The Coat Theory

Revisiting this topic on the anniversary of Robin Williams’s passing.
It’s taken me quite a long while to get this post together, so please bear with me.

At the time I wrote the original piece, I didn’t even think that this is the caliber of impact that that post would have. I speak of the long treatise on talking about depression, linked here.

I don’t even remember how I came up with the analogy the first time, but let’s talk about the condition of depression as a coat.

The Theory

Let’s make this an exercise. Look into your closet. Look at the heaviest possible coat that you have. Feel free to even put it on for a moment, just so you know how the weight of it feels.

Now imagine that it’s alive. Imagine that it has a purpose, and its purpose is to break you. Imagine that it’s heavy, heavier than lead, heavier than the protective lead blanket you get when you’re X-rayed at the doctor’s office. Imagine that its sleeves are so heavy and tough that you won’t be able to lift your arms if you ever put it on. Imagine that this coat can put itself on you – on its own – and button up tightly. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of how you feel on a regular, everyday basis. Regardless of anything you may or may not want. If the coat says, “I’m putting myself on you”, you cease to have a say in the matter.

Now think of the condition of clinical depression as that coat.

Imagine that the coat suddenly ended up on you, and it’s so heavy that you have trouble moving. You’ve worn a heavy coat before. Think back to that moment. Remember how it weighed you down? Remember how it was different to move around, that you weren’t as free as before? Yeah. Exactly like that. But the coat of depression is even heavier than that. It confines you even more than that. You know you can remove it, but you can’t lift your hand to the button to open it, it’s that heavy. You struggle to reach up. You know you need to remove the coat. You know you absolutely have to, that it doesn’t feel right to have something like this on you all the time. You try your damnedest to reach up and unzip it. But you can’t. It’s too heavy. 

And that’s what the coat wants.

The collar of the coat interferes with your line of sight and scope of vision, and it covers your ears, so you are also limited in what you can see or hear. Everything you see and hear comes through muffled, as though it’s being blocked out by a thick hood that gets pulled over your eyes.

But that’s what the coat wants. It doesn’t want you to see the world outside its limits, even though you know it exists, and it doesn’t want you to hear anything that might break its grip on you.

The coat weighs you down. It limits you. It pushes you towards the ground, it forces you to fight against it, and it still gets heavier. The more you try to fight it, more so if you do alone, the heavier it feels.

It’s also not a coat that you can take off and put on at will. You wear it when you sleep. You wear it when you go to work. You wear it when you’re out with friends. It’s a coat that all but welds itself onto you, and it does it so well that no one seems to notice that you’re wearing the coat. You want to scream, “Take this coat off me!” but you know – and the coat knows too – that the first thing someone will say is, “What are you talking about?” “What coat?”

You know the coat’s there. The coat knows it’s there. Very few others will ever even be aware that it’s there. But… that’s what it wants.

And eventually you get used to it. Your shoulders, though they ache constantly, will get used to the weight of the coat. Doesn’t mean it’ll hurt less, but you learn to accept the physical aches and pains of it, just as you accept the mental aches and pains of it too. You just don’t have the power that is necessary to fight back against the coat, so you just buck up and keep going, and keep living with it.

But the coat doesn’t stop there.

The coat can get heavier, on its own. Or lighter. You can be lulled into thinking that the worst is over, but in reality, it only just got started. It may feel lighter some days, so you may try more than usual to remove it, but it’s not going to allow you that. Just after you try to lift your hand to at least pull back the hood, you will find that the next day, it will be so heavy that even the thought of attempting to get the coat off is not even close to a viable possibility.

It’s not something that anyone would forget if they were to go through it.

 

Depression Symptoms

Don’t confuse depression with sadness, or “the blues”. Don’t confuse depression with a reaction to a life event. It’s neither of the above. It’s an insidious condition, partly due to a chemical imbalance and partly genetics, and getting rid of it does, sometimes, take medical intervention. Depression is one of those things that does not at all discriminate. You can have the best life you can imagine, be surrounded by friends, family, have a loving spouse or significant other whom you adore…but it will still find you, and wrap itself around your brain.

Please note that no two people exhibit the same depression symptoms, just as no two people process dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin alike. These are the three main hormones of the human body that determine mood and happiness, and you will find that in depression sufferers, at least one of these hormones is not getting absorbed properly or in the correct amounts, without fail.

In terms of mindset and mental symptoms, it’s not easy to describe what depression feels like. Often, you hear that it’s hopelessness, guilt, overwhelming sadness, loss of interest, and so on. While these things are applicable, there is one thing that goes underneath it all: oppressive, mind-numbing indifference. Even if you have a great life around you, depression just drains the joy out of it. It’s not that everything is gloomy and negative, it’s just devoid of color and the sensations that you would expect from your life ordinarily. It’s not that you don’t want to feel happy, but you’re just plain not capable of it. You want to be as into things as you used to be, as into your activities, hobbies, etc., but instead, you feel like you’re going through the motions without there being any substance in it. You know what it all should feel like, but the problem is… you. just. can’t. feel it. Instead, there’s this numbness that doesn’t really lend itself to any sort of a description.

Oppressive, mind-numbing indifference, none of which is your choosing.

