If you’re a parent, you’ve been there: it’s late at night; you discover your baby has a fever; they’re crying crying crying; you’re a little freaked out, because sick baby; and when you try to give them the prescribed dosage of orange or purple magic juice to bring their fever down, they TURN THEMSELVES INSIDE OUT to avoid taking it.
Oh, it’s on.
“This will help,” you tell the feral creature who does not believe you–partly because they don’t speak a human language yet but mostly because you are a terrifying giant who is not to be trusted. “Let me make you feel better.” You start to growl, trying not to get irrationally angry at your tiny beloved child with the arched back and clenched jaw.
In the end, you force the medicine down their throat because you’re an ogre and that’s what ogres do. Mission accomplished. And maybe they’ll feel better. Usually, they do.
You try to do the same thing to depression, but it doesn’t work the same. It’s a lot harder to subdue. It fights dirty. And it knows your tricks.
When you’re having a down day–it doesn’t matter why–it hurts. It’s almost physical. And if you’re among people, or at work, you keep moving like a robot, trying to be normal, running on fumes, pretending you’re fine. You might even be fooling them.
If you’re at home, you just crash. You don’t want to do anything. At the same time, especially if it’s the weekend or day off, you want to use that day. You don’t want to waste it. After so many hard days, you want to have a good day at home.
“If Ido the thing,” the wiser part of you recalls, “I will feel better.” (Or if not better, precisely, at least less bad.) Maybe the thing is reading, or going for a walk, or cleaning, or doing a craft. It might be any number of things, and it doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it is at least a tiny bit active. The cruel trick is that you might know what works and still not be able to make yourself do it.
Laying down is easier. Just sitting is easier. Switching off is easier. I don’t want to open the goddamned book. I don’t want to get out the craft stuff. I feel like this:
And when you feel like that you don’t do fun things! Fun things are stupid. Feeling better is stupid. Trying to care about things is stupid.
“This will help,” you tell the feral creature who lives inside your brain. “Let me make you feel better.” You start to growl, trying not to get irrationally angry at the depressed soul living inside you, the one with the arched back and clenched jaw.
Open the book. I know you don’t want to. Get out the craft stuff. I know you want to throw it through the wall. But ya gotta start. Ya gotta get out of your head. And the first step is the hardest by far. (I open the book. I close the book. I close my eyes and sigh. I open the book…)
But each additional step, each page, each dab of hot glue, leads you a little bit out of yourself and a tiny bit closer to good.
If you enjoy the companionship of depression long enough, you’ll see it in all its various forms and varieties, in its constantly changing foliage: the early greenery of new depression, whose unexpected appearance confounds you and trips you while you’re trying to discover what’s happening; the robust, mature growth that follows, becoming your constant, overwhelming preoccupation, like a garden so overgrown with weeds that you can’t find anything you ever planted, but you’re obliged to keep tearing out handfuls of ragweed and pigweed and crabgrass, looking; and the late season of depression, where you’ve carved out a few safe zones and learned to keep to those while the weeds continue encroaching on all sides, leaving you in something like a stalemate–I’ll stay here, depression, and you stay over there.
Good days and bad days
Sure, the last stage is better, in a way. One can be well and more-or-less happy most of the time. You’re constrained by the limits depression puts on you, but as long as you respect those limits, you have a good chance of being okay. Just the hope of having some good days mixed in with the bad ones is a victory.
Seen through a different lens: you’re not actively burning in the fire. You’re constantly recovering from burns, sure, but the fires are sometimes quenched for a bit.
So… yeah, better than before. Still, it fucking sucks. (Verifiable scientific fact.)
Late stage depression is like wearing a Clean White Shirt of Happiness™ to work. Every car splashes mud your way. Every book, notebook, package, outhouse, henhouse, and object of any type that you handle is covered in dust and grease. Lunch is spaghetti in a thin, especially splashy sauce. All the coffee cups dribble. Everything in your environment conspires to leave marks and stains on your white shirt. Except, in this scenario, instead of a stain, your white shirt bursts into flame.
Depression’s funny that way. Ha ha.
Manage your depression
To speak of “managing” one’s ongoing depression is, conceptually, a bit of wishful thinking. Sure, you can manage it, to an extent, especially if you do all the things you learned in the earlier stages. Eat right. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Perform the quarterly rites and make the yearly sacrifices to Cthaeghya (or whichever Elder God has thrust its gelatinous appendage into your affairs–check with your doctor). And once you learn what the pitfalls are, like the lightning sands or ROUS’s, you can learn to avoid them.
