It has taken me a very long time to realize this simple fact, let alone process it, and be able to externalize it. You see, for most people, what they feel, how they react, what they do every single day, in any given moment, feels like normal to them. In a way, it is normal in that there is no global, standardized measure of human normality. Everyone has their own normal, their own equilibrium within themselves and with their environment. To me, being depressed was normal. I assumed that was how I was supposed to feel; I thought that is what the world looked like; I figured that was simply the way of things. For most of my life the fact that there was a different way to life, a better way, simply didn’t occur to me. I knew other people, I observed my friends, my family, random people I didn’t even know, and even though a great many of them were acting and living on a completely different plane of existence than I did, it didn’t occur to me that this wasn’t simply their normal and that it was different than mine. Some were female and I wasn’t, or gay and I wasn’t, or happy and I wasn’t. I didn’t know that happy was something I could be. I just knew I wasn’t, and that is was something I would have to live with my entire life.
I know better now. For one thing, I am an adult. I’ve graduated high school and two different institutions of higher learning (though that sounds 50% better than it actually is) so I am slightly more educated than I was as a 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 year old. Knowing better, for me, was a gradual enlightenment, like a lightbulb controlled by a dimmer switch slowly sheds light on a greater volume of a room.
As a kid, and a teen, I just got black sometimes. Deep, dark, brooding, simmering sadness that turned to rage that turned to helplessness, emptiness, and profound despair. Then, sometimes, I would sleep, and the next day things seemed less grim. I always used to say that “it’ll be ok, I’m always better in the morning” even though that wasn’t strictly the case. Nowadays medical care professionals and therapists always ask me “Do you ever think about hurting yourself or others? Do you ever feel like killing yourself?” and while on occasion that has been true, it isn’t really my thing. I’ve never wanted to hurt anybody, not for long, and I’ve got just a bit too much grasp on life to want to give it up. I like movies and Jules Verne, and I’d never forgive myself if I killed myself and they finally made a good adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Hey, nobody said I had to have a good or particularly meaningful reason to live. Any reason will do, as far as I can tell. But anyway, I just thought periodic heavy darkness was a part of my life. I went there, I brooded, and eventually I moved on. It wasn’t until later that I began to see that not everyone existed that way, and there wasn’t any reason why I had to.
But, just knowing that you are depressed and could be happy is no salvation. Enlightenment is no substitute for fundamental life change. It just means that you can tell exactly how badly things are skewed. Helpful, but not transformative. And as a poor college student with very little time, no employment, no access to health care, and a culture that doesn’t like to talk too much about mental health, I didn’t have any options. As a college graduate with few job prospects, time, but still no health care, I had no options. It wasn’t until I got married and my wife got a job with benefits that included health care, and even the possibility of consulting with a mental health professional that I had any hope that my normal might change, that I might get to create a new normal. It still took a ridiculously long time to cut through red tape, assure people that don’t know me that I am not faking, that I really do have mental health issues, and then find someone I could, in the span of 45 minutes of conversation, feel I could trust enough to bare my deepest, darkest soul to, but I have made it.
Her name is Julia. I tell her things. She asks me questions. Some days we make progress, sometimes we don’t. We talk superficially and about minor symptoms of my depression, and very occasionally she guides me into something deeper. It is a process, a long road, and hard work. I continually have bad, dark days. Rarely, the sun shines through. I’m learning to take both in stride.
This evening I viciously and suddenly threw an empty plastic bottle as hard as I could across the room. It was like hitting a whiffle ball. You can put all the effort you want into the swing of your whiffle bat, but it is still just going to float away. I’ve had a bad, annoying, frustrating, irritating day of being depressed today. I kept it bottled up, I ignored it, but Julia says I shouldn’t reject the depression any more than I should reject the happiness, so I let it all out with a petty, ineffective gesture of acceptance. And I felt a little better. Like I said, I’m learning. Ignoring feelings and keeping them locked away doesn’t help. Acknowledging them and experiencing them helpfully does. So I do.
Why was today so bad and depressing? It is really hard to explain to someone who doesn’t understand chronic depression, but it’s like this: I watched an episode of the West Wing this evening. It is an American television show about the business side of the White House and the United States government which I have recently started watching and very much enjoy. The fictional President’s Chief of Staff, a man named Leo, is an alcoholic. So far in the show he has been sober for many years, but as alcoholics are, he is always one drink away from drunk. In the episode I watched, he received divorce papers from his wife, and the rest of the staff were gently, and respectfully, checking in on him to reassure him that while the divorce hurt, it wasn’t a reason to start drinking. Leo’s response? “I’m an alcoholic. I don’t need a reason.” I’m depressed. I don’t need a reason.
For some time now, I have been following the life of a woman named Maurissa Tancharoen. (Wikipedia) (Twitter). Some of you may have heard of a little nerdy movie called the Avengers. It was written and directed by a man named Joss Whedon. His brother is Jed Whedon. Maurissa is Jed’s wife. Maurissa was diagnosed with a very severe and debilitating case of lupus. It constantly interferes with her life and what she loves to do, namely act, sing, and write. But, Maurissa refuses to be kept down by her physical condition. She fights: sometimes she wins, sometimes she loses, but she doesn’t usually give up. It is a war she will never win as there is no cure for lupus (yet) but she fights. And she writes about it on a little blog she calls “It’s Not Sexy”. Read it here: It’s Not Sexy.
Maurissa is a tiny Asian woman, but when it comes to bravery, she kicks my ass. But, I think she might be on to something. Sharing the trials and tribulations of an affliction is not a pity party. It is not a “woe is me” or a call for attention. Fundamentally, it is a statement. An acknowledgement: “here I am, weak and broken”.
Aren’t we all just shiny, happy people? By which I mean, do we not all have our troubles? Judge not, but find compassion. Come, let us love one another. This isn’t some religious bullshit or bleeding heart hippyism. This is just a call to humanity. I am human. I struggle daily. I am depressed. But I won’t be beat, and I won’t give up. I’m going to keep going, because I know that there is something better, something to be gained, and this is my own particular road to hell…and back. I’m coming back, through, past, beyond – I won’t be beat. I have no answers for you; I have no pride; I have no wisdom to impart. All I have are people who love me, people whom I love, a wonderful woman named Julia who is my therapist, and a will to live.
So, listen to me if you wish, but know that whatever bothers you, I write so that you know you are not alone. That much I know with absolute assurance. We can figure out the rest together.