Preface: People need to understand that, for a lot of us, no amount of affirmation is going to change how we feel. Depression is treatable in many cases, but not necessarily curable in any case. This means that sentimentalising the problem is emphatically the wrong approach.
It is for me, at least. It drives me up the fucking wall to have to listen to people tell me how good I am, how much better the world is with me in it, how if I just stick with it a little longer, things will get better.
Because here’s the thing: They may get better for you, but for me they don’t.
I cope better on some days than others. I’ve had a lot of practice. I find ways to experience joy in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. But that doesn’t mean the sorrow goes away. You may have trouble grasping this—lord knows I do—but you can feel good about yourself and be the same worthless person you were when you woke up this morning. There is no contradiction there.
People think that when we say, ‘it’s all in your head’ it’s therefore transient, ephemeral and mutable. It’s not. You can change what you think about it, but you cannot change the thing itself.
So if, in the course of reading this, you find yourself wishing me well… don’t. I’m not well. I never have been, and I never will be. But I have a life. It’s a good one, and I’m not stupid enough to fail to recognise that. So kindly refrain from reminding me.
Now, on to my confession….
Living with depression is better than the alternative. Until it’s not.
A confession in three parts
Watching Wil Wheaton up and tell the world he’s living with anxiety and chronic depression was liberating in a way. It allowed me to fantasize about being in a position to say the same thing.
But of course that’s not going to happen. I don’t have his guts. And I don’t have the patience to deal with the misunderstanding, the unwonted aversion and unintended cruelty that will inevitably arise. And frankly, the people around me aren’t ready.
Seeing Wil just blurting it out like that gave me permission to get a slightly better handle on something that nobody—myself included—really understands adequately: People who live with depression are sick. They have something wrong with them. We do. We really do.
But there’s nothing wrong with living with depression.
There’s a long, long, loooooong continuum of depression and anxiety. And most people don’t occupy a single point on that line. They exist along a very broad range of emotion.
It is insanely (sorry) difficult to draw a line and say, ‘On this side, ladies and gentlemen, is healthy depression, a natural and periodic occurrence in everyone’s life. And on this side, for your delectation, witness the Black Dog, the Fog, the Darkness, the Demon in the Pit that makes suicide a viable consideration.’ It just doesn’t work that way.
But some of us do have to make an active, conscious decision to live. Every day. Until we don’t.
The experience of depression can range from kind of a maddening existential itch to an actual living nightmare. I’ve dealt with everything from daily bouts of peevish oversensitivity that I’ve learned to look beyond, all the way to screaming incoherently in the back of an ambulance on my way to the emergency room.
Yeah, shit happens.
I’ve learned, at great personal expense, that much of what’s ‘wrong’ with me is physiological. It’s a limp, a lisp, an impairment.
And even though it’s been a fundamental force in my life, I will seriously fuck anyone up who tries to tell me that there’s a purpose all of this, that it’s made me a better person.
Seriously, fuck you if you’re thinking that. If I’m special, then I hate special. Because special is trying to kill me.
I knew something was wrong from about the age of five or six. I remember it vividly: walking home from school and telling myself that nothing mattered more than understanding. That if I could only apply myself sufficiently, I’d make sense of the world, and then it would stop hurting.
I’ve spent my life doing just that. And after five decades of geographical, personal, intellectual and philosophical exploration, I have come to one inescapable conclusion: What A Fucking Idiot I Was Back Then.
Knowing I was different did nothing to reconcile me to that difference. I didn’t understand my inability to cope with social gatherings. I didn’t get why I would fall into a fugue state occasionally, unaware of myself or anyone else. I didn’t understand the crushing, distorting sadness that coloured my every moment for days, for weeks. I didn’t understand my loneliness. I didn’t understand my inability to actually believe that people liked me.
If I’m perfectly honest, I still don’t.
I understand that I am this way. I understand that these things happen to me. I understand how they come about, more or less. I even know how to anticipate a lot of these problems, and to either avoid them entirely, or at least reduce their impact. These days, I’m pretty good at being depressed.
But I don’t really get it. I don’t get how it never entirely goes away. I have good periods. Some of them have lasted years. I’ve been bad periods, and ditto.
Living with depression and anxiety is in some ways worse than the loss of a limb, but not in any way that wouldn’t cause an amputee to beat me over the head with their prosthesis for saying so.
The difference is: Some days you wake up, and… Mirabile visu! You have both legs, and you can walk. Then halfway through that day, your leg decides it never actually existed and without warning, there you are—crippled and stupidly, dangerously acting like you’re not.
Anxiety attacks are sometimes triggered, but the thing that triggers them is not what you think. It’s not like I see a cat, and that reminds me of the dark time when I forgot to let the cat in and it died on the porch in the rain, and then I crumple into a mass of misery and cease to be completely human.
First off, I’ve only ever shared my cats, so they were always safe. Second (and this is going to be hard for some to get—it took me decades) it’s not logical. This isn’t a fucking Hollywood narrative, with clean corners and brightly lit spaces. It’s a labyrinth, without symmetry and without sense.
