Depression and Dialogue

“Hammered Shit,” Johnny Beaver (2018)

For the last two months it’s been hard to move. Everything that’s tedious or boring has become painful. Concentrating, reading, or writing takes an excessive amount of time. Going to school or work is sickening. It’s impossible to talk to anyone without them asking if something is wrong, simply because it’s hard to talk at all. Activities that normally help me unwind feel one dimensional and aggravating, and so the collection of everyday escapes that I’ve amassed have not just become useless, but another source of frustration. No point. No hope. Why bother? I’ll just be here again in six months anyway.

If you’re one of the 16 million adults in the United States that suffer from one form of depression or another, this probably all sounds pretty familiar. As do the common scripts involved in trying to talk to others about it – when you feel like you’re even free to do so. I can empathize on that front as well.

The first revolving door question I usually get is “how do you keep up with school and work with this going on?” I’ve always found this question a little funny, because what’s the choice, exactly? I get it all done because I work my as* off. You either do it, you don’t, or you try right up until you either can’t or you fail, just like anyone else. It being inherently more difficult isn’t some kind of testament to a supernatural will, but a fact of circumstance. Or at least that’s the only way you can think about it once you’ve returned to this space a few dozen times. I’ve always likened it to my experience of transatlantic flights with long legs and an inability to sit still (and a fear of being in a tin can with rockets strapped to it) – you just buckle up and wait it out. It’s a miserable way to exist, but that’s about all a lot of people are ever able to do. Being in the throes of depression comes with a pretty unclear state of mind, to put it hilariously mildly. It’s very difficult, if not impossible to remember what feeling good is like – just as hard as it is to remember exactly what depression feels like when you’re not depressed. I try to remember this when communicating with someone who has no basis for understanding. 

Case in point, once upon a recent time I was attending a counseling course focused on psychiatric diagnosis at a certain Oregon university. It was a painful experience, witnessing people trying and failing, yet believing they had succeeded in understanding something that they’re going to eventually be tasked with identifying and caring for. The worst moments came from two graduate students: one of them outed their own family member’s diagnosis and referred to the behavior as “wacky,” and the other asked a guest with a serious, debilitating disorder if they ever “tried thinking about it not as an illness, but as just another way to live?” Let me be the first to say that there’s no neurotypicality debate to be had when your condition has not only stolen your potential to live the life you want, but threatens to take your life from you altogether. Like heart disease, major depression kills people, and doesn’t care much about whether it’s a component of an underlying mental illness or just circumstance.

To put things into grim perspective, there are about 1,100,000 suicide attempts with 44,000 “successes” in this country every year. That’s over 3,000 a day, and up to 70 percent of them are linked to major depression or a mental illness with depression as a primary component, such as bipolar disorder. As infuriating as those comments were, as much as they reminded me of how broken the system is (do good therapists even exist?), I have and continue to walk away from those scenarios remembering that at least people do care. People want to do better, even if they really, really suck at it. Realizing that being good at caring isn’t a prerequisite for caring itself was a big moment for me. And I’m not even looking at this in terms of, “can we come together to conquer intrinsic biases and heal our culture,” blah blah blah, but something simpler… how can we approach things differently so that those suffering from depression can write an email, pick up a telephone, or go outside without the fear of awkwardness, misunderstanding, or reprisal? What needs to change so that real dialog is allowed?

Honestly, I’ve got no clue. But I’m pretty sure it’s not the medical industry, therapists, the advocacy groups, the Top Ten Signs You’re Depressed articles (definitely not those), or the activists that are going to get the job done. Not specifically. It’s going to be the voice of experience that makes a difference here—even with just an audience of one. While writing this article feels like I’m working a megaphone with low batteries, there’s a cumulative effect. Having dealt with depression for 20 years, as well as being unable to keep my mouth shut for more than five seconds, I’ve seen it work. Having the energy to pull my own head out of my as* long enough to say something hopeful is evidence enough. Even if it’s this watered down version of my truth, and I’m nowhere near ready to share the width and breadth of it with you.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not going to take 16 million people throwing themselves against the rocks, but little acts of reclamation from a few people at a time. That feels like just enough leverage to keep going.

By Johnny Beaver