Previous Walk It Off Entry: Lifehacked.
The Silent War and the Invisible Wounds
The death of Robin Williams has made the current media du jour and again did a toe in the water on the topic of mental health and depression. The news seems to want to talk around the issue to death and more importantly as a disservice, to the weariness of the general public. I skimmed the headlines on the paper this morning saying how his friends saw the signs of depression in him. And on the inside, I want to scream. How many friends in Hollywood did Williams have? They’re still coming out of the woodwork. So the fifteen ton elephant in the room is: how did someone who meant so much to so many people manage to actually commit suicide? Answer: Easily.
The problem is, nobody wants to talk about that part. Nobody wants to admit anything of the sort could ever happen. Everything I’ve seen in the media and on Facebook for the past two days has said “Well, maybe we’ll get a discussion about depression now.” And to wit, I ask; “What’s kept you so far?”
What’s kept us as a culture, as a nation, through two world wars, almost a dozen or so conflicts, each scarring and each with hundreds of thousands of people that came out of them with PTSD/ Depression/ Anxiety/ borderline or manic Anti-social from talking about it? Really? Seriously? What? No, we as a culture carry that sort of thing as an invisible shame. We actively don’t want to look at people in need in this country. Think I’m wrong? Take a look at our immigration policies. Too political? All right, just go to a VA hospital and see the vets. Too much work? Go to your street corner, and see who’s begging. Bet you don’t want to, and that’s normal.
And that’s the counter argument right there. If you suffer from it, there are people out there who tell you that you’re faking. You need to just get over it and pull yourself together. Stop being so negative or unhappy and just be better. SMILE! And that’s if you’re even acknowledged at all. If you come out and say you have a mental condition, the kindest thing people in general are is politically correct. They’re so painfully politically correct, and it’s obvious they would rather pet a leper than talk to you. And if you already have depression, and you’re struggling with it to the point where you can no longer hide it, seeing yourself put into the same category as a leper in the eyes of someone else does absolute wonders for your struggle. Killing someone with kindness? I’ve seen it done. Suicide is a mercy after that sort of collective cultural rejection.
Me, I live with (I don’t often “Suffer” from, but occasionally) Dysthymia. For the layman out there, it means that I live with a chronic low level depression that spikes and can become manic under stress. I was diagnosed by the VA about fifteen years ago. To say I have a bit of experience with it is a wry understatement at best. If you want to have a discussion about what it’s like to live with this, both the low level and the manic, I’ll tell you here. That conversation can start right now.
Start with this: Imagine you wake up one day and you come to the sudden and horrible realization that there’s something wrong with you. You are NOT NORMAL. And not in the cool counter culture way that rocks guyliner and sneers at conventional behavior while dressed all in black leather. This is not the sort of thing that can cause one joy. In fact, the first thing that struck me was when someone asked me when my last good day was, when I was last happy. And I had to think about it. And I couldn’t honestly answer. THAT’S when it hit me.
Imagine that if you will. Imagine your last good day. Now imagine not being able to. Imagine that you have to fight with your brain to remember something, anything good. That’s every day for me. Every Day. And I’m not currently manic. That’s just Low Level Depression. Out of the last seven years, the one good memory, the one happy time that I can recall, is getting down on one knee to tell the world my vows to my wife. And even then, sometimes I have to look at pictures to remember it better. Does that sound sad to you? It’s life for me.
That’s depression in its simplest form. It makes your normal life sad, and the worst part is when you actually realize that it’s happening. It’s when you fully understand that your brain literally isn’t wired for happiness. It doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s been preconditioned to be able to handle things that would give normal people fits of spontaneous suicide, but happiness? Does not compute. And if you’re living with depression, that’s just your day, and you live through it. And you will again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. And that’s just what you come to believe. I think people who live with depression constantly are stronger than most normal people. A normal person having to live in my head would be dead by the end of the week and consider it a mercy. THAT’S depression.
The good news is, you can still laugh. You can still smile. But happiness for someone with depression is like speaking English as a second language. You can learn to be fluent. You can understand it. But it’s not your default emotion. You can laugh, but the reason behind it is just about forgotten as soon as your done. You can smile, but it’s an effort to do it. You get an honest smile out of someone in manic depression, you treasure it. It’s rarer than diamonds. It’s rarer than a Cubs World Series.
But living with it in blissful ignorance is one thing. KNOWING you are…. Other. That’s something else. Acknowledging that there is something wrong with you, that’s infinitely worse. It’s like Airborne school and jumping out of an airplane for the first time. The first step is the hardest. You’re not right, not normal, will never fit in, are broken, can’t get fixed, there is no cure. Take out the commas and that’s a pretty common stream of thought that spirals downward until you’re hanging at the end of a rope yourself. Knowing is hard. Knowing is worse. Doing something after that is harder.
