It's pretty easy to look around and acknowledge that we stigmatize illness, and not without reason.
We shun the idea of sickness because of its relation to contagions or otherwise harmful effects. It makes sense to avoid plagued people like the plague, but in many cases, particularly psychologically, the damage isn't necessarily transferable. Still, I suppose dealing with someone who's sick or broken can be time consuming and generally a bummer.
American culture is not fond of emotions. It's almost to the point where passion and mental illness are assumed to be the same thing. Written into our constitution is the Pursuit of Happiness, which suggests that an emotional state is a physical location. Yes, I understand metaphors and that's not literally what our founding fathers meant, but I like to use it congruently to the sentiment we have as a culture: of happiness being a goal, and a permanent one. And it’s not a bad goal either if we look at the possibilities. What could be less detrimental to society, the environment and oneself than happiness?
Unfortunately, emotions are like the weather; they don’t stay the same, and it’s not a locality in which you can build a house. They’re indicators. That’s why we need to be slower to shun our darker feelings. Feeling upset makes us uncomfortable, and nothing is more motivating to incite a change than discomfort. In a well-adjusted (and I deliberately mean well adjusted, not normal) person, emotions such as sadness, rage, anxiety are all temporary. Some science suggests that we experience these emotions as a reaction to a situation. Stimulus – Dead dog; response – tears, staring achingly at photos and ice cream. Sadness lets us know that we don't want our dog to die, so we don't let Zia run into traffic or eat antifreeze.
This idea that an emotion is a response to an event is the James-Lange theory of emotions. This theory suggests that emotions are interpretations, judgements and responses all wrapped up into one as a reaction to a situation. By that logic, your emotions are controllable as long as you remain in control of your situation. You may already be anticipating that this was a point of contention that led to the development of other theories of emotional response.
In fact, there are three prominent theories (Though each have critics) for how we interpret our emotional responses: the James-Lange theory, Cannon-Bard theory & Schachter-Singer's Two-Factor theory. These aren't a major feature in this article, but I feel compelled to offer you the links to give you some perspective on how I came to this conclusion...
These theories all deal with how the physicality of emotion and the cognition of emotion relate to one another. It's important to point out that no matter which theory you subscribe to, there is a link between feeling something and recognizing that feeling, and in some cases, feeling something in response to an action..
We recognize depression as a mental illness; there's a response without a trigger. Without something to link it to, it's a difficult feeling to describe, and in some sense it's difficult to recognize as a feeling. Depersonalization or Derealization, both common in people suffering from major depression, are senses that one is completely detached from themselves or the world. Everything feels a little bit more distant and strange. You're not sure how to describe it to people, just that you're outside yourself, or too far inside oneself to feel what's going on around you.
Derealization is a perfect illustration of the social expectation we have not to be emotional and why we are so quick to dismiss depression as an illness. Outbursts of emotion could get you arrested. When something bad happens we're still meant to operate with decorum; this is a society; there are rules of behavior, right? Without those rules, the social structure would collapse, supposedly. It's almost an ideal illness, because you'll always seem calm, collected and in control. You're complacent in times of social distress. You're not necessarily enjoying it, but you also don't really know if you feel upset about not feeling happy, and that makes you manageable.
Cross the border of being depressed and expressing it, however, and the game changes. We all seem to have a kind of time limit we set for how long it's okay for people to be unhappy. If you're having a bad experience, almost everyone will empathize. Bad day, most will, bad week and your friends will still be with you. Bad month and people will begin to wonder if you're not just milking their sympathies.
I'm not above that way of thinking. There's a lot of people I don't talk to any more simply because I can't handle it. It's hard for me to pull myself into the sun when I'm feeling tired and shut in, and I lack the emotional strength to carry someone there with me. Being depressed is difficult, and you can't simply start smiling and watch the feelings of emptiness disappear. For some, depression doesn't seem to have a way out. You're stuck feeling empty and trapped, and you start tailoring your reality to this inner feeling. You stay inside, watching TV which can feel a lot like a social interaction you're not allowed to participate in. But this darkness isn't all bad. In fact, for many, it's a gift...
I worry that we equate happiness with excitement. That we place so much emphasis on being upbeat that we don't consider what that would mean.
