Subvert the Dominant Paradigm

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Another Word for Depression

This Tumblr post has been making the rounds. I first saw it last night. Because it speaks to something meaningful and incredibly relevant to me, I shared it. Since then, I have seen it everywhere. More people in my friends list have shared it in the last eighteen hours than anything else I've ever posted, ever.

In case you don't feel like clicking the link and reading it for yourself, the post talks about what it's like to suffer from severe, ongoing depression. It starts out "Depression is humiliating. It turns intelligent, kind people into zombies who can't wash a dish or change their socks." It goes on from there.

From my perspective, the post paints a poignant and accurate picture of what it's like living with this illness. And it begs people who have had the good fortune never to experience it to stop judging, to listen, pay attention, and show compassion. From my perspective, this latter is what people suffering from depression want and need, and it's a thing they don't often get.

Why does my perspective matter? Those of you who know me will already know. For those of you who don't know me: I have struggled with chronic severe depression my entire life. I live with it every day. I don't really want to go into the details here. I don't think I should have to do that for my point to be valid.

I've noticed an interesting thing with this post: people who understand it, whether they've suffered from depression themselves or seen a loved on go through it, share it. And people who don't, or don't seem to, understand it comment on it. Obviously I'm a single person and cannot have complete knowledge of how this post is making the rounds of the internet. And I have seen a few comments from people who do seem to understand what it's talking about. But overall, my experience is as I have stated above.

You might ask how I can make the determination that the people commenting do not understand the experience. It's because of what they have said. Things like, "this post is making something seem insurmountable when it's not," and "If you feel so bad you should get help" and "anti-depressants aren't the answer; you need to learn to manage your thinking better." Things that obviously come from the poster's own bias and agenda. Things that tell me the posters have not done the thing the original Tumblr post begs them to do: Stop judging and listen.

I don't like the word "defensive." In my experience, it's one of those psycho-babble terms that has come into common use without people knowing what it means, and it often gets used as a substitute for "you've said something that makes me uncomfortable and I don't want to think about it, so I'm going to accuse you of speaking from your bias in order to invalidate you." This happens a lot on the internet, where you have only print on a screen to tell you what might be on a person's mind, and you lack the intonation and body language and all the subtle little signals that give a statement depth. From words alone, you cannot possibly tell whether a person is being defensive or not--unless, of course, s/he launches off into some completely unrelated or self-justifying tangent, or starts with the name-calling (also not uncommon on the internet). But honestly, the word gets a bad rap. What in the world is wrong with standing up for yourself or other people you care about? Isn't that what defending something means?

Anyway, I tend to be defensive of my experience and other people who have had similar experiences. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. I do not like it when people tell me, or another person in pain, to "just get over it," or "pull up the big girl panties," or "you have no reason to feel that," or when they suggest I try prayer or meditation or this or that new therapy. I do not like it when people assume that in forty years of being cognizant of my own mental health issues I have not tried every damn thing on the face of the earth to have a normal life. That I am not still trying. Every day.

See, the number one thing that sucks about depression is the way people who have never experienced it cling to this belief that they have any idea at all what it's like. Even if a person has experienced it, s/he cannot know what it's like for another person experiencing it. Because it's a mental process, and that makes it subjective by definition. We can guess. We can extrapolate. We can compare. But we can't know.

And a sad truth is, many people--even many people who are supposed to have some understanding, like professionals, and many people who are supposed to be your support system, like friends and family--do not want to know. Which is understandable. There is enough pain in life; why go reaching for someone else's pain? There is enough horror; why put yourself in someone else's nightmare? Human beings--hell, probably all creatures--want to feel good, and we want those around us to feel good. Because we're a social species, we feel guilty when those around us don't feel good. We think we've done something. We think it's our fault. It's uncomfortable, and we want to make it better. And when we can't, or the people we are trying to comfort don't respond in the way we want them to, we get mad. At them. And we stop listening.

This is not helpful.

It's also not helpful to keep assuming you know know what you're talking about. I think probably a lot of people will find this a harsh statement; after all, we like to think we know what we know. I'd like to point out, though, that quite a few spiritual systems hold that the first step to wisdom is acknowledging your own ignorance. Keeping an  open and receptive mind. Practicing non-judgment.

When people assume they understand what a person suffering from depression is going through, it allows them to perpetuate a whole lot of unhelpful behaviors that only add to the problem. Because they have no measuring stick other than their own experience, they can honestly believe and purport that the pain of a person who wakes up every morning wondering if s/he's going to survive the day is on the same level as their own that week after the bad break-up with the boyfriend or girlfriend. And this is a bad example, because for a person with chronic depression that bad break-up could be the thing that initiates the spiral. For people without chronic depression, however, it's a glitch. It's something you get over and move on. And please forgive me if I seem to be invalidating your grief, here. But it's true.

The thing is, people with severe chronic depression cannot move on. They cannot choose to. It's beyond our control. It's like being on a ride at Disneyland: once you get in the little car, you're stuck going wherever that car takes you until it stops. Except we did not choose to be on this ride. Most of us were born here.

This is why people's suggestions about how to relate to depression often strike those of us who suffer it as sententious bullshit. Praying is not going to get me off this ride. Neither is meditation, or drinking wheat grass juice. I cannot change my mind in the middle of the roller coaster track, before the plunge. No one will let me off. Praying, meditation, diet, exercise, therapy, all your suggestions may be useful tools. They may help a person keep breathing until the ride is over, for the time. But they do not eradicate the brain chemistry that makes one prone to depression in the first place.

It's not a funk. It's not a phase. It's not something a person chooses or can control. It isn't. As long as a person continues to believe that, s/he is perpetuating the difficulty of living with the nightmare.

This is why I believe we need another word. A person who wakes up feeling a bit off and says to him- or herself, "I'm a little depressed today" is reinforcing the notion that depression is a singular thing, and that they know it. And that allows them to continue devaluing the experience of those for whom it isn't just today, or a little bit, but is a constant struggle. It allows them to continue not to listen.

And to continue to miss the point that the original post was trying to make in the first place.