My family subscribed to Readers Digest when I was growing up, and I read it regularly. We also subscribed to People, which is why I know an odd amount of celebrity factoids (which has served me well once – and only once – at a trivia night. Did you know that Jack Nicholson was raised by his grandparents and thought his mother was his aunt all through his childhood? I did. AND WE WON.). I preferred Readers Digest to People during that time in my life: it felt wholesome, quaint, and old-fashioned, like how I used to consider Normal Rockwell paintings. I liked the impossibly soft paper it was printed on, which felt unlike the boring, regular paper in other magazines in our house. I liked how small and manageable it was, the corny dad jokes sprinkled throughout the publication. It put me at ease.
Just to be clear, I only read the real life danger stories, which were similar to “Rescue 911” in the drama and adrenaline rush. Nothing else in the magazine was interesting in the slightest. But if I wanted it, this other safe, stable, colorblind life awaited me in the pages.
I bring this up because I’ve been trying to figure depression out since I was 11 or 12, when I saw an advertisement for an anti-depressant in Readers Digest that presented depression symptoms in the format we all know and love – “Are you sad? Do you not enjoy activities like you used to? Are you isolating yourself from friends?” And I realized, well yeah, actually. That me.
I remember that year as when I first felt moorless, with no secure connection to another person. Things at home were complicated – my father was sick, and I was mostly in the way. I didn’t have friends that were in my soul that year, and I relied heavily on a newly sharpened humor to stay afloat at school, a lot of superficial strings to others with no weight. There was a new teacher that year, and she was in over her head, and we were relentlessly mean to her. I remember my homeroom teacher cried because she was so disappointed in how disrespectful we were being to this other teacher, and I remember inwardly scoffing at those tears, thinking she was faking to get us to behave better. Things got a little cynical. And thank GOD, I have stayed cynical. Can you imagine existing in this dumpster heap world with just regular old earnestness?
Anyway, no one believed that I was depressed. My mom told me that I couldn’t be depressed because people who were depressed didn’t go to McDonald’s and laugh with their friends. The irony, of course, is that we all know that that is pretty much exactly what depressed people do – eat McDonald’s and laugh with their friends about how terrible and meaningless life is. This is not to throw my mom under the bus. She didn’t understand depression – no one in her world talked about depression or copped to being depressed. They had asylums for people like that then. Now we just have McDonald’s.
In trying to understand depression and my experience of it in years since, I at first mostly came across the ways in which people denied its existence or history, suggesting that in their family culture or larger culture, things like “that” weren’t talked about. “We didn’t talk about that,” is what I heard over and over again, often with a reference to an uncle who may have been depressed, or possibly gay, or maybe it was just drugs? Anyway, he was sent away for a few years. “But you didn’t talk about it.”
What has been striking to me in the past 20 something years of trying to wade into the eye of the depression storm is just how many different people view their culture as the culture who doesn’t deal with mental health issues, or sadness, or any feelings, really. Since forever, I’ve understood that I am Irish-Catholic, and that Irish-Catholic people are stoic, and drunks, and funny, and under no circumstances whatsoever did our ancestors talk about feelings except in song, and even then the song should be about something distant, like your childhood home, or someone dead.
The particular way that the aversion to vulnerability is expressed is unique to all cultures, but the thing is, I have yet to meet someone who, when referencing their experience of depression and their particular culture, say “We as a people fucking dominate talking about depression and anxiety. We’ve just nailed it for centuries.” When I interview clients, or assess a family with co-workers, or read a blog, or chat with friends, time and time and time again, I hear people say that they haven’t been able to process their depression or trauma because their family, influenced by the larger culture, didn’t allow them to do so.
I don’t belabor this point to gloss over the very real discrepancies in accessing medical resources and overall opportunities for health that exist for people of color, nor to suggest that all experiences of mental health or wellness are equally represented or valued in our country. That is not the case, and as a country, we don’t recognize the very real occurrence of race-based trauma that is surrounding us and that we are playing out over and over and over again. What I am saying is that the terror in acknowledging our feelings, and the ways in which we have hurt each other, and the ways in which we might have contributed to one another’s experience of depression or anxiety, is something we have encased as a cultural norm, our very specific culture’s norm. But I think it’s just a very real, and very terrible, part of being human. We suffer, and we cause each other’s suffering, and we don’t want to sit in our own pain, and we don’t allow others to sit in theirs either. Because then we have to sit in ours.
