memories of depression
Depression is notoriously difficult to describe.
This is partly because it's an emotional experience and, like all emotions, is impossible to fully understand unless you're currently experiencing it. Another reason, though, is that for the people perhaps best equipped to describe it - the writers - the act of writing serves as a sort of medicine against its effects. Which is to say that even if a writer somehow manages to overcome the incredibly de-motivating inertia of the Gray Funk and start writing about the experience, the pleasure his/her brain gets from that act tends to override the feeling of depression, and before long the thing he/she is trying to describe is nothing more than a memory of an emotion, rather than the thing itself.
There are exceptions, of course.
David Foster Wallace did an admirable job of capturing the feeling in such fictional works as Infinite Jest and The Broom of the System. But given DFW's ultimate, tragic end, I'd rather not hold that particular aspect of his oeuvre up as the sort of thing to which I'm going to aspire. The man's genius drips off of every page, but so does the sense of a stifled desperation beneath it. And I'm deeply interested in surviving my own depression.
Christmas sure was depressing, this year. As in, past tense. Feeling better. Metaphorical clouds dissipating into a bluebird-sky. Hallelujah.
I can remember what it felt like, though, and the excruciating pain I experienced at this one, annoying little fact: I could not for the life of me figure out where the depression was coming from. I hadn't been kidnapped and tortured by a troop of sadistic clowns. No one I loved had died, or fallen sick, or been imprisoned by the despotic feudal lord to whom our lives were pledged. In fact, none of those things have ever happened to me.
So, why was I depressed?
I've had my theories, over the years.
Growing up in the heart of evangelical Christianity, where the darkness of my capital "S" sin was paramount, I often imagined that my depression was the result of the little exploratory sex-games I'd played with other children as a pre-pubescent. I had been tainted by the evil things I'd done, and therefore God had withdrawn his favor from my emotional self.
This thought was not exactly helpful as I scratched my way through the dragging, delayed gauntlet of my late-coming puberty.
Evangelicals like to focus on Sex more than anything else when they talk about "The Sins of the Flesh." So anything I did or imagined doing that I'd been implicitly or explicitly taught was sexual sin, I then tucked down into a folder marked, "Josh is a Sucky Person"... which I dragged out and rifled through every time I needed some sort of justification for how depressed I was feeling. Masturbation. Pornography. "Lustful thoughts" (whatever those were). It all went into the folder.
Later, I modified this theory.
I surmised that perhaps there was some sort of biochemical element to it, as well. After all, I could sorta-kinda actually FEEL a depression-session coming on. And there has to be some sort of hormonal-imbalance happening to a guy who doesn't start evincing the first hints of puberty until age fourteen, and then doesn't come out the other end of it until maybe ten years later.
Not to mention that late-onset puberty is a deeply isolating, friendship-destroying event.
Now, however, I want to modify that theory again.
Because as I've been thinking about the depression that's kept me from writing much of anything on this blog over these past two weeks, none of the aforementioned explanations quite, um, explain it. I've long since identified and "spoken out" a lot of my late-puberty angst, and I (thank God) no longer believe in a vicious, bug-zapper God who lures me in with talk of Love, only to cackle gleefully when I fry in my own fail-juices.
I'm physically healthy.
I have a great family and a supportive community. A wonderfully-loving woman-friend.
If I was desperate for a situational-explanation for my depression, perhaps I could point a finger at the Christmas season. At the markedly un-spectacular initial sales of The Novel I just released. At the gloominess of watching my son have to bounce between two households over his holidays. At the eternally-simmering familial tensions with parents and siblings and offspring.
But my family's talked through a lot of our nonsense. And I've fizzled book-releases before. And my son's mother's a real gem when it comes to flexibly working with me to provide our son with a balanced, stable schedule.
So... from whence does this depression come?
I read something recently by a man pseudonymously named Theodore Dalrymple:
"There is something to be said here about the word 'depression,' which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one's state of mind, or one's mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one's life, a belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting from conduct."
[excerpted from the book: Our Culture, Or What's Left of It]
Now, before any uber-liberal readers I might have bite my head off for this quote, let me get a few things straight:
- I am aware that Dalrymple is writing from a strongly-conservative point of view.
- I am aware that there are certain logical leaps within this short quote.
- I am aware that mental un-health is real, and that it does have a biological component that cannot and should not be lightly dismissed.
That does not necessarily mean, however, that there is no merit to what the man is saying. I am a firm believer in the difficult work of maintaining logical tension between seemingly paradoxical interpretations of any given reality.
It would be easier, of course, to say that something must be either all right, or all wrong. But life is rarely so accommodatingly simple.
Dalrymple worked for years and years as a doctor and psychiatrist to many of the poorest and most marginalized people in the world, and that experience lends some weight to his opinions.
