On depression.

The picture above is from December 2006. I was really skinny, but not in a healthy way. I had no appetite because I was constantly adrenalized, and therefore constantly exhausted, but hadn’t slept for more than a few hours at a time in four months. Depression was like treading water in the middle of the ocean: every day, I swam in circles, pulling together flotsam to build a raft. Every few hours I found that all of my work had disintegrated and I had to start over.

It was really, really horrible.

Artists, and writers especially, like to romanticize depression. I call bullshit. It’s not useful, it’s not inspiring, and it’s not ennobling. The only use for it that I can come up with is that it creates compassion for other people, artists or otherwise, going through the same thing. And as many of my peers see me as “happy” (true!) and “successful” (depends on your definition! :)) I feel compelled to talk about a disease so many people still have prejudice about, not the least of whom are the sufferers themselves.

When I tell people I’ve dealt with depression, they’re surprised. I’m warm and buoyant and excited about everything! People who deal with depression are depress-ive, right? Aren’t they mopey and withdrawn? Well, no. They could be anyone. They could be the sad guy who never leaves the house, or they could be me, a person who identifies her natural state as singing and dancing around my living room to Angélique Kidjo songs. Depression isn’t a matter of character. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And despite what society tells you, it’s not your fault.

I probably inherited a predisposition from both sides of my family, and that kicked into gear when I was twenty, when my mother died and my first lover broke up with me in the space of ten months. I can only look back on that now and appreciate how it basically caused my brain chemistry to break. Over the following years, with each new episode, I sought medical treatment long after I should have, because I thought the depression was a matter of willpower and that I had the “strength” to get through it “on my own.” And after I’d been on treatment for awhile, and I felt “strong enough” to go off of it, I would, which I considered an “accomplishment.” For years it went on like that.

For that time, also, I thought the depression was episodic; that is, it only happened after an event like a bad breakup. But then in October 2010, when nothing was “wrong,” when I was doing my favorite thing, sitting in the audience at a weird art show, I thought: “Nothing is worth anything unless I get as much love as I need from the specific people I need it from. Otherwise I don’t want to live.” I recognized that feeling immediately, but for the first time, I recognized it as a symptom, like getting a sore throat before a cold. Nothing I had to identify with. I’d recently experienced so many kinds of happiness—kneeling in the sea at Rarotonga, walking beneath blue Christmas lights in Manhattan, watching a thunderstorm from the doorway of the clinic in Kerala—that I could summon those memories like guardian angels and simply say, “I like living. And I like wanting to live. I know this.” So the next day, I saw a doctor who took my history, told me that long-term use of antidepressants has no known side effects, and wrote me a prescription. I’m lucky in that my condition is very responsive to medical treatment. When combined with all the other things I do—journaling, meeting with an awesome long-term therapist, cultivating dear friendships, and pursuing my happiest life—I don’t experience symptoms at all anymore. In fact, I’m just really happy most of the time.

And I’m so glad I did that, because shiiiiiiit, seriously, I have way too much to do.

Stories to write, friends to make, lovers to meet, countries to see.

Some people’s brain chemistry just breaks sometimes.

If yours does, too, it’s not your fault. Seek help.

Life is way too short, and way too amazing.

13 Comments on “On depression.”

  1. Amy S. says:

    I feel you. In the two years since I found an appropriate and effective treatment and wrestled my depression to the ground, I’ve felt a lot of feelings. A lot of feelings. Good ones; bad ones too. But the difference now is, the bad ones don’t make me stand in the middle of my living room with my hands on my cheeks, unable to move.

    I like to move.

  2. Lisa Palmisano says:

    Wow. You said this so well. I finally traced my broken brain chemistry to celiac disease, and have been off antidepressants for almost a year on a gluten-free diet. I am doing very well.

    That being said, I remain vigilant. I do not wish to succumb to depression again and will go back on the meds in a heartbeat.

  3. H says:

    Optimistic article… Any tips on a long term breakup where you just don’t know “why it happened?”

  4. Siggi says:

    I can relate.
    Before I took actions against my depression life really sucked.
    Medical treatments can help you to get you on your feet, but you’ve got to take the walk towards feeling better.

    I’m happy for you that you’re feeling better today! 🙂

  5. Jeff Bergman says:

    You know, even though I know (points to the back of his head) I’m not the only one, it’s nice to to be reminded that I’m not the only one. Yours, Mister Jeffrey

  6. igorgoldkind says:

    I interject and suggest: that depression provides a natural and useful break in continuity. The culture of persistent contentment can be a tyranny, especially when built from straw and twig; memory, expectation, validation, high fives for the person most comfortable and comforting in their sameness. A break in constantly moving forwards pulled by convenient streams can be welcome. A mental syncopation. The circular collecting of flotsam can remind that there are no straight lines; only curved spaces and ascending spirals.

    I would not romanticise melancholia nor would I medicate it.
    There is a level of focus in bleak contemplation that paints landscapes in greys and vague shadows as figuratively accurate as stark, coloured sunlight. The view is not diminished but enhanced in the sense that it is not often that we look there; not often we have the courage to stare into the shadows without being distracted by the light that casts them.

    “See how the sacred old flamingoes come,
    Painting with shadow all the marble steps:
    Aged and wise, they seek their wonted perches
    Within the temple, devious walking, made
    To wander by their melancholy minds.”

    ~ Yeats


    • Thanks, Igor, but no. Your writing is very pretty, but what you’re saying misses the entire point of my post. What I was experiencing went way beyond “melancholia.” It was a disease with actual physical symptoms, and it was destructive. I’m still very capable of staring into shadows from a safe space.

      If any friend comes to you suffering from depression, I would hope you would refrain from advising them as you’ve done above. I had friends who, when I shared what I was going through, judged me, punished me, or told me I was “overreacting.” They weren’t helping. They were just projecting their own fears and misunderstandings on me at a time I really, really didn’t need it.

      Please do some research on depression. A good place to start is here: http://web.archive.org/web/20110727123744/http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/nimhdepression.pdf

      • igorgoldkind says:

        I don’t know which stings worse: the bee that finds my writing pretty or the one that buzzes them for offering bad advice. Giving advice was not what led me to your blog, nor motivated my comment; it was merely empathy and recognition and certainly not judgement or dismissal. I’m well aware of the help and ‘cures’ offered those of us afflicted; my bias is against chemicals and more disposed towards Mindful Cognition; seeing the play of light and shadows as not so much shaping the substance of our experience as our perception of it. The Black Dog Tribe based in England is an online community of actors, writers, artists and performers who narrate their experience of Depression. I’m sorry if you felt invaded by my comment; next time I’ll just nod ;~)

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