Hello, my name is Stephen, and I live with depression.
If that sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous introduction, it’s intentional. Depression, like alcoholism, is a condition, and it’s something I deal with on a daily basis.
That doesn’t mean I’m “down” or “blue” or melancholy as I’m writing this. You can live with depression without being those things at any given moment. And, conversely, you can be those things without living with depression.
Depression doesn’t always look the same. It’s a cliché that all those who live with depression mope around all day like Eeyore and some can barely drag themselves out of bed. Certainly, this can be the case. I’ve been there. But more often, I deal with depression by doing the opposite: by staying busy.
People who live with depression can be some of the most productive people you’ll meet. At times, they seem to live at an almost frenetic pace. Think of Robin Williams or Wil Wheaton. We often have successful careers, and those who don’t know us well may be shocked to find out we deal with depression. How could I possibly be depressed? I held down an office job for three decades, and I’ve produced a dozen books in the past two years.
But I’ve lived with depression that entire time. In fact, I’ve lived with it as long as I can remember.
It seems like a contradiction. In fact, it seems so different than the kind of depression that keeps you in bed all day that clinicians have created a separate label for it: “high-functioning” depression. Supposedly, it’s less severe. Now, I’m not a clinician, but I know from personal experience that this is utter B.S. Obviously, Robin Williams’ depression, as “high functioning” as it appeared on the outside, was pretty severe.
Depression is depression. Clinicians have fallen into the trap of creating separate labels for the same condition based on the way people react to it. We don’t do this when people manifest different symptoms of the same physical illness, and we shouldn’t do it for depression, either.
To use another analogy, when faced with a dangerous situation, the human fight-or-flight response kicks in. Some people will choose to “fight,” while others will opt for “flight.” Yet, the danger is the same in both cases; the only difference lies in how each individual reacts.
My hunch is that “high-functioning” depression is viewed as less severe for one reason and one reason alone: It’s less visible. It’s more socially acceptable. It’s less ... inconvenient to society as a whole. (Hey, that person ain’t on welfare. It can’t be as bad as all that!). So, it’s easier to brush it under the rug and pretend that everything’s OK.
I’ve always been a highly focused person. I tend to zero in on a task, put my head down and go for it. I dedicate the bulk of my attention to achieving that goal, and I don’t let myself get distracted. I’m driven. That’s the secret to my productivity.
But there’s a downside to this ability: When I focus on something negative, it’s just as liable to take all my attention as that book I’ve worked so hard on. It might be something insignificant, like trying to find a misplaced set of keys, but if it’s a problem I can’t solve, I get stuck looking at it. I start spinning my wheels. I feel like I’m revving my engine while my gears are stuck in neutral. And if the problem remains a problem for any length of time, it becomes a symbol of every other problem I’ve been unable to solve. Then, all of a sudden, all those problems – even those I’m no longer facing – gang up on me to make me feel ...
That’s what I focus on. It’s like a snowball effect. There’s a tendency to overthink and overanalyze every aspect of things in an attempt to reach a solution, to the point that I become stuck inside the problem rather than approaching it from an objective point of view. Eventually, my engine burns out, and I’m left in the unmotivated, can’t-get-out-of-bed state that most people think of as depression.
Which is something I can’t allow myself to do, because I know the world won’t stop turning on my account, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to create even more problems for myself by becoming paralyzed.
That’s where my ability to focus becomes an asset (yes, it’s very much a double-edged sword). Because, once I’ve burned myself out dedicating all my attention on that insoluble problem, I can shift that focus elsewhere: toward a problem I know I can solve; a challenge I know I can meet.
Some people might work on the car. Others might clean house. Me? I tend to write books. The important thing is, it’s a task that’s within my control – something I can use to rebuild my sense of accomplishment and self-worth. At least temporarily.
Robin Williams said that “all it takes is a beautiful smile to hide an injured soul.” But with me, at least, the smile isn’t usually fake. The thought that I’m “making progress” and “doing something productive” puts me in a genuinely good mood, and I’m liable to laugh, crack silly jokes, make funny faces and do all those things genuinely happy people tend to do.
The problem isn’t that it’s fake. The problem is, it doesn’t last.
The moment another scary obstacle appears on my radar screen, my focus is hijacked right back to that dark place of, “Holy hell! What do I do now?” The more often this happens, the easier it is to rush back there at the drop of a hat. So, each time a familiar trigger arises – financial worries, a familiar criticism or whatever – the more quickly I wind up in an almost panicky state, spinning my wheels and revving my engine again.
Even worse, I start anticipating bad news because I’ve received it often enough that I want to be prepared the next time it comes. (Especially if I’m stuck in a pattern I don’t know how to change.) So, at the same time I’m staying busy, trying to keep myself “up,” I’m expending even more energy preparing myself for the next crisis, which I’m sure is just around the corner. It’s not that the happiness I’m feeling isn’t genuine, it’s just that it never lasts.
And I become accustomed to it not lasting. In fact, it becomes more fleeting over time, because I spend more and more of my energy bracing for the next crisis, and less and less actually enjoying the interludes between them.
Instead, I am drawn to perfectionism: The idea that, if I just prepare perfectly for every challenge, I’ll never have to deal with those feelings of fear and inadequacy again. This worked well enough in school: I always prepared for tests thoroughly and arrived on time for class; as a result, I chalked up nearly a 4.0 grade-point average in college. But life as a whole doesn’t work like that. Perfectionism is, ultimately, a fool’s errand. But in the near term, it can still sound better than admitting defeat – even if it does leave you continually on edge.
This may sound more like anxiety than depression, but it’s really just a stage an overall process that’s more like a vicious circle or a roller-coaster ride than anything else. It is exhausting. And the more I engage in it, the more drained I feel.
Clinicians have a name for this, too. They call it “bipolar depression” – an alternating series of highs and lows. But as with the other labels, I don’t find this one particularly helpful. Again, it isn’t really a separate sort of depression, it’s just a way of reacting to it. Most people experience emotional highs and lows depending on how their lives are going. That’s human. Overlaying depression with a common human experience doesn’t enrich my understanding of it; it’s just another way to label people and dismiss what they’re going through.
It may feel helpful to the clinician, but it’s of little use to the person going through it.
Then there’s the idea of drawing a distinction between “chronic” and “situational” depression. In other words: Are you living in a continual state of depression, or are you simply unsettled by temporary circumstances? This is just as unhelpful, because it equates depression – falsely – with the blues or feeling down. It’s like equating alcoholism with drinking. The underlying issue is always there beneath the surface, whether or not it’s triggered by something external: liquor for the alcoholic, a “situational” trigger for someone living with depression.
You can’t deal with any condition effectively by identifying and targeting its symptoms; you have to get to the root of the issue.
One way of dealing with the snowball effect I described above is to rush back into that feeling of fear and anxiety whenever a new crisis – or perceived crisis – appears on the horizon. Another way is to simply avoid it and pretend it doesn’t exist.
There are times when I don’t rush back into a feeling of melancholy when I see a new problem arise – or that same old one, rearing its ugly head yet again. In fact, I do just the opposite: I don’t want to deal with it, so I stay focused on the distraction that’s keeping me afloat (usually writing; sometimes just mundane chores).
Again, these are simply two different reactions based on the same underlying depression: the feeling of fear that I won’t be able to deal with something, and that some sort of catastrophe will befall me as a result. The feeling of being out of control. I can retreat to a place of busyness, or I can withdraw to a place of solitary self-pity.
This is where positivity comes in. Staying positive can be a great tool in keeping depression at bay: Focusing on the good stuff in life has a way of making the bad stuff a little less scary. The people I find deal most effectively with depression are those who remain consistently positive, and I try to do the same myself. But I have to be sure of my motives: Am I staying positive in order to fight depression, or as another means of avoiding the real problem?
Brutal honesty with myself is the only thing that will work to keep me from slipping into the avoidance trap, and that takes a lot of energy, too!
So, what, exactly, is depression? And what’s the best way to deal with it?
To me, depression is an underlying sense of unease that can surface at any given moment. It’s not a single “thing,” but a molten stew: a blend of thoughts and emotions that can include insecurity, fear, self-pity, hopelessness, anxiety and sadness. Perhaps a few other things, too. And in different proportions for different people.
I’m becoming convinced that best treatment for these underlying causes is something I’ve had problems with all my life: faith. It’s a word that’s always led to disappointment for me in the past. Faith in religious dogma? That’s always felt inadequate to me, either too vague to be of use or too specific to apply in any universal sense. People? They’ve let me down repeatedly. Hell, I’ve let myself down (perfectionism doesn’t work).
So, what does that leave?
It leaves the one thing I keep coming back to: faith that I have a purpose here. Faith that I can make a difference. Maybe I won’t be a bestselling author or a prize-winning journalist, an “expert commentator” or a noted historian. But I can make a difference in people’s lives. How do I know? Because I’ve done it. I’ve said a kind word that made a difference. I’ve helped people recall cherished childhood memories. I’ve entertained people with my stories.
I may not be remembered past this lifetime, but the impact I’ve made will live on through the lives of those I’ve touched. And that’s what’s most important.
Yes, I live with depression, but I also have a purpose. That’s something worth believing in.