Except you can’t. Not all the time.
•Certain kinds of thinking lead one into a Death Spiral of Misery and Despair™. When that opportunity presents itself, you learn to occupy your mind a different way and not go down that hole. Stay busy to avoid the stinkin’ thinkin’. (HT to Stuart.)
•Certain situations (or “people” as I call them) can be triggers. You learn to not be in those situations. Stay away from those people. (Unless you are employed. Sorry about that. For real.) In any case, you do the best you can.
•Certain conversations on social media drive a spike into your brain. Every time. So–you mute those terms. No need to see that stuff.
And so on–some obstacles can be predicted and avoided. You can reduce the misery. Except–as mentioned above–you can’t. Not all the time.
When you’re living with depression, almost any disappointment or sorrow or emotional injury can be the thing that knocks you into the lava. Life will sucker-punch you at any moment. (The “without warning” part is understood–you would duck if you knew it was coming. Unless it’s Joe Frazier, who represents the Unavoidable Suckiness of Certain Events™. Then you know it’s coming, and you might want to duck… ) When that happens, you can be doing all the right things, avoiding everything avoidable–perched on your ottoman, safe from the lava of the floor, you thought–but the ottoman is now lava, too. So is the chair. So is everything. There is no safe place. Everything is lava.
What do you do?
There is nothing for you to do about it. (Well, YMMV.)
Sometimes when you’re depressed you’re pretty okay. Maybe you’re having a good day. Maybe you’ve had five or six or seven in a row. As far as everyone knows, you’re fine. Other times, though, like when you’ve been emotionally sucker-punched, when life comes at you (as life does), when you’re doing all the safe things but something launches you into the lava… well, you burn for awhile.
It goes away again, in my experience. That’s what you hold on for. You wait for it to go away again. Just not all the way.
Unpopular opinion: anybody who wishes they could go back and relive their youth probably has a bad memory.
It sounds like a good idea unless you think it through. But I swear I haven’t forgotten everything. I’m not too sentimental about my childhood or youth in general because I remember. Reliving some of the stupid things I said out loud where other humans could hear it… ([Low lights, music starting] Me, talking to a girl: Do you want to dance? Girl beside her: this is a roller rink.) I could break out in a sweat just thinking about it.
Yeah, being young just the one time is the best plan. I’m grateful I don’t have to groundhog-day my way back through all of my greatest hits of failure. I’m not even gonna think about it.
(Okay, well, this one: I remember a 7th-grade flute player’s disgusted look when I helpfully told the band director that the two flats in the song’s key signature were B♭ and E♭. “Uhh–that’s what they usually are,” the smarter-than-me flute player said, sneering and eye-rolling like a pro. Derp.) (Honest, I did not know that rule.)
(Oh, wait–how about 6th grade, Sue Vranish coming up to me to call me faggot–such a faggot, I think–on the playground. I never even talked to her. Like, ever. Her summary judgment was offered up unsolicited, free of charge. She felt that strongly.)
Okay, that’s plenty. Done.
(Oh, yeah! One more. Ice ball to the face at school. That was excellent! Black eye. Whole side of the head, really. Never knew who threw it. It stang.)
(Last one–age 17, snowy day, skidding into the ditch driving to work at McDonald’s. Getting pulled out by some dude with a winch–thanks, man!–now late, going the wrong way, trying to turn around in a random driveway, getting stuck in the snow again. What?! True story.)
My first school party…
No. Enough. Tip of the iceberg, anyway. Erase, erase…
There were some good times, though. Right? Remember no aches in your joints? I do. Running anytime you wanted? That was awesome.
All the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you want–and still skinny.
Saturday morning cartoons.
The best memories, though, come out of summer. The moments most like the sun cutting through the clouds, most like true peace, most like me living my best life, are summer days, reading stacks of comic books, doing almost nothing. No school work; no any work, just then; no judgments, no foot-in-mouth, no awkward interactions, no self-recriminations. Just chilling.
I had a moment like that recently, a peaceful, calm moment, and my brain flashed back to lying on my bed reading comics on a summer day, with older brothers doing the same. Stacks of Richie Rich and Hot Stuff and superheroes and Kid Colt. Especially the new comics that Jeff Schwab gave us cuz he had so many of them–that was like treasure.
