What do we share when we stop hiding ourselves away? This is, of course, the internet, social media, the shame over guilt culture of appearance and perfection, and in these realms we skirt the truth, muddy it up, maybe forgo it all together. What happens when we decide, I’m going to share it? We’re free. We jump, we fly. Maybe some will knock the wind out of us, scoff or judge or shudder or feel embarrassed or pity on our behalf. No bother. Let them be. I’ll take the risk. I’ll just take it today.
I have suffered from what the doctors call depressive disorder since I was ten years old. I imagine it could be called a great many things – humanness, hyper-sensitivity, being an empath, being an addict, being a French painter or Russian novelist… but for the sake of clarity, let’s call it what it often gets diagnosed as – depression and mental illness. Throw in alcoholism and eating disorders and you’ve got what is a fairly common recipe. The rooms of twelve-step programs are bursting at the seams in every major city across the world. Because we do suffer. It is human. As my favorite poet Sharon Olds wrote, do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
Experiencing depression doesn’t mean we’re ungrateful or perpetually wallowing – most of us would love to feel better forever, to never have to feel the haunting scepter of mental illness again – we don’t choose it or cause it and we can’t cure it. But we can tend to it and work with it and and let it be a regular catalyst for growth, empathy, service, transformation.
I don’t know why the black wave starting falling down on me when it did. Perhaps puberty, perhaps my parents divorce and my difficult relationship with my father. Maybe it was something genetic passed down through the generations, or maybe it was just my little state of being that formed in the womb. For whatever reason, possibly all of the above, at a very young age I started to feel afraid, anxious and deeply sad. I was and still am highly affected by the emotion and pain of others. I would watch sports games with my family and feel too heartbroken for the losing team. I remember my mom taking me to see The Phantom of the Opera when I was in fifth grade, and I simply could not handle the suffering of the phantom and the overall tragic atmosphere of the play. I felt sick with sadness for weeks.
Like many of us who are suddenly afflicted with feelings beyond our control, I started attempting to control my environment, to keep my friendships solid and static and ward off threats and surprises at every turn. This in fact backfired and caused me to push others away through neediness and subsequent defenses. And as I got older, it became about drinking and drugs. Changing my outsides. Seeking validation. Anything that could possibly shift the way I felt within, especially if it was expedient, I ran toward. There was no “inside job” yet. The saddest part of those of us who suffer like this is that on our quest to attempt to take care of ourselves and feel better, we self-destruct with faulty coping mechanisms and draw toward us deeper traumas. Whether through addiction, isolation, or poor relationships, we betray ourselves and hurt more. And you better believe that eventually we get angry. Second arrows, thirds and fourths.
I haven’t always been depressed. It has lifted for me at many intervals, sometimes for years at a time. I have functioned well without therapy and medication (though I do tend to return to therapy, as it helps to have someone to pour my heart out to.) What tends to remain, though, even when I’m free from the black soup, is a fear-based perception of the world and a tendency toward addiction. Those factors don’t go away, they cannot be “cured,” though they can be ameliorated. I have always had a great capacity for joy and hope and loving deeply, for thawing out others with my warmth and care, but it can ice over fairly often with the debris of suffering. Recovery thus becomes about regularly squeegee-ing off that ice.
Since I was fifteen or sixteen, when I first became aware that living life the way I thought I was “supposed” to wasn’t cutting the mustard, I have tended to myself with a variety of healing modalities: therapy, medication, twelve-step programs, yoga and meditation, long walks, tending to animals, music, dance, reading and writing. Certain periods of living in service have been of great benefit and catalyzed constant revolution: being an older sister and teaching middle and high school students. Such love and fond memory comes from that work. Yes, these are the practices that helps me clear the way. The trick is that I have to keep doing it. There’s no third act where it all comes together. You don’t pray once. Life keeps going.
The struggle of life has always deepened my capacity to love and connect with others, so long as I don’t let it shut me down. But I do often forget how to tend to myself. I want to say, no, how are you? and I thus forget how to tell my stories. That is part of why writing is such a precious and sacred form; it will always remain easier to tell the truth here. The move of a pen and click of a keyboard brings clarity and sensibility. Face to face – what if you do not understand this ocean of feeling? The risk of vulnerability is frightening. Even with a therapist, we can sugar coat it, can’t we? It’s not surprising that those who struggle with depression and mental illness often feel immense guilt for not being “easy” and light-hearted. We can be a heavy lot.
