Blue funk and clipped wings: The truth about why we break and how we mend
I was at a reading recently of Reasons to Stay Alive, a very personal account of battling depression by British author Matt Haig. Matt is soft-spoken and somewhat shy — or rather, I suspect, watchful — of his words, of the Word, as both a conduit of the universal and a mirror to the granular, the deeply personal. In lieu of answers to depression, Matt offered up new vantage points, but it was something he said in passing that had me freeze in my seat. He said that of all the fan letters he received after his book came out most were from 13-year-olds.
13-year-olds. I didn’t even know 13-year-olds still read fiction, still read anything beyond sultry, vampire filled sagas. And even then, Reasons to Stay Alive? At 13? As people milled about the auditorium scrambling to get their paperback copies signed, I sat, stuck, stricken, an uncomfortable awareness taking shape.
I could have brushed it off. Adolescents are not depressed; they are difficult. They are impulsive, immature, moody, overly sensitive, horridly unfathomable. Ballistic, then mute. Suffering romantics, rebellious savages. It’s terrible, sure, but it’s the teens. The hormones would eventually settle, the madness would mellow into maturity.
I also knew — from the research volumes I’d ingested over the past months, from the experts I’d interviewed on mental health — that teens didn’t quite fit the most at-risk demographic. I knew it was the 20s and 30s that carried the brunt of depression and — save for the occasional school shooting that drew attention to them — the inner lives of 13-year-olds didn’t make the cut as something to be probed into.
But I did not brush Matt’s words off as a false positive. My own research was leading me to a similarly disturbing pattern. Ever since I started collecting stories of depression and its overcoming, I’ve dived into therapy, science and personal accounts. I’ve talked to people from all walks of life — artists, entrepreneurs, IT folk, academics, unemployed; introverts and extroverts; successful and struggling; chronically and mildly depressed; in therapy and not. What struck me about their stories was that despite their individual differences, under the surface there ran, almost invariably, a common thread.
When I asked them about the moment that things began to crack, many interviewees pointed to their teen years — the pre-, early, 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, the why of their unravelling. It wasn’t easy to reach into the raw emotion and try to make sense of thoughts and feelings, of stuff filed away in memory and often concealed from conscious awareness.
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 metaphor where words alone fell short, a phrase began to emerge that seemed to tie together their reflections:
Down the bone, depression sounded like a loss of innocence.
Innocence in the sense of that unselfconscious being kids have about them, the way they inhabit their skins so effortlessly, how they just seem to belong and to trust, innately, that all is well just as it is. The loss of that innocence, I think, is not so much about growing up, about maturity, but more about losing our sense of innate worthiness. It’s about experiencing what researcher storyteller 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 — this 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, the crippling isolation — you strike shame. Not in the Freudian sense of perverted desires, base impulses, Oedipus complexes and such, no. It’s shame as self-loathing; shame as 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 really are deep down when no one’s looking. It’s what fuels depression even when we are not supposed to be depressed, when we lead a good life and have a successful career and a loving partner.
Shame grows in the teen years, sometimes earlier. Therapy rooms are filled with people who have, on the surface, made it yet still feel like the weird kid inside, the black sheep, the son or the daughter who always fell short and always will. We all know the inner critic, but some of us — artists, entrepreneurs, depressives — know him more intimately than others. We walk around with his voice on loudspeaker. Brené Brown calls him the gremlins, Arianna Huffington — the obnoxious roommate. Mine is The Editor. I can always hear him in the back of my mind, muttering, making corrections to things I say, scratching out whole scenes of my life and re-writing them the way they could’ve, should’ve, 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, ingrained in our personality. But it’s neither. It is instead the judgement of others, real or imagined, that once upon a time, when our identity was still fragile and taking shape, we internalized. And then we fell from grace. This judgement doesn’t need to be anything objectively traumatic: a passing comment, a certain stare, 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. We lose our orienting principle, our anchor and safe harbour. If home is no longer that safe, sacred place we could always go back to, then what is? And were we ever loved at all? And can we afford to trust again and to be vulnerable? It’s this impenetrable duplicity about being that hardens us to the world. We grow an armour, cherub wings be damned.
And if life alone isn’t enough, there’s more wing clipping and armouring up in school. Zipped into uniforms, praised for knowing and punished for messing around, we armour up against play, curiosity, 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 battled depression were bad students. They were bored and someone — a teacher, a counsellor? — told them they had motivation issues or learning difficulties or ADD. Or — take out the political correctness — 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.
What I’m saying might not seem, particularly, like a revelation. Surely childhood and adolescence play a key role in getting depressed. Therapy is predicated on all the various neuroses our parents conferred upon us and the ways these creep up through the subconscious to haunt us later in life. But the spotlight is on the obvious suspects — the family secrets, the disgraces swept under the rug, the shouting matches, the abusive uncle, the drinking mother — and then we lump these up with genetics, brain dysfunction and what not to construct an elaborate theory of mental illness.
Without trying to trivialize depression, I believe that we are too quick to pathologize something that is, at its core, deeply human. I believe that we won’t find depression in the brain so much as in the fuzzy ground of being alive, in the relationship between ourselves and others and the big wide world. And perhaps, instead of medicating misery with more and better drugs, we could listen to the shame tapes that we as a society, as parents and as teachers, put on for kids; perhaps we could help them reclaim their innocence.
If I’ve learned anything from the people who have come the other end and overcome depression, it’s that there’s no magic pill, mindful pose or therapy practice. These might help but the real key is simple and unsexy, yet hard to obtain and to own: the realization that we are enough already. That we are not different, weird, broken, damaged, fucked up, faulty, guilty, unloved and unlovable, but worthy in our imperfection, strong in our vulnerability, brave in our fear, good, capable, unique, wonderful, fumbling around to find who we really are. Just like everyone else.
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You can also follow my journey to the bottom of depression as I talk to therapists, scientists, doctors and a bunch of extraordinary human beings here:
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