“I’d listen to the words he’d say/ But in his voice, I heard decay
The plastic face forced to portray/ All the insides left cold and gray
There is a place that still remains/ It eats the fear, it eats the pain
The sweetest price, you’ll have to pay/ The day the whole world went away”
— Nine Inch Nails, “The Day the World Went Away”, The Fragile
It’s like stepping in quicksand.
I couldn’t honestly say what the sensation of being caught in quicksand is like, but I imagine that the first thing to hit you would be the surprise of it? There you are, walking along your merry little way, when you have to stop. Did you stop for rest; did you stop to look for directions; did you stop just to enjoy the view? The “why” is of little consequence; what matters is that you’ve stopped, yet you feel yourself moving.
Though stationary, your feet have begun to slip ever lower into the earth below. First comes the surprise that you’re ankle-deep in the sand, followed immediately by shock of what it could mean. From the shock comes the instinct to pull yourself free, followed by the realisation that such struggling only exacerbates your decent. You could cry out for help, but what would be the point – you took this journey in the first place to be alone; the likelihood of someone happening-by is low and you know it. Just as that thought crosses your mind, you see that you’re already waist-deep and still sinking. You know your odds, you know your fate – what’s the point in struggling? By the time the soil tickles your neck and chin, you don’t even bother with thinking of what it would be like to get yourself out and walk freely as you did just a few minutes ago. You’ve accepted your fate and just allow yourself to slip deeper and deeper and deeper, until you can’t see the sun anymore.
I won’t attempt some bullshit philosophical platitude of how “we feel blue at one time or another”, nor will I claim to know the cure-all method of escaping from the condition. All I can say is that which I’ve personally experienced.
When I was 14, my brother tried to kill himself. I won’t bore you with excessive details; I’ll just say that I stopped him from using our father’s pistol to blow his brains out because – and I quote – “[kids at school] made fun of my hair”. Between the way he casually described it and his behaviour in the aftermath, we quickly came to realise that it was a pathetic plea for attention. This was the opposite of depression.
I bring it up because despite the fact that he made what-we-first-thought-was a sincere attempt on his own life, the question everyone had was what was wrong with me. Yes, me – the one who stopped him, but not well enough apparently; the one who had no friends, whereas he always brought people over to the house; the one who doesn’t know how to have fun, as opposed to his devil-may-care attitude; the one who’s so damned serious, whereas he is just so… “loose”. After the incident, we went into family counseling, which became counseling for just the two kids, which eventually became counseling just for me alone. Why? Because everyone had one question and one question only: what the fuck was wrong with ME?!
I didn’t know. I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me, but all the adults are saying there is – whether I agree or not – so they must be right. If they think something’s wrong, then something must be wrong and I should feel bad. All the time. At age 14, this was my first experience with depression. It would not be my last.
I’d always been more-or-less introverted, but after that whole thing I became the very model of a “lone wolf”. This made my father very angry; he ordered me to have fun. When my ideas of fun – reading for hours in bookstores and libraries, long walks alone through the streets of San Francisco and Oakland, going to movies and performances on my own, going to restaurants on my own, exercising on my own, to name but a few – failed to meet with his approval, he got angry and asked “Wha’s wrong wit’chu, boy?!” I never had an answer. I did all those things because they made me feel a lot better about myself and can hardly put into words the sense of euphoria each activity gave me, but still he asked. And every time he asked, the worse I would feel about myself. I once thought he did this as part of some reverse psychological mind-fuck, but he’s not that smart (that cold-blooded maybe, but not that smart).
My father wasn’t the only trigger of my depressive bouts throughout my life (broken hearts, losses of employment, and contemplation of my lack of importance in the “great scheme of things” have also contributed), but he has consistently been the most – for lack of a better word – reliable trigger. He never made much of his life or had the best relationship with his own father. He claimed to want me to have the best, but would constantly make me believe that I was never good enough to achieve it. Always quick to tell me where I’d fallen short at any particular point in my life, even he must have recognised a pattern in that those “pep talks” would push me deeper and deeper into my own solitude. He got off on making me feel like shit. Whilst still in my teens he would threaten me with medication if he didn’t see any change to his liking. (“Straigten yo’ ass up, ‘fore I start puttin’ yo’ ass on Prozac!”)
At this point, dear reader, I realise that I’m about 950 words into this ramble but have yet to offer any optimistic sentiment to put you at ease or comfort you with the promise of light at the end of my own tunnel. That’s because I can’t be sure that there is. That’s what depression does: it never lets you know that it will (or could) end. It just wants you to keep sinking and that is what you’ll do.