Same days–Steve and I, riding our bikes to Al and Margies corner store to get candy. (Or riding bike–the tandem bike. Weighed more than I did.) Mom made us go the long way to avoid the busy road–almost 3 miles each way instead of just 1–but it was fine. We’d get 30 cents or 50 cents-worth of candy, each of us, carrying it (the long way home) in little brown bags, trying to hold onto them and the handlebars.
I’d start with a piece of Beich’s taffy, stuffing the whole thing in my mouth. The label said, “Say ‘Bikes!'” and I thought it was a joke because you couldn’t say it with all that taffy in your mouth. It was only years later that I realized it was a pronunciation guide, not a prank.
Maybe Jeff and I’d go play catch for awhile by the barn. (Remember when shoulders didn’t hurt? Bonus.) Strange thing about those days–you wanted to put the baseball there and it’d go there. Think it, make it happen. Or we’d all play basketball at the end of the driveway. In the uneven dirt.
Dribbling was harder back then, come to think of it.
Then we’d go back inside and drink some Wyler’s lemonade and read more comic books. Stay up late to watch Johnny Carson, almost every night, because no school! Go to bed late and sleep with the fan aimed at you, holding the sheet up to catch the air.
Yeah, we had chores. Animals to feed. Grass to cut. Paint the house, maybe, or dig it up and tar the basement. (That was a fun job.) Muck out a stall, sometimes. A few things to do, sure. Take turns with dishes and dinner. Mornings, maybe, we had to pull weeds in the garden. End of the summer, we had to spend a day or two getting hay up in the mow.
But lots and lots of days, and lots of hours, were just spent relaxing. The least pressure, the least anxiety, the most peace, of any point in my life.
I don’t want to be a kid again. I don’t want to go back and live through college or the studio apartment poverty times of our 20s. But upon reflection–which I don’t advise anyone do too much–some of those moments were pretty good. For reals. Some of them stay with you.
Some of those moments, if you’re lucky, can be a sort of well you can dip into, where you can draw up the clear water of happy times, of an easy mind, of wholeness and joy, and you take a sip.
It’s all still in there, somewhere, blowing through the jasmine in my mind–
and once in a while I can find it in me to be grateful for such things.
On the occasion of taking my hurting dog to the vet. (Looks like he’s going to be okay.)
I haven’t heard it much lately, but people used to talk about getting into the right headspace. The same thing, pretty much, as getting your head together. Getting your head on straight.
A mental adjustment of some kind.
I picture that kinda like seeing the world through different filters, different colors, or seeing it differently depending on which room in your head you’re looking out at the world from.
It’s like getting one scene from one window in your head:
and the same scene, supposedly, from the room next door (in your head):
It’s the same you, but a different world out there. Apparently.
I’ve been in the wrong headspace enough times to know that the crap I see isn’t really there. The common, everyday issues I’m smacking into are not so dire as they seem, or so overwhelming (theoretically). I see the rocky ground, but I know the lovely village and tropical flora is supposed to appear there. Still, I see what I see.
In other words, knowing what’s going on is not enough to break the spell.
Being stuck in a depressed or anxious place is like being stuck in an alternate, uglier, meaner reality. A crueler world. You can remember the happy version, but that one somehow feels fake. Like how summer feels to you in winter, and how you remember winter while you’re in summer.
We forget what hot feels like, but then summer comes:
We’re shit at understanding or even remembering feelings and emotional states. This is why I can’t really get mad (or stay mad) at people who don’t understand, people who downplay how painful it is to suffer depression or anxiety. Or other mental conditions, for that matter. How could they get it if they haven’t experienced it? If they haven’t looked out the window in the wrong room in the wrong headspace? When I’m feeling pretty good, when I’m doing alright, I can’t remember what bad feels like. Sorta, but not really. I should totally know; I’ve been there plenty. Nope. It evaporates. If you’ve never been there, how much less can you understand?
But when I do get back in that headspace, the dark one, the room where everything sucks, I remember very well.
The thing is, when you have water up your nose, it hurts because you really have water up your nose. When you’re hot in the summer or cold in the winter, that’s because it really is hot or cold. But when you’re in the wrong headspace, even though it’s a trick, even though it’s a deception, it’s indistinguishable from reality. In fact, I think it feels more real. It’s heavier. The depressed headspace is deep and goes on as far as you can see, while normal happiness/peacefulness/joy is just a thin sliver of bright floating on the surface.
