Depression: probably the most common mental illness today.
“Mental,” as if depression is just in your head, affecting your thoughts. Which it does, of course. It affects all your thoughts. It becomes your thoughts until you can’t tell the difference between what you’re thinking and what depression is thinking for you. It wants you to believe that the negative thoughts it feeds to you are all true, that you’re observing life as it really is, that you’re not actually looking at life through a darkness that filters out the light. That the light no longer exists.
Depression wants you to think that your life is impossible. All of it. The pile of laundry on the floor, the grocery list, the phone call, the possibility of love or human kindness. And not just think it but over-think it, over-analyze it, as if thinking about it times a million will somehow solve the problem instead of turning it into a giant monster that eats your brain and spits you out.
Depression is a mental illness first. It starts in your thoughts. But it’s not just a mental illness. It’s a spiritual illness. It’s an emotional illness. It’s a financial illness.
Emotionally, it bribes you with the possibility of taking away your negative feelings, and then it takes all your feelings and crams them into a dark dungeon so that even when it seems appropriate to have a good feeling about something, you can’t, because the feeling won’t show up. Depression convinces you that feeling is too dangerous. So you have to stop feeling, right? Seems logical, right? Just think about it. Of course feeling is dangerous. Of course you want to stop feeling angry and sad and jealous and hurt and betrayed and weak and full of rage. Of course you want to make those feelings go away. Just think about it. Rationally. Depression can take all that away. Because depression is oh so rational.
Depression thinks those thoughts on your behalf and as soon as you sign up for the plan, it stuffs the pain away, not so it will never hurt you again (because it will always find a way to resurface in a thousand different ways) but so you can’t effectively process it. The pain doesn’t go away. It only rots in the dark. It becomes toxic, like mold, like a tumor. It doesn’t die; it only feeds on itself and grows twisted in the darkness.
Depression wants me to think that I’m thinking my own thoughts and making my own choices, but it’s manipulating me. It’s deciding for me, what to think, what to feel, and what not to feel.
Depression is mental and emotional and also physical. Not only because it starts in your brain which is a physical part of you, but because the brain affects how your body fights disease, affects how you feel emotionally and physically, and affects how you take care of yourself. Time to make lunch? Not so fast, cowboy. Let’s not attempt the impossible here. The leafy greens in the fridge are dead because you’re too stupid to eat them, you dumb shit, and the leafy greens at the grocery store are on the other side of a chasm so great that you couldn’t possibly cross it today. Especially when there’s that bag of chips on the counter that you got at the convenience store, the only place in walkable distance today, and at least that will keep you from starving and give you just enough energy to maybe do that pile of laundry or get your fat ass to work for another day of paycheck so you can buy another bag of chips tomorrow. Or at least you can go for the Chinese or whatever puts broccoli and other greens into the food that your body will accept at this point.
Except it’s not your body deciding what to eat anymore. It’s the depression telling you to eat the grease and the salt and the sugar and the caffeine and all the addictive stuff because let’s face it, why eat for health and long life when your decider is sick and life isn’t worth living anyway?
So depression is a mental, emotional and physical illness, but then it infects all your relationships. It convinces you that people don’t really like you, because you’re not lovable, so you shouldn’t bother those people out there. And even when you know that people love you and enjoy your company, it just feels like too much work to plan something and show up and care.
I still care about my friends and family, but depression does not. Depression seriously impacts my ability to care about myself or anyone else. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a bad person because I don’t put in the effort to care enough about others the way I should. And depression loves to remind me of how I’m not doing what I should.
So depression infects everything in your life, and then kills your finances. It takes away your desire to work, and often takes away your ability to get out of bed and show up for any work at all. That happened to me in 2010. Then when enough people are unable to work, we call it a capital-D Depression, Depression that affects everyone. Now the good times are not only gone – it feels like they’re never coming back, as if you no longer have a choice in the matter, because you’re just a financial victim like everyone else, and the Depression is a cold dark blanket over everything that makes you believe your work is worthless, not worth a dime, that nothing you do will ever make the world bright and solvent again.
Or depression lets you keep working, but affects your finances in other ways, such as expensive addictions that form as false relief.
Depression is all those things – emotional, financial, mental, physical. Depression takes your mind and tells you what to think, then it takes your emotions and tells you what to feel and not feel, and it takes your finances in a fit of addictions and inability to work, and it takes your body, and then it tries to take your soul. Your will to live. Your power to choose.
