“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” – Laurell K. Hamilton
It’s a word that instills different feelings in different people.
For some, it’s like an ugly scar on their body – ugly but familiar, almost comfortably so in that it’s just a part of their everyday.
For some it’s a white elephant – they acknowledge it’s a legitimate problem but they don’t really ‘get it’ or know how to deal with people who suffer this thing.
For some, it’s more or less bullshit – a First World syndrome like gluten intolerance or bad hair days, that people just need to ‘get over’.
I can understand all of them. Personally, though, I belong in the first category.
At this point you might’ve cast your eyes back to double-check what the first category is, then thought “oh dear”. Maybe “Wow, I didn’t know that.”
I don’t have what you’d call ‘chronic depression’. Chronic depression is a psychiatric condition, meaning it requires treatment by medication. I don’t take any form of medication and can function – have functioned all my life – without it.
I experience what I guess you could call ‘psychological depression’. I mentioned ugly scars above and that’s kind of what it is – scar tissue on your psyche from an earlier part of your life. These wounds can lie dormant for a long time and emerge as depression and/or anxiety years later, when the extra stress of adult life has been rubbed in to make it fester and ooze.
But let’s rewind for a sec.
There’s a misconception that depression always looks like this:
That’s not the case.
You won’t identify it by looking for figures crouched in dark corridors with their head in their hands, because a depressed person is still a perfectly self-aware human being and won’t let themselves be seen like that until they’re home alone. What depression looks like, if it ‘looks like’ anything, is introversion. A photograph can’t capture it but a video camera can. It’s the person talking less than the others, less apt to react to stimuli, often late to arrive and early or eager to leave. If we’re talking social events, it’s the person who never showed up in the first place, bailing at short notice even though they seemed genuinely enthusiastic about having a few drinks and catching up. Thing is, they most likely were – then the black dog showed up.
So what gives? Wouldn’t getting out be good for someone who’s just wallowing in their own shit? Snap ’em out of it?
The problem is, depression massively diminishes your desire to socialise. And what I’m about to say is one of the most important yet little-known facts for people who’ve never experienced depression: it is very, very physical. Depression affects the body just as it affects the mind. Like drugs, it causes your internal chemistry to switch gears – exactly the same way amphetamines, for example, will give you a prolonged surge of energy so powerful you literally can’t stay still or talk at a normal pace. Depression just does the complete opposite. You’re sapped of all your strength and energy. You feel like a sack of shit.
I had glandular fever not long ago and it was remarkable how much it is like the grips of depression. There’s this general demarcation in people’s understanding between ‘health’ and ‘mental health’, as if conditions of the latter kind don’t relate to the physical and therefore somehow aren’t real. So, so wrong. In the same way that flu or food poisoning puts you in no state to socialise or even do basic everyday stuff, so it is with depression. You feel anywhere from drowsy to downright incapacitated, as your internal resources are overwhelmed by a silent and invisible, but very tangible, battle against a potent illness.
So going back to the start, for the number threes – I understand the temptation to tell a depressed person to “snap out of it”. The temptation to smirk and roll your eyes when the D-word comes up. Here’s how to overcome that temptation: Next time you’re hungover or badly jetlagged, tell yourself to “snap out of it”. See how effective it is. See how pointless and irritating it is. You can’t snap out of it, right? Fact is you’re weak, fatigued and just want to lie down – and nothing (save for a shitload of amphetamines, perhaps) can change that.
Another important point to make is that psychological depression is often the cause and result of something. It 1) subconsciously gives rise to a particular behaviour, then 2) the effects that behaviour has on your career, relationship or social life makes you more depressed, creating a vicious cycle.
It’s a topic for a whole other blog entry and not one I’m ready to put out there, but this was the story of my life throughout my 20s. I spent an entire decade, the prime of my life, without a partner, because I had a mental blockage that had debilitating consequences in that sphere of my life. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t some socially awkward loser who couldn’t hold a conversation with a chick. Far from it – I had plenty of female friends and especially after I started uni, found myself getting plenty of interest from girls, some of whom I fell in love with. The problem is – and I’m cramming this into an absolute nutshell, with zero explanation or elaboration because this isn’t the time or place – is that I had an uncontrollable psychological ‘disorder’ (for want of a better word) that literally crippled me from being able to follow up, take the opportunity, escalate. This made me tremendously depressed and angry, particularly as I didn’t understand what was going on – and it took me a long time to face the music and accept I needed professional help.
My point here is that depression isn’t necessarily ‘just because’. It can be, but it can also be because of a problem that a psychological malfunction of some sort creates in the first place (if that makes sense). I had an incredibly strong, irrational expectation of rejection and fear of abandonment, which meant I basically rejected and sabotaged myself whenever a girl made it clear she was interested in me. In some cases I even made enemies of girls that I was secretly in love with, because they couldn’t comprehend what the fuck was the deal with me and thought I was either playing some kind of twisted game or that I was a snob who thought I was too good for them. It was a pretty awful thing to go through year after year as a young man craving romance and intimacy.
