I have a mental illness.
This may be unsurprising to readers of this blog, or to my tweeps. It may be a matter of indifference. Beyond quitting and unquitting my blog, I’m not given to making online declarations. I feel compelled to state it, though–I have a mental illness–publicly, where it will be seen, but on my own quiet corner of the internet, where few will see it. If nothing else, I know it’s here.
I say it now because it dominated so much of my life during the last year. Beginning at about this time in 2015, my mental health has exerted extreme influence on my daily life. You might take that for granted. Of course one’s feelings affect one’s day-to-day experiences. I’m talking about function, though. I somehow remained (mostly) functional for the last twelve months. I got out of bed. I went to work. I paid my bills. I’m not sure how I managed it. I think I diverted my cognitive resources to what I deemed necessities, but doing so came at a cost. I stopped exercising. I socially isolated myself. On some days, I barely spoke to my significant other (whose patience cannot be overstated), not out of coldness, but because the energy wasn’t there.
Officially, I am diagnosed with “major depressive disorder.” As Eric Maisel notes in Rethinking Depression, “depression” is a clinical term that has infiltrated our everyday speech. “Depressed” isn’t a feeling; it’s a description of a state that includes certain feelings. Maisel advises people to instead say “profound unhappiness.” I agree with Maisel that people should try using words other than “depressed” to describe what they’re feeling, but I also think every individual should come up with their own descriptors. (I’ll also continue to use the terms “depression,” “depressed,” and so on, for writing purposes; they’re useful shorthand.)
I’ve concluded that words can at best approximate my feelings. That was a tough lesson. I love words. I attribute power to language. Yet week after week I struggled to make my feelings understood to my therapist, who has been in practice for over 20 years. She confessed that she often didn’t understand what I was trying to communicate. I couldn’t decide if there was something wrong with me or with her. I finally concluded that our experiences had diverged so fully that the vocabulary available to me wasn’t sufficient to make my feelings understood to her.
My therapist and I came closest to understanding during a session last winter. I suggested to her that perhaps images might best communicate my feelings. She agreed. Predictably, I didn’t draw her a picture; I described a scene. I resorted to metaphor:
I’m in the house in which I grew up. It’s empty. I wander from room to room. Sunlight enters the windows and splashes across the floor. Motes of dust float in the light. It is late afternoon, almost evening, summertime. The sky is cloudless, a rich blue. Infinite. Shadows stretch across the lawn. Long shadows, golden light, empty rooms.
That’s how I feel. That’s what I carry around with me. I struggle to be present in my daily life because I’m wandering those empty rooms.
When I began working with my current therapist, I used imagery to describe a previous bout of depression. I told her the how the lines and shadows on a brick building might evoke a kind of “infinite sadness,” an unhappiness tinged by a kind of awe. On a rainy day I might feel “melancholy,” a gentler feeling. Or, on the sidewalk at night, watching the traffic, stop lights, headlights, street lights–light, darkness, light–I might feel profound loss. As Cormac McCarthy writes in Cities of the Plain, “Above all a knowing deep in the bone that beauty and loss are one.” My therapist replied that my depression sounded very “sensuous.” Thinking of sensuous as a synonym for “sexy,” I was at first taken aback. But I realized that she meant that my experiences feelings were informed mainly by my senses.
The paradox of depression is that it’s not wholly negative. People caught in its depths can’t see that, nor should we expect them to. And of course no one wants to be sad, or profoundly unhappy, or whatever we choose to call it. But for those of us who begin to come out of the other side of depression, even though we may return, we know that it cultivates certain strengths. There’s nothing wrong with feeling things so strongly. Depression can improve empathy. I’ve approached people more cautiously over the last year, aware that I can’t really know what they’re feeling, and I don’t want to contribute to what might be their hidden sadness. And, in my experience, depression’s horrors, it also makes me more aware of life’s poetry, of the achingly beautiful.
The rooms are empty, but there’s light in them. Perhaps I’ll make it outside the house yet.