It doesn’t happen overnight. It starts slowly. You sit down with your morning cup of coffee, which you normally love, then pause between sips, and next thing you know, your coffee is cold. You stop and think, It was piping hot a minute ago. You look at the clock: it’s two hours after you first sat down. You think to yourself, Well, gee, I must’ve lost track of time. But you feel no rush to get to work, even if you’re running late. You just don’t care. You just sit there, and think, My coffee’s cold. What happens after that just fades to a level of meh in terms of relevance.

This process takes days, weeks, if not months, before you realize it is robbing you of your life.

You just simply stop giving a damn. Everything around you gets reduced to, “What’s the point?” Cancel plans? Yep. Break a date? Check. Forget to pay bills? Yeah, happens. One thing after another gets pushed to the backburner in the name of what’s the point? and you realize that really, you feel nothing.

And the next thing you know, this stretches on over months, if not years.

Your body begins to respond as though you are, indeed, wearing a coat too heavy for you. Depression symptoms can also extend into physical problems as well. So you may start feeling an ache in your back or shoulders that hasn’t been there before. Your hands, perfectly sound, will feel stiff and achy. You’ll have random headaches that you can’t explain. Your doctor will give you a physical and say, “There’s nothing wrong with you” – possibly so, but those aches and pains have some sort of an explanation, right?

And the fatigue.

It’s often been said that the brain is the first and foremost influence on the body. And when the numbness sets in, you will find yourself psyching yourself up just to get out of bed and up to make your morning coffee. But that takes effort with the coat on. You can’t just get up and make coffee. You actually have to spend time to convince your brain that there’s some benefit in coffee being made; your brain in turn finds that the body won’t just do anything without motivation. Just get out of bed, you tell yourself. Pull back the covers. Put your feet down onto the floor. Push against the bed and stand up. Something that you would do on a daily basis suddenly takes an inordinate amount of effort – not physically, but mentally. And you almost immediately think, when you’re up and standing, I’m so tired…

You just woke up. But you still want to just get back into bed, because facing the rest of the day, and life, is going to take too much of energy that your brain is not capable of allocating at the moment. You just can’t do it. It’s not lack of desire, it’s not that you don’t have things to do, but simply put, you are just. not. able to. You have just spent however much time yourself psyching yourself up into getting out of bed. You just haven’t the energy to keep going and going through the motions of life.

The thing is, the other symptoms of depression are a direct consequence to this indifference. You aren’t capable of giving a damn, so you don’t do what you must, then your subconscious immediately launches into a guilt trip about not doing anything…which hits the indifference and escalates from there. All the symptoms listed in the typical, This is depression narrative are a cascade that results from the oppressive indifference and suppressed emotional spectrum.

 

The Stigma

While it hardly bears explaining, it needs not be said that mental conditions and any and all conditions that are classed as ‘invisible disability’ will never, ever get the same treatment as physical injuries. You can’t take a leave of absence from work to treat depression or anxiety; you’re pretty much guaranteed to get the weird looks if people will find out that you have a mental condition, and I’m confident that if you do bring up having a mental condition at work, your bosses may think twice about keeping you employed.

But really, it’s not as though you can control it when your brain stops functioning as it should. If your dopamine and serotonin receptors don’t work as they ought to, then is it your fault, or only your brain’s?

People may ask, “What’s the difference?”

There’s a whistling gulf of difference, actually.

One of the greatest misconceptions about depression, anxiety, etc., or any mental condition or disorder, is that all of those conditions are at the choice and control of the sufferer, when it’s the exact and direct opposite. No person is ever truly in control of their brain, but instead, it is their brain that controls the person, and considering that all conscious control that a human being exerts on their thought process is reactive to the subconscious processes coming to the surface, there’s really no way for any one person to be able to say, “I am in full control over what I feel”. No. A person is only in control of how they react to what’s around them, and the feelings are a direct result of both the chemistry within their brains and the reaction thereto. And the insidious part of the control that depression exerts over mood and emotion is that, quite frankly, you cease to react.

And truly, this mentality of “just snap out of it” defies any and all logic; the people who think that a depressed person can just “snap out of it” have never once considered that there is no person on this green earth who would choose this condition. Would any reasonable person choose to not be able to feel? Or do you suppose that they would voluntarily sign up to be so fatigued that their entire body starts going out of whack just because their brain decided that now’s a really good time to play hell with oxytocin absorbption? If you have a misfire in the synapses that suddenly causes your ordinarily level head to spiral into a torrent of anxiety, I have every reason to doubt that it should fall under the category of things that can be controlled.

Truly, if evidenced by the number of asinine “pull yourselves by the bootstraps”-esque commentary that depression sufferers have, it cannot be any more obvious that not one of them had ever stopped to think that there’s no person alive who would take this condition upon their shoulders voluntarily.

 

Disguising the condition.

If there is anything that Robin Williams’s death had taught us, it is that a carefully crafted smile fools even the most perceptive of people, and that depression is something that has made actors of nearly everyone who had ever experienced it. Because a sufferer doesn’t want to be told to “snap out of it” – even typing it in quotation marks makes my teeth grate in irritation – and because a sufferer does not want to be branded as “crazy” because they are taking SSRIs or any antidepressants, they will go to great lengths to hide their condition. You will see someone with the brightest possible smile, one that reaches their eyes and lights up the room, and never once will you suspect that that person had to struggle to get out of bed for nearly an hour because everything in their mind was topsy-turvy.