And then in mocking glee of your anguish, you see before you the long stretch of days you’ll have to endure living with this condition. How can you live the rest of your life with something like this so wrong with you? Short answer: You shorten your life expectancy. Because if you had to choose between that much misery and oblivion, then you know exactly what Hamlet was talking about when he was asking about “To Be, or Not To Be..” After that stark realization, is suicide such a surprise?
Floating on quicksand.
But what about happiness? What about normal? Is it really that far out of reach? That’s the trick question of depression. Because it’s not. The trick of it is, you have to want it. You have to keep at it. It’s an effort, and a drain on resources and will. I heard the story about how someone with Lupus described to a friend what it was like. About how they handed their friend a bunch of spoons and then told them that every thing they wanted to do for the day cost them spoons. When you run out, you’re out. That’s it. You’re done for the day. Depression is like that. Doing something that makes you happy is an effort. It costs you. If you see me on Facebook and I say I’m out of spoons, it’s a bad day.
The better way to describe it, to me, is that it’s like trying to float on quicksand. Depression wants to suck you down, and to stay level, you have to expend effort. You’re not able to get out of the quicksand, but you can, with a little effort, float on it. You can fight it all you want, and all you end up doing is tiring yourself out and getting sucked down into oblivion. So you don’t fight it much. You manage your efforts to conserve your will and your emotional strength, and you float as long as you can. Your choices are float, or sink. Some days, floating is easy. Some days, you need a life line thrown your way. And some days, you have to swim while you’re sinking to get to that line.
The Dangerous Quiet.
I’m also a pretty pegged-out-on-the-scale introvert. In type, I’m a motor mouth. On Facebook, I can be charming. In person, I’m the guy on the edge of things. I don’t say much. I watch before I join. When I was first diagnosed, the VA wanted to put me in group therapy. I blinked at them, and told them I didn’t really feel comfortable with group therapy as a concept. I was told that the first one on one councilor would be a year’s wait time. That, from what the news tells me these days, is VA speak for “Go away, you’re bothering me.”
But there’s quiet, and there’s QUIET. If you’re a vet, you know the dangerous quiet. It’s when some idiot displays his firm grasp of the obvious and summons Murphy in the same sentence and says “It’s TOO quiet.” Introverts with depression know that quiet. People who know introverts with depression well know that quiet too. It’s a danger sign. It’s a warning that things are not right. I’ll make small talk with people, though I don’t much enjoy it. Give me a deep and meaningful meaty conversation any day over small talk. But when I Don’t answer even casual questions? It’s because in my mental jungle, the demons are hunting me and I’m hunting them. Don’t worry, though, they’re not hunting you. The dangerous quiet is a withdrawal. You’re out of spoons, you’re out of effort, and you’re sinking. What do you do? You try your damnedest not to let anyone know, because that will just make things Worse. Letting people Know means you’ll get the Political Correctness. You’ll be the leper of the hour. So you hide it. You do your best, and you try to escape to a place where you can deal with it. And if you can’t? Your body will be found later.
This is the thing that friends see, but don’t comment on. Not until later. Some may ask what was wrong. Some may know. Not many do anything about it. And that’s where you get those infuriating headlines of friends who saw the depression in so and so, but they ended up tragically dead anyway. Because what can YOU do about it? Blow false cheer and sunshine up someone’s backside? Believe me, depression does not affect IQ adversely. The person out of spoons knows first and foremost that you’re faking it. And trust me, it’s not helping.
The other common reply is to go up and say “I know what you’re going through.” And this is exactly wrong for the reason that the last thing someone sinking needs is Your baggage dragging them down faster.
So, what’s right? How do you handle the dangerous quiet? This is. Just be there. Let them choose how to help, because one answer does NOT fit all. Just being there quietly yourself is enough to prevent someone from going to that oblivion. The dangerous quiet does not require words.
The right people.
In his Hawaiian special, Gabriel Iglesias told people his secret for keeping it together. He said that people keep him together. But it has to be the Right people. He said that when you see famous people going off the rails, it’s because they’re with the wrong people. For people with depression, this isn’t just a matter of social circles. It can be a matter of life, and death. The right people are hard to find, though. In the case of Robin Williams, I can see the truth of Gabe’s outlook. Three marriages. I imagine it was hard for him to find those right people. I don’t think he did in San Fran.
The wrong people are easy enough to find. They want a friend, they want to share misery, and in doing so add to your own load. They like to party and drink and do drugs and the rest is a tabloid staple. You’ve read the headlines so many times by now it’s a trope all its own. And Robin found that. The wrong people will kill you.
