What I Talk About When I Talk About Depression
I was twelve when I thought for the first time that maybe it wouldn’t be that big of a deal if I ceased to exist.
I don’t mean to say that I was actively interested in killing myself — rather, this was the first time I began to formulate to myself the idea of a future that just didn’t include me. Maybe I’d be hit by a car on my way to the bus stop; maybe I’d be thrown from a horse and hit my head a little too hard on something a little too blunt. I thought about these things idly, distractedly, knowing that I would do nothing to bring them about but also knowing that a part of me longed for them to happen. I remember the moment that this longing crystallized, distinctly: my math teacher at the time had informed my mother that I had only done four out of twelve assignments, and it was immediately clear to me that I had no worth. The rage and disgust directed at me from one parent was immediately reflected in the unending, boundless disappointment of the other. I thought, It won’t matter if I’m gone. It was the first time; it was certainly not the last.
It didn’t matter that the teacher was wrong and that I knew she was wrong. It didn’t matter that both of my parents handled this situation in the worst possible fashion, because both of them were hurting and barely capable of taking care of themselves, much less a young daughter. It didn’t even matter that I knew, on some level, that I was wrong about this. It mattered only that there was a voice in my head reminding me gently, even lovingly, that it wouldn’t matter that much if I was gone. That maybe everyone would even be a little bit happier.
I don’t know how to talk about depression in the general sense. It seems impossible. There are so many different things to say. Depression is like a fingerprint: it is only yours, and it is with you forever, barring an attempt to burn it off with acid.
I was officially diagnosed at thirteen or fourteen, though my mother (an intimidatingly successful LCSW) insisted much earlier that there was something amiss. It’s impossible to say whether this initial diagnosis was the result of a chronic illness or a situational thing. I suspect, as it often is, that it was a heavy dose of both. I struggled. I was bullied mercilessly throughout middle school, the kind of bullying that Lifetime movies are made of: used gum thrown at me on the bus, the screws loosened in my chair during art class so that the chair collapsed underneath me, boys hissing hippo and slut at me in the hallway. I had friends, but not many, and not until late. I was desperate. I did not see that things would get better. To take matters into my own hands was unthinkable, but still… What about the speeding car, or the spooked horse?
In high school, the bullying abated somewhat, and I began starving myself. The bullying abated somewhat more, and I got a boyfriend. I was not necessarily happy, though sometimes I was overjoyed. That joy came with an edge of desperation, a wild-eyed certainty that nothing that currently made me happy would last. I thought a lot about how it would matter a little more if I got hit by a car on the way to my bus stop. I had a lot more friends. A lot of the time I projected happiness, and it was because happiness sat side-by-side in me next to sadness, each pressing against separate halves of my ribcage. It seemed disingenuous, even dishonest, to claim that I was happy. I became “fine,” and then I became “tired.” I was tired so much of the time.
This is because, unlike a fingerprint, depression has weight.
A doctor noticed I was starving myself. I went to a cardiologist. I began taking better care of myself. I went to college; my boyfriend cheated on and dumped me unceremoniously, after I had gained all that weight back. Ah, said the voice, see?
I sat on the floor of my dorm room, took six ibuprofen, became horrified with myself and moreover unsure I was even doing this correctly, Googled to make sure I wasn’t going to die, and called the counseling services at my University.
I would like to make something very clear: my ability to recognize that something was wrong does not make me a Better Depressed Person, or an example of How Depression Can Be Beat.
My ability to recognize that something was wrong came from nineteen years of watching my mother work, and knowing that feeling this tired, and this sad, and this done, was something I could be helped with — in theory, and though no therapy up to that point had helped, I still had hope. I had a certain amount of fortitude. I also had a certain amount of irritation with myself, because now that my relationship with my mother was improving and I was at a college I loved and could see the future in glimpses, now was when I was going to take a bottle of ibuprofen and say, essentially, fuck it?
I was lucky to have this level of self-awareness when no one around me really recognized what was going on. I was lucky. That’s all it was.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic passing. I’ve been thinking about how our stories are often shared retroactively, retrospectively, posthumously, and that the flurry of concern in this afterword fades out almost immediately, every time. Rarely is one of our stories shared while it’s happening. Even now, even this, is happening in the afterword of something else.
I first saw Dead Poets Society when I was fifteen, very busily starving myself, very certain that whatever worth I had was negligible and wouldn’t translate beyond high school or college. This movie had such a profound effect on me that at the time I couldn’t recognize it for what it was. I just knew I wanted to cry about it. No matter what anyone says, words and ideas can change the world. I had never believed it before.
I did not have a teacher like John Keating in high school, but I desperately needed one. I think the character became the thing itself — he was not real, not really, but he was at the same time. And what he said mattered to me as much as it mattered to the boys in the film.
There are other reasons I found Dead Poets Society deeply moving. I’m sure you can imagine what they were.
I don’t know whether watching that movie was what one might call in traditional narrative a turning point — it was more like it was one of many. It wasn’t even the first, necessarily. Each one positioned me a few degrees further from where I’d been before. I think it was the first film that gave me a language to define myself outside of how tired I was. (And tired was always, always, not only just tired; it was sad, too, and angry, and desperate).
I was tired. And I was sad. And angry, and desperate. But I was not only these things; they were not the sum total of my being. I was also passionate and funny and driven and I had fortitude, and all of these things remain true. I am passionate, funny, and driven, with fortitude. And I am sad.
It’s all right to be all of these things. I am painfully aware that my fortitude has gotten me this far, but it may not get me all the way. I am painfully aware that in my family depression is more pervasive than cancer and more lethal. I am painfully aware that one day, this thing that lives in me — that waits, onerous and unquiet, even when I am at my best — may kill me. I am doing everything in my power to keep that from happening. The silver lining of this is that it is responsible for a capacity I have for endless compassion, one I’ve tried to put to good use, as it’s a gift I don’t want to waste. I don’t see myself as tragic, and I don’t want to be seen as tragic. Tragedy has a tendency to objectify.
A lot of us don’t want our stories to be told posthumously, and so we must keep telling them. Every day. Every week. Even when, especially when, they do not seem particularly important or timely.
When we talk about depression, we talk about: A number to call if you’re struggling. The deplorable state of mental health care in this country. Why suicide isn’t selfish. Why the danger of a single story is particularly true when it comes to mental illness. How certain groups of people are hit disproportionately hard, and often have the least support available to them.
I want us to keep having these conversations. They are vital. They endure.
When I talk about depression, I talk about how I struggle, sometimes, with figuring out what I’m living for. (I am seeing a therapist for this; I am improving; I am lucky; I can say, now, that it’s not that bad, that sometimes it isn’t bad at all, and I’m not lying; I have more happiness than sadness in me, and every day that feels like a blessing). It happens less and less often, but still, sometimes it does. It probably always will. Last week I remembered the first answer I got, at fifteen.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
I am so grateful that this is an answer in my lexicon, something true and pure that I can press to my heart when things are toughest. I am eternally, unspeakably grateful.
And I am acutely, beautifully, blessedly aware that I’m not alone. No one ever is, but depression is particularly isolating. It takes so much more to reach out a hand, to say, “I am with you.”
I am with you. I am with you.