In February of this year I suffered one of my worst bouts yet. Lasting nearly two-and-a-half months, this bout came as the result of no one factor in particular, but the culmination of a million little ones. Four years of unemployment, being single for even longer (it started around St. Valentine’s Day), not being cast in anything at that point, living with a dog that its “real” owner won’t have fixed (leading me to a lot of anxiety attacks from trying to work amidst constant barking), writer’s block, artistic insecurity, lack of regular communication with friends I’ve known for over a decade, feeling resented by my theatrical colleagues, feeling resented even more by family members, a steady stream of police harassment that has gone on since last September, dwelling too long on the problems of the world at large in addition to those of myself and my closest friends… “First World Problems”, I know – but still a thousand tiny cuts that eventually make you bleed to death.
And yet I allude to both this bout, and the ones that preceded it, in the past tense. By implication, I got over each bout and would have figured out a sure-fire way to do so by now, right? Well… there are two ways I can answer that; neither of which is likely to make you feel better after having read this.
The first is the Pessimistic View. I’ve never seriously considered suicide, even in the midst of my worst feelings. I must say that this is one of the things that personally makes depression hard to talk about with other people: a good many of them will equate it with suicidal tendency. Common sense will tell you that there many different levels of depression; for someone to consider the condition synonymous with suicidal tendency is ignorantly myopic. I’ve never thought of suicide any more than the average person. Have I thought of what the lives of those around me would be like, were I suddenly gone? Yes. Frequently and during bouts of depression. And, in spite of what your 25-cent pop-psychology will tell you, those very thoughts are the ones that deter me from suicide. I realise that, were I to die, those around me would hardly notice or care – on the contrary, those who did take notice would simply regard it as a last-ditch attempt to shine the spotlight on myself. Even though that wouldn’t be true, I don’t want to give them that snobby satisfaction.
I’d rather live and be ignored than to die and talked about.
Then there’s the Not-As-Pessimistic View. The hardest thing for me to ever do is ask for help – help in finding a job, help in constructing a device, help in perfecting my craft, whatever. When I was a kid and my father told me to do something, if I didn’t get it right in the first five seconds he’d snatch it away and do it himself. This instilled in me the sense that asking for assistance is akin to cowardice and failure. Though I’ve spent most of my adult life shaking off this idea, it hasn’t made asking “Can you help me with my depression?” any easier. This is why I’ll withdraw from friends during depression, even the few that bother to ask “What’s wrong?”. I figure “it’s my problem so I can’t ask for help like a li’l bitch.”
Once I’ve withdrawn enough to the point where I’m sick of my own sad-sack company, I’ll go out in the world in an attempt to find something to lift me out of my funk.
What does the trick? Exposure to the very friends from whom I’d withdrawn. When I was at my lowest point earlier this year, even I was surprised to find how well exposure to art and idle chatter could lift one’s spirits (speaking of “spirits”, the alcohol accompanying these performances didn’t hurt either). I was never the centre of attention at any of the events in questions, nor did anyone go out of their way to try to make me feel better. Nevertheless, three particular events – one a reading by a friend who is an amazing author, one being asked to read for a theatre director whose acquaintance I’ve been trying to make, and an impromptu burger-filled dinner with friends – reminded me of what exactly motivates me to get out of bed every morning: possibility. If I withdraw from all, I’ll possibly miss something I might like; if I don’t open myself up to imaginative interpretation, I’ll possibly miss something I might enjoy; if I close myself off from the assistance of those close to me, I’ll possibly miss out on great opportunities.
I’ve never spoken seriously with my friends about depression, but I do know for a fact that some of them have experienced it. I know this because mine has always been a reliable shoulder on which to cry.
There is no known cure for depression. I’ve refused every suggestion of medication (with my father it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a threat) because I don’t believe in chemical solutions for these sorts of problems. My lifelong spiritual quest has yielded interesting contemplation, but nothing to truly lift my spirits when I’m at my worst. Art, depending on the subject, can either improve my condition or make me sink deeper (word of advice: Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is the worst possible choice for a film to watch during depression – I saw this from experience). All I can say for certain is that I like living, I learn more about myself from each bout of depression I’ve experienced, and although I know another bout is possible – nay, inevitable – so too is my eventual recovery from it.
Until then, today is a good day.
Categories: Long-Form Essays