Understanding the Process of My Depression
One of my favorite Japanese songs, entitled “忘れ物” or “Something Forgotten” in English, deals with the aftermath of a lost love. The opening line says: “恋の終わりを告げる冷たい風に吹かれて泣きながら思い出す もう過ぎたあの恋 ‘When one is informed of a lost love, a cold wind blows through. As I cry, I relive all the memories of that love.” As I look out the window of the remote cabin I am currently inhabiting, I see a smattering of redwoods and pines bordering the jagged beach along the Northern California coast. At this moment, those lyrics seem more relevant than ever. The cold winter rain and wind pound the window, creating unceasing tears that flow down the window while stripping the surrounding coastal pines of their needles. I’m thankful I’m indoors. I turn my focus away from the window but the pitter patter of the rain on the roof and the gurgling streams the water creates as it flows through the gutters reminds me that the sky is crying. I sit with that emotion and realize that in order for me to notice all of these intricate sounds and details I, for the first time in what seems decades, am truly disconnected from the world. Feeling inspired, I grab the new Moleskine notebook I bought along with my fountain pen and begin to write.
Even as I move on from the lowest lows I’ve ever lived through, understanding the symptoms and underlying causes of my depression is for me difficult to comprehend. Once I came to terms that something was wrong I reached out for help; yet the only thing I could think about was “I’ve reached out for help, now what happens?” Finding the starting point has been vexing because of the distortion I had implemented in my own reality; coming to terms with my surroundings has been incredibly surreal. Additionally, I feel responsible and guilty, as though I should have always had control of my mind. Perhaps it is because of the control I clutch on to is why my curiosity longs to quantify my experience. As many researchers have found, quantifying numbers is easy, but quantifying feelings is an impossibility.
Many philosophers and psychologists have developed a myriad of theories about the human condition and I have recently joined their ranks as I try to selfishly try to quantify my own humanity. In my research I’ve found resonance with the work of Dr. Brené Brown who, like other psychologists, sees human connections as giving meaning and purpose to our lives (Dr. Brown’s Ted Talk can be seen here). However, Dr. Brown takes that theory a bit further and explores the creation of human connections through empathy. As humans, we create empathetic connections through storytelling and the vulnerability that we expose through sharing our experiences. She mentions that when we share stories of love they usually focus on heartbreak, stories of inclusion actually devolve into moments when we were ostracized, and stories of loss usually disclose our most painful sacrifices. At the crux, all of these experiences and stories usually share one thing in common, shame. In fact, the word courage used to mean to make yourself vulnerable enough to tell the stories that make you who you are without inhibition, to give into shame and create more intimate bonds. To have courage was to also be the person one wants to be rather than being someone for the empathy of others. To have courage is also to have the willingness to “say I love you,” even when there are no guarantees; and to invest in relationships even if they will not always work out. In other words, to have courage is to overcome the fear of shame and share with others to create acceptance.
When I first started to research this line of thinking I didn’t think that I had a problem with feelings and emotions. In fact, my initial thought went something like “problems with feelings? This sounds like a bunch bullshit.” Nonetheless, despite the initial resistance, since starting to see a therapist I’ve begun connecting the dots between what I’ve lived through, the psychology, and the philosophy of what it means to be vulnerable. On the face of it it sounds so simple, but my world for the last three years was a facade in which I molded myself after what I thought people wanted me to be. Furthermore, I numbed the feelings that told me that what I was doing was wrong because I didn’t want an additional problem to deal with. What I didn’t realize is through my inaction I was headed into the dreaded “no emotions zone.” Numbing the fear I felt like an acceptable reaction but, as Dr. Brown explains, it is impossible to selectively mute or numb emotions. Once we begin to numb something the rest of our emotions follow suit and we are left with a former shell of what we truly are. In my mind I imagine the no emotion zone akin to Dr. Seuss’s “Waiting Place,” only darker. In a world devoid of emotion, I felt like a robot, going through motions as I waited for the world to blow me one way or another. Waiting for something to inspire me to break the mold, or someone to light the way out of that darkness. Ironically, there were many opportunities for me to leave that zone, I just couldn’t process the amount of vulnerability needed to leave that place. And so I recently pondered, what was it that blinded me?
Dr. Brown does an amazing job at trying to quantify human emotions, yet her theories fall short for me. After all, storytelling and understanding vulnerability and empathy is what I do now as a consultant. I help start-ups create emotional and empathetic connections with their customers so that they can expand the reach of their products or services. I couldn’t help but think that there was another layer that I had not yet identified. It wasn’t until a friend of mine posted this article from the New Yorker that I grasped the missing part of my own philosophical theory; I was missing loss. Loss has many different appearances throughout our lives from trivial losses of the unimportant, and therefore replaceable, to the losses that are truly tragic, like the loss of a friendship or a loved one. In my case it was something far more personal and far more important; it was the loss of myself. When I entered the no emotion zone I let go of everything that used to make me who I am, everything that made me a happy and unique individual vanished. Slowly and with trepidation, I embraced the darkness that comes with lack of emotion, empathy, and vulnerability and checked my humanity at the door. In that mental state, I forgot about how good it felt to help others, to make other people laugh, and many of the traits that brought me joy and happiness. But, most tragically, I forgot how to share my emotions and love with others. Nonetheless, there was one ray of hope. As Kathryn Schulz of the New Yorker writes in her article, “we lose things because we are flawed; because we are human; because we have things to lose” but “we never lose what we highly value.” In other words, even something as difficult as finding myself is not insurmountable.
No emotions, loss of oneself, spiraling depression. This was the process, or rather my process, that almost cost me my life. I think of that night frequently, at first in awe of the numbness I felt and the rage with which I wanted to extinguish myself. Now I see that night with a feeling of acceptance since that indelible moment, along with those that defined me as a person in the past, will be a part of who I am. As time passes, I’m slowly finding the courage to share what happened, because as I make myself vulnerable and I allow myself to feel again I am slowly finding my way to happiness. I’m certainly not proud of the things that have transpired, but I’m happy that I can feel those emotions, sit with them, and reflect. It is no surprise to me now that my favorite Japanese song is “Something Forgotten…”
Back in the cabin I take a break from writing the above words, feed the fire and look out the window once more before sitting cross legged on the floor. I can’t help but think that despite the somber weather, there is unseen beauty beyond the rain. In my abode there is no electricity or other distractions so I use the quiet symphony of the rain to focus on collecting memories. I am buying a single rose, imagine myself touching at the Washington Monument, pet at a toy fox, look at a ring my grandmother gave me, and sift through a box of photographs. All of these items have one thing in common; a human connection. Human connections create the fabric of our existence and drive us to love, inspire us to grow and learn, and pain us when they’re gone or lost. The easiest way to maintain them is, as Dr. Brown says, to practice gratitude and joy even when you’re scared, and to love with your whole heart, even when there is no guarantee because though dreams may burn, in ashes they are gold.