Depression makes Golden Globe-caliber actors of anyone it touches. No one knew that Robin Williams was suffering. No one knew just how bad it was, because he was one of the people whom we have consistently relied on in our daily lives to make us laugh. No one stopped to think that maybe, underneath the candor, something was seriously wrong. But know this – that’s exactly the effect that the stigma of depression has. This is what it forces people to do. Instead of seeking help, and possibly getting their way out of the quagmire, they are forced to put on the masks so that the people around them do not intrude.

Going back to the coat theory, it is a similar to-do. Picture, again, going around your day with a heavy coat everywhere. Do you want people to point out that you need to take it off? “Can’t you just take off the coat?” they ask. As though you hadn’t tried. So you disguise the coat. Or you make yourself as invisible as possible so that no one notices. Or you throw it all into an exuberant personality, with making jokes, being a social butterfly, so that no one who’s talking to you will ever take the time to point out that you’re wearing this huge coat; they’re too caught up in and dazzled by the wit, the charm, the grace, and the smile to suspect anything might be out of sorts.

The media has done an excellent job of perpetuating the myth that depression is something that one can just easily snap out of. In reality, depression is most like Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh. Eeyore is not happy; he probably will not be happy, ever, but he’s accepted exactly as-is. None of his friends comment on his state of mind. None of his friends want to change him. But the simple fact that he’s accepted is what makes the situation work.

And that’s what the stigma of depression makes nearly impossible to do. By portraying the condition of depression as something that people just need to ‘snap out of’ or ‘pull out of’, it’s actually making it a lot harder for actual depression sufferers to find a niche where they can find acceptance, support, and if need be, treatment. By mislabeling depression as something that the sufferer controls at will, it has been so much the more difficult for those same sufferers to get taken seriously when it comes to treatment.

Similarly, by stigmatizing treatment, this makes things a lot more difficult for sufferers. If they may not be able to break through the depression without medication, does it help them in any way, shape, or form if they’re convinced that they’ll be branded a certain way if they’re on anti-depressant medication? It doesn’t. You know it doesn’t.

But that is the circumstance that depression sufferers find themselves in.

 

Now consider this: it’s something that will, without fail, take lives if it’s not taken care of. If someone dies of cancer after battling it for a number of years, we speak of them as an inspiration. But what about if someone dies from a mental illness? We always see how they “should’ve gotten help” or “should’ve reached out”.

Except they already do.

Robin Williams did get extensive help before the condition got to him. He got treatment. He stopped drinking. He went to rehab.  But it was not enough.

Philip Seymour Hoffman tried to self-medicate. Probably he got help as well. But it wasn’t enough.

Amy Winehouse fell apart and was trying to put herself back together. Perhaps, to an extent, she did. But it was not enough.

We see it all the time with people who make a living in the public eye: they have a breakdown, spiral downward, and it’s all very amusing until you stop and realize that if someone who didn’t live in the spotlight was acting this way, your first impulse would be to say, “They need help”. But such is our voyeuristic society that we were very entertained when Britney Spears lost it in 2007 rather than stop and say, “This girl needs help – now. She doesn’t need to be in the spotlight. She needs to have some time to sort out her head”. But instead, we made popcorn and watched.

But what about the people who don’t live in the spotlight? Their scream for help could take a vastly different form.

And here’s the thing: until such a time that they tell you what’s going on in their brains, don’t make the assumption that they have a condition. But when they do decide to trust you with it, listen. Don’t offer platitudes. Just. Listen. They will tell you what they need, even if they will say no clear words to that extent.

But most importantly, let’s start treating depression and all other mental illnesses as actual illnesses. Because that’s what they are.

The only difference is that the organ suffering is the brain, which in turn cascades into everything else.

K.G.

 

A John Mayer song comes to mind…

I’m not exactly what you call a John Mayer fan, but if someone were to ask me to photograph a concert of his, I’d do so gladly. But the one thing I like about Mayer, apart from his voice, is the fact that his lyrics are relatable in a way that very few people’s lyrics are.

I will talk to you, dear readers, of Gravity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about depression in light of Robin Williams, and some thoughts about my own history with that coat came to mind. Mainly how I used to delve into music headfirst in my teens to escape everything, a habit I maintained into adulthood, just with different music. Of course, back then I was routinely yelled at for “having my headphones on all the time”, but the fact is, what was in my headphones was a huge contributor to me coming out of the coat.

Gravity didn’t come out until I was past my teens, and I didn’t hear it until maybe 2007-2008. The lyrics of that song elicited a response in me that was akin to me hearing Down to the Bone for the first time: I stopped and paid attention.

What made me pay attention is pretty much the John Mayer signature: his lyrics are very earthy. He talks about just how people feel, and he doesn’t dress it up. In the world of manufactured performance masquerading as pop music, John Mayer’s reality is refreshing.

What I didn’t think about before, which I think about right now, is likely that John Mayer spoke of depression in the lyrics for Gravity. Either depression, or the overwhelming need to find oneself in a world that cares little for authenticity.

Oh, I’ll never know what makes this man
With all the love that his heart can stand
Dream of ways to throw it all away…

It’s this bit of lyrics in particular that I thought about today.

How many times does depression make actors of the best people in the quest to hide that something is not right? And how many times people get so fed up with how they feel on a daily basis that there is no limit to what they will do to escape? How many of us have felt that we could just up and pack everything in a case and go out on the road, and let the chips fall where they may, if it means that what’s going on inside our heads will finally shut up?

It’s not that we are not loved…we are. All of us. Whether we realize it or not. But it’s the fact that we, when we are at our worst, cease to see that, that is one of the hallmarks of the coat. As I said before, one of the more insipid features of the coat is that it confines. It confines your physical movements, it confines your thoughts, and it confines your perception. You don’t see things as you used to, and you don’t see things that may be the way to unbutton the coat. Or, worse, you will see them, but have no strength to move to get to them.

There’s a semi-truthful joke that says, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it’s better to cry in a Mercedes than on a bicycle”. Honestly, I see a lot more people crying in their Mercedes, to follow along with the joke.

No, really. Depression among the affluent is a lot more easily noticeable. Whatever my personal feelings on wealth aside, the one most common thing I see if someone makes over a certain amount per year is that their earnings are pretty much in direct correlation with their misery levels.

I see it all the time. I go to work through Penn Station, and every day at 9am, it’s chock-full of people rushing to get to work from their outlying suburban homes. My old job took me through Grand Central, where the populace was largely the same. It’s basically a sea of transient regulars, all rushing from one train to another, from the light rail to the subway, and if you stand still and focus on faces, you are hard-pressed to find many smiles above the smart suits. Most of the times, they wear the same look, the one that says they would rather be anywhere but here, that they would rather do everything and anything to not go to Penn Station every day, to not go to work, to not make their living… $300 suit, impeccable accessories, all the trimmings of wealth, and none of that is enough to keep the coat at bay. The coat doesn’t discriminate.

Twice as much, ain’t twice as good
And can’t sustain, like one-half could…

Well, come to think about that, I can also bring forward the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s, “A Satisfied Mind”. Money is not an answer. Money can buy you the trimmings, but what good are the trimmings, if they have nothing to adorn? What good is gilt cover on the outside when the inside is spent charcoal?

Is it any wonder, then, when someone goes on a bender that is seemingly completely unexplained and unexplainable from the outside?

Truth is, it’s perfectly explainable. And very easy to understand…if you’ve been in that position.

Only those who were on the inside of the coat know that when someone snaps, they have basically Had Enough. That bender, that binge of behavior that sometimes ends in police activity, court appearances, or sometimes worse, usually roots from the simple point of that the person just got plain old sick and tired of feeling the way they feel. It’s the point where no amount of antidepressants, money, self-medicating, what-have-you works anymore.

Though on another thought, it does strike me as a song about unfulfillment. Both ways, the lyrics are relatable and apply both ways, in both situations. But in truth, how many of us go through life without at least one of those moments where you want to just up and get away from it all?

This is why self-care is important, folks. If it’s an annual trip to a tropical island, sitting on a bench in a park and watching the clouds float by, drinking a coffee…whatever your method for getting in touch with your peace, do it.

Just keep me where the light is…

K.G.

Let’s talk about depression. For real this time.

I think it’s time we sat down and talked about depression. Not just because Robin Williams’s death is bringing it forward, but because there’s entirely too much out there that is giving people the wrong idea about what it is and what it isn’t. And, having first-hand experience with it, I can’t not talk about it. 

Fair warning that a lot of this will get very personal. I’m writing this so you can learn this, and share with any Well-Meaning Wilma in your life that just plain doesn’t get it. I have had my own fight with it, and trust me when I say it’s not something I’ll soon forget. 

That and all those Well-Meaning Wilma people just plain piss me off because they do more damage than they realize.

What it is – and what it isn’t.

Depression isn’t a stretch of ‘the blues’. Let’s get that out of the way. When you’re depressed, you’re not in a sad state of mind that you can sleep off. If there is a single expression that would best explain what depression feels like, it would be oppressive quagmire of involuntary indifference. It’s not what you feel – it’s a lot of what you don’t. In my worst bouts of depression, the only thing that could describe what I felt at the time was numb. I didn’t feel anything. Considering I am a passionate personality – obviously – and I thrive on creativity, to not feel anything was definitely, wholly, completely, not right.

Clinically, depression is an imbalance of brain chemicals, which in turn affects your mental and physical well-being. 

You don’t feel sad, so much as you feel as though you don’t see the point in doing the most basic things. You get up in the morning, you get your cup of coffee, and you just don’t see the point in it, even if you love that part of your morning ritual. You go to the park to sit down and read a book, but you don’t go into the park – you just don’t feel like you want to anymore. You have aches and pains where you didn’t have them, and worse, you can’t attribute it to growing older; you know your knees didn’t make that sound three months ago. You think, “I can’t get up this morning” – no reason, just that thought, just that feeling – and it stretches into a week…the a month…and next thing you know, it’s a half a year gone by before you wonder why you don’t like to go to the park anymore.

Worse thing is, you have no control over it.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about depression: that the sufferer can control it or manage it at will. They can’t. They simply cannot turn on the “happy switch”; such a thing simply doesn’t exist. They can’t think happy thoughts unless they’re constantly medicated. They can’t shake it off. This isn’t something to ‘shake off’ – it’s something to battle through, and that battle will wrangle every little last bit of everything you’ve got before you so much as make ten feet worth of headway out of that quagmire. There is nothing that the depression sufferer can do, on their own, to climb out of it.

 

The Coat 

It may be a copy-pasta from the prior post, but here you go. I’ve written about depression being like a heavy coat, and it seems to be a fitting description. So here goes.