Not only would that be physically and mentally exhausting, but nothing would ever change for you. I suppose some would see it as a blessing to be capable of gratitude for your life in any situation, but gratitude doesn't incite change. Especially for the creative, having nothing to motivate you to change can lead you into a wall.
I can say that in some ways, I'm happier than I've ever been, because for the first time in my life I have a sense of purpose, even if that purpose isn't the amazing humanitarian send off I thought it would be. I'm more mentally stable and I worry less about things that used to scare the hell out of me.
At the same time, I have more debt, less food, less money and way less security than I've ever had in my life. If this doesn't work out for me, I'm fucked. Knowing this is a double edged sword, because on the one hand I'm motivated to try as hard as I can, and on the other I'm paralyzed that I'm doing life wrong and I should scramble back into the rat race before it's too late.
Before I reached this point, I was in the worst possible mind set I could think of. I was stressed and unhappy. My relationships were beginning to strain. I felt polarized, scattered. Everything I tried to do seemed to be rolling off the tips of my fingers like I was juggling live fish. I’d wake up in the morning with such day brightening thoughts in my head such as ‘The world has over seven billion people on it, and I’m not helping.
’There's also this pain problem that I was, and still am dealing with, but that was just the diarrhea frosting on the shit cake. I was miserable and I didn't want to do it any more. I contemplated ending it, and not for the first time.
So I withdrew. My world came grinding to a halt as I decided whether or not life was worth living. As it were, the answer was a resounding 'Not really'. I spent a few weeks barely leaving my house. I quit my job, withdrew from school (Later I'd find out my financial aid was going to get revoked and this would have forcibly happened anyway), and sat in my apartment with no company except for a fridge full of molding deli meats.
But then, there was a funny little play on words I found myself making
Every time I would think 'I want to kill myself'
I offered the alternative 'This is killing me'.
I don't know if this makes sense, but I was rearranging the sensation. In my mind there was a sense of imminent doom, something beyond my control, something that wanted me to die. When it first popped into my head, it was a suicidal impulse. Just die already. I began to wonder if the idea of dying was some kind of connection my body made with my situation. Death was the endgame, the way out. By that perspective, "I" had nothing to do with it. I didn't want to die, exactly, I just wanted to reach the end that would relieve the feeling I had.
The thing about your life grinding to a halt is, you have a clear, still moment where you can really stare down what it is you’re doing wrong. Once I withdrew from everything, I had the ability to reflect. I didn't have anything else to lose because I'd cut ties with it all. If there was anything to start I'd be doing it from scratch. Depression is something I've struggled with my entire life, but this time, it was my escape route.
Having a major depressive episode isn’t something that you’ll ‘fix’ by going jogging, a strict diet or meeting that special someone. When I’m depressed, I stay that way, rattling around my inside myself like my consciousness is a speck of dust and my body is an empty, echoing chapel. Biking is my favorite method of transportation, and I’ve never felt more like killing myself than being sad and exercising. Depression grays everything out for me, and sometimes I don’t win. I’ve lost days and sometimes weeks to that sinking feeling.
You can't rally out of your despair by changing a few habits, but you do start to get a compass for what you can and can’t handle. I think that people who make positive changes like diet and exercise and experience a lift in depression are in large part responding to a message their body was sending them; what you're doing with those cheesy snacks isn't working.
Maybe depression is an indicator, it's just on such a large scale it's hard for us to understand. Depression is the animals fleeing before the hurricane. It serves one purpose: to let you know on a fundamental level that you need to change things.
Depression taught me to relax a little, that death was not imminently lurking behind every bad grade or disinterested audience. Even if it were, Depression argued like a nihilistic Winnie-the-Pooh, that’s what you want anyway, right?
Depression is one of the most prominent mental illnesses in the US. Maybe that’s an indicator that our hyper-competitive, over-sexualized and equally repressed culture isn’t healthy. You can look over your shoulder and at any time and still see that dark ravine, no matter how far you run. I never thought I’d be grateful to have a feeling of despair so powerful it could pull me out of my life. Rather than thinking of that pit as a looming presence, ready to swallow you at any moment, you have the option of using it as a reference point, something to let you know that you’re on the right path.
About A Blog
I'm a Denver Comedian, occasional cartoonist and person of interest to someone, probably. These articles are really too long.