on challenge. Regular me takes delight in the absurdity of existence, and the randomness of life. Regular me takes advantage of events. And right now, I’m not regular me.
But I will be, again. And that probably means I’m coming out of it. Some, at their worst, look forward and cannot fathom a time when their whole life won’t remain consumed by their depression. The disease convinces them that it is never going away. And it is in these moments that some opt to leave the table early. I’ve never thought that way. Possibly because regular me rarely thinks about the future. Regular me doesn’t get caught up in the stress and anxiety of possibilities, but rather takes each thing as it comes and makes informed decisions that are relevant to the immediate. Depressed me is more concerned with what is bothering him right now, or harps on about how shit life is right now, or obsesses over a missed opportunity or imagined slight right now. Depressed me doesn’t care if he’ll still be depressed tomorrow, he’s more concerned with that we’ve been depressed for too long already. So when my mind does start drifting towards the idea of not being depressed in the near future, I usually take that as a sign that I’m on the mend.
Depression is a mental illness. The most common mental illness. The most common illness, period. More common than cancer, or asthma, or the clap. Some people suffer once. Some people suffer constantly. Usually, it is relapsing and remitting. There is a good chance that you know someone suffering from it right now. There is a good chance that you have suffered from it at some point. I have no advice for you. I don’t think it is my place to offer you advice. I know what makes a good story, and I know how to find information. Those are my areas of expertise. I have depression, and I don’t feel comfortable giving myself advice on how to deal with it. The only thing I am qualified to do is say, I have it. The only thing I am qualified to do is explain how it affects me. Everything after that would be ego, and if you do suffer from depression I would caution you against anyone who claims to have fast, simple, and miraculous answers. I would say, talk to someone. I would say find someone who is willing to listen rather than offer suggestions. And I definitely say, don’t leave the table just yet. The meal isn’t over, and you never know what is going to be on the menu next.
You’re always welcome at my table …ReplyDelete
This is very eloquent -- funny and heart-wrenchingly accurate. And courageous. Not gonna lie, your mom mentioned this post to me. Here's the thing: I've been struggling with mental health issues for years. My parents are still not comfortable with it although my mom is trying. My sense is that your mom will too in her own way, and that like mine, your dad may avoid talking about it despite how much he cares. You're right: we were raised not to have these problems, and even worse to not talk about them. The family silence about mental health upsets me because it leads to secrets. Bipolar disorder and depression definitely run in my dad’s family, from both sides, and have been present in his generation. I don't think that our struggles today are all genetic of course. We live in a fast paced, multi-tasking, impersonal world to a large degree. There is a lot of stress. My doctor says she thinks it's just a chemical thing. Maybe someday someone will figure it out. Apart from family I have become pretty open about dealing with clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I know you are very aware of the incidence of mental health issues in society. I also know you are very self-aware, very smart. I know you can find your way. But I also want you to know that you are not alone in our family, not in experiencing depression and not in the sense that you have to be silent -- unless you choose to do so. I get it.
You wrote that depression is completely different for each person. It absolutely is. And each bout is a different experience from those that have gone before. In a nut shell (possibly a very large nut -- no pun intended!) my deal is this ... As a teenager, even as a kid, I always held in a lot. At university I couldn't. I was a mess. I spent a lot of time wanting to leave the table. I graduated. It lifted. I had a couple of good years. Then my live in boyfriend left -- literally (but, that's another story) and my job ended and I lost myself again. I struggled and eventually improved. But after a couple of years the depression came back with a friend -- anxiety. And for no obvious reason. I was in my 30s. I realized depression and anxiety had completely snuffed out my personal life years before, but it wasn't until work became impacted that I did something about it. Luckily the first meds worked well until about 3 years ago. Again there was no reason. But I was thinking about leaving the table again. A lot. And with an urgency I had never felt before. But then as quickly as those feelings came on, they would leave -- not over days or weeks but over hours -- only to come back a few days later. Five med changes, 4 psychiatrists, 2 therapists and a great GP later I have a new diagnosis of rapid cycling bipolar disorder and a new treatment plan. I take a cocktail of anti-depressants and mood stabilizers, I see my therapist every 2 weeks, my GP every 2 mos and my psychiatrist (at CAMH -- they're the best at what they do) about 2 times a year for a medication consult. I do yoga. I have taken classes in mindfulness (the folks at The Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto are great -- http://www.mindfulnessstudies.com/). I read and educate myself as much as I can. (I have found Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Penman & Williams http://franticworld.com/ and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, Second Edition by Segal, Williams & Teasdale http://mbct.com/ helpful.) I have tried CBT, yoga therapy, aromatherapy and massage. I will try voodoo if I can find any scientific basis for it. I finally look for and ask for help and talk about it. This is why I am proud of you.
If you ever need ... anything, I am here. Call, text, visit or we can just be alone together in our own separate comfort zones. I love you. Did I say I'm proud of you? Take good care of yourself, Heather