Depression is one of those topics that people usually either don’t get or don’t want to talk about. If you haven’t experienced it, well, you don’t get it. Not really. And if you have experienced it, you tend not to want to talk about it; that’s not so much because you want to avoid it, but rather it’s practically impossible to describe.
In that way, depression is like being a combat veteran. The inability to communicate the experience with others isn’t a factor of language, but instead one of experience. Different vets might have experienced very different wars — the freezing winters of Korea, the oppressive jungles of Vietnam, the scorching heat of Afghanistan — but they can still communicate with each other that someone who has never experienced the terror and horror of war just can’t grasp. Just as two people with depression can instantly grasp what the other has experienced, without having shared the exact same struggle . . . and yet can’t communicate that even to friends and family.
So, of course, I’m going to try to communicate it today.
I’ve lived with clinical, chronic depression since my teens. I also have weird reactions to pills, so I can’t medicate it away. Sometimes it’s better; sometimes I’m deeper than the greedy dwarves of Moria ever dug. Most of the time, I seem completely fine.
Depression is more than just sadness. It’s not something that can be cured with enforced cheerfulness. It’s not just feeling down in the dumps. It’s not even that “feelings of sadness for no apparent reason” definition you’ll see pop up every so often.
That’s something that I find we Catholics can’t get, even though we should. Not because we’re somehow better than others; no, most people don’t get more than the slightest idea without experiencing it, and Catholics are no exception. What I mean is that our faith is built around the idea of redemptive suffering, and yet it’s so very hard for us to understand that depression really is suffering. It is a pain of the soul no less real, no less crippling, than a broken and shattered body.
And yet, when I picked up a book that promised to be a Catholic manual on dealing with depression, I found it was the same as most of the armchair Christian-psychology stuff I would normally get. “Give your suffering to God.” “Offer it up.” “Let Christ into your life.”
I know they mean well, but depression isn’t mere sadness. It is isolation. It is the pervasive feeling that you are alone, even though you see others around you. That you are screaming in pain, but no one can see anything wrong with you.
And when that happens, when all you can experience is the constant and crushing pain, none of those platitudes work. When you are so alone that even the touch of a loved one brings no joy, why do some think it’s possible to reach out to God?
I’ve felt God’s presence at very few times in my life. The last one was about four years ago, where for several minutes after Mass I felt a pure and complete connection with a loving God who comforted and understood and welcomed me.
Just about every other time in my life, there’s nothing; only me. I’m not a Catholic because I like the feeling of being Catholic, or because I get a supernatural high out of it. I’m Catholic because I’m convinced by the evidence; because since the Church is so consistently right about so much, and I feel I can trust it to be right about the rest.
That’s important to understand, because being unable to feel God isn’t because of a lack of faith. There’s something else. Something that blocks my ability to reach out, that blocks so many others I’ve talked to since becoming vocal about what being depressed feels like.
Depression is isolation. Even from God. Even for a Catholic who completely believes in God.
Depression isn’t constant. It can get better and worse from day to day, affected by food or exercise or who you’re around, made worse by arguments and small failures. There’s really no such thing as a good depression day, but there are some that are worse than others.
Last summer, I started slipping into a months-long depression. I stopped posting on my blog, let my work decline, and even stopped posting on Facebook. That last is a big sign; not because I can’t live without social media, but because it keeps me in touch with other people. Keeping in touch is vital for depression; that human contact means a lot.
There are some of you reading this right now who are saying “Human contact? Over Facebook?” But those of you who have had clinical depression, or still do, are probably nodding. Remember, no matter the medium, there’s still a human on the other side of that connection; and that little extra barrier is what helps us interact even when we’re doing horribly. When the world gets overwhelming, you need a way to regulate it or you give up entirely.
In my case, I have certain rules. I only post things that I think are helpful. I share a lot of amusing content, interesting stories, news and events, stuff like that. One friend once commented that my page is more informative than CNN’s. (Low bar, I know.) But I have a rule, and I’m pretty firm about it these days because I learned its necessity the hard way years ago. With very few exceptions, I only post about amusing, interesting, and informative stuff.
