[*editor’s note: we had an opening this week due to a contributor being under the gun at work. In its place we have an anonymous guest post (which we’ve been holding onto for a rainy day) dealing with the all too real reality of depression.]
Vincent Van Gogh, best known for his colorful paintings of sunflowers, Starry Night, and the TARDIS, was known to have drunk his own paint on at least one occasion. My favorite interpretation of this behavior is he was so unhappy in the depths of a depressive episode he wanted to get the brightness and joy of yellow inside him. When one is in the thrall of a depressive episode it can be so overwhelming that even the maddest of ideas, like painting the walls of your internal organs yellow, begin to sound plausible. The killjoys at the Van Gogh Museum and other experts believe he was attempting suicide, which is much less poetic but still a mad idea to make the pain better.
Everyone has bad days, bad weeks, bad months even. Everyone has stress. Everyone experiences tragedy, pain, abuse, and loss. But some people have better tools to work through it than others. Some are too young. Some experience far more suffering than can be expected of a person to bear. Some don’t have a support network to share with. Some just bottle it up because that’s how you handle stuff. Some have neural chemical production issues. It is likely there is a spiritual facet for some people (awareness of disconnection from God, demonic attack, etc.). Over time these things rewire the brain a bit, engraining certain thought and emotional processes, and entrap a person in a depressed state. I’m proof that one can have a reasonably happy life, supportive family, rewarding career, normal childhood, no overly traumatic experiences and yet still be plagued by depression.
Each person experiences depression differently, but there are some common themes (see the Mayo Clinic link below). My own experience is as follows: From time to time a chaotic vacuum of emotion infests me. It sucks up joy, pleasure, hope, and energy. In its place there is a swirling sense of something being very wrong, but no identifiable feelings to go along with it most of the time. There are occasional confusing feelings of rage deep down but the most that comes to the surface is irritability. Usually it is just a overwhelming malaise. I am just so tired and everything is hard. People require too much energy for more than a few minutes. I ignore my own children and wife (I seriously don’t know why they kept me around when I was such a negligent father and husband for so long). I bury myself in distractions. I play video games, mess around on my computer, eat too much, check out porn, drink too much, buy stuff I don’t need or even really want. I just need to pass the time and make whatever unidentifiable thing it is that is bothering me be quiet. My stomach is an absolute mess of acid reflux. I can’t sleep; trackless thought keeps swirling. I’m irritable. Motivation, concentration, and willpower vaporize. I get little done at work and at home, which doesn’t make me feel any better. Reading the Bible, prayer, songs of praise are all forced, difficult and hollow feeling. Plus I’m feeling guilty from the sin I use to distract myself. I can rouse myself to pray in an emergency but otherwise my connection with God is often just academic. I go from being a skeptic to a cynic as I look around me and easily see the negative but struggle to see the good in people and institutions. I can’t trust myself to accurately perceive things in interpersonal relationships because I begin to become paranoid a bit, overly sensitive to any hint of negativity and interpreting actions and words of my loved ones in a most uncharitable way. I have flashes of my best self and I can trot it out for short periods of time while in the midst of an episode for a date, visitors, meetings, etc., but it takes a great deal of effort and I can’t keep it up for long.
A couple years into having these episodes, I recognized some of the symptoms and sought treatment. Antidepressants. There was some trial and error before finding one that worked without much in the way of side effects. How effective was it? It kept me mostly functional. I still had bad days but it gave me breathing room and more good days. But I wasn’t getting better, just more functional than when off the drugs.
I had good days, weeks, even months, but the low times always come back. I told myself it is just stress from some big things I was going through and I’ll get through it. But it is like the stock market in a bear season. There are ups and downs, but invariably the downs are greater than the ups and the overall track is down. I needed to increase the dose every few years. One doctor had suggested counseling and even gave me some names of Christian psychologists in the area. But I thought I was too busy and I was mostly functional (it is amazing how we normalize things when exposed to them, regardless of how bad they are, over a long enough time). It eventually gets to the point that during the low times I can hardly concentrate enough to even bear to watch a tv show, let alone get real work done. I begin to have suicidal thoughts, to desire death, waking up disappointed to still be alive, hoping for not too painful accidents. These feelings are uninvited and scary. They are entirely unreasonable. The chaos that is also a void inside me is now so noisy and unbearable that I drink myself to sleep every night for a few months. In my desperation I would listen to the Bible while drinking myself to sleep, trying to get something positive in me.
It was my wife who finally made me get help. She called me out on the drinking. She didn’t know how bad the depression had really gotten, didn’t know where the drinking was coming from. But she insisted I get help of some kind. I knew where the drinking was coming from. I found the email with those psychologists my doctor had recommended, Googled them, and called the one whose search results annoyed me the least.
Counseling from a quality counselor with whom I meshed well with in terms of personality and values has been the best thing that has happened to me in a long time. He was an older gentleman who had been a monk, decided it wasn’t for him, got married and had a bunch of kids, taught philosophy, and then decided to help people as a psychologist. Apparently I was the first client who wanted to spend the first session or two getting to know him as well as him knowing me. I just wanted to know who this was I was talking to. It helps inform how I communicate and I just like to know. Over several sessions we talked through what is important to me, my background, my childhood, my marriage, my kids, my career, friendships, and many other things. I continued to take antidepressants because I did need them to be functional and have the breathing room to seek healing. But through counseling we worked to identify sources of depression to address, begin to bring those feelings to the surface, and identify how I continue to add to my depression, along with some other stuff before I could start to get better.