Think about depression as a very heavy coat that has a mind of its own, and its sole purpose is to confine you and to stifle you until you collapse under it. It’s a coat that slinks up onto you and buttons itself up tight when you aren’t looking, and certainly without your consent. It confines your movements until you struggle to so much as get up. You can think of nothing but the world outside the coat, but because it’s interfering with your line of sight, you can’t participate in it. You know you can remove this coat, but it’s so heavy that you struggle to so much as move a hand towards the buttons. It’s hard for you to breathe wearing this coat, but it won’t get removed on its own and you know it. And you can’t take it off and put it back on at will – the coat won’t let you take it off without a struggle, and you know that you will never want to wear it again. The coat confines your mind too, until you think only within the spectrum that it allows you to think in, confining you to just the inside of your head.

And eventually, your world shrinks. You can see nothing and know nothing but what the coat allows you to see and know. That’s when you don’t see the point in trying to take off the coat anymore. And it only grows heavier. You know there’s a world outside, but you have accepted the weight of the coat, and though you never forget your life before it, you struggle all the more to remember when the coat got onto you, and what the motion is to take it off.

And your body never forgets the coat. Even if you do succeed in ripping it off, and it falls with a dull thunk into a corner, you remember what it was like to carry that weight on you everywhere. You never forget it. You never forget how it feels. And you always have that little smidge of fear in the back of your mind, what if one day you wake up and the coat is back on you? You have no say whatsoever in whether or not you put on the coat – you would never wear it voluntarily, and you’d never wish it on anyone else. You always keep an eye on the coat in its corner, because it never fully disappears. It haunts you, even when you do regain some sort of a normal life after it, it’s never quite the same, because when you look into that corner, there it is, and you are reminded of what it was like to wear it. 

In summary, depression confines you to the inside of your head, and it’s never from one’s own doing. 

 

The Well-Meaning Wilmas – and the damage they do.

I have to go there, because I’m pretty sure that most people reading this who had suffered through depression have had at least one Well-Meaning Wilma in their lives. A person, who likely has never gone through depression or has absolutely no real understanding of what it is or what it means, who likes to give their “advice” on how to break free of it. I’m sure a couple of us have been guilty of saying, “Snap out of it!”. 

Here’s the thing: none of those well-meaning adages ever work. Not a single one. Never has, never will. In fact, for all of you well-meaning folks out there, if someone around you is depressed, trust me when I say that every time you open your mouth, you’re making things worse. 

I’ll explain how, in detail, so there’s no confusion about why that doesn’t work.

“Snap out of it!”/”Shake it off!” – let’s get this straight: you can’t ‘snap out’ of depression. No one ever asks for it in the first place. It’s never a ‘snap-out’ when and if it does lift. It’s more like a very, very slow sunrise that lasts weeks. You know it’s lifting, you know it’s getting brighter, but it has to happen on its own time. You saying to ‘snap out of it’ only demonstrates to the depressed person that you have no understanding of how they feel.

“You have so much to live for!”/”You have such a great job/friends/lover!” – in your opinion only, turtledove. The depressed person doesn’t necessarily agree. How do you know their depression hadn’t cost them their job? How do you know that the depressed person didn’t have a friend turn on them, and that triggered the downward spiral? Again, you’re only showing that you have no idea how they feel. Moreover, you’re making assumptions about their situation. Two strikes in one, and both of them tell the depressed person that they can’t confide in you. This doesn’t help in the slightest.

“Can’t you just…not be depressed?” – quite obviously, no, and thank you for showing your ignorance of the condition. 

“Well, God says [insert Bible verse]” – …no, just no. Shut up. God has nothing to do with it. If God was so great, then He wouldn’t have given the brain the capacity to do this to itself. Think about that for a second. Keep your religion to yourself when it’s not you going through it. 

“You’re just doing this for attention.” – If I could only encompass in words just how angry I get when someone says that to a depressed person. And yes, I’ve heard that said multiple times. This completely and wholly devalues what they’re going through, which is the single worst thing anyone going through depression can experience on top of the condition itself. You have no right to devalue their feelings. If you don’t understand what they’re going through, that’s fine, but you have no right whatsoever to claim their experience isn’t real because of your own ignorance thereof.

“Think of your family/friends!” – Really? The depressed person already does – they’re wondering how to leave them so they wouldn’t have to deal with what they’re going through. They’re wondering how they would be better off without them. Selfish? No. Not at all. Trying to keep them safe from the quagmire? Yes. Bet you never thought of it that way.

“Be positive!” and “Be more positive!” – again: shut up. Seriously, shut up. This is the single least helpful thing you can say. There’s no way to ‘be positive’ in depression that doesn’t involve heavy medication, drugs, or alcohol. Depression is not, I repeat is not, something a person can control. Trust me, if it were, there would be no depressed people in the world.

Before you ever judge someone for drinking, etc., ask yourself if you know why they’re drinking. Alcoholism isn’t a disease in and of itself, it’s a symptom of something else. Alcohol is a depressant (as in, opposite of stimulant) that dulls feelings, inhibitions, and perception – it’s the perfect self-medication for someone who doesn’t want to be inside their own head. Addictive personalities gravitate to anything addictive, but a depressed person is that much more likely to gravitate to a anything in the depressant spectrum of pharmacology – anything, really, if it means they won’t spend any time inside their head for some time. In short: never, ever tell anyone to be positive/more positive/cheer up. Unless you have a bottle in your hand, cheering up is just simply not possible. Know what it does for the depressed person when you say that? It tells them you don’t understand how they feel. It tells them you’re judging them. It tells them that they can’t trust you. Which in turn makes the depression worse. 

