Over the summer, I lost a second family member to depression. While the news didn’t surprise me, what did leave an impression on me is the cultural inability to speak openly about a state of mind that most people have experienced first hand. There is an unavoidable stigma together with an awkwardness in how we approach an issue that permeates our educational systems, workplaces and homes. This inability to look closer and to have an honest dialogue prohibits those who suffer from getting the attention they need.
I have read a lot about depression over the years – because it runs in my family, because it has followed me around like an unwelcome shadow since I was in my teens, because it has most recently stared me in the face in the process we call ‘aging’.
Over the course of my lifetime a variety of artists have spoken to me through their work, and have seduced me into wanting to delve deeper into the darkness, and to listen. These experimental expressionists, with their whispers and screams, with their paintbrushes, instruments, pens and paper, have exposed me to the fragility, imbalance and injustices in the world that are so intertwined with beauty, joy and love. They have all in their way reminded me, as depression does, of what it truly means to be human.
Some people report that depression feels like numbness, others say it’s like cancer, but frankly, I can’t relate to either one of these descriptions. I have not had cancer yet (knock on wood), and while my arms and legs have felt numbness before, the sensation never lasts very long and is followed by a ‘waking up’ that reminds my nervous system that I am alive. Depression for me is … altogether something different.
I’m not so sure how important it is for a ‘happy-go-lucky’ person to understand what it feels like; in fact, an aspect of being depressed is that it is a deeply personal, lingering emotional state that is at the same time confusing and profound. My experience is that it does not live in a tidy compartment of one word, but slithers around like a coy snake between varied emotions; cozying up at different times to frustration, self-loathing, suffocation, grief, humor and even a resigned contentedness.
As I come ‘out of the closet’, something in me has been compelled to step out of the shadows with my own experience to shine a light on this lonely, painful, heartbreaking and paradoxically lovely place. Perhaps it is the fact that there is not enough dialogue about what depression is about, perhaps it is because many people who have not experienced it or who do not understand it take offense at those of us who truly don’t feel up to trivial conversations or evenings out smothered by loud music and superficiality. We are a lonely lot, and often times, not great company to be around. Our society is one that celebrates what we see on the surface: broad strokes of success, big smiles and bling. Depression is pretty much the opposite. It is deep, the wins are small and inconsequential to most (think, getting out of bed each morning), and rather than shiny on the outside, we are more like unpolished silver. Underneath the surface lies something unexposed with the potential to radiate brilliance. The stigma attached with the word means that many people who feel down stay out of sight and become even more isolated than they already are; that great potential within lying dormant and unmanifest to the outside world.
My writing this may confuse some people. You may not be able to comprehend how someone with so much gratitude for life could feel anything other than boundless joy! I could blame my current state on many things, but one thing remains about depression. You cannot bully or manipulate it out of one’s system. Depression deserves respect, time, and to be embraced.
Whatever you do, never feel sorry for someone who is Low. We, the Low, know far more about beauty, love, passion and what is real than we ever let on, and we are happy (on the inside) with that coveted secret. It is a temporal state like any other, that we move in, and out of over time. Instead of tap dancing around your Low friends, colleagues and lovers, lower your expectations of those traveling through this murky place. Remind them you love them, tell them you care. After all, isn’t that what everyone wants to be reminded?