Depression is anger. Anger at a situation or person(s) that been pushed way down inside and has festered into something else and is now turned inward. In my case, as I looked back over my life with counseling I could see a pattern of rejection of others matched by a repression of any reaction by myself. As a young child I was an outsider due to my lineage (I was not a local yokel) and the local kids wanted to keep it that way at church and at school. It didn’t help that I was nerdy and unathletic compared to the local farm boys. I didn’t think it was worth it to bother others with my “minor” social problems and so rarely complained as far as I remember. I hate to ask for help of any kind even still. Additionally, I don’t like to play games I can’t win, including social ones. So I kept my problems to myself and stopped trying to make friends in groups, only being friends with those who came to me, which were not many. I also adopted a faulty belief about the place of the heart. Being smarter than the average bear, I embraced the idea that the mind is the thing that matters and that feelings are unimportant. Of course I did want to be included and valued by the pack. We are social animals, after all. In my heart of hearts, I knew I was awesome and ought to be accepted and wanted to be accepted, but I was not and this was an outrageous injustice.
I still cared about other people throughout my life. Deeply. But I was a mostly one-way street, even as I am getting toward middle-aged. I wanted to help, but not to be helped. I had a misguided desire to be loving by not burdening others. Additionally, I hate to ask for help. You see, to ask for help, to share one’s own sorrows and angers, even if “minor,” is to be vulnerable and weak. Funny thing though, people are really happy at first to find someone who listens and supports them. But when there is no reciprocation, when no help is requested back, the relationship does not deepen and drifting apart at any time can be an unexpected, easy, quick process. Lengthy, quality, supportive relationships were not common.
I began to experience some things later in life that made it possible for these stored up feelings from childhood to leak back out which, along with my lack of tools to adequately deal with difficult experiences (I kept on that habit of repressing my feelings instead of being willing to talk deeply about them with people and never asking for help), led to depression. The first blow was failure. I was going to be a teacher, went through 4 years of college, got great grades, but then was a terrible student teacher. Do you know how bad you have to be to not get an A in student teaching? 14 credits of “not A” knocked me out of graduating with honors as well. Then it was rejection. I was a missionary for a year on a team. While I was not hated, and even liked, I was not made family in the way I thought I should have been. I was incredibly lonely and felt unsupported. Then came love. I met my wife and she began to crack my heart open past what I thought was an open heart. My children kept cracking at that heart. With family then came the stresses of love and family (joining two very different people, arguments, in-laws, children, miscarriages, finances, etc.). Rarely was each new bit of pain or stress actually dealt with in the manner we are designed to live, that is in community. I tried to do it on my own and to put it away.
I don’t do feelings well. Never have. Negative feelings are not to be expressed because I don’t like the way they feel and they cloud things. They lead to confrontations that are unpleasant and I felt I would not win anyway. They are my problems and not important enough to complain about or ask for help. I was always bright and embraced the idea of the mind being most important and feelings were not. So negative feelings got tamped down. But all those feelings of resentment, anger at bullies, anger at exclusion, etc. were still there. I was just ignoring them, stuffing them down, and denying them a target so that those feelings turned into the chaos that is also a void. I did not usually direct my negative feelings at others. No mistreating my wife, beating children, torturing small animals, or commenting on YouTube videos. The only acceptable target is myself. And even then I don’t know what I’m feeling most of the time. It is the churning chaos of stuff that sucks out joy and energy.
I’m still in counseling. I’m not done. But I’m learning to reach out and ask for help. I’m learning to make a point to talk about my hurts, fears, points of anger beyond the surface with those I care for as well as listening to theirs. I’m beginning to feel things now when I’m low. As I begin to work through my modes of dealing with stuff and making an effort to express myself, to share my negative emotions with loved ones my long repressed feelings are leaking out and I don’t have all the tools for negotiating them. Used to be when low I only felt the noisy chaotic void: just no motivation, play games, no sleep, no people, wanting to not exist. Now I feel rage and deep sadness at the same time. I hate everything and want to be held and to be alone. Very strange. Apparently that means I’m on a recovery trajectory. It is true; I’m in a better place now a half year after beginning counseling. I have not been plagued by the suicidal thoughts for some months now. I’m less irritable and far more present for my family. I’m more caring. I get work done occasionally. I actually asked for help with a project at work that was vexing me. And I’ve had some incredibly stressful weeks recently during which I made a point of sharing that stress and pain with a friend and a few family members. I had low times but it hasn’t been the same duration or depths of hopelessness and malaise I had experienced before. My chaotic void still churns within me, but with far less force. Now I have hope (a scary thing in itself) that as I continue to share with friends and family, continue with counseling, and connect with God that my chaotic void will be transformed into endurance, character, and greater hope.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light.”
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to give advice. I have a few links below, but I don’t have much advice from myself. I just want you to know this is a reality and if you are going through it, you are not alone. My only advice: tell friends and family how you feel, don’t scorn the pharmaceuticals, get counseling, & Google is awful for finding good info. You will find much better advice from people who are further along on their journey and those who regularly help others with depression.
Sorry to be all anonymous on you but I work in a field where mental illness is still stigmatized and I don’t need an easy Google search to blacklist me next time I go job hunting. Some of you have probably figured out who’s writing this. I love you, but keep your trap shut. If you wish to comment, especially in an open forum like this or even on Facebook, where your weakest link is your least security conscious friend, use no names.
The best article I’ve found yet to describe depression and how to help a person. It was unfortunately written by someone whom I suspect is a sailor (language warning).