I admit I haven’t found a solution to the problem–at least not once you’re in the wrong headspace. (Well, a little. Like I discuss in The Transcendence of Little things.) If you’re fortunate, like I have often been, you will snap out at some point, and hopefully those bad times don’t last too long.
But you might learn to prevent it, avoiding as much as possible the situations that trigger bad times. (You can’t avoid everything, I know. Shit happens. People you love go through hard times. Or your dog gets sick. For example.)
Survive what you can’t avoid. Avoid what you can.
Sage advice. To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, just don’t go in that fucking room.
There is a magic in little things, I have realized lately. This magic lives in tiny events, in everyday actions, which have the power to save us from ourselves. I don’t know where that power comes from, but I’ve felt it, and I want to figure it out.
Anxiety is a liar. If you live with it, you know how it distorts the way you experience your life and distorts your outlook and screws with your feelings. From the inside, shrink-wrapped in its one-size-fits-you skinsuit, it is deadly serious and utterly convincing. You don’t believe the lies–you are the lies.
But sometimes little magics charm it away. Maybe just for a moment.
Pouring half-and-half into my coffee in the morning is as everyday as an event can be. If you look up “quotidian” in your Dictionary of Pretension® (preferred by old English teachers!) there’s a picture of your daily cup of coffee. So common it’s nearly invisible. But there’s something I found, watching even for a second or two, about the patterns it makes when I add the cream. Those swirls of white and brown and tan are so complex, so beautiful, and they’re created in so much more detail than I can ever hope to grasp, that it’s hard to believe that it isn’t deeply significant; it’s hard to believe that it isn’t its own universe of meaning.
I like it.
For a moment, the clammy prickles of dread (that’s a rock band right there) simply evaporate. Whatever malevolent deity of fate (probably metal) that had been presiding over my impending doom (emo, for sure) is shattered by seeing the amount of attention to detail the universe is putting into that one cup of coffee. How can the universe focus on my personal destruction when it is so engrossed in the minutiae of implementing today’s coffee-and-cream performance? The universe is busy, okay?
Okay, maybe that’s just the caffeine, you say. Fair enough. Maybe. But I’m not the only person who ever sat in a quiet place with the sun shining and the birds singing–or the sun going down and the crickets chirping–just listening, just sitting there, not doing much of anything at all, and thought it felt like peace. Admit it. You know what I’m talking about. It is peace, which is the avowed enemy of anxiety.
Did you ever watch a little kid trying to learn how to cut paper with a pair of scissors, and they’re chomping their mouth like a baby alligator in time to the cutting? In a way, they become the scissors, biting, biting… I think that’s what happens when we notice our environment, when we really see or hear or feel what is near us in a focused way. We inhabit the placid coffee, or the happy birds, or the tireless lava lamp. We move our consciousness there, for just a second, and we’re the paisley pattern of dairy formed on the coffee-brown canvas; we’re the carefree chirping bird; we are the endlessly renewed shapes in the lava.
Experts recommend a simple trick when you feel anxious, or when you feel a panic attack coming on. It’s called 5-4-3-2-1, and all you have to do is be aware of your environment like this:
identify five things you can see
name four things you can hear
find three things you can feel
two things you can smell
one thing you can taste
They say it stops spinning thoughts and returns us to the present moment. Somehow, anxiety separates us from the true here and now. Connecting with the things that are truly present (not just imagined and feared) and things that can be sensed in our environment grounds us, bringing us back to the real world. It stops the spiral.
Small things. Calming things. It’s a charm to break the evil spell.
I see the shadows on the neighbor’s house. The banjo on the wall… I hear the kids at the school, playing, across the street. A car going by. The music on the TV… I feel the breeze from the open door…
Remember those games where you put a marble in a maze and you tilt the surface back and forth, up and down, moving the marble around the board in a series of increasingly frantic corrections, using body English to try to keep it going while still avoiding the holes, and you were on the edge of calamity and ruin every second?
I am the only one who feels like that pretty much all the time?
Cruel game. (Life, I mean.) No matter where you go or how carefully you move, you’re constantly on the edge of failure. No resting. No safe spots. Every action a risk. Inaction a risk. The constant sensation of unavoidable peril.