I’ve had panic attacks on my bike, on the squash court, when speaking to a girl I liked, when NOT speaking to a girl I liked. I’ve had them waking up. I’ve had them from lighting a cigarette, for Chrissake. Anything that causes a sudden increase in heart rate is enough to set me into a downward spiral.
Yeah, it’s fucked up. Kind of makes it hard to be normal. Which is kind of the point. Because sometimes it feels like you can be. It feels like you are. Sometimes.
And then—SHAZAM—you’re not. Why? Because fuck you, you never were.
It took a boatload of work to achieve some sort of understanding, to come to terms with that.
Expecting others to get that is… a lot to ask, apparently. Which kind of fucks things up, socially. Most of the world just thinks you’re a distant, unfriendly, volatile dickhead who can’t get along with people. And the rest, the ones who actually accept and even, for reasons known only to themselves, like you… they are the delighted recipients of every bit of weirdness you see fit to bestow, most of it completely inadvertent and undeserved.
And god help them if they love you.
As depressive, anxiety-ridden people go, I’m pretty damn fortunate. I am smarter than most. Not bragging, just observing that my ratiocinative powers are maybe not always as rational, but they are consistently more -cinative than most people’s.
That bought me the ability to think my way out of a problem. I used my towering intellect quite literally to cogitate my way out of what at one point looked like an unwinnable fight. I thought my way out of drug and alcohol addiction. I thought my way past my miserable domestic life.
I learned to say, with perfect objectivity, to myself: “Based on my close and daily observation of human behaviour, this particular episode is likely to lead to an undesirable outcome. Therefore, it makes more sense to act differently. Perhaps X. Failing that, Y would be advisable.”
Yes, I was Sheldon. Except it wasn’t fucking funny.
It was pretty epic, if you ask me. YOU try reasoning your way out of a depression some time. Tell me how you go.
I thought my way into a prosperous line of work that positively expected people to be cantankerous, edgy, obsessive and socially dysfunctional. Twice.
So thank you, The Theatre. And thank you High Tech. Thank you for accepting fuckups like me.
But all that only kept me alive.
Having a life was one thing. Having a life worth living proved to be another battle entirely. Until my late 30s, all I ever aspired to was becoming, and staying, normal enough for horseshoes. And for my sins, I almost got there. I got past the drugs. I found great work with fascinating people. I got fit. I found sport. I found a way to make a difference.
So why, in the middle of all that, did I end up standing outside in my shirtsleeves on Christmas eve, trying to decide between a bullet and a high-speed single-vehicle collision?
Because that, boys and girls, is the way the good lord made me.
And there it was—the sudden, intense awareness that no matter what I did, the devil was never going to quit dogging my steps, would never cease destroying me slowly and in bits.
And I had to ask myself, ‘How much longer can I keep waking up to the knowledge that this is never going to change? Never. Like never-ever.’
And all I learned to do was to keep saying: I got one more day in me.
That was liberating. It freed me from the burden of normalcy. It meant that I could begin accepting that I never had to be more than a good actor. I never had to do more than look and act normal, and to make other people feel the way normal people do when they’re together. Of course, none of it is true. I’m actually of less worth than a worthless sack of shit because shitsacks have more worth—even sackless shit is one up on the worthiness list….
But I digress.
Being freed from responsibility for any day other than the one on which I am presently embarked has allowed me to endure misery. It’s also allowed me to feel happiness. Because even though I am—and remain—worthless and undeserving, I get to steal a moment of laughter now and then, to act so well that I enter the moment and share actual-rather-than-feigned joy with my children. I get to pet my dogs… and mean it, goddammit.
And I get to do it because tomorrow I’ll have another chance to wake up and become just another sad statistic in a world that never gave a shit, and top myself.
Or not. I’ll deal with that tomorrow.
Most days, it’s fine. Life wins. No contest. Sometimes it’s touch and go. Couple of times it’s been a dead heat. I get where Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams and countless others finally went. I get it in a way that I hope to god the rest of you don’t.
I get it because I may get there yet.
Really, don’t try consoling me. In fact, if your response to this is sympathy and wanting me to feel good, then fuck off.
Did you even read the preface? Well, read it again, and try to grasp that all I want is understanding. Empathy is not possible. I don’t get to feel what you feel. I don’t get to be normal. You wouldn’t wish the legs back on a limbless child, so stop wishing ‘wellness’ back on me. Fuck your fucking wellness. I was born without it, so fuck you and fuck every other normal person in the world.
What you can do, if you want to feel like you’re helping, is just to step back and let me be. Let me good at what I do, or not. Let me make a fool of myself, or not. Let me pretend to be normal. Or fucking not.
And don’t tell me how brave I am. I know how exactly how brave I am. It changes nothing.
And don’t patronise me with the argument that others are relying on me. I’m not stupid.
Depression is just a thing, like any other thing. A Practical Concern. I quit making a big fucking drama out of it years ago, and so should you.
And lastly—honestly, lastly—to those of you who had no idea I live with anxiety and depression: Thank you! The acting training worked! My next show is—well, it’s right now! But if you start treating me differently now just because I’ve been honest with you… then you have a problem too, and you’re not dealing with yours as well as I am with mine.
(NOT) THE END