“Well, I was depressed too, and I’m fine, so you can be too!” – if you’re saying that, chances are you were never depressed in the first place. In my experience, as both a depression survivor and as someone who had held more than a few hands of those going through it, absolutely no one who ever experienced genuine clinical depression ever says that. It’s not a one-size-fits-all condition, and not a one-size-fits-all treatment. Again: you’re not helping. 

You may read this and ask, “Well, what can I say, then?”

And this is the thing: you shouldn’t say. You should listen. The only words out of your mouth should be, “Talk to me.” No more. Nothing else. Because the depressed person doesn’t need to hear anything. They need to be heard. Because by the time they’re reaching out for help, they just want a reminder that there’s at least one person on the other side who will listen to them. 

And how can you listen if you’re giving platitudes?

 

The Public Eye – and how depression makes actors of us all.

This is something that I also touched on in the prior post. I know that Robin Williams’s death had taken us all for a shock, and I have seen quite a lot of wholly ignorant statements on what it looked like from the outside. 

Let’s not forget that Robin Williams was a public figure. Moreover, he was an actor. Putting on a performance was his livelihood. He was a master at putting on a show for the public; he thrived on making people laugh by putting on a show. But as I wrote about the suicide of L’Wren Scott, there is a gilded shell, and the more public a person is, the more focused they become on appearances, the more disconnected the shell becomes from the real person underneath. 

Robin Williams had to keep putting on the show. He had to keep putting on the mask that said everything was okay. He had to make people laugh, because while they were laughing, they wouldn’t see that he was not okay. And the truth is, people in the public eye are a lot more likely to suffer from depression, and due to the money they earn from their work, they are a lot more free to self-medicate than others. What’s absolutely horrifying is that tabloids eat this shit up and make a show out of documenting someone’s breakdown for people to point and laugh at, and as a result, the people who eat this up forget very readily that the person on the other side of the page and the camera lens is every bit a real human being, and that the newspapers are publicizing something that, if it were happening to someone who wasn’t a public figure, would be seen as an unmistakable sign that that person needs help.

We as a voyeuristic celebrity culture have created a pressure cooker for the very people whom we admire/ogle/look at/hear. The pressure to put on the happy faces and appear as though nothing is wrong has grown immensely ever since the media has gotten the idea that public figures aren’t entitled to privacy – as though they stop being human when they start being a public figure.

One of the scariest photos I’ve seen was of Kate Middleton – Princess Kate as she is now, I should say – walking down the street…and behind her was a veritable wall of paparazzi camera lenses. I wish I could say I was joking. That image was honestly terrifying. I have to hand it to Kate for having the fortitude to keep going with that sort of a magnifying glass trained on her for the benefit of the gawping public. But it also told me the kind of people that we have become. We think nothing of a single person having to walk past a wall of camera lenses dedicated to their every move, as long as we the viewers get our fill. 

But in truth, we are not so different from those in the public eye, especially if it’s us who suffers from depression. We too put on a show. We put on a show for our friends, our coworkers, our families, spouses, children if we have them – we put on an incredibly convincing show that tells them that everything is okay. We laugh and joke and hold court and talk on the phone like we used to, and we hide it. We hide that in the morning, we have to psych ourselves up to get out of bed. We hide what’s really inside our minds, all to keep the Well-Meaning Wilmas in our lives at bay. We don’t want to hear the platitudes, we don’t want to hear the tropes, but we’d love someone to listen to us. Just listen. Nothing else. Or even just let us park our heads onto their shoulders for a stretch. 

The trouble is that we don’t always have someone who will listen. In our viewing, voyeuristic, entertainment-hungry culture, we are a lot more likely to attract a slew of people who’d love to watch us struggle through the quagmire than we are likely to find someone who will offer a hand, a shoulder, and an ear to help us out of it.  

And that’s how we learn to act when depression comes knocking. It’s a self-preservation impulse, and it is strong enough to make Oscar winners of even the plainest of us all. 

 

Getting personal

As you can probably surmise, I had my own battle with it. I heard all the Well-Meaning Wilma platitudes I listed above, and then some. To say that it wasn’t an easy path might be an understatement. I don’t want to jinx it, but I can tell you that my time with the coat is, very likely, the absolute worst I’ve been in my life, and if I can survive that, then I can survive anything.

Thank all the lucky stars out there for the awesome friends I had at the time. Thanking my lucky stars for the ones I have now. Really. Without them, this struggle would’ve been exponentially worse.

But what I want to talk about in this segment isn’t myself or my own time with the coat. Plenty enough for that. What I want to talk to you about here is what it takes to climb out of it. If there is someone who is depressed in your life, or you yourself are wearing the coat now, then this will give you the idea of what getting out of it entails. 

As the title of the section says, it’s getting personal. And getting through depression to find your way out really is. A huge part of getting out of depression is acknowledging, and fully feeling, the weight of the coat, and revealing that to someone on the outside. Everything you hide, everything you don’t want other people to know – it has to come out. This involves feeling everything that the condition has numbed down. You have to feel the entire spectrum of everything that the condition brings before you can say, “I need help”. 