So if I’m not amused, if I find nothing interesting, and I don’t care about information, I disappear off the face of cyberspace. If I’m silent for 48 hours and DC hasn’t been the victim of a catastrophe like a nuke, a tornado, or undead bunnies, then you know it’s one of two things. Either I’m incredibly busy, or I’m in a deep depression.
Last year was one of the worst times I’ve had in the last decade. In some ways, it was worse than anything I’d had since I first developed chronic clinical depression in my teens. After all, I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with it since then.
People are often surprised to learn that many popular comedians suffer from chronic depression. When you only know the guy on the surface, the guy who’s funny and laughing and always cracking a joke, it seems impossible to imagine that person suffering depression.
It’s not impossible to that same guy. Actually, it’s very common. How do you think the greatest comedians learned their trade? For many of them, it’s a defense mechanism. On top of that, when you’re making someone else feel better, depression lifts a little. You’ve made a difference. In that moment, you know that you matter. You have just made the world a better place.
Most of the time, when you’re depressed, nothing seems real. You lose track of priorities. Time runs together. Everything you do, everything you are, seems worthless. Anything, any moment, where you feel like you just made a difference in the world means more than all the riches of Solomon, or even Bill Gates. In that moment, even if just for a moment, you silenced the enemy telling you you’re worthless.
And that enemy is not Satan. No, he doesn’t have to get involved. For the depressed, we all know who our worst enemy is.
Remember Gollum and Smeagol in The Two Towers movie? Smeagol, in that moment, represented every depressed person everywhere. We all have a version of ourselves telling us that no one cares if we live or die.
Life becomes pointless. “Why continue?” whispers that little voice. “You’re a waste of space. You can’t get anything right. See? You just made another mistake. No wonder no one wants to be your friend. No one loves you. No one could love you. You might as well just die, because if anyone notices you’re gone it’ll just be to say ‘Wow, things are so much better now that he’s not bothering us!'”
All the intellectual evidence to the contrary doesn’t matter if you can’t bring yourself to believe you’re actually worth something.
Welcome to Depression City. Population: You.
That’s what depression feels like. It’s not mere sadness. It’s not something that can be wished away. It’s something that needs healing, just like any other injury or illness.
It can get triggered by many things, but depression is very often a self-perpetuating cycle that won’t let up. Once you’re in its grip, it’s very hard to climb out. Sometimes, a depressed person has a few people he or she can trust and can turn to, but even that is iffy; it’s hard to know what will work in each situation, even with the same person. Without something to cling to, it’s easy to get lost.
I have several coping mechanisms. I’ve been trying to be more upfront about when I’m depressed; letting people know just so that they know, and not necessarily because I think they’ll be able to do anything besides listen. Of course, sometimes listening is all that’s needed. A lot of times I’ll be able to cope by creating something (my favorite art medium is Lego; yes, that’s an art medium, it just happens to be found in the toy aisle), or by helping someone else create something (I wouldn’t be a fiction editor if I didn’t enjoy it). Some forms of humor can help. Getting lost in other worlds helps; as Tolkien said, it’s the escape of the prisoner and not the flight of the deserter. Even crunchy food helps; that crunch is a balm for many instances of anxiety, depression, and general tension, as you can see from how popcorn is the snack of choice at movie theaters everywhere. My favorite band, the Cruxshadows, has a lot of good songs for depression as well.
Last year, though, nothing helped. Art didn’t help. Food didn’t help. Humor fell flat. I had no one to talk to; in fact, I had people jumping to conclusions and pushing me away, and I kept closing down as a defense mechanism; that made it harder to reach out. Finally, I shut down completely. I couldn’t feel connected to anyone, even the people I could normally trust.
I felt betrayed, alone, rejected.
When you’re in a deep depression, it’s very hard to reach out, to ask for help to get you through this suffering. Aside from that little Gollum-self telling you no one cares anyway, it’s easy to get this conviction that you’ll just be bothering someone else. No matter how many times that person has told you to call him or her at any time, you hesitate. After all, when you’re convinced you’re worthless, then you know — not think, know — that your friend has better things to do than hold your hand.
Even if all you really need in that moment is for your friend to say “You matter to me,” you stop. After all . . . what if your friend agrees with Gollum this time?