“I couldn’t be with people and I didn’t want to be alone. Suddenly my perspective whooshed and I was far out in space, watching the world. I could see millions and millions of people, all slotted into their lives; then I could see me – I’d lost my place in the universe. It had closed up and there was nowhere for me to be. I was more lost than I had known it was possible for any human being to be.” – Marian Keyes
The good news is, after several months of therapy in 2013, I managed to break through. October that year represented a turning point in my life, and the story that began at that point (and is chronicled, in part, in the two previous blog posts) inspires feelings of both affection and warmth as well as anger and disgust. I’m going to share a little chapter of that story here, from the highlights shelf of the warmth-and-affection side.
Let me tell you about New Year’s Eve 2013.
It should’ve been awesome. I was invited to a pool party at an inner-city mansion by a cool chick from work where there’d be other cool chicks, some of whom I knew, with music DJed live all night. Sounds pretty sweet right?
When the day came though, I got hit by a fucking avalanche of depression. It was like coming down with the emotional equivalent of Ebola. It’s a difficult state of mind to describe… You feel a sort of dread about everything, and that you’re a worthless shadow of a man and there’s nothing you can currently do to change that. If you’ve ever had a bad drug trip, it’s a bit like that. Extremely negative and overpowering.
All day I tried to snap out of it. Sometime in the late arvo I even forced myself to get in my car and start driving to the party. I got a couple of ks down the highway then screeched into a U-turn. I couldn’t face it.
Just as I wrote that previous line, I realised there’s a shame element as to why depressed people – people experiencing depression – don’t want to socialise. It’s obvious: no-one wants to be seen at their worst in public. If you go to a party you want to be in top form – cheerful, funny, giving off good vibes – not a wretched sack of shit. Otherwise better to stay home and not spread your misery germs. At least your cat won’t judge.
So I got home, bailed via SMS, got the ol’ ‘no worries’ back and that was that. I proceeded to do the only thing I felt up for doing – cleaning my flat to the sombre strains of The Dark Knight Rises soundtrack. (An appropriate movie to mention here actually, with its theme of hitting rock bottom, depressed and broken, then rising again.)
At around this time I started getting texts from a girl I’d been seeing (this was that October breakthrough I mentioned), who’d previously invited me to another NYE party she was going to. As we texted, I revealed I wasn’t going through with my original plans after all, which had been my reason for turning down her invite – at which point she began to encourage me to join her. Politely, I said I wasn’t up for it and was upfront about why.
Here’s where the magic happened:
1) She accepted my reason without taking offense or belittling it, yet
2) She didn’t quite take no for an answer.
Every so often, as the sun dipped down and the night sky took over and the clock ticked inexorably towards midnight, this girl encouraged me to come, WhatsApping me little clips of what was clearly a bangin’ party.
Now, there’s honestly something to be said for the mind-emptying, mood-boosting properties of awesome music at loud volume while spring-cleaning your flat. Also, I was swigging beer. So by 10:30 or so, having cleaned my environment and restored some of my mojo with Hans Zimmer’s bombastic compositions, I’d gotten myself into a much more receptive state for that sort of encouragement. But the point is that it came. I was left in no doubt that someone wanted me to join her somewhere, that I would be warmly received but also that there was no great pressure. The magic formula, to be sure, for pulling someone out of the dumps.
So eventually, slightly light-headed and definitely lighter-hearted than I’d felt several hours ago, I grabbed a couple of Pure Blondes, got into my car again and drove 10-15 minutes to the house party (thankfully it was nearby, which also helped in getting me over the line). I told myself I’d just pop in, celebrate the countdown, sink the beers and call it a night, satisfied I’d at least made it out of the house.
Instead? I got massively drunk, smoked weed, pashed, laughed, met cool people, danced to mad tunes til 3 or 4am and eventually passed out with the girl on a beanbag, a certified party animal.
It certainly wasn’t always the case, but on that particular night there’s no denying the girl got it just right. She pulled me, I pushed myself, and our joint efforts were totally worth it. I’ll write more about this in part 2 – how to engage someone who’s sunk into that insidious and invisible quagmire – but the point for now is that the best remedy is, quite simply, patience and persistent support, understanding and love.
Before I close off part 1, it’s worth saying that yes, being with someone who experiences depression can be hard. But it is also extremely rewarding. These are particularly sensitive souls who, when compelled to make themselves vulnerable, and find warmth and security instead of pain when they take that brave step, will appreciate you and reciprocate your love in a way you’ve quite possibly never experienced before. Whereas normal people take love for granted, like home-delivered pizza and summer holidays, those coming from a darker place cherish this gift with an uncommon intensity and hold it tight. They may be fragile souls, initially closed-off for their own protection and sometimes difficult to decipher. But such souls contain a pent-up universe of creativity, love and light that’s waiting to be unlocked from a cage of shame and hopelessness. If you find you have the key, you are as fortunate as they are. A deep and wonderful experience can follow.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross