O P I N I O N
I dragged the dead Christmas tree from our living room into the backyard. Hands sticky with sap, I knew what was on its way. It’s cellular in some senses. My physical body knows—days of a lack of appetite, an incessant need to sleep.
As my wife wrapped the Christmas ornaments in newspaper and placed them in the cardboard box we’ll keep them on a storage shelf in the basement—the basement room where a broken treadmill sits beside a punctured air mattress—I watched our neighbors walk their dog, our pug Buster apoplectic, barking behind glass window.
The neighbors seemed happy enough, bundled in their winter coats, their black Labrador leading them down the street.
My wife smiled at me as she wrapped a silver spoon with our 17-year-old daughter’s name and the year of her birth, and my wife rolled it in newspaper for safe keeping. My eyes began to well up.
Here it comes. I knew.
This is nothing new or novel. One could set a watch to my bouts of depression. They seem to show up at the changing of seasons—the winter and summer solstices, the Fourth of July and the beginning of November are the times of my typical meltdowns of melancholy.
The symptoms, I know well. It starts with a general disinterest, an indifference toward the things that typically keep me passionate and moored to my life, family and work and writing and reading and laughter. Then it manifests in irritability, an agitation that stems from my core.
Next comes a ponderous feeling of futility, the incessant idea that nothing matters; it’s all a weighted blanket of existential dread that sits on my chest.
I’m going to assume that anyone who lives with depression knows exactly what I mean, but we’re also a somewhat clandestine crew. Many might assume that people with clinical depression are clad in dark clothing, alienated from humanity and clinging to copies of Camus’ The Stranger.
It couldn’t be further from the truth.
Most of us put on our friendly faces and go about the business of living our lives, one foot in front of the other. We have no other choice. When asked how we’re doing—a mostly mundane inquiry—we’ll tell you we’re fine. We’re great. We’re waiting, like others, for the weekend and rest, a good dinner or a movie on the couch.
But underneath our skin, it’s completely different.
Here’s what many people don’t understand about depression: The last thing we want is pity, and the scariest thing is the prospect of someone discovering our secret. We exist in a world where depression is stigmatized, dismissed as apocryphal, and we’re told to stop being negative.
Personally, I’ve worked my way through the Rolodex of remedies. Many of us—myself included—initially try to self-medicate, and sadly, the tragic consequences are obvious. In psychological terms, it’s called a “dual diagnosis” and it’s the equivalent of a snake eating itself.
I’ve tried medications as well. I remember a doctor who hasn’t prescribed me an SSRI—Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, I’ve tried them all. For millions of people, they’re successful, but they’ve never worked for me. They’ve only left me feeling like I’m moving through my days lodged squarely in the center of a cotton ball.
However, there are also some fringe benefits to depression, especially if you’re creative. There’s no doubt that some of my most fecund creative times have accompanied my emotional lows. I wish this wasn’t the case, but I’d be disingenuous to say otherwise.
As I’ve gotten older—I’ll be 46 years old in March—I’ve come to expect and anticipate this most unwelcome guest, mostly due to the fact that depression is a part of me, hard-wired. While I’m happy to play the merry-prankster, spit sardonic wit, and assume the role of the guy smiling with his beer, inside me it’s a different story.
Late one night, a few years ago, I tried to explain my depression to my cousin Jaime, a woman I love as much as anyone in the world. My explanation, I felt, fell short. So I wrote a poem.
“Explaining Depression to My Cousin”
It’s melodrama shot execution-style on a sidewalk.
It’s a pit in your stomach stuffed with fluff.
It’s two a.m. with morning’s foot pressed to its throat.
It’s me grabbing your hand and crying on your shoulder.
It’s words desperate to find a sentence that loves them.
It’s an airless dream then waking, suddenly, suffocated.
It’s not losing a job, a loveless marriage or the desertion
of some childhood dream that once made you smile.
It’s the pill you have to take twice a day, knowing
it’s not resolved with exercise or diet or thinking
the positive thoughts that positive people think.
It’s mustering the courage to wake up tomorrow and dress,
one stupid leg after the next laborious leg, and press on.
[Originally published in As It Ought To Be]
The box of Christmas ornaments is now on a shelf in a room next to where I write this. My wife is upstairs in bed, sleeping. In a cardboard box, there’s an ornament, a silver spoon with my daughter’s name and the year of her birth, and it’s the saddest and most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.