What We Talk About When We Talk About Depression
Everything feels like so much effort again, nothing seems worth doing, and so it appears that depression has returned. Depression, while a medically diagnosable illness, is experientially a murky thing. A relapse for me can manifest in different forms: sometimes the terrors, sometimes the over-its. While the over-its are to me preferable to the panic attack-infused terrors (there is truly nothing worse than the terrors), they are difficult in that they render all activities meaningless aside from sleep. Yet if I sleep and sleep, does that mean I have lost my battle against the part of me that says, “You are never going to accomplish anything again. You are a loser”?
Sometimes the guilt of simply existing as another body on this planet—consuming, making waste, taking up oxygen—just feels like too much. The things in which I take pleasure—a trip to 7-Eleven in my car to eat snacks alone in the parking lot—cause environmental degradation, shitty factory conditions, suffering for others, and I cannot separate the pleasure from the fucked up-ness. Often I feel ashamed that I even exist. People who do not wish me to be suicidal would probably say that I have a right to exist as much as anyone else on the planet—that it is depression telling me otherwise. But whether or not the depression is ultimately telling me a lie, it’s built on a truth, and the truth is that I do cause suffering.
Occasionally someone online will attempt to silence me, or make me feel ashamed of sharing my suffering: usually because my suffering does not look like theirs, and therefore they assume it must not be valid. They will make assumptions about my life, because that is what the human brain does: we attempt to simplify and compartmentalize things so that they fit our pre-existing schemas of who is what, so we can feel “safe” or “superior” somehow. What’s tricky is that my depression will sometimes latch onto a voice like this and say: “That person is right. It’s time to shut the fuck up now.” Depression will always look for a reason to keep us silent and isolated.
But is this what we should be doing right now? Should we be comparing suffering to see whose is worse, as though suffering can be quantified? Or should we be looking for commonality in our suffering, as we are all human, and across a wide range of experiences and perspectives possess a shared emotional palette.
I believe we are as sick as our secrets. I believe it, because I have seen the healing that can come when people divulge the things that they feel separate them from others. This truth-telling, in turn, then gives others permission to divulge that which they feel makes them toxic people, worse than everyone else, or not a part of the human race. In fact, the only way I have remained on the planet—and a member of the human race—is by hearing the sickest secrets of others, and in turn sharing my own.
And, alas, just when I wanted to do nothing but sleep, this happened again last week. I met a woman a bit older than me who was going through the terrors. I could see it on her face: its blankness, the fear behind it. When she told me what was up I knew, intuitively, she was in the exact same place I’ve been in many times—the most recently intense bout of which was when I was changing psych meds. When you’re in the terrors there seems to be no way out. And she was convinced she was stuck forever.
For a moment she did not believe that I understood what she was going through, because she could see life on my face—because I smiled as I spoke to her. People have always told me that I come across as cheerful because of my smile: a defense I constructed from a young age so as not to be asked what’s wrong. Also, sometimes within depression there is happiness—and even joy—as there can be moments of joy in other illnesses as well. Depression does not inherently equal sadness: it equals illness. But gradually, as I told her my story, she began to see that I fully know what she is going through, that I’ve gone through it more than once, and have come out the other side even when I thought I wouldn’t. That feeling of recognition, when you are in the place of terrors, is everything. It meant so much to me to be able to give to her what has so freely been given to me by a few angels, who, when I was in that very same place, have said to me: “I’ve been there, I know how frightening it is, and I came through.”
Yet as I spoke with her, I noticed that I was feeling frightened. Despite the fact that I’ve been going through my own depression, I felt that I was being exposed to a more heightened form of it. Visceral memories of past terrors washed over me, and I shrank a bit as though I was being exposed to something contagious. It became my instinct for a moment to draw a line in the sand, to say to myself that we aren’t really alike—to quarantine or “other” her rather than empathize—so that I would not have to identify and risk catching her disease: a disease I already fucking have. I think this is a very human response. When we are sick we don’t want to get sicker. When we are well we don’t want to get sick again. But I also wonder, if it’s my reflex to other someone who is so much like me, what chance do we have with those who are different?
In the end I was able to work through my feelings of fear and talk with her. We now have each other’s phone numbers and have met up twice. As a result of not distancing myself, I’m finding a greater sense of meaning about the hell I’ve been through mentally in my life. I feel useful, as though this is what I was born to do. For the moments I’m with her, and for a while after, it feels OK that I exist and like I might even have a right to be on the planet.