Whenever I hear someone belittle depression or anxiety disorders, I have to resist the urge to punch said person. (That is very difficult to do because Dad is suddenly yelling in my head, “Jab, Suzanna! Jab!” (He was a boxer.))
The problem some people have with depression and anxiety disorders is that there is nothing outwardly wrong with the person. It’s easier to have ongoing sympathy and understanding for someone in a wheelchair, or who is bald and stick thin from chemotherapy, or who has some sort of deformity. It’s not so easy to have sympathy, patience, and understanding for someone who, outwardly, looks perfectly healthy. It’s one of the darker, nastier corners of human nature most of us pretend we don’t have. But it’s the truth.
There’s also the fact that there are plenty of people who simply don’t understand mental disorders of any variety. They don’t understand why the person can’t just ‘snap out of it’ or ‘get over it’ or what the heck ever. These are people, I’ve noticed (and I may be wrong), who have depended on their own will and their own minds to get them out of just about every woe or sorrow or bad situation. These are the ‘on their own two feet, dammit, and proud of it’ sort. They have never been betrayed by their own selves; they don’t know what that feels like.
I want to do a little exercise. I would suggest that you close your eyes but since you’re reading this, closing your eyes at this point would make doing the exercise a little difficult. Perhaps you can read and then close your eyes and do it. I want you to imagine the following:
You’re walking along a forest path. The trees are bright shades of yellow, red, and orange. The sky above is a brilliant blue. It’s cool enough to feel wonderful but not cool enough to be cold. You’re warm from your walking and you’re nearly home. There is a walking stick in your hand and it is warm and familiar with use. With you is someone you’ve known your entire life. This person is someone who knows you through-and-through. They have seen you both at your best and at your absolute worse. They know your deepest, darkest secrets and your most cherished joys. You know this person equally well. You two began your journey in animated conversation but now you’ve lulled into a comfortable silence.
The path forks. You know that home is the right hand path, but your friend convinces you to go left. Your friend tells you that it’s a shortcut they’ve learned only recently. It seems counter-intuitive. (You’re going away from your destination, after all.) But you trust your friend. You take the left hand path.
Afternoon darkens into evening. You’re tired and the day’s mild cool has become a bitter cold. And you know you are lost. When you turn to your friend to suggest (in a kind voice) that it’s time to double back, your friend attacks you. They beat you and hurt you and degrade you in the worst ways, in the ways that are worst for you in particular. They turn your darkest fears and insecurities against you, using their intimate knowledge of you like a keen-edged knife. At some point, you black out.
When you come to again, that person is gone and it is full dark. There is no moon and the stars do not lend enough light and you’ve never bothered to learn how to navigate by the stars anyway. You also realize that your supposed friend has dumped you in the middle of the woods. Even your walking stick has been taken away from you. In fear and desperation, you begin to wander the woods and, from the shadows, your fears speak and taunt. You have been betrayed, in all the worst ways.
That is how it feels when your own mind turns against you and to become lost in an inner darkness. Outwardly, a person with depression may just seem a little more tired or withdrawn or moody than usual. But, inside, it is all darkness and it is a darkness that comes out of nowhere, with neither rhyme nor reason. The person may know, intellectually, what has caused their depression, but that doesn’t really help. The mind has betrayed the person and knowing the mechanics of depression doesn’t help as well as you’d think.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been struggling with bouts of anxiety and depression. Part of it could be situational, I suppose. My marriage is fine but there are other personal problems I’d rather not discuss in a blog. At any rate, my body’s reaction to my problems seems a bit melodramatic. Perhaps I don’t know my mind as well as I think I do, like the traveler in our little story. There is a certain sense of betrayal. I need every scrap of confidence and courage I can lay hands on right now and it seems to have left not only the building but the country as well.
Like the traveler, there is the sense of being alone, surrounded only by fear and the dark. I could be sitting in a room full of people, but when I’m in a depression, or trying to shake off overwhelming anxiety with no rational cause, I feel entirely alone. Unlike the traveler, I can’t be greeted by someone with a lamp, a woodsman who can lead me out of the dark. That, at least, is how it feels.
So you can understand why I have to restrain myself when someone belittles a mental disorder. The mind can build a prison that would outclass Alcatraz or a medieval oubliette. But if you haven’t gone through it, or haven’t watched (really watched) a closed loved one go through it, you don’t really understand. And that lack of understanding leads to bosses who fire workers because “they’re lazy”, not understanding that they should give their worker a raise just for managing to show up.
That being said, if a problem gets to a point where it is affecting one’s work and relationships, then the rational thing to do is go see a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. But you have to remember that these are people lost in the dark. There comes to a certain point where one feels like no one can help, that light and warmth and safety are fantasies. (Or you just have the really stubborn ones who believe they really are managing.) And there’s also the fact that many people have seen their friends get dependent or messed up even more on pills prescribed by psychiatrists or family doctors who (hopefully) mean well. My mother was addicted to Xanax. You couldn’t pay me enough money to take a Xanax.
The odd thing, though, is that there are many writers who struggled with a mental disorder. Poe and Plath suffered from depression, for example. In reading the lives of authors, sometimes you can see the hint of an underlying problem. It seems like one of the requirements of being an author is to be a little “off”.
I suppose an explanation for the connection is that, for those of us who have seen and experienced that dark, we can write about emotion and emotional irrationality better than anyone else. We can go to the darker places of the psyche because we’ve been there, done that, and got a lousy t-shirt for it. In a twisted sort of way, having anxiety problems or depression has a good side. We can pour our fear, anxiety, loneliness, isolation, and sense of betrayal into our work. We understand a side of human nature, that deep well of dark and sorrow, that most people will never experience.
So while my own mental turn certainly has me concerned, I’m not altogether surprised. I’m a writer, after all. It’s almost expected. My mother had panic attacks, so maybe there’s something genetic to this as well.
And I didn’t write this to garner pity. Your concern is appreciated but I didn’t write it so people would be concerned. I wrote this so that when your friend or relative or loved one comes to you, sleep-deprived, quiet, withdrawn, and with a certain haunted look in their eyes, and says, “I’m depressed,” you’ll pause and think about the traveler, rather than say something stupid like, “Oh, maybe you just need a vacation.”
If a vacation cured this, I’d go to Key West and never come back.