And I will warn you in no uncertain terms: it will hurt. It will hurt like a motherfucker. Part of depression is that it suppresses a normal emotional spectrum, but once the dam breaks, you will feel everything at once. Your emotional spectrum will go into a complete tailspin once that happens. But…that is also how you know that right now, if you reach out for help, you will be able to receive it. 

That last bit is important. Too many times, depressed people cannot receive help. Not that there isn’t any available, no. They can’t perceive as such, and they can’t absorb it. It’s all part and parcel of what depression does to the mind. The numbing extends to how you perceive the outside world. Even if someone is right there waiting for you to reach out your hand and grasp theirs, it still depends on whether or not you are actually able to lift your hand to do it. 

Self-medicating may seem very self-destructive from the outside. And I’ll make no bones of it: it is. However, there is always a point where self-medicating won’t work anymore. One fine day, you’ll be staring at the martini glass, and wondering, “Why did I get another refill?” And this is a very important point in a depressed individual: this is actually the point where the depression reaches its peak. It’s also a very dangerous point. At this stage, one of two things can happen: the person decides to reach out and get help, or they look for a stronger method of self-medication.

It wholly depends on two things: the individual…and whoever is around them at the time. This is why you keep a close eye on the people around you. Don’t judge, just listen to your own gut, and ask, “Is there anything amiss here?” Someone whose maximum is 2-3 drinks does not all of a sudden start downing shots. You will know: your gut doesn’t lie. 

And once you are ready to say, “I need help” – always look at the people who have been around you the longest before you open up about it. Chances are, they already know something wasn’t okay. Chances are they may have caught on. But you will know very well who the real friends in your circle are those who will stick with you through the “I need help”. You will lose people as a byways of coming out of the quagmire. But don’t dwell on the ones you lose: dwell on the ones who will see you through the end of it. These will be the people who know you best, and these will be the people who will be there for life. 

 

On Suicide

This is something I cannot easily write. I can only link you to this post as to what suicide isn’t

The period leading up to suicide is honestly one of the darkest journeys through one’s own head. Ending one’s life is seen as the only relief from that pain. So many times I’d see something like, “Suicide is a permanent answer to a temporary problem” as a way to convince someone to not do it. That doesn’t work. Why? Because a suicidal person doesn’t see it as a temporary problem, and worst is that it might be too late for them to see that it’s temporary. When someone is in the prison of their own head, they don’t see what the person on the outside sees.  Worse, they can’t.

To end one’s own life is tragic. It’s a loss to mental illness – and make no mistake, that depression is an illness, one that no one invites or ever seeks out – and it’s a loss of the will to live first. We have a powerful survival instinct, us humans. To want to end your own life is that survival instinct tipping its hat, breaking its rapier, and surrendering it to the coat. “I give up,” it says. “I can’t continue this fight.” Suicide is the person finally crumbling under the weight of the coat. 

It is not selfish, regardless of what you may believe. Why? Because the suicidal person genuinely believes that the people around them are better off without them there. Illogical? Possibly. Unnecessary? Likely so. But selfish? No. Never. Because the suicidal person is not thinking of themselves apart from being a burden on those around them. 

It’s a scream for help, but if no one hears it, or worse, they go Well-Meaning Wilma on that person, that would be the tipping point for that survival instinct to say, “I’m done.” 

This is why the absolute worst thing you can ever say to someone is, “You’re being selfish, think of the other people.” 

They already do think of the other people. And calling them selfish only pushes them further towards the edge. 

 

Don’t rail against Robin Williams. No one saw the coat on him, and no one saw how heavy it got until he just couldn’t handle another minute of it. Never call him selfish, not after he had given so much of himself to the arts and, through the arts, to us. Remember him for what Herculean effort it must have taken him over the years to have made us laugh the way he had. Think of what it cost him, through wearing the coat, to get up and do his job as a public figure keeping the spark alive in all of us. 

 

Afterwards

Yes, there is an afterwards to depression. 

As you may have grasped from this post, depression never goes away completely. 

That is the other insidious part of it all. There’s no such thing as over for good with depression. There just isn’t. You will have bad days. You will have more than one bad day in a row. You will fight with everything you’ve got to keep steady through those bad days, and they pass, eventually. They will pass. 

I’ve been there. I have bad days once in a while. I have days where I wonder why I bothered getting out of bed. I have days where my shoulders and back ache in a way that reminds me of being curled up on a couch with no inclination to move. I have a memory like a hard drive; once in a while, a moment will come back to me, a moment that I tried to format out of my brain. 

How do I deal when I get like this?

By going out with friends. By going out to walk in a tree-lined neighborhood with my music on. By choosing a city on a map and looking up when there’s a good show to go to there, and getting the hell out of dodge for a weekend. By photographing something, anything, really. By looking at the books I’ve written, the pictures I’ve taken, the achievements, the travel list I’ve been crossing off, by reminding myself that I had clawed my way out of the quagmire before, and that I was able to accomplish everything I dreamed I could. By reminding myself that there’s still more to do, still more people to meet, still more music to hear, still more stories to write. 

Because I know that it could get much, much worse than that one bad day, and that I’ve survived worse than the bad day…and that I can survive anything. 

Even the coat.

K.G.

Yeah. Perspective.

I’m 28. I’ll be 29 in a month and 6 days. And the first time I took a psychology class at the college level, I was a gawky fourteen-year-old, and the only reason I was in a college class at 14 was because my father was a professor at the school at the time.

