This is the hardest blog I’ve ever attempted to write.
For the better part of eight months, I have been struggling under the thumb of a rather intense depression. This is a monster I’ve battled many times in my life; it is not new. Yet, this has been a particularly brutal one, and I’m not out of the woods yet.
As a writer, I try to write about everything. But it’s hard to write about depression. For one, there’s the fear that the minute you say, “I’m suffering from depression,” people will look at you funny. That they will nod at you with wincing, constipated face, place a hand on your arm and say, with all good intent, “How are you?” And your pain will war with your desire to be “normal” and not looked at funny by sympathetic people at parties. So you will answer, “Fine, thanks” while you’ll think of all the things you could say:
“Partly cloudy with a strong chance of rain later?”
“Mostly okay except for that silent sobbing I did on the F train this afternoon which frightened the school children.”
“Well, I’m okay now but around 10 PM I could be drinking from a seemingly bottomless cup of self-loathing, so stick around if you’re into that sort of thing.”
You do not want to be labeled “That Depressed Person,” which was not a show on ABC.
Depression is hard to understand, because it is not a consistent state. Depression is rather like a virus, but like a virus, it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups.
You can be in a depression and still laugh at a friend’s joke or have a good night at dinner or manage low-level functioning. You grocery shop and stop to pet a puppy on the corner, talk to friends in a café, maybe write something you don’t hate. When this happens, you might examine your day for clues like reading tea leaves in a cup: Was it the egg for breakfast that made the difference? The three-mile run? You think, well, maybe this thing has moved on now. And you make no sudden moves for fear of attracting its abusive attention again.
But other times…
Other times, it’s as if a hole is opening inside you, wider and wider, pressing against your lungs, pushing your internal organs into unnatural places, and you cannot draw a true breath. You are breaking inside, slowly, and everything that keeps you tethered to your life, all of your normal responses, is being sucked through the hole like an airlock emptying into space. These are the times Holly Golightly called the Mean Reds.
I call it White Knuckling it.
When it’s White Knuckle Time, you will have to remind yourself to stand in the middle of the subway platform, well away from the edge.
You may find yourself on the floor of your shower, your face turned toward the wall while the water courses over your shoulders, your mouth opened in a howl that will not come.
You may find yourself on the treadmill at 5:30 a.m. running, running, running, as if you could outpace the emotional mugger at your back.
You might sit at a dinner party making small talk, hoping that you pass for normal, because you suddenly feel as if you are not in touch with the usual social paradigms.
You will not sleep. Insomnia becomes your permanent house guest, and you will wake, blinking up at the weak moonlight splayed across your ceiling like a crime scene, the very stillness of the house seemingly complicit in your guilt.
Ordinary tasks become extraordinary challenges: The laundry. Phone calls. Emails. Making food. Making decisions. Engaging in conversation. Concentration proves impossible—you stare at your computer screen and all your words feel as if they are trapped behind a curtain far too heavy to lift. Deadlines are missed. These everyday failures compound adding an element of panic to the already untenable situation.
There is an undertow to depression. It doesn’t take you all at once. It leaves you with some false sense that you are coping. That you are in control. That you have the shore still well in sight, until, at some point, you raise your head to find yourself all alone, battered by rough seas with absolutely no idea which way you should swim.
If depression were as physically evident as, say, a broken limb or cancer, it would be easier to talk about. The pain could be marked, quantified, obvious to the observer. You would feel justified in saying,
“I’m sorry that I haven’t returned your email but you can see the huge hole in the center of me, and I’m afraid it has made such dialogue impossible.”
But the stigma of depression is that it comes with the sense that you shouldn’t have it to begin with. That it is self-indulgence or emotional incompetence rather than actual illness. This brings on attendant feelings of shame and self-loathing, which only exacerbate the pain, isolation, and hopelessness of the condition.
“I cannot share this,” the depressed person thinks. “It is too embarrassing, too shameful.”
And so, you swallow it down, until it feels that your heart is a trapped bird beating frantic wings against the pain you’ve shoved up against it. Depression isn’t like being sad or blue or wistful. It is crippling. It is a constant whine in your head, making it hard to hear yourself think.
The other trouble is that it is often incredibly difficult to articulate the pain you feel. Words prove inadequate, and the distance they must travel from this deep well of grief and loneliness up to your mouth seems impossible to traverse. It is miles and miles of no-man’s land. How can you communicate something so without form? Depression is a vengeful ghost you see from the corner of your eye always but you know that no one else can see it. So how do you alert anyone to its presence in the room?
Sometimes, people can’t take it anymore. Whenever a suicide happens, whenever I hear of these losses—Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray, Ned Vizzini—a certain terror takes hold. They didn’t beat it, I think; they didn’t win. Perhaps it is unbeatable, after all. Resistance is futile.
I have heard people speak of the selfishness of suicide:
“How could s/he leave behind a spouse or, worse, children?”
It’s hard to imagine someone committing such a terrible act, one that permanently damages those left behind. I have heard well-meaning therapists explain that this is an act of rage turned inward. I’ve spent many years in psychoanalysis. I get it. And certainly, the fact that I have a child keeps me fighting during the bad times.
