When looking at the rich complexities of his own and other people’s life with depression, a man can still end up on the side of hope.
In the not-too-distant past, I was one of those people that believed that there was no such thing as depression. That everyone gets sad. That it was a cop out. A sign of weakness, by those who can’t cope.
I was wrong.
As I learned from experience—it’s real. Very real. There was a time when, over a period of months, I became absolutely paralyzed. Every day was too much. Everything shut down. I couldn’t write. And I couldn’t think, except for the cycling fears and the anxieties. I wouldn’t interact with those around me. I didn’t want to be around anymore. It was the lowest period of my life, the nadir (or perhaps the culmination?) of my battle with depression. And coming to terms with my depression—even just talking about it, has been incredibly difficult.
I didn’t begin having periods of depression until about five years ago. The truth is, I still feel confused about why it happened. I still feel shame about it. I still often feel that it’s “not me,” and that it makes me a weaker person. I question why this happens to me, what is wrong with me.
In these past five years, I have had recurring “episodes” that vary in intensity and length. Some of these episodes have been cripplingly paralyzing and excruciating on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute level. They seem to be triggered when a number of stressors occur at the same time, situations that seem impossible, that I can’t think my way out of. Perhaps it’s my mind powerfully saying “I don’t like this,” but at the same time not seeing a path forward. So it rebels. I’m not sure.
What does it feel like?
Being depressed is the most lonely feeling in the world. It’s almost like an auto-immune disease of the mind. You turn on yourself. You tell yourself you are worthless, you are ugly. The brain simply shuts down and takes with it the centers that you use to make decisions, to be funny, to be interesting, to feel love, to see beauty, to experience joy. It’s full on lethargy, and a powerful malaise takes over. It’s absolutely exhausting, both physically and mentally. I withdraw completely from friendships. It’s hard to motivate myself to do anything. I can’t check emails without great fear and anxiety. I am seized by severe – almost ridiculous – procrastination. I cannot make even the most basic of decisions. And it builds on itself; undone tasks stack up, as time passes it gets harder and harder to reach out to friends, harder even to get out of bed. Even though I know it’s illogical, even though I know I should reach out to friends, stop procrastinating, exercise, do the things that make me happy, I simply can’t. Worse still, when I am in its clutches and those around me try to help by suggesting I do all those things, the fact that I can’t makes me feel even more hopeless, more worthless. It’s a loneliness feedback loop, and there seems no way out.
And then it just stops. For me, coming out of depressive periods happens suddenly and for no apparent reason. It’s not like I have all these wonderful tools and use them to work my way out of it. Nope. I just hold on for dear life until it ends. And it does. When it’s ready, the fog lifts, the sky clears, and I feel strong and energetic, creative, playful, sharp, and intellectually curious. I feel “myself” again. Usually within a few days. Thank God.
Before it happened to me, I didn’t believe depression was a real thing. I thought it was just people who were really sad. I didn’t understand that it’s not an unhappiness, but a hostile take-over and then a suffocation of your mind, a constant feeling of being overwhelmed by every aspect of every day. This past year, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about depression. The many articles and videos have shown me that the feelings I experienced that were so devastating are not unique to me. Others know what it feels like.
Among the best discussions on the topic is a TED Talk by Andrew Solomon in which he describes his depression, his conversations with others about their depression, and his thoughts about depression. It’s called Depression, the secret we share, and its worth reading the transcript in full. In it he said:
“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment.“
The powerful grip of depression was also captured all too well by the brilliant author David Foster Wallace, who himself suffered from depression. David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will …kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
I was inspired to write this article by the recent death by suicide of Robin Williams. He was dealing with acute depression. As with many of us, it hit me hard for a number of reasons. Williams was a comedic dynamo and incredibly talented actor who was ingrained in our collective consciousness. Williams was a genius, a virtuoso. His frenetic energy was palpable and delicious, a one-of-a-kind mind zooming forward and then making impossible hairpin turns at a million miles an hour. (“Are you thinking faster than the rest of us? What the hell is going on!?“). He was a unique talent in every sense of both words. He was also genuinely kind, caring, and gentle man. For all these reasons, he had a unique ability to bring happiness to so many people. You couldn’t help but to smile around him, and usually you had to laugh out loud. The juxtaposition of his happiness and vitality with his deep private struggle and deep depression is difficult to comprehend, and darkly sad.
As many noted, the “joke” about Pagliacci the clown from the graphic novel, The Watchmen, poignantly captures the seeming paradox of Robin Williams:
A man goes to see a doctor. Doctor asks what seems to be the trouble. The man says, “Doc, I’m depressed. Simply, I can’t sleep sometimes, I can’t eat, I feel down and irritable most days. I just can’t feel ‘happy.'” /em> The Doctor says, “I’ve got the perfect fix for you. In town tonight is the great clown Pagliacci. He’s hysterically funny and will make you laugh til you cry. You will experience a joy unprecedented.” The man bursts into tears. The doctor, confused asks why. “Doc, I am Pagliacci.”
It emphasizes that depression is all too often a lonely and private struggle.