The correctives to that sensation are all different varieties of grounding yourself, recognizing that you’re actually okay and in no real danger. Nothing beyond your ability to deal with.
Breath deeply. Repeat calming phrases. Practice mindfulness. Count and name and touch objects nearby.
Brain thinks you’re in trouble. It’s tricked, somehow. Un-trick it.
All good advice. But I would just like to get out of the marble maze, please. Can we do that?
(Cross-posted from http://inspeculation.blogspot.com.)
George Washington is one of our forebears, a Founding Father, an American ancestor. But he’s not my grandpa, or great-grandpa, or any number of greats. Probably not yours, either.
Neither is Ben Franklin, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor any of those guys. Even though we’re are not really related, we still consider Washington and the others as forebears, as our spiritual ancestors. They are our Founding Fathers. In some ineffable way, they belong to us, and we to them, even if we’re not related in any real way.
If you are American, by birth or choice, they belong to you, too.
That is why I believe the casting in Hamilton is so important, and so deeply affecting. Seeing Washington portrayed by an African American actor is striking, and stimulating to one’s imagination, as if we’ve opened a door we didn’t know was there. At one level, it is touching to see this potentially-divisive historical figure embraced by a black actor, as if his flaws and shortcomings with regard to race have been forgiven (whether or not that is the case). On another level, though, it opens up possibilities in one’s mind, of America as it could be, and as it could have been. Sure, Washington in real life was a white man, but he could have been a black man. (How?)
Like this: America is black. The United States is a black country. In every sense that America is white, it is black. So, of course, its founding fathers are, too. Or could have been.
America is also Asian and Hispanic. [Latinx, if you prefer.]
And Native American, of course, with even greater primacy.
When we hold up as our founders only the white men who signed the Declaration, or who led armies, it’s an unspoken but subconsciously-understood argument that the country was theirs, won by them and possessed by them, and that they passed it on to their white children. It’s a white man’s founding myth. So, for white Americans like me, it’s proof that we are the *real* Americans, the true inheritors of the nation. African Americans, then, are uncomfortably tacked on later as the step-children we never meant to have. Every other ethnicity is resentfully accepted into the family like unfortunates who are fed at the edge of a wedding feast–with self-congratulations for our charity and condescension, even as we wink and nod to one another in silent understanding: they’re not really part of it all, they aren’t the same, they aren’t really inheritors of America because they aren’t like the real Founding Fathers.
Well, I recall that I’m not actually related to them, either–so why am I privileged?
(Can I dispense with the race argument? If we go back enough generations, yes, we’ll have a common ancestor; but that’s true of all of us. Why should I feel more closely connected to a white man or woman with whom I share an ancestor some 30 generations ago than a black man or woman who shares with me an ancestor 100 generations ago? To me, that’s a meaningless distinction in degree. I’m sure racists will not find this argument persuasive, but I hope others will feel as I do…)
What matters more to me is that we share America. That is how we are alike, how we are connected. Fellow Americans–with the same forefathers.
One of my great-grandfathers, the only one I know about, was a soldier in the Civil War, in a New York state regiment. Not famous–just a soldier. I’m proud of who he was, though I never knew him. He was long gone when I was born.
What if he had fought for the South instead of the North? I’ve wondered that sometimes. Would that change me, or change who I am? Am I better or worse because of what my actual blood ancestors did?
I don’t think so. As far as I’m concerned, any man or woman who was part of America, for good or bad, was my ancestor, my forebear. My American family, I guess. All the white men and women of past centuries, even those who held slaves, are my American forebears, and I have to embrace them, but so are all those unnamed, unknown slaves. They were all part of the America we inherited, and they were all as much my ancestor as Washington or Lincoln or millions of other white people I’m not related to by blood. They also did their part; they built this country, too, literally and figuratively. Besides that, any Native American or Inuit of any tribe, whether they’ve left living descendants or not, is also my ancestor, one of my Founding Parents.
Nat Turner is one of my Founding Fathers. I can claim him as my American ancestor with the same pride, and with the same justification, as I could with any other historical American. I’m as related to him as I am related to John Adams or Ulysses Grant.
And millions of unknown and unnamed others who helped build America, men and women of every color and ethnicity. They are my forebears, and every other American’s. I claim them, and celebrate them, and feel pride in their accomplishments, with the same justification as I have for feeling any of that toward FDR, or JFK, or Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemingway. Not in a similar way, but in exactly, precisely the same way.
