When I asked them about the moment things began to crack, many interviewees pointed to their teen years—the pre-, early, and mid-teens. Back then, they didn’t recognize depression as such, not in the clinical sense at least. This awareness came later. Squinting into the past, they struggled to find the words, to capture into an intelligible way the what, the how, and the why of their unravelling. It wasn’t easy to reach into the raw emotion and try to make sense of the thoughts and feelings and stuff filed away in memory that are often concealed from conscious awareness.
Down to the bone, depression sounded like a loss of innocence.
Still, I kept probing into these memories—partly out of the mulish curiosity I’m known for but also because I could see something taking shape, a seedling of a clue. As people verbalized their experiences, reaching for a metaphor where words alone fell short, a phrase began to emerge that seemed to tie together their reflections: Down to the bone, depression sounded like a loss of innocence.
It’s innocence in the sense of that unselfconscious existence that kids have about them, the way they inhabit their skins so effortlessly and innately trust that all is well just as it is. The loss of that innocence, I think, is not so much about growing up as it is about losing our sense of innate worthiness. It’s about experiencing what researcher Brené Brown identifies as shame, the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Indeed, this sense of unworthiness and loss of innocence permeated my encounters. I found that once you peel back the symptomatic layers of mental illness—the lack of energy, the inability to feel pleasure, the loss of purpose, the gnawing anxiety, and the isolation—you strike shame. Not in the Freudian sense of perverted desires, base impulses, Oedipus complexes, and such. It’s shame as self-loathing and the voice of the inner critic who whispers, “You don’t measure up, you don’t deserve, you don’t belong, you don’t matter.” With shame, we are at fault by default because of who we are deep down when no one’s looking. It’s what fuels depression even when we are not supposed to be depressed, even when ours is the proverbial white-picket-fence life.
The inner critic sounds like the truth or else feels inevitable, immutable, and ingrained in our personality. But it’s not.
Shame grows in the teen years and sometimes earlier. Therapy rooms are filled with people who have, on the surface, made it and yet still feel like the weird kid inside, the black sheep, or the child who always fell short and always will. We all know that inner critic, but some of us—artists, entrepreneurs, and depressives—know that voice more intimately than others. We walk around with it on a loudspeaker. Brené Brown calls it “the gremlins”; Arianna Huffington dubs it “the obnoxious roommate.” Mine is “the editor.” I can always hear “the editor” in the back of my mind, muttering and making corrections to things I say, scratching out whole scenes of my life and rewriting them the way they could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve gone if only I weren’t the dismal failure that I am.
The inner critic sounds like the truth or else feels inevitable, immutable, and ingrained in our personality. But it’s not. Instead, it often is the judgment of others, real or imagined, that we internalized at one point when our identity was still fragile and taking shape. And then, we fell from grace. This judgment may not have been anything objectively traumatic. A passing comment, a certain stare, or a mere hint of a criticism is often enough for shame to tack itself onto our sense of worth and, like a parasite, slowly starve it off.
We lose our innocence, too, when certain grounding beliefs we hold about life and ourselves are called into question. A parent leaves, and the sanctity of family is shattered. It can feel like we’ve lost our orienting principle, our anchor and safe harbor. If home is no longer that sacred place we could always go back to, then what is? Were we ever loved at all? Can we trust again? Our utter vulnerability often hardens us to the world.
And if life alone isn’t enough, there’s school. Zipped into uniforms, praised for knowing, and punished for messing around, we armor up against play, curiosity, and imagination. Whatever wide-eyed wonder we had at the world is drummed out of us so we can be molded into an ideal social unit.
Incidentally, many of my interviewees who battle depression were bad students. They were bored, and someone—a teacher or counselor maybe—told them they had motivation issues or learning difficulties or ADD. Or, to take the political correctness out of it, that they were stupid, lazy, and undisciplined. They skipped classes and spent their days playing video games. Why? “To be any place other than here,” one person told me.