I have stopped describing what depression feels like to the person with no experience of this “black dog,” as Winston Churchill called it, or even an occasional bout of melancholy, because my inability to express the physical and mental deterioration, the frustration at trying to articulate my madness, tends to make my black dog growl and attack strangers. I agree with the ever-wise William Styron who wrote in his classic, Darkness Visible:
Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self — to the mediating intellect — as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.
The closest description Styron finds is that of drowning or suffocation.
Many people feel a gradual slide into this state. Breathing becomes a task to check off the “to do” list along with laundry and the dishes; an insecurity settles in, making simple responsibilities like watching your son play lacrosse alongside a field of fellow moms feel as though you are attempting to sit down with the popular group at lunch in a high school cafeteria divided by distinct social castes; and suddenly you hate yourself more than the cruel cousin you haven’t talked to in 20 years. According to depression checklists, if you feel like this for a month and a half, it’s time to call your physician.
So… That means I should have called my primary care doc like every day of the first two decades of my life. As long as I can remember, I’ve been fighting the thoughts in my head. It’s like the World Cup in there, where Team Negative Intrusive Terrorists have a 10-point lead over Team Positive Perspectives. I have always — or at least from my earliest memory — been sweating 24/7 inside my noggin, asking God to give me a water break with orange slices. Could you imagine my med chart if I had called every time I became uninterested in my hobbies or had difficulty making decisions? I’d be blacklisted from every medical institution. Kind of like I am now with health insurance companies.
There was never a moment when I said to myself, “Self, it’s been two months since you haven’t been your cheery self, and if the Zoloft ad on TV is any indication of what depression feels like, you are certainly a sad egg who can’t — or doesn’t want to — catch that damn butterfly.” However, there WAS a moment when I realized that my modus operandi wasn’t exactly typical, and that life wasn’t meant to feel like a hike up Mt. Everest. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact afternoon that happened.
I was a freshman at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., and was working with a college therapist, not because I was depressed (of course!), but because I was having trouble staying sober at a time when every other college kid I knew — especially the ones across the street at Notre Dame — were experimenting with their newfound freedom. (Thankfully, I got to do that in high school.)
I detested the D word because it brought back memories of my aunt, my godmother, who killed herself when I was a sophomore in high school. I associated all language of depression and mental illness with her and was adamant that none of my current troubles had anything to do with the reason she breathed in too much carbon monoxide in my grandmother’s garage.
But I was also sick of struggling.
And my therapist knew this.
During one session she was firmer than usual.
“Coping your way through life is not a way to live,” she said. “If you just admit to being depressed, or having some mood disorder, then I can help get you the treatment you need, and your life can be better.”
Her first sentence — i.e., Coping your way through life is not a way to live — was my epiphany moment. I had incorrectly assumed that coping is what everyone did. No one actually wants to be alive, I had always believed (and still do when I get depressed). They just pretend they like they are having a good time on this excruciating planet because no one likes to hang out with a downer. “La la la la la … Sing a happy song …” We are all joyful Smurfs.
Like most statements of truth, this one took a few years to sink in. I resisted meds. I opposed labels. I avoided anything that might cause someone to suspect that I was born with a brain, involving some creative wiring. But it was my beginning. The moment I cried “uncle.” And even though I’m still no singing Smurf, and cope through life more hours than I want to, I have kept the piece from that afternoon that makes the strain more bearable: hope.