America is white and protestant. It’s also black and Baptist, and brown and Muslim, and English-speaking, and Spanish-speaking, and Hopi-speaking, and Urdu-speaking. It isn’t that America is becoming those things–it always has been all of that.
So Hamilton performed with POC is not a gimmick; it is the story of America with American actors. Those sad people who feel that “their” America is going away have it wrong–it never belonged to them; at least, not any more than it belonged to anyone else. No color defines the country. No language. No religion or lack of religion. If anything, it is our laws and ideals–especially as we slowly improve them–which tells us who we are. We were created equal. We have (should have) the same rights, and the same freedoms, and the same expectation of a happy life.
Humans are tribal, unfortunately. We usually cooperate with our tribe (however we define that) and too often deny the humanity of every other tribe. Humanity should be our tribe, I think (and I’m not the first to say that, I know), but maybe that’s too ambitious for America in 2018. But can we make America our tribe? Can we embrace our Native American Founding Parents? Can we recognize our African American Founding Parents? Can we hear our neighbor’s music as one more sound of America? Can we accept all of our varieties of American as precisely equal in “American-ness”?
Maybe it’s hard. Maybe it’s impossible for some. Maybe none of us can get all the way there. But I think the payoffs are worth the attempt. Besides doing the right thing, besides increasing justice and brotherhood and sisterhood, besides reducing and eliminating the lingering effects of privilege, and besides growing in compassion, who doesn’t love a big family?
Thank you, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Hamilton, for a beautiful tribute to America as it might be, for a vision of who we can be. Well done. May it open many hearts and minds.
Wait wait wait. I gotta get ready. (Deep breath.) Alright, go ahead. Hit me with it. What you got?
“There’s a whole world out there! You can be or do anything you want! Everything serves a purpose! You just gotta cheer up! Take a vacation/smoke a joint/learn to see the bright side/lighten up/buy Amway!”
I suspect that last was a trick.
I dunno, maybe I’m alone in this, but–I HATE being told what to do, anyway. By ANYBODY. At ANY time. Or told HOW to do something, for that matter. Hate. Hatehatehatehatehate.
Even at work, where you kinda have to endure it. Grrrrrr. Some folks take getting bossed around a lot better than me. I do not understand these people.
Okay, fine, you’ve gotta take it from your bosses, because they’re the ones holding the money, but at the same time you can at least flip them off in your head.
But you feel like you shouldn’t have to take bossy advice from friends or family. Still, this is tricky–what they wanna tell you is probably crap, but you don’t want to be offensive toward them. Theoretically. So you gotta listen, at least at first.
But too often, the advice you’re getting comes rolled in additional shittiness–being both insulting and controlling. (Degree of difficulty–douchebag/Mean girl.)
Play along at home! Which bits of condescending helpfulness have you encountered?
On weight loss: Hey–it’s easy! Just move more, and eat less!
(Oh!! It must be super easy, because there are almost no fat people in the whole world!!!)
On alcoholism: Wanna solve this once and for all? Just don’t drink so much alcohol.
(You may want to write some of this down.)
You’re not getting enough sleep? Go to sleep sooner!
And my favorite: Suffering from anxiety? Don’t worry so much!
Now, these bits of advice, as useless as they are, have the virtue at least of being technically correct. If you could do these things, it would be better for you. Sure, they beg the question regarding the actual problem, but they’re focused like a laser on the proximate cause.
If you bend the universe to your will, you’ll get what you want!
Usually, it’s not even that close. (How, you ask? Read on, dear friend!)
Clearly, folks often just want to help. They want you to be happier. They mean well. So even though the advice is simplistic and condescending and has no chance of working, you try not to be a dick about it.
You listen, if you can bear it.
Here’s a sampling of helpful “don’t be depressed” advice for beginners that I have heard:
Idea #1: All you need is… music!
You see this one a lot. Apparently, music is magic.
I like music. I listen to music a lot. Many kinds. And of course it *helps*. Sure. Everybody feels better listening to music.
But if music is a ladder, depression is a g*dd*mn canyon. (<Redacted.)
No–that’s a bad example.
Better: music is a fly-swatter. And depression is one of these guys.
Idea #2: All you need is a good night out.
Now, here’s some real magical thinking. (This is actual advice from actual people, remember.)