And maybe it succeeds for a while. It takes your soul, your spirit, your will, as if they were just neurons firing in your pre-frontal cortex where your executive functions do their neurotic things. It takes your neurons and your neuroses and your pre-frontal cortex, because yes, depression is a mental illness and it is in your head. It takes control of your mind and gives you thoughts about how bad everything is. War, abuse, crime, injustice, the melting of the ice caps, the end of life as we know it – all really good reasons not to get out of bed in the morning, when you really think about it. And depression never stops thinking about it. It thinks enough about these things to convince you that taking action is pointless.
Many of the treatments psychiatry has come up with for battling depression involve trying to think different thoughts. It’s a mental game. Unfortunately, when the brain is broken, it’s hard to use it to fight the depression that it’s creating for itself. Some people find relief in these psychiatric head-games. I have not.
One possible way out that I’m exploring now is not to think about it, but to find my soul again, my will to survive, not in a more successful thought pattern carved out from neuroses and neurons but in my gut, my heart, the seat of my soul. My mind has been taken hostage, I can’t think clearly, my willpower seems broken by addiction and fatigue, and my soul is buried under 30 years of muck but it’s still there and on a good day, I can still get to it.
And maybe, like at the end of the Matrix trilogy, I’m in a dark muddy hole and depression has taken over my mind and is beating the crap out of me, and it looks like I’ve lost and will never win again. And depression is demanding to know why I still fight. Why, why do you do it? Love? Hope? Forget it, they don’t really exist, not for real, if you really think about it, so give up, it says. Happiness doesn’t last. Life isn’t worth living. So why do you do it?
And I’m down for the count in that dark hole and there’s nothing left to fight with. Many days, I have to admit, the depression wins and I reach for a distraction. But on a good day, I wake up just enough to reach for my core, the force for good that depression or so-called rational thought tells me doesn’t exist (because it’s just a thought, right?).
But no, your heart is not a thought, it’s a muscle the size of your fist, and when it’s the last thing you got, you got to fight back.
On a good day, I remember that depression never really took away my spirit; it just locked it away for a while and told it not to come out. But my will is still my own. Depression likes to remind me every day that I’m a victim. In moments of clarity, I don’t believe those thoughts.
This muscle in my chest is getting a work-out. It’s struggling. It’s pushing against decades of brokenness and the weight of a thousand thoughts of distress. This heart is trying to stand under the weight of everything that depression has thrown on top of it for 30 years.
Right now, I’m exercising my right to choose. I’m writing this down even though I want to go back to bed. I’m choosing because choice is the only thing I have left.
Choice makes us human. When life seems impossible, we can choose to attempt the impossible. Humans have done it before, whether it’s the four-minute mile or standing in front of a hundred tanks in Tienanmen Square or staying seated on the bus while an angry white man threatens to have you arrested. Why? Because we choose to.
I ended my first draft of this a couple weeks ago on the high note of personal choice and the triumph of the human spirit, as if I’m some kind of goddamn hero for beating depression. But I haven’t beaten depression, and ending this on a high note would be another lie.
And if I hide what’s really going on, because I’m ashamed, that just leads to more depression.
And if I think I can be a hero and fight this battle alone, I will lose. Going alone is playing into the depression trap, where depression convinces me that no one can help me, that I have to do this alone, that no one else cares, or that relationships aren’t worth all the hassle and drama. That lie kills thousands of people every year.
I can get up a thousand times, but if I do it alone in the dark, it becomes worthless. Human beings have evolved in community with one another. Deep down we all know that solitary confinement leads to death.
So I need to reach out. And so the choice to stand, to resist the darkness, has to be one of reaching out, of connection, because despite all my best efforts and despite what my ego and depression tell me, I cannot do this alone. I need people with all their messy side-effects. I cannot do this alone.
And I have to be real about it. If I try to fit in with community by pretending to be who I’m not, that is not real connection – that is still hiding, still isolating my true self behind a mask.
When I can simply be myself in a community of people that accept who I am, that strikes a huge blow to depression. The trick now is… how do I do that? I guess I’ll need to try it and see what happens.
I have no grand finish to this. I haven’t figured out how to beat depression once and for all, only how to cope a little bit, and even my coping mechanisms are pretty amateur.
So I’ll end this with a song. I hope you connect with it in some way. I did.