The first of his points I'd like to spotlight is regarding the semantic shift from the term "unhappiness" to "depression." Although he gives no evidence to establish the initial state from which this shift has supposedly occurred, it nonetheless struck me upon reading that, yes, it is a bit odd that we hold the opposite of happiness to be depression, rather than unhappiness.
Happiness is (weirdly, without evidence) presupposed to be our natural state and basic human right, and depression a biological affliction that keeps us from it.
I have to again affirm here that I believe in the biological nature of depression. I was depressed most acutely and for the longest periods of time during the stage of my life when my body was inching its way toward adulthood. In those times, I could quite literally feel depression coming. I didn't ask for it. I didn't want it. It came anyways, in a flood of inner-chemical, hormonal imbalance.
And-but-however, there is a chicken-or-egg question here that must be wrestled with, if never fully answered. Was I depressed because of a biological affliction, or was a situational, social reality the primary cause, with biology merely going along for the ride? And where did my choices and decisions play into it? Because the fact is that I only very, very slowly began to admit out loud some of the God-fear I was carrying around as a result of the guiltmongering moralization of my childhood.
And what's even more insane is that for the first thirty years of my life, I never admitted out loud to anyone, ever, that I was going through this painful, slow puberty and that it hurt like an effing locomotive-to-the-face. Everybody knew just by looking at me that I wasn't all there, testosteronally-speaking, but I nonetheless never came out and said it. Not once. Not until nearly a decade after it was mostly over did I ever put words to my pain, and not until well after that could I begin to call myself a "man" without feeling like I was posturing - telling a transparent lie.
I wrapped that particular bundle of emotional-poison up tight, sucked it into the core of my being, and curled myself around it like I actually believed no one would ever see.
I did that.
And although I could probably turn that around and find a way to blame my parents or my childhood culture for why I didn't have the skills to self-therapeutize (because there's always enough blame to go around), my parents and childhood culture were in many ways awesome and supportive and loving.
I grew up wounded in a wounded world, yes, but I still made a choice to cover my various contusions and bleed on, internally. I'm still the one who didn't open my mouth and share that pain free.
I'm talking about responsibility, here.
I'm talking about the fact that even though my depression grew acute for two weeks and then insanely nasty for two or three days this Christmas, there were choices I could have made that I was fully aware would have warded off the biologically-feelable onslaught of depression before it had a chance to get too bad:
- I could have gotten off the internet. I could have stopped using social media for mini-hits of dopamine, and instead I could have taken the time to interact with real people in a real way. I could have paid attention to my emotional state and shared that feeling, early on, with people whom I know would have listened, and cared.
- I could have frickin' exercised, which studies have shown to be at least as effective as medication in removing symptoms for people with moderate to mild depression, and for managing the symptoms of those with serious clinical depression.
Now, I am fully aware of the de-motivating effects of depression.
I am aware that some depression is so incredibly de-motivating that people who have it might just need medication in order to be able to take those first steps toward health. To lace up the running shoes. To call that kind friend. To turn off the facebooks.
And if you've never been depressed, you don't get to say any of this responsibility-stuff to me, or to anyone else who is depressed. Ever.
But I think it's worth looking at our disconnected, fractured society and asking some hard questions about how it creates an environment where it is so easy for people like me to get lost in our own little pity-parties.
Yay, individualism. Woo.
Furthermore, given the fact that all chemical medication has side effects, and given the proclivity of the human brain to become quickly and irrevocably addicted to chemical interference, I think it might be useful to begin to remember, in times of good mental health, that I am not a powerless victim, here.
Although there will always be aspects of my life that I cannot control (more, I think, than I'd like to admit), I do have the gift of free choice. There are a lot of things I can change, and practical steps I can take to avoid the myopic vision that occurs when depression begins to wrap its ugly tentacles around my feet and ankles.
Life sucks enough without me actively stifling its joy-potential. The world is too full of suffering and I'm far too gifted with the tools that could help to alleviate it for me to spend the moments of my life gazing at my own navel and (nonsensically) hating the very shape of it.
So if you'll pardon me, I've got to go thrift-store shopping for some possibly athlete's-foot-infected running shoes.
post script: If you're wondering how I went from possibly-more-depressed-than-ever to feeling well enough to write this post, I think the clear hero here is that I took a risk and expanded the circle of people who knew about how I was feeling. This loving circle helped me to move on.
Many people don't have that circle.
If you are one of those people, please don't give up. Drop me a note at jlbarkey at hotmail dot com. Get my phone number. Call me up. I will receive your story as the gift that it is. I will not judge. I will do what I can to help love you free.
If you're not one of those people, but know someone who is... please reach out. Or share this post.
If you're not one of those people, but know someone who is... please reach out. Or share this post.