The exception to this might be Italians? They seem to talk a lot.
I’ve been thinking about skeletons in the closet and shame, the secret gardens where addictions grown. Not talking about depression within the family keeps it a secret, but what secret is the depression a reaction to? What are we silently carrying with us that fills us with such loathing that we disconnect from each other? And what do we need to heal to bring us back to each other?
I thought this blog was going to be about depression, and learning how to manage it. I’m coming to understand that now, this blog is about healing. Healing and cynicism.
About six months ago, I was depressed, which was nothing new, but I was also really frustrated with being depressed, because I was doing all of the things you do to get un-depressed. I think I even wrote a blog post complaining about everything I was doing not to be depressed while saying I wasn’t complaining.
Anyway, I got desperate, and I prayed to whatever the energy is that I can feel around me when I am alone and aware. And I said look, you need to show me what I need to heal and what I am not understanding about this depression. And the energy was like, cool. Let’s go.
You know in A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge how much of a dick he was? That’s basically what happened to me, except there weren’t any ghosts, and if I had met Tiny Tim I probably just would have been mean to him because what does he have to be so optimistic about anyway? It’s freezing and you have like 9 siblings to share resources with and no money and you are definitely always going to be bullied at school.
I’m sort of stalling.
What I am avoiding saying is that I was basically guided to an understanding of my own depression in a way that had never been possible before, and in ways that caused me to feel tremendous pain all over again, this time with the gift of distance, and with the understandings and truths that I have spent my adult life accumulating. When I was younger, I used to have this very strong sense that one day, everything would make sense. Or maybe everyone just said that to me and I am making up the feeling. But suddenly everything did make sense, and it was kind of amazing. But it was also overwhelming, because I was 35 years old and saturated in the feelings of being a small child who is lonely and fears she is unloved, who doesn’t think she belongs, who doesn’t feel secure about her place in the world.
Those are tremendous feelings of grief for a small child to have. And I use grief very purposefully, because to feel that way is to mourn the loss of connection to one another, or to God, or to whatever makes your heart hum, that we are born instinctively relying on, and what we continue seeking until we are so hurt that we stop seeking, or we do still seek it, but now it’s tangled and messy and it doesn’t really feel that good, or safe, or secure.
So anyway, now I’m cured.
PSYCH, NO I’M NOT. I’m not at all. But I do have a different understanding of how my depression came to be, which leads me back to several paragraphs ago. What if we were entitled to our sadness and pain, and we were allowed to share it freely, and when we gave it to someone, they said here, this is what you can make with this, or they said, yes, i see this and I believe you, or even if they said nothing at all but sat in silence with us, in the nothing and everything with us, instead of taking it and putting it up high where we couldn’t reach it and saying “that’s not for little kids to play with, it’s not safe” because that’s what their parents told them, and their parent’s parents before them?
And we do that to each other, especially in our families, because we can’t bear the idea that our children have pain. I can’t even read stories anymore about children being abused and I used to fucking watch that shit for hours on TV, because I can’t tolerate the idea that someone might hurt Walker in a way that I have no control over, in a way that exposes how vulnerable he is, in a way that makes me suffer and feel the exquisite pain of being human and intimately knowing loss, and death, and the abrupt shift of what we wanted life to feel like. We don’t want to acknowledge our children’s suffering because we feel it as they feel it, except they need us to fix it, and we don’t know how, because our own pain was taken from away from us because it was too dangerous for us to be around, and because in this family, we just don’t talk about those things.
But, I felt it again. I climbed back up the counters to get to the shelf above the fridge where my mom used to hide the Halloween candy and one time when I opened it, I accidentally knocked over a cookie jar that she kept coupons in and it broke and she cried because my dad had given it to her, and I was a kid again, and this time, the pain was out in the open and saw the light of day and because I could be both the adult and the kid I said, here, here is what you can make with this, and I took it in my hands.