No one wants to talk about Uncle Bob’s chronic depression or why it is that Aunt Sue refuses to travel anywhere by boat. Grandpa’s electric shock therapy and Grandma’s time in the state mental hospital are seldom the focus of conversation. On rare occasions, a distant cousin will hint to some less-than-glamorous faction of family history after one too many wine spritzers at the annual family reunion. A new, married-into-the-family member will allude to the fact that someone has “issues,” the comment delivered with a tinge of sarcasm, as humor is always easier to stomach than the cold hard truth that some of us come, quite frankly, from families of wackos.
What’s worse than acknowledging this history, is admitting to yourself and the loved ones nearby, that some level of mental illness has quite possibly set up shop inside of us as well. Some insist that we’re just not trying enough alternative remedies to cure whatever ails us. Something’s wrong? Fix it! Immediately! Buy something! Or let go of attachments! Change your outlook on life! Manifest the happiness that resides within! You need a detox diet! Smudge your bedroom with sage! You create your own reality! We’re all supposed to be happy! Everything is so good! We can manifest joy! Try harder!
Sure, some people are “cured” with didgeridoo sound healings, 5-HTP supplements and tapping all over their faces while chanting positive affirmations. That is super great for them, as they are likely not suffering from the gnarly chronic depression and anxiety I’m referring to. For some of us, color therapy and yoga don’t make it go away.
Not that we don’t try. Some of us try everything because we’re afraid of being judged by our “liberal, do-good” communities if we take medication. We undergo hypnotherapy, past life regression, tarot readings. We visit shamans and get acupuncture treatments. We’ll become cyclists, participating in every 100-mile ride we can find, attempting to out-ride whatever keeps grasping at us with it’s viscous claws. We do eight million sun salutations. We drive two days through the desert to see the Dalai Lama. We borrow our friends’ light therapy boxes, eat mounds of Omega-3 fatty acid-rich food. Sometimes we give up and eat two pounds of bacon in a weekend. We’ll churn our own butter and stand alone in the kitchen devouring it by the spoonful before smearing it onto chocolate cake that we often consume while soaking in the bathtub, reading Pema Chödrön, listening to Iron and Wine. Crying. Defeated. Our ulcers hurt.
After a break up, we’re expected to cut our hair and pull on a new tight-fitting red dress to chase away any residual sadness with a series of one-night stands. If we lose a job, it’s off to happy hour to pound back some pints, listen to jokes and head on our way to Craigslist where we send countless résumés off with the naïve optimism of new liberal arts graduates. If a loved one dies, we get two to three bereavement days—if we’re lucky—to pick up the pieces, get the kids to school on time, drag ourselves back to the office and start filing, making non-fat lattes for underweight women or returning to classrooms full of screaming preschoolers. We smile while finger-paint gets smeared down our legs. “It’ll be good for you to be back at work,” our well-meaning friends say. “You need to move on.”
And aside from the situational depression or anxiety we’re all plagued with when relationships end, loved ones die, or our homes foreclose, some of us are just wired differently. We have stunted nervous systems. Miswired synapses. Surges of imbalanced chemicals. Physical and emotional trauma that we never really get over. Even when the sun shines its glorious brightness on our faces, the bills are paid and the people in our lives really, really love us, some of us can’t help it. It’s not that we are ungrateful. We just hurt. A lot.
On top of whatever predispositions we’re born with, maybe something horrible happened to us. Maybe we have chronic health issues. Maybe someone we thought would be here forever suddenly died. Maybe we thought it was our fault. Maybe we visited a place so dark that we couldn’t see anything but the trauma or our loved one’s absence and maybe when we came back, part of that place stuck to us like a layer of soot across our eyes. Or an iron weight in our throat. A shadow that filters how we feel and think about the world, tinging everything with shades of gray.
And we don’t want to talk about it. Or we do, but we’re afraid to.
Some may fear that talking about our long-standing relationships with mental illness may set up road blocks. We’re afraid that if we tell our lovers something awful that someone did to us—and how it affected us—that they won’t touch us anymore. And oh my God, we need to be touched. We’re afraid we’ll lose our friends, our jobs, our families. We’re worried that our depression or anxiety or PTSD or struggles with addiction will become scapegoats for someone else’s bad choices. If we’re women, we are viewed as crazy, hormonal bitches. If we’re men, we need to “man up” and stop being pussies. If we are children, we just get lost.
So we stay home and cry on the floor of our daughter’s bedroom and listen to Elliot Smith for hours when we find out someone we love killed himself. We spend days alone in the woods with a bag of pumpkin seeds and Emergen-C packets after we watch our friend die of cancer. Some of us cut ourselves. Some of us overeat. Some of us starve ourselves. We poison ourselves with substances of every sort. We do these things because we don’t think we deserve better. Or we don’t know how to stop. We’ll switch our phones off, turn out the lights and crawl under dirty sheets with tiny bottles of essential oils, just waiting for what feels like a blizzard of shit to pass. Waiting and waiting and waiting, sometimes hating ourselves for not feeling “normal” and for feeling too much about everything, all of the time.
Sometimes we take lovers who we know will break our hearts as more often than not, we’re attracted to the same dark madness that we see in ourselves. And sometimes we try really, really hard to have “normal” relationships with “normal” people who have no idea who we are inside. And we’ll feel guilty about who we are and we’ll think—and even believe—that we’re not good enough so sometimes we’ll sabotage it because being alone, watching documentaries about Darfur every weekend is more comforting than admitting who we are.
Sometimes, some of us will make the most of it. I will write such great poetry when I come out of this. And we’ll overindulge. We might start smoking because it seems dark and sexy, even though it makes our stomachs hurt, and we’ll sit on the front porch alone, with a cigarette, a bottle of Chianti and a bowl of kalamata olives, coughing, watching the sun sink, the muffled sound of recorded violins drifting out a nearby window. Sunset and empty wine bottle as metaphors. Unbearable loneliness pressed against our chests. Sometimes we’ll believe we’re on a mystical spiritual journey. Maybe we are. Who even knows what that means?
And the truth is, we don’t all make it. Some of us will relapse, overdose and die. Some of us will drink too much and never wake up. Some will drive off of cliffs. Some of us will take too many pills or use a gun or a knife. Some of us will check into a hospital and never come out. This will chip at us and we’ll feel guilty that we’re still here. Our bodies transform into glass. Already cracked, we hold onto fear of catching one last pebble that will drop us, shattering us to glossy bits across the floor.
“Is this where I am heading? What if I can’t find my way out of this? What if I end up like her? Like him? Dead?”
We’re all—us, the chronically depressed and anxiety-ridden—thinking it, though no one will say it out loud.
For the lucky ones, we learn to adapt and stockpile an arsenal of tools to help us get through the black holes that become regularly featured guests in our lives. We settle comfortably into a cuckoo’s nest. It’s a part of us. If we have money, we fly to Belize and smoke weed on sailboats. Or we stay home and get help in the form of therapists and pills and good food and learn to turn down the inner voice that tells us we suck. When that doesn’t work, we learn to call our friends. When our friends aren’t home, we learn to call hotlines or take meds or hold it together until the kids go to bed and then sit in the dark and let our minds go