I wrote about this on Facebook when it happened, and it’s had a good effect; and that’s precisely what I wanted. I wanted my suffering to have meaning. I wanted to reach out to those who had never experienced this feeling and explain what their loved ones were going through. I also wanted to reach those who have experienced it — because when you’re depressed, it’s so hard to understand, to believe, that others have felt what you feel.
It wasn’t entirely altruistic. See, one thing that consistently helps with depression is doing something that feels worthwhile. That’s easier said than done, but if you feel you’ve been a benefit, then depression has less of a hold on you. Even better, if you feel for even a moment like you’re not alone, it can help break the cycle. So I don’t go through all of this to gain sympathy or see how many of my friends will comment; I’m writing to try to help people. Helping other people helps me.
Whether that’s selfish or not, I suppose, depends entirely on your own perspective. Of course, we Catholics know that “good works” have a salvific effect; not because morality works on a point system and so God keeps score, but rather because helping others changes yourself.
So one out for a lot of people with depression is trying to help others instead. Remember what I said about comedians and depression? This is part of why I’m cracking jokes a lot. I studied standup routines to help get over my Asperger Syndrome (though I didn’t realize I had it at the time) because they helped me understand proper social interaction better. In fact, many people who only met me after that part of my life have a hard time believing I’m introverted, thanks to how I’ve gotten so good at being outgoing and social. It’s so easy to assume that what you see is what you get.
Odds are pretty decent that the really good, universal comedians — that is, the comedians whose humor is applicable to broad categories of people not only across a society but across decades — have suffered from depression. Rodney Dangerfield, Stephen Fry, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Catherine Tate, and Robin Williams are all famous comedians who are also known to have suffered, or are currently suffering, from depression. You can bet that a lot more just haven’t been as open about it. I certainly wasn’t open about it myself until a couple years ago.
When it comes to a treatment for depression, there’s nothing like making someone laugh. It’s a defense mechanism where instead of retreating, you reach out — and no one knows the importance of finding the silver lining like someone who suffers from depression. You feel your sense of self-worth rising, because you’ve just made the world a better place. If you managed that, then surely you’re not a complete failure, right?
The same goes for any endeavor that makes the world better, even if it’s just for one person. It’s really hard to get over that first hump when you’re in a deep depressive mood, but if that happens, the rest is often amazingly easy by comparison. You know you’ll eventually fall back in again, but it’s a victory.
Of course, that first hump can be even harder than you might think, even after reading all of this. There’s another voice there besides Gollum’s, whispering something else. Sometimes it’s loud; sometimes it’s soft; but it’s always there. It’s saying, “If you were wrong, if you’re really worth something . . . then you’ve been the biggest idiot of all time.”
Depression can be a horrible, oppressive enemy — but when you’re already in a lot of pain, taking the risk of adding more pain is suddenly the hardest thing in the world. “You’ve gotten used to this now,” that part of you will whisper. “Why rock the boat? You’ll just fail again, only it’ll be even worse next time.”
For perspective, if I weren’t Catholic, I’d have done what Robin Williams, and so very many others, did dozens of times over. Somehow — and I honestly don’t know how — I’ve always managed to stay away from it. Aside from a low day in my teens when I walked across a busy road with my head down and without waiting for a break in traffic, thinking “well, if something happens, it’s on God,” I’ve never even attempted it. (And miraculously, that busy road was suddenly empty of cars until I reached the other side. The possibility of a negative result from a positive act of God’s will didn’t occur to me until years later.)
After I wrote about this on Facebook last year, a lot of people told me how I’d touched their lives. Others told me that I was letting them understand what people they knew were going through. A few have even sought my advice on how to help their friends and family.
Sometimes I’ll pull out those memories, emails, photos that people have sent me, trying to hold on to the idea that I’ve actually made a difference. Sometimes it feels like an illusion, or more like a delusion. Sometimes it’s real.
During that time last year, I met my favorite band in person, and they were very welcoming. Amazingly welcoming. I tried to tell them how much their music had helped me, but became too choked-up to speak. It was all they needed to hear, though. Like it says in one of their songs . . .
With depression, every day is a struggle. And every new day is a victory.