It was an intro-psych class. College level. College material. I did pretty well, considering I was a high-school freshman and in an intro-psych class that dealt in both cognitive and abnormal psych. In other words, I diagnosed myself with depression – a family gift, passed down from generation to generation – at fourteen.

If I were anyone else, with any other life experience, then maybe I could laugh at this now and think, this is why teenagers shouldn’t read the DSM. However, I had to claw my way out of that quagmire, and nearly everything that I learned in that textbook over the three months I was in that class – and the others I’ve taken since – became the staircase I needed to get out of the hole.

It split perspective in an interesting way, too, but for that, keep reading.

What I may not have mentioned in prior entries on the topic is that depression often manifests physically, because if the person doesn’t have a psychological outlet, it flows over into physical well-being and turns into lack thereof.

No two people experience the physical hallmarks of depression the same way. There’s no real way of knowing. If mental hallmarks are difficult to spot, physical are twice so. You just cannot tell. And moreover, you just cannot put an end to it if you happen to be the one who has to deal with it. This is why whenever I catch someone saying to anyone, “well, they can just not be depressed”, I want to beat them with something blunt.

The best way I can think to describe depression is to have a constant, heavy, tightly-buttoned, self-closing coat on you. Imagine it. Imagine that it has a mind of its own and the only thing it does is drape itself across your shoulders and button you up in its merciless grip. Imagine it weighing you down to where you know that if you reach up to open one button, it’s going to take an immeasurable effort, and no matter how hard you try to reach the first button, your arms are so weighed down that it’s a Herculean effort to even shift while wearing it. It’s tight; you know you can have it loose or off, and that it won’t interfere with you unbuttoning it, but since you can’t loosen it, then you have to walk around and deal with the way it constrains everything that you do. And it doesn’t go away: you can’t take off the coat and put it back on as you feel like it; once it’s on, you either fight to remove it for a prolonged period, or you take the other route. You have to wear it everywhere.

But when you do manage to unbutton it, take it off, let it fall with a dull clunk on the floor, your body never quite recovers from it. It will always remember the heaviness, the tightness, the discomfort, and the weakness that it felt when trying to remove it. And the coat is there, still, on the floor, reminding you that any minute, it can be on you again. You can wake up wearing it again and never know how the hell it got back onto you again.

Because I’m a scholar at the core, and because I studied the science of psychology in many and multiple iterations for what’s now half my life, I have a very curious dual perspective of depression. I have the experience of someone who had studied it, and someone who had gone through it. And, if my physical symptoms are to judge, is still getting through the aftershocks of it.

My own physical symptoms of depression are particular to the lifestyle that I find myself in. I’m a lot more tired mentally than I’ve ever been physically as of late, and this is something that I can neither help nor mitigate; this is the nature of my line of work. But what it lent itself to is the fatigue; the consuming physical and mental fatigue that makes me want to crawl under the covers and want to stay there for a week – which I’d never allow myself to do because it’s completely contrary to my otherwise very active nature. While no, I’m not at my ideal health, the aches and pains I’ve developed lately are not due to any physical ailments. The back pain is no injury, and I am not prone to headaches, and especially not migraines, on an ordinary day. I know too well the mindset I was in when I first started having those headaches. I expect some joint pain, yes, but it’s localized mostly to the knees – not the shoulders, which feel as though there’s a small boulder on each.

And it discombobulates me a fair bit, because I didn’t notice anything creep up on me on the mental side. I enjoy things the way I always enjoy them, I am in my regular mood – hey, for me, being cantankerous and sarcastic is 100% normal – and I certainly do not feel as though anything is particularly, you know, off. I don’t feel sad, hopeless, or anything even remotely resembling the mental black hole I was in before. But I feel the physical symptoms a lot more than usual. And lately, I just don’t have the spoons to keep going past a certain point.

If you want to know what I mean by “don’t have the spoons”, read The Spoon Theory. It’s a really great read about chronic conditions, and living with them, and depression is no different.

Funny thing is, I’m still treating myself as my own case study. On one hand, I crawl into bed wishing that the alarm wouldn’t have to go off (and knowing full well that it’s not like I have that much of a choice), and on another, I will wake up at that alarm clock, take a deep breath, and commit my dreams or lack thereof, aches and pains, any mood change or any foreboding-type of gut feeling to memory or to a journal. That’s the scholar’s perspective, and yes, in a way, it does help. By detaching from the condition itself, by treating it as though it were someone, anyone else, I’m actually doing two things: one is that I’m doing a lot better at steering clear of the worst of the quagmire, and two is that I’m seeing just how human I am. I’m not SuperWoman, even though my ex-boss and a few of my friends will say to contrary. I’m good – oh, I’m very good at what I do – but I am not the best (which is okay), and I certainly do not have the energy for everything (which is also okay).

It also makes me feel like I’m on the outside of myself looking in, and what I’m seeing right now is someone who really needs to get some sleep. Not just a nice night, but spend a couple of days just drifting in and out of snooze mode. And yes, it’s in part because I work in a high-stress environment at peak deadline. But the other part is that there was once a big heavy coat on my shoulders, and my body remembers the weight of carrying it and shifting and bracing up to bear it again.

I won over it before. I will win again. Otherwise, I’m just not me. It may take a heating pad or two, though.

K.G.