What qualifies right, though? You’d think a friend, a therapist, your spouse, a priest, someone like that, right? Yes, and no. I’m incredibly lucky in one aspect. I have my wife. She is my right people. She knows me better than everyone else on this planet. She knows my inner demons and has stood back to back with me against them. And even she doesn’t always know when I’m feeling bad, and has told me so.
Therapist? When I was diagnosed by the VA, they wanted to get me into group therapy, in about two months from the time they told me. In the meantime, have some meds. I never got into group therapy (it’s really NOT for introverts with depression). Meds, I’ll touch on in a bit. I want to talk about people first. The first time my depression really hit manic, my wife urged me and got me to go talk to a therapist. That first visit was a disaster. The therapist at the end of my hour told me they were “stuck” and “couldn’t help me.” My wife had to pick up the pieces.
You know that old joke “What do you call the guy who graduates last in his class in medical school? Answer: Doctor.”? Yea. I know the therapist version of it all too well. It took a LOT of effort from my wife for me to work up the courage to try again. But try I did.
The therapist I ended up with, and ended up doing some actual good with, has MS. I knew they’d understand my situation in life because they would have to wake up with the same choices I did, sink or float. And that therapist did get me back on my feet, after a year and a half. I’m not going to say that therapy isn’t going to work. It can, it does, but you have to find the RIGHT therapist for you. And yes, that’s a hard thing to do, to walk into the office of a complete stranger and lay out your faults and flaws and have to ask to be healed. And healing? It isn’t easy. It isn’t quick. It’s damn hard some days. And it’s worth it.
But finding someone like that? That may be more spoons than you have to spend for that day. Even that week. It has to be someone you can trust, otherwise there’s no way in hell you’re going to open up to them enough to be able to do any good. Yea. Trust. Like that’s easy in this day and age. That’s the hardest part of finding help, is finding help you can trust, when being wrong may end up with you curled up in a ball in a closet in a puddle, rocking and crying and seriously pondering oblivion. Not a choice to be made lightly. You have to let go of your fear (that friend that’s always with you) and your own self loathing (because misery Loves company) and hope for the best. I could probably hike the PCT with less effort and courage.
Finding someone to love, and trust them enough to Let them love you? I won the lottery. Not everyone does. That’s actually harder than trusting a licensed professional. That other person IS going to see you at your worst. You can’t hide it. And driving them away is all too easy if it’s choosing between suffering alone, and letting someone see that suffering and finding out they don’t know how to handle it or what to do about it. And They have to KNOW how to handle it, the first time, the worst time, and Every time. That’s not the sort of person you just bump into every day. But that sort of person IS out there. Finding them is a quest well worth it.
Walk it Off.
So what’s the answer to depression? There isn’t just one. Each person living with depression has to have an answer that’s as individual as they themselves are. One key does NOT fit all. Sometimes it’s therapy. Sometimes it’s medication.
Oh. Medication. I was going to talk about that too. There are a lot of arguments for and against meds. I think people need to stop looking at meds as a blanket concept, either for OR against. Meds Can work in individual cases. Just because they weren’t MY cup of tea doesn’t mean they don’t work for others. When the VA was trying to go the easy road with me, they gave me Zoloft. It was a case of good news/ bad news. The good news was that for my emotional landscape, it was a leveler. I no longer had to worry about the shadowed valleys, but it also took from me any hope of the peaks of a good day. I was level. I got back off it later because I wanted to be closer to happy. But sometimes, Level is Good. Sometimes, it’s not. You have to choose what you need.
But how do *I* deal with depression? Any way I can. Most days, I just live with it. I’ve adjusted my life to be able to handle it without venturing or risking dangerous emotional territory. I’m economical with my emotional stability. I’m not that social because being around people costs spoons. I’m damn careful with who I let be my friend because the other option is being around the Wrong people, and Knowing where that’ll end up. I hike, and I get into the wilderness to get some color back in my world. I camp and find peace and equilibrium in my solitude. I listen to music. The right music can help me carry on regardless. It can lift me right back out of a bad mood. I lean on my wife, because I know I can, and I don’t ever take that for granted.
In fact, I’m conducting a bit of an experiment right now with my own social life, to see if I Can be social. I joined a fan club of sci fi geeks like myself. I’m hopeful it’ll work out. But even that will require work. And some days, I may not be as into it as others. Luckily, the group I’ve joined has people in it that understand.
But if you’re suffering from depression, what’s Your answer? You’re going to have to do something that sounds really hard, but really isn’t. You’re going to have to trust someone you Know understands. You’re going to have to get help if it gets too bad. And that’s okay. I know it sounds cliché. But in the end, you have a choice. You can sink, or you can float. Or, with the right means of doing so, you can climb out of that quicksand.
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