And thus we grow codependent and people-pleasing, for we just want to create connection and feel understood, and we fear that if others see the darkness, we’ll be left alone. Lost. And the walls build. The defenses, ever firmer. I sometimes liken the whole shebang of recovery, whatever that means to you, as the continuous softening and opening of the heart. Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield, one of my favorite spiritual teachers and writers, always says that we are not here to self-improve, only to perfect our love. And the opposite of love, hate and resentment, is the nasty by-product of living with depression and addiction, the walls of sharp steel that keep people away and corrode connection. We are here to dissolve resentment and perfect our love. It is a beautiful order, but it’s tall.
I recently became a mother, and here’s the cliche: I have never felt this kind of love before. My son is, well, a great beam of Light. And I deeply enjoy being a mom. The trauma of birth, however, and those early weeks of tending to a crying infant did catapult me back into a stretch of depression. Some of it is hormones. Exhaustion, sure. (Oh, how I fantasize about a weekend to myself at the Four Seasons, getting room service and sleeping for fourteen hours straight.) Some of it is the grief over shedding old skins; I will never be single and on my own again, which is a blessed thing and of course, a great responsibility. Bearing a burden creates both strength and weariness. Some of it is me still adapting to living in a new city away from my family and adjusting to a beautiful, but still fresh relationship with my husband. Change is its own sort of trauma, even when it’s gorgeous.
I don’t know why some of us struggle more than others with our minds. Why some of us live with mean minds that tell us mean stories of worthlessness and being unlovable. In recovery you sometimes hear this type of thinking jokingly referred to as kFUCK radio, or a bad neighborhood we shouldn’t go into alone. For those of us with these strange mental twists, it really is not our fault. Remember what Robin Williams said over and over to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting? There’s a reason for that. (And yet the movies make it simple. Will Hunting learns it’s not his fault and flees Boston to go see about a girl. There’s far more work to do than that.) I thought for so long, and still sometimes think it is my fault, that I am maudlin and morose, self-indulgent. That I just need to get up, toughen up, lighten up, rise up!, but it’s not so straightforward, and it certainly isn’t ever a matter of being stronger. You want to meet someone tough? Ask a sober and striving alcoholic about her life. If it were so simple, then it would be simple. It is not our faults, this mental illness business, and yet it does become clear that no one else can fundamentally fix it – no human power can remove it. So we tend to it with healthy tools, and we learn to do it for a lifetime. We bear the burden and practice gratitude.
This is why the twelve steps are rooted in developing faith and awakening the spirit. We need something larger, something transcendent to rescue us, whether you call it God or Higher Power, whether you’re religious or agnostic, whether you’re praying or, as the woo-woo Angelenos like to say, “manifesting.” Faith, man. It’s something else. What else is there? I had a friend who always said to me, faith will move your stubborn mountains. Just as there is eventually nothing left to do but sleep, what else is there but faith, hope? Nihilism I suppose, but that is one dark sinking ship. A life devoid of meaning is not a life.
I speak with my mom sometimes about feeling overwhelmed by my new life in a new city as a new wife and new mother with new friends and new weather (winter weather) and just everything new, and how I sometimes feel those sad feelings sneaking up on me. With newness we tend to think we can outrun the old. There is no outrunning, only confronting and tending. My mom, if you don’t know her, is not one prone to depression or addiction. She is by far one of the most positive, easy-going, light-hearted people I have ever known. She’s nothing close to an addict – she has two glasses of wine and calls it a night. She was Head Cheerleader, voted Most Popular, Homecoming Queen Patty Simcox, and I mean that as a compliment. She takes it all in stride, cheery and bright.
For a long time it seemed that she would never understand me. But she has grown to see the suffering in her children, in many of her students and fellows of her large community in West Los Angeles, and she has cultivated a stronger semblance of knowing. She reminds me that there is nothing to feel ashamed about and that to seek help and support is brave. No bootstraps plucking here anymore, no rugged individualism. And such a reminder from her reminds me that we have both opened up more from me telling the truth. She has developed a stronger capacity to understand those who suffer more deeply, even if that hasn’t been her direct experience. She has become a better helper through my asking for help. And the world goes round.
When I was teaching middle school, which was both an enjoyable and terribly difficult job for me, I wrote an entire novel, one hundred thousand words, and I worked hard at it. It was the only way I could keep showing up to my career – I had to dive into that creative world. I even shared it with a couple of people. If I were to stop being afraid, there’d be writings about this world of pain, addiction, recovery, God, far more often. I’d be living to tell. I remain somewhat codependent in that I am more concerned with how others might feel than doing what feels right to me. I care what others think. I worry about offending someone or receiving negative feedback. I worry about the stigma still attached to mental illness, that if only those who suffer were stronger, they would feel better. What a lie. Le sigh, I remain a highly sensitive soul. Maybe even cowardly at times. Today, I’ll be brave, and I will tell about it.