When I decide to talk about things outside of the spectrum of the standard themed days here on the blog, Writer Wednesday and Fiction Friday often get the short end of the stick. This weekend has had me thinking a lot on a topic outside of the normal range, so for once Mother Earth Monday is stepping to the sidelines. No one seems to be unaware of the passing of Robin Williams or that it appears to be self-inflicted. A lot of the standard questions and comments seem to be floating around, though for once people aren’t heavily blaming him for his battle with depression. Very few others are afforded that same respect.
I don’t really consider it a disease in the truest sense, unlike many. We seem to call everything a disease these days. Genetic disorders are now called genetic diseases, possibly for reasons of sounding more politically correct. Psychological disorders get the same treatment in our current language. Sure, treating something as a disease means that we can look for ways to help the person through it instead of assigning guilt, blame or some other baggage. At least that’s the theory. It doesn’t seem to go that way in practice in my experience.
What is Depression
So then what is depression if I don’t see it as a disease? That’s tricky. Depression is a state of mind, often caused by the brain slowly adapting to stimuli and resetting its expectation of normal. It is a shift in our body chemistry. Everyone suffers from it to a degree at some point in their life. You get a terrible disappointment or terrible pain. You feel like you are at the bottom of the world while going through it. And then you start to recover. Our brains are funny like that. No matter what our situation, we reset to a neutral state.
Happiness studies prove this out, as do many stories of the lottery winners. If you look at those with nothing and those with a lot, most of the time they fall into the same range of happiness. Money can’t buy happiness, not because it can’t get us things, but because our expectations rise and fall to meet the level of what we can afford. When you win the lottery, you just expect to have more and spend accordingly. You are happier for a short time, then things level out. When the money goes away, you are depressed and frustrated, but it levels out too (though not without regret).
The longer lasting version of depression is where the chemicals aren’t rebalancing to neutral. Instead, the ‘normal’ setting of your brain is in the depressed range. It can be worked though and overcome, but it takes a tremendous effort and the battle is an unending one. You don’t ever really get better. Medication can help regulate it (adjusting the chemistry in your brain), but missing medication drops you like a rock into the original state. Therapy can help, but it can be like chipping away at a mountain with an ice pick.
I suspect a lot of people don’t quite understand that. It isn’t easy to change your natural state of being. It would be like asking someone else to go from a generally pleasant view of the world to being the perfect optimist. They could keep up the positive vibe for a while, but over time it proves only a mask. Maybe if they worked hard enough, they would become a bit more optimistic, but they would never be that person on the inside who never sees any wrong in the world regardless of what they were managing to show on the outside. It would be a mask at best, and an unhealthy one at that.
Everyone finds their own way to cope with it. Almost all try to work through it, even when it seems there isn’t any way of it ending. For quite a few, sarcasm and humor seem to be popular ways to express ourselves. Some turn to things like cutting as a way to have some control over what they feel. Some eat for pleasure as a way to escape their pain. Others dive into forms of escapism. More than a few use avoidance (of peers, of situations, etc) when there is something that might send them into a panic or that they know will feed the depression. The thing is, none of these feeds the depression less. For those who have it extremely badly, suicide looks like a reasonable option. Escape from the pain or perhaps freeing others from the trouble of dealing with them.
And there is another part of the equation. Those with depression generally know how they are acting and how it makes others feel. They know that they can make others feel drained and depressed and that most people are driven away over time when the depression doesn’t seem to go away. The things done for depression are often selfish, but no less so than anyone else. Courage isn’t part of the equation. We run from what causes us pain. Facing it day after day is courageous, but how long does one do that before the toll is taken? If every day, your loved one mopes about and doesn’t seem to ever get out of their funk, you eventually start to get worn down. Its easy to say you should still be there for them, but it isn’t easy to do. It’s the same way for the one who is depressed. Every day they are dealing with something that seems to have no end. Everyone breaks eventually. Some recover their composure and move forward, some don’t. This is true on either side of the equation.
It takes an amazing person to keep being there for someone when they have depression in the clinical sense. It takes an amazing person to stand up to depression day after day. It’s too easy to blame the person who walked away from the person with depression as being cold and uncaring. It’s too easy to offer advice that would only work on someone whose baseline normalcy isn’t a depressed state. No one on either side is to be blamed for it. We are all bound by our natures.
Over time, with work and with help, depression can be controlled. It never really seems to go away and will flare up again and again, but it can be held in check. The sufferer doesn’t need you to advise them or to pity them. It’s hard not to offer advice when someone is venting about how things are for them, but what they really need is just for someone to listen without judgment. Someone who they can let go of some of the burden with and who doesn’t try to ‘fix them’. Know that nothing is going to change the baseline of how they feel, but that letting it out can give them space to breath.
Everyone’s Depression is Different
Also understand that each person is different. Anything or nothing I have said might apply to a single individual. We each suffer in our own ways and we each need our own unique things. Lest you think I am advising from the side, as so many do, I should clarify that members of my family suffer from the difficulty of depression and anxiety and more directly, I do as well. I have dealt with it steadily for several years, with the last two or three being the most difficult. I kept it in check alone successfully for a time and it was all but held in stasis for a time as well. With the recent return in full force, I count myself very lucky.
I have what so few have. At my worst moments, when I feel like the world is trying to break me and that I am lost in a dark pit, my wife stands as a candle in the dark. She doesn’t offer advice. She give optimistic catch phrases. She holds me and she listens. That’s all. There is never a moment of judgment or anger. All she does is give her love and her attention to me when I need it most, and that’s what keeps me afloat when I find myself adrift in an ocean of despair and self-loathing. When I finish letting it out, she asks nothing of me in return. If she does anything at all beyond this, it is to work on dealing with whatever has set me into that state while I recover myself.
I wish that everyone who suffered from depression had someone like her. I can’t make that happen. All I can do is use the one tool I have been given in this world. I can write my thoughts out and present them to you. If you suffer from depression, then perhaps you might find something in what I have written that helps for a time. If you know someone who suffers, then perhaps you will find a way in yourself to give them a simple ear to listen without trying to ‘fix them’. Whatever the case, at the very least you have one more perspective on the nature of the ‘disease’.
All images include a link to the original work. All of these comics are owned and created by Clay as part of an ongoing series of webcomics regarding depression and how it feels for those who suffer through it.