Trigger warning for suicidality, depression.
When I was eight, my father took me sledding on the golf course in Watchung. It was a popular place to sled, and I jockeyed for a spot among dozens of other kids. Before my first descent, my dad reminded me that if I got hurt, I should wave my arms, and he would come to get me. I sledded without incident for over an hour. It was cold, and fast, and exciting. I got progressively bolder–running to beat other kids out of the best starting places, starting my sled first and then flinging myself onto it as it sped away. Then I got careless.
I’d gleefully hurled myself down what had looked like a fast, clear path, then noticed, too late to redirect, that I was headed directly for a sand pit. The sand pits were sand-filled depressions in the shape of rough circles, five feet deep and at least ten feet across. All the kids avoided these gaping holes in the hillside. They would interrupt your descent at best–at worst you’d slam into the hard, icy bottoms and break your leg as your sled skidded out from under you. Before I’d fully registered what was happening, I was sailing over the edge. I clung desperately to my sled, hoping I was going fast enough to make it across. No such luck. I landed with a resounding thump in the center of the pit floor, the iron runners of my sled crushing my wrists against the ice, backed by the full weight of my body. In shock, I lay half on my side at the bottom of the trap, the wind knocked out of me. I remembered that I was supposed to wave my arms. But I couldn’t move my arms. And my dad couldn’t see me in the pit. I knew I had to climb up the side of the sand trap and wait for my father to find me. But the sides were steep and icy, and I was hurt.
I gingerly tried moving my limbs. My legs were fine–only a little bruised. My neck was sore, but not badly injured. My arms didn’t hurt, but they were oddly numb and I couldn’t lift them. I let them flop at my sides and tried to shimmy up the side of the trap without using them. It was slow going. My boots, slick with melting snow, offered very little purchase, and my brain was fuzzy from the shock of the impact, making balance and coordination difficult. I’d been trying to get out for about fifteen minutes–I was about three quarters of the way to the top–when my dad reached over the edge and dragged me the rest of the way out.
At twenty-four, my body is whole, but my depression is crushing. Every morning, no matter where I wake up, I feel like I’m at the bottom of that pit again, knocked flat and disabled. My father is dead, but even if he were alive, this pit is not a concrete obstacle. It’s a hellish abyss manufactured by a malfunctioning brain. A brain that seems to want me to give up and die.
Battling a chronic mental illness is difficult enough. It’s even harder when your illness makes you unlikeable. When your illness tries to isolate you from your friends and family like a bad boyfriend. When your illness convinces you that you are unloved, that your art sucks, that you will never feel like dancing or have an orgasm or make a new friend ever again. When your illness convinces you that when you want to die, it’s best not to reach out to your friends because it would distress them, and you’re enough of a bummer already.
When I was younger, I read all of James Herriot’s books. In one collection of stories, he describes a man who spent every day on a bar-stool, wittily insulting those around him. Herriot respected his intellect, but didn’t like him much. Eventually, Herriot got word that the man had killed himself, and came to understand that his witty barbs and stand-offish behavior were symptoms of his depression. I remember wanting to print out that story and show it to everyone I knew.
Depression affects everyone differently. Mine makes me mean. It makes me cruel to myself, and it saps my ability to empathize with other people, with the result that I often behave callously or harshly. I’ve been depressed since I was a child, and I’ve been sharp-tongued as long as I’ve been depressed. At this point, I’m not sure I can separate the sharpness caused by the depression from the sharpness in my innate personality. It’s the disease, but it’s not the disease. It’s me/not me.
I’m “doing everything right.” I’m in therapy, I’m experimenting with medication, my friends know that I’m ill, and I do all the things western medicine tells me will help me manage my moods. And yet. I’m losing friends, because I’m too tired fighting for my life to help them with theirs. I’m considered the grouch at work because socializing exhausts me. I’m fighting what seems like a million battles on a million fronts just to keep my life from caving in while I try to heal my badly damaged brain.
I’m tired of this. I’m tired of having a chronic, life-threatening illness that no one treats like a chronic, life-threatening illness. I’m tired of being seen as unlikable or selfish. I’m tired of apologizing for not having the energy to go to a party, or volunteer at an event. I’m tired of people being disappointed in me for being sad, or not having anything to say. Or thinking that somehow I’m not doing enough.
Do you want to know what my life is like?
Imagine doing every thing you do in an average day, good or bad, with no possibility of pleasure. I’m talking about going to work and doing a million boring things, then getting home and staring at a TV show that used to make you happy and doesn’t any more. I’m talking about cleaning the kitty litter and trying to reward yourself with a brownie that doesn’t taste like anything. I’m talking about forcing yourself to go to a social event so your friends don’t think you’ve abandoned them, and spending the entire time trying to focus on what they’re saying while your brain plays the nightmare you had last night over and over again in technicolor.
Imagine blaming yourself for every friendship that fails, every bad decision your siblings make, every foul mood your girlfriend’s in, and every year that goes by without you becoming a success.
I want to be liked, but I’ll settle for being understood. I want anyone who has not suffered from depression to understand that depression is the absence of joy. I want help. Not medical help, I’ve secured that for myself. I want social help. I want the world to be easier for me to navigate, not harder.
I don’t have action items today. But Jesus Christ, can we make the world a little easier for depressed people?