- “Twitter was full of people saying things like, “If you know someone who’s depressed, hug them! Love them! Don’t let this happen to them!” But like practically any topic, depression and suicide is something that takes more than 140 characters or a hug to fix. I have an incredibly loving family, many fabulous friends and a job that’s a dream come true. I could have 100 hugs a day if I wanted them. None of that stops me from being depressed…There’s no single weapon—positive thinking, faith, shock treatment, yoga, medication, hugs—that can vanquish depression on its own … I don’t need your pity; I don’t want a hug. (No, really, don’t hug me.) But depression needs to be acknowledged—and respected, because it’s a powerful, tricky opponent that’s bigger than us all. Still, our individual battles against it are worth fighting. I know that, because I’m here, writing this column, and today, I feel happy about that.” – Rachel Piper
- “Suffering from mental illness is not an issue of willpower. It does not respond to a desire to be different or be rid of it. It has nothing to do with how much someone does or doesn’t want to be a normal, productive member of society. Depression doesn’t go away through “finding laughter” or even meaning in life…Social stigma is still so powerful, most continue to suffer in silence…” – Bill Walsh
- “Yesterday, like millions of others, I had to stop and catch my breath when I heard the news of Robin Williams’s tragic and untimely death. How could a man who filled us with so much joy be filled, himself, with so much pain that he chose to take his own life? What caused him to feel so desperate and helpless that the only option was to commit an unthinkable act that would ultimately stop his pain and suffering? I looked at the endless stream of photos and videos of him on all the social media outlets and did not find a hint, behind his infectious trademark smile, as to how deeply he suffered. None of us did. Because depression is a secret that no one wants to talk about. And it is my dirty little secret too…People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in everyday life. These are just some of the things that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness. For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat—typically the life of the party. And no, I am not bipolar. I simply am not depressed every single day. But when I go down, I go down hard. And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up…The darkness was so severe and so intense that I could not see my way to clarity. I did not think the clouds would ever pass, that the winds would ever let up or that the rain would stop pouring down. But, as is always the case with storms, they do pass and the sun shines through the clouds offering the hope for a brighter tomorrow.” – Tammy Palazzo
Other statements demonstrated that many still do not understand depression. To those who say that Robin William’s suicide was “a selfish choice” or “cowardly,” I say, you do not understand depression. Period. To say that shows an utter lack awareness of mental health issues, and perpetuates the misunderstanding and societal stigma about depression that causes so many to suffer in private and to not seek help. So does labeling people suffering from depression “crazy.” It’s the opposite of what we need. That’s what we need to change. We need to work destigmatize mental health issues.
Depression is part of the human condition. We need more widespread understanding of suffering. We need compassion.
I’m learning that depression is part of me. Andrew Solomon has gone even further. He has found a way to go beyond acceptance and to see beauty in his depression:
“The question is not so much of finding great meaning and deciding your depression has been very meaningful. It’s of seeking that meaning and thinking, when it comes again, “This will be hellish, but I will learn something from it.” I have learned in my own depression how it can be more real than facts, and I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way….I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I’ve found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture.”
“To love my depression.” Wow. I can’t say that see it that way, as much as I’d like to say that I do. I don’t love it. I don’t even like it. I hate the fact that I can get overwhelmed to the point that my body and mind shut down; that I can feel it coming but I still can’t stop it. I hate that when I’m in it, my brain feels so slow and fuzzy; God is that terrifying. I hate that it’s wholly irrational yet all encompassing. That it’s impossibly hard to have a simple conversation. That nothing brings any joy. And that there is nothing but an overwhelming urge to do nothing. But I have accepted it. Through this, I have learned more about who I am. I know myself more deeply, and I recognize that I have light and also darkness. And that they fit together in some weird way. I am richly complicated. We all are. And this makes me feel more whole.
Though I hope to never go through another episode, having been through this, in a strange way, also makes me feel more alive. It has forced me to be more in touch with my emotions. I feel like I’ve grown, like my focus on what’s important and what matters to me is sharper. I have also learned through this that the best thing we can do is to be open about it and be kind to each other. To watch our friends and our loved ones. To support each other. To be patiently loving.
At first glance this may sound like a platitude, like some pollyanna, kumba-ya notion. It’s not. Depression or not, that’s truly what its all about.
I can’t tell you how many people I have been open with this past year about my depression only to find out that they too have been through it or are struggling with it. They are so empathetic, so caring, because they know what it’s like. And it’s not only others suffering from depression, but friends who simply understand the need for patience, kindness, and love. Who know they can’t just tell you to “get happy,” “enjoy life,” or “snap out of it.” Who stick with you, who reach out persistently, even when you seem to fade away. That has been incredibly soothing. It has let me know that I’m not alone, that others have been through this same thing, felt these feelings. Finally, this experience has also made me more sensitive and aware of the pain we all carry. Everyone. We all carry pain. We all carry sadness. We all get confused. We all struggle. David Foster Wallace captured this aspect of our humanity so well:
“The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.”
Or to put it another way, as the now-popular Internet meme states: “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.” Being sensitive to the pain and needs of others, makes me feel more human. It makes me feel more connected to the world; not less. When you think about it, that’s really incredible. Because that feeling of connection, it’s the exact opposite of loneliness. That this feeling can spring from the ultimate loneliness and pain of depression is hopeful, invigorating and impossibly delicious.
Photo: sidelong / flickr