But I don’t think it’s all that simple.
To these cries, to these explanations, I can only say that you cannot know unless you’ve been there.
Believe me, these people do not want to die. They only want the pain to end.
The pain is all-consuming. It is a pit-bull whose jaws will not let you go, and the more you struggle against it, the tighter the bite gets, the greater the pain becomes.
Imagine that you sit, shivering and blue, in a tub of freezing water. If you were not depressed, you’d get out of the tub. But now imagine that you cannot get yourself out of the tub. Your body is weighted to the bottom with invisible stones. The sides of the tub are too high—you can’t imagine that on the other side of the tub is a floor that leads to a warm towel and an exit. You can only see the walls of the tub, closing you in. You can only feel the relentless, needle-prick torment of the icy water. You can only watch, helpless, as your fingers prune and bruise with cold, a strange mix of acute pain and numbness. And you are aware of isolation so complete that it feels as if you are an astronaut whose line has come untethered in space. As if you have swallowed loneliness and are drowning in it, unable to cough it up and breathe again.
In this state, you can only think of how desperately you want this agony to end. You can only think of doing something, anything to stop the feeling, to keep it from overwhelming you with shame, loneliness, guilt, and bleak-gray hopelessness. This is what it is to experience depression. It is the absence of hope.
I do not want to romanticize depression. The flip side of the stigma accompanying depression is a tendency to turn it into The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect, to borrow from Todd Rundgren.
There is an idea that “artists” are such special snowflakes that the very air they breath injures them. This is bullshit. Again, depression is an illness, not a fashion statement.
Certainly, there appears to be a large correlation between artists and depression. But I would argue that artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it. I see writing as an act of resistance against an occupying enemy who means to kill me. It’s why I’m writing this now. Silence = Death, as ACT UP used to say.
This is why there is such comfort in books and movies and music and art. Why it often saves. I have taken comfort from depressed characters like Holden Caulfield, Esther Greenwood, Jimmy from “Quadrophenia,” Harold from “Harold and Maude,” Franny Glass, and too many others to name. I have found my emotional DNA in theirs and continue to draw solace from knowing that I am not alone in these murky, hard-to-articulate feelings.
We are not alone. That’s key.
Time and again, I am humbled by the beautiful vulnerability and resilience of human beings trying to stay on the bendable side of that all-too-human fragility. Everyone, it seems, fights a personal battle every day, one that, hopefully, leads to a greater well of compassion, empathy, and enlightenment. Once, I thought this path was about an idea I had of “self-actualization.” I imagined that this was an accomplishable goal and that it would look like a smooth, shiny fortress, something unassailable. But more and more, I’m coming to see the fallacy of that. That’s a hologram of happiness. That’s a defense against the pain of being human. It’s not about self-actualization; it’s about impermeability. To live in a keep is to retreat from the world. No.
I’ve come to think that perhaps it is about the messiness of mistakes, of falling, of the bravery of unvarnished honesty, of forgiveness and love—the forgiveness and love we offer others, yes, but also the forgiveness and love we must extend to ourselves.
There is no such thing as reaching the end goal of humanity. There is only the continued, imperfect striving. We are satellites sending radio signals to Earth, waiting for contact: “I hear you. Do you hear me? Over.”
If you are, yourself, depressed right now, send a signal to someone, anyone you trust. Say the words out loud. Words have power. You are not a freak. You are not icky. You are, simply, human and in great pain. You do not “deserve” that pain. You are not less than for feeling it, and you DO deserve love and care and relief from that pain.
If you know someone who is depressed, one of the greatest gifts you can give is to listen without judgment and to let the person know that s/he is loved simply for being.
This is not a pep talk to myself or anyone else. This is not a fucking happy face bandage on the very real torment of depression. This is the resistance fighter in me moving in the city shadows at midnight, posting notes to myself and anyone else who happens to need them to keep fighting, to strike back against the enemy.
This is all I know to do.
This is all I know to do.
This is all I know to do.
And if you take comfort from my words, if it helps you to feel understood in your pain, if it helps you to know you can and will get out of the tub, then I am glad.
As for me, today, I take comfort from the last line of one of my favorite short stories, J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” a story I discovered during a low period in high school. If you haven’t ever read this story, well, I highly recommend it. It’s about an encounter between two lonely people in an English tearoom, an American soldier shipping off to WWII and a precocious, thirteen-year-old girl putting up a brave front after losing both parents. I won’t spoil it with further banal explanation. You really should read it for yourselves. But suffice to say that the war doesn’t go well for the soldier, who returns, broken, until he receives a letter from the now-grown Esme, which comforts him such that he is finally able to put aside the horrors of war and sleep:
“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”
I hope your faculties remain intact.
As for me, I will do what I must to make my way through the miles of No-Man’s Land. And if I haven’t returned your email, I ask your forgiveness. It may be a while.
Libba Bray is the New York Times bestselling author of The Gemma Doyle trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, The Sweet Far Thing); the Michael L. Printz Award-winning Going Bovine; Beauty Queens, an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist; and The Diviners series. She is originally from Texas but makes her home in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, son, and two sociopathic cats.
You can find her at http://libbabray.com