You are in a bone-deep sadness; it feels like it will not end; the future is bleak; you are struggling moment to moment; how about happy hour?!
Dinner and drinks will fix everything.
File this idea under “I brainstormed for about 3 seconds, and this is what I got.”
Idea #3: Count your blessings!
Bite me. Seriously.
You think people are depressed because they haven’t taken inventory? They’re not noticing the positives?
I could go on a red-faced rant here, but you either already get it or you aren’t going to.
Idea #4: You just need a change of pace.
Why are you still talking to me?
(Okay, that was unkind. Those were supposed to just be inside words, and they got away from me.)
But when you’ve gotten all of this advice from well-meaning people, you start to realize that they aren’t really telling you how to feel better. They’re telling you that you don’t really feel that bad. They are saying that you are mistaken, that you are seeing things the wrong way, and you’re making a big deal out of nothing.
Sometimes that’s true. And sometimes people you know are not mistaken. It is a real thing, like a broken bone or ebola or a fricking gunshot. They are in reality painfully, deeply depressed. Whatever advice you’ve got will probably not be helpful.
Tell the guy with the bullet wound to count his blessings. Tell the guy with a fever of 105 that he should listen to music or go on a date.
Your support, however, is crucial. That’s a million times better than advice.
Snap out of it, people want to say. It’s all in your head, they’d like you to know.
Everything has a purpose. Supposedly. According to some philosophies. But I don’t quite buy it.
What good are mosquitos? Whose idea were they? Why do they even exist?
Why do we have nightmares?
And deadly viruses?
And AMC Pacers? (Yeah, I went there. I’m not afraid to go to 1975 for my references.)
And giant headphones?
Some of the worst shit in the world still exists today because it has sometimes been a good thing. Like knives–so injurious and stabby in some instances, but useful, even indispensable, in others.
Despite the downside of a sharp edge and pointy bits, we’re not doing without our knives. We’ve long since voted on the issue. You can’t cut a steak with a spoon, can you?
So there you go. You’re safe for now, knives.
How about autism? That’s a crappy deal. Why does it exist?
Some research suggests that autism is evolutionarily adaptive, leading to some advantages. Instead of memorizing train schedules or putting together impossible puzzles, autistic hunter-gatherers in an earlier age might have mastered the meticulous details of flint knapping or the calls and signs of every animal and bird in the environment. Or the like.
All right, I’ll give you that one. I get it. But how do you explain genetic diseases, like sickle-cell anemia? Any positive explanation behind that one?
As it turns out, carrying one copy of the sickle-cell anemia gene can stave off certain kinds of malaria. Malaria! Yay! That’s why the gene persists in certain populations, like those in Sub-Saharan Africa: to afford protection from a deadly disease. Some in the community may get malaria, but not everyone–not those with one copy of the gene.
But if you get two copies of the gene–one from each parent–you get sickle-cell anemia. Not yay. Antiyay. Painful and deadly and tragic.
But that’s how genetics works. It hedges its bets. It sacrifices some of us so that others survive. It’s a merciless bouncer at the bar of life, or a real-life version of Lifeboat, the Values Clarification Game®!
And according to some researchers, depression may confer benefits on sufferers those lucky enough to enjoy its rewards.
Seriously? A benefit to depression?
From Scientific American:
“Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerousstudieshave also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.”
It goes on to list the benefits of depression–you’ve got social isolation to free up your time and your thoughts; you have no distraction in the form of “doing fun things;” and you enjoy unrelenting focus on whatever you’re thinking about. These are all positives, remember. They suggest that such thinking leads to useful solutions and positive results for the community.
So, good news! I guess I was looking at this thing all wrong. You’ve really turned me around here.
I guess it’s not a curse.
Yeah, I’ve spent some quality time thinking intensely about things; ruminating, analyzing, dwelling on complex problems, just like they said. Like other depression-blessed individuals, I have contributed to society by carefully considering important questions, like these:
Why do I suck, precisely? In what ways, and in what dimensions? (Please, be specific. And detailed. Repetition is a plus. Reeeaaally get in there.)
Why am I destined to fail in everything I attempt? And how badly? And why do I deserve it so very very much?
Why is everyone else so much better at everything? Why is everything so much easier for them? Is this a “children of a lesser god” sort of situation?
If nothing is pleasurable in any way, why do any of it? Corollary: is eating all that important?
