For those who have dwelt in depression's dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell's black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as "the shining world." There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.
Almost daily, I wake up in a mental fog. This has been the case for years. I get out of bed, make my way over to a large drink of water. Because hydration is important. I can feel a slight difference almost immediately. Then I pull out the list and go through its action items, one by one. They're the same action items as yesterday, and I work my way through them. Following the list makes it considerably more possible to be functional for the day.
Nobody around us talks about Depression, have you noticed? I don't talk about it much either, except in pockets where that's most of what gets discussed—a specialized conversation where I participate when I'm “surely sure” I have something productive to add to the conversation. Often, I don't feel allowed to be more casual with this topic. I've gotten the signal that it's not something people want to talk about, that I will be easily misunderstood because it's easy to dismiss it as something attention-seeking people do. Or maybe it's too “off-brand” for me—too much unpleasant information for people who are probably not interested.
And all that might be true, so here I go anyway.
My depression has been with me for most of my life. There are distinctions I have had to make for people who do not deal with depression, but are curious about how it works and feels. Here are two crucial things I often find myself making clear in conversations.
Depression is not sadness
Sadness is a normal part of life. Dog died? Sadness. Didn't get the job/promotion you really hoped to get? Sadness. Your team lost? Sadness. Your favorite MMA fighter lost? Sadness. Your favorite comedian just admitted to inappropriate behavior? Disappointment, but who knows, maybe sadness. My point is that sadness (or deep disappointment) is a predictable and often repeatable reaction to a circumstance or event. Sadness is a healthy emotion—a reaction to expectation—that generally dissipates after a short while. Depression, on the other hand, often does not happen so predictably, it does not follow a pattern nor is it around for “a short while.” It comes and goes as it pleases, and often feels like a lead weight in the middle of your psyche, keeping you from doing anything at all.
More importantly, Depression does not feel like sadness. In fact it pretty much feels like no emotion at all. My cognitive life is then spent trying to peg an emotion on things that don't intrinsically mean anything to me but should—like a job, or a relationship or my art practice. I have to make sure I don't sink into a situation where I will demonstrate how little it matters to me and thereby lose a job or a relationship. The art practice is different though, it's a coping mechanism to get out of Depression so I see it differently.
Incidentally, just as Depression is not the same as sadness, it is also not laziness, or an excuse. Nor am I able to “control” it, snap out of it, or join you for a drink so that I'll get over it. Depression doesn't work like that.
Depression warps proportion
Small things appear big and vice versa when you deal with Depression. On some days the things that would seem pointlessly small to most people can be huge achievements for me. Just getting out of bed and making it through that list, for instance, is a huge win. It's not an exhaustive list, nor does it require more than 8th Grade intelligence: typically, you'd jump off the bed and be done in 30 minutes with my morning list. For me, and others like myself, completing this phase of my day is decent enough reason for a gold star.
Then on the other hand, normally “big things” can mean very little to me. If my paintings enter an esteemed private or institutional collections, or when I am published, or win an award, or do something unusually interesting that would be "big deal" stuff, it all really means very little. Sure these are “important” but they don't feel important—I'm more impressed and enamored by things that people apparently take for granted. Like being in the company of nice people, and being understood, those are big deal things for me. I'll often replay the conversation in my head, savor it, and distill meaning from it in slow motion.
I keep a couple of perspectives about my relationship with Depression.
One part of me understands that Depression never announces whether it will cast a short or long shadow, these are not things I can calculate or plan for. It remains invisible, there is no halo as you might see at the onset of a migraine, no rash, no fever. That invisibility makes it more debilitating because everything seems fine until I'm slowing down to a crawl only to realize that the Depression has already entered, it has already been inside me for a while, weighing me down. I spent whole nightshifts during my college years, feeling paralyzed and wrong, staring at a ceiling or a wall waiting for the morning. This part of me understands how important it is to quit trying to “hero” it, to admit my necessary dependency on a few caring people, healthy daily patterns, nutrition, and other contingencies that I have quietly, over years, installed to “keep the rats from coming in.” So I've shed any superhero complex about battling Depression and winning.
The other perspective on my Depression is more self-imposed: that everything to which I commit is ultimately my responsibility. It's my job to get things in place and to plan for unexpected contingencies. I can't expect my Depression to let me through the gate to where I was going “just this one time”. I have learned by trial and error to plan for when things go sideways, which happens from time to time. Through small wins, I have proven to myself that Depression is not entirely insurmountable for me on a day-to-day basis, and that it can possibly be overcome in the long run—if I do things right, stay consistent, and put myself in consistent circumstances. That’s the hypothesis for me now. It's my responsibility to stay sharp, to anticipate the forces that will either knowingly or unwittingly form against me and to look out to the horizon and keep rowing in a forward direction.
Managing Depression, for me, comes down to deploying two weapons : CREATIVITY and DISCIPLINE .
CREATIVITY—creative work—is highly addictive for me. I think most artists understand this and likely identify with it. For me, treating the creative process as sacred only compounds the compulsion. While it creates a necessary freedom to be open and vulnerable to new ideas, it also allows me to disregard the real world and its pull. Time disappears, and if I let it, everything outside becomes less important—including the nutrition, daily practices and people that I rely on to support my ability to function as seemingly normal, seemingly above ground. That's dangerous.
DISCIPLINE, on the other hand, starts with my list. It starts the night before by agreeing internally to devote myself to the rhythm of a schedule, to getting tasks done one after another. I commit, become a machine, and it's not unusual for me to feel fully present in this state even though it's a different kind of “present” than when I am working in the creative process. Moving from task to task staves off ruminating, keeps me from going down a rabbit hole about things in my life that didn't work out, worked out badly, or blindsided me when I was already down. Those are all not good places to go. So sticking to task is important. Once I begin in “machine mode”, I'm able to machete my way through to the other side of the day. I will work until I am exhausted, or until it's time to do something else.
As I look around across my personal landscape, it astounds me how many people I know are likely or confirmedly living with Depression. I've never been sure why, but it it is surprising that it took so long for me to see that there are certain spaces within the culture where conversation about mental health is difficult. This is not because there aren't enough facts or information, but because it's an inconvenient topic for a culture that easily presumes that the admitting to an issue is admission of weakness—weakness that apparently“must be removed.” As the culture and workforce becomes increasingly fragmented and more diverse, that assumption is more under investigation than ever before. As more types of people—artists, celebrities, mothers, college students, returning soldiers—begin to open up about their own challenges with Depression, it's not unreasonable to feel more hopeful that we will see better solutions for managing mental health issues. It feels safe to expect more ideas that are are non-medical, more creative and more humane. I'm already seeing alternatives to simply medicating the problem away—from developing an exercise regimen, to doing creative work, and getting out of technological spaces to communicate face to face, old-school letter-writing—or generally just engaging in more social activity.
The way I do things these days is an incremental improvement over how I've been approaching the problem for most of my adult life. A balance of Creativity with Discipline is what I understand, it's what works for me . But I am always looking for new things to learn, to refine the process. I'm always listening for new things or methodologies that might be helpful. I have to always remember it's been a long journey that started in near-pure desperation—and I've been fortunate to make it this far. Everything has been a work in progress, a rehearsal for survival, and the quiet consolation that my Depression has always needed me more than I needed it.