You Probably Don’t Understand Depression
Hi. I’m Myk and I have struggled with depression for as long as I can remember.
It took me a long time to figure out that I was an outlier. That my friends in elementary school didn’t lay awake all night contemplating existential horrors and resisting irrational impulses towards self harm. That other people, when they made a trivial mistake, shrugged and laughed it off instead of adding to a carefully curated collection of agonies for the brain to use for self-torture into perpetuity. That the smiling faces around my own weren’t, as mine was, a socially mandated performance designed to obscure a sense of profound worthlessness.
Here’s the thing about depression: if you don’t suffer from it then you literally have no idea what it’s like. You think you do, because we overload the term “depressed” and you think, yeah, I remember when my dog died I was pretty depressed for a few days, so I get it — but you don’t. I promise.
Depression isn’t feeling sad sometimes, though that’s of course a part of it.
Depression isn’t being burned out from social interaction and so not answering the phone when a friend calls, though that’s of course a part of it.
Depression isn’t being an introvert, recharging energy in solitude — though that can of course be a part of it.
Depression isn’t the million slightly misfiring mechanisms that our savannah-evolved brains have done their best to adapt for life in our present cyberpunk dystopia, but each has its role.
Depression is the knowledge — the certainty — that Something Is Wrong. That it will Never Be Right. That you are Not Like Them. It is not a mood that swings over you, it is a state of being that, at best, you learn to temporarily ignore or distract yourself from but which honest-to-god never ever goes away.
It’s a demon, as literal a demon as exists, and every morning when you wake up it it pounces for your jugular and the day’s battle is joined.
And when you’re listening to a song that moves you to tears with its sheer beauty, that demon is still there, listening with you, leering, and reminding you that all beauty dies.
And when you’re in the park on a sunny day watching children play, that demon is still there, taking in the summer air and commenting on the way it smelled better when you were young.
And when you’re making love to someone whose very existence fills your heart with joy and your soul with completion, that demon is still there, reminding you that no love is forever.
And the worst part about this demon, this disease — because it is a disease — is that so many of us struggle with it alone, in silence. This is a mental illness, and talking about mental illness makes other people look at us funny, because it’s stigmatized. Because if I tell you I am a cancer survivor you say “Congratulations, you must be so strong!” but if I tell you I am living every day with depression you say “Oooh…” and think “Is this guy going to, like, kill himself or shoot up a school? Does he expect me to help him somehow? Can I, like… trust him?” because that’s the state of the mental health conversation in america.
So, fuck that. I am what I am and while it doesn’t define me it’s something I live with, and it’s something that others I know and love live with. And it’s hard, and some days you just can’t fight back the demon and you end up broken, but you know that tomorrow, or maybe the day after, you’ll end up on top and the beast will be subjugated for another day. Because you’re a fucking warrior, because you had to be, because every day — every day! — you wake up and do battle with the Abyss, in a private arena that nobody else can see.
And it gets easier as you get older. As you learn your demon’s moves, you develop your counters. The demon never becomes a friend, but it can become a comfortable enemy. This is a double-edged sword, but one you accept gratefully.
Maybe you medicate — maybe with something legal, maybe not, but various chemical aids can help mitigate your chemical imbalance and your challenge is to find one whose side effects for you are worth the exchange.
Maybe you seek therapy, and attend sessions that serve as training in your daily battles. You pay a professional to teach you new moves, to upgrade your armor and sharpen your sword.
Maybe you just have your rituals — a walk with the dog, a movie with the wife, a coffee break when you feel a familiar irritation.
But the point is, it can get better. Not every day’s battle is as grueling. If you’re lucky, you can combine your mitigation strategies to lock the demon up, and you can go days or weeks or months or even years without breaking a sweat in your daily combat.
And some days it only takes 5% of your attention to keep the demon at bay. Some days it takes 50%. Some days, for some people, 100% just isn’t enough, and you call in sick, go back to bed and take a mulligan.
But complacency here is dangerous — this is not some abstract metaphor, it’s a literal truth. If you rely on medication, one day the side effects may be worse than usual and you have to stop using it. If you rely on therapy, maybe one day the demon — who is of course sitting next to you in every session — may successfully convince you that it’s all a load of shit. If you rely on ritual, maybe something goes wrong and your ritual becomes unavailable (“My dog died and I was depressed for a few days.”).
That demon, with whom you arranged an uneasy truce, has never stopped salivating at your jugular. And biding its time.
Someone commits suicide. This week, it was Robin Williams.
Here’s a man who spent 63 years doing battle with the beast. I didn’t know him, and I didn’t know his demon, but I am familiar with his disease and I can see how it may have played out.
Robin was special. He did battle with the beast for 63 years, and most of those days he wasn’t satisfied with mere victory — most of those days he not only conquered the beast, but skinned it, took its pelt as a trophy and talisman and held it in the air as an offering to the rest of us. And we took strength from it, and we understood.
And one morning, Robin Williams woke up and something was off.
Maybe he forgot to check a long-reliable lock on his demon’s cage, one that had rusted open with the years.
Maybe he slipped, trying to dodge a thrust he could have more easily blocked.
Maybe he bobbed when he should have weaved.
Whatever happened, the beast lunged for his throat and this time — this one time — it sank its teeth through his flesh and tore, and that was that.
And that’s the news story. Not the 63 years of spectacular victories, but the single moment of failure. And the outpouring of shock and grief and love from millions is poisoned by a few idiot blowhards patiently explaining to their audiences that well, really, Mr. Williams was a selfish coward who made a selfish choice.
The most horrifying thing about suicide, to me, is reading accounts of survivors. Do you know what almost all of them report experiencing, in the moment before their anticipated oblivion?
You may not suffer from this disease, but someone you love surely does. The best thing you can do for them is let them know that you’re there, if they need you, and that you don’t judge them for it.
And if you, like me, know and understand this experience then I have one request for you: don’t hide it. Don’t act like it’s all okay, don’t put on that smile if it horrifies you, don’t act like you’re someone you’re not, don’t fight this demon while arming it with your own shame and fear.
The only way we’re going to overcome this stigma is if the rest of the world sees that depression isn’t something that happens to anonymous, crazy, already-lost “other” people, but to coworkers and in-laws and mentors. That maybe the brightest lights in their own lives shine so brightly because they know if they don’t that the darkness will win — but god, there may be days when the work they put into finding a single smile is more than you’ve done all year on anything.
So, hi. I’m Myk. I’m a productive member of society and a real human being, and I’ve lived with depression for 31 years. And I’m just getting started.
Nice to meet you.