And finally: How much can pain hurt? And how long is “always”?
I don’t remember finding any helpful answers at the end of those turdwalks. But I did spend a lot of time on them once. Lots and lots. Years, in fact, to some degree or another, made up of hard months made up of ugly weeks made up of days made up of long, long hours… most of which are behind me, thankfully, but not quite all. (Apparently.)
The point: evolution designed humans so that some of us can fall into depression; this is a feature of human evolution, and not a bug. It has its purpose. Some of us are converted into spiritual zombies for a portion of our lives, and it’s a total crap deal, but it is for the greater good.
Depression is good. It works.
Well, evolution can go fuck itself.
Or the human genome can. Or… whoever or whatever it is that is pulling the strings. (It’d be a lot easier to get my revenge if I knew who to blame.)
I’m not here to grease the skids for society, solving some thorny emotional problems alone in my emo garret, spinning my misery into someone else’s gold. I’m here to have my own happy life.
I’m not your monkey, evolution. It’s my life.
To be honest, I did learn one thing from all that stinkin’ thinkin’. I arrived at a Wargames kind of lesson about deep rumination and where it leads.
I learned that the only way to win is not to play.
This is partly a confession. You see, I’ve actually had that thought. That precise thought. Recently, in fact.
Next life, I’ll ski more.
That is a direct quote from a part of my brain that is, apparently, not entirely sure about reality or the direction time moves. It surprised me, too. In my defense, I might have been sleepy. (In fact, I wasn’t. But if I hadn’t told you, how would you know?)
Next life, I’ll ski more.
Reality intrudes and reminds me that it is now too late to plan my youth. I won’t see my 20s again. None times. Zero more times.
Yeah, we could still ski, but those days are mostly behind us. Life is filled with stuff we coulda done, but didn’t do. (“Coulda did” if you want to go full redneck.)
Coulda shoulda woulda.
I know why my brain went there. It fits a natural pattern. After all, days repeat: “Tomorrow I’ll finish that job.” (Judges? Possible.) Weeks repeat: “Next weekend, we’ll do something fun.” Also possible. Months and years repeat–we get another bite at those apples: “Next summer, let’s travel.” Totally possible.
But lives, as far as we know, just come in packages of 1. Single serving.
No do-overs. No correcting mistakes. No studying harder for college once you’re out. No training harder for the sports you played as a kid. No eliminating some of the stupid shit you said, out loud, in front of other humans.
Your youth was wasted on the young, and you just now noticed. (You know who you are.)
And no do-over on your career.
In our youth, we let our brains trick us into thinking our careers will be crazy awesome. Frankly, we expect too much. We think our possibilities, our aptitudes, are the same as our future.
Thinking we might could be a pilot or a cowboy or an archaeologist or an inventor or a milkman, we feel, in a way, that we are all of those things. It’s Schrödinger’s career: until we get there, all possible futures are true.
Then, when they don’t all come true, or none of them do, it’s disappointing. Maybe even depressing, depending on how you’re put together. It’s an existential let-down, and the quintessential crisis of midlife. We didn’t arrive where we thought we would, and realize we ain’t a’gonna.
We become aware of the narrowing of our possibilities as time screams by.
Duh. It’s the zipper principle.
Like the teeth of an unzipped zipper, stretching wide in either direction, our future encompasses all our possible futures, everything we might be, from horizon to horizon. But every day, every year, we complete another portion of our lives, and zip up our potentialities into actualities, a tiny bit more every moment. Inexorably. Inevitably. Permanently.
The closed-up past stretches out behind us while the gap ahead of us narrows. Our history is written, and our choices are reduced and half-chosen for us as we close in on what future remains to us.
Sometimes we all wonder (just go along with me) about the road not taken… the career not pursued… the risk not accepted. Who knows how different our lives would have turned out if we had done some of those things? How many different lives might we have lived?
No point thinking about it. Done and dusted.
Whew. Deep breath.
Okay. Here we go.
So, looking ahead, I’m gonna do some stuff. I’m gonna live as much as I can. Maybe not in space, or on a baseball diamond, or even on a ski hill, but I’m gonna do some good stuff. Nahko’s got the right idea:
I need a change, it’s evident A transformation imminent…
If I make it out alive, I will make a change
I’m not dead yet. I’ve got some life left in me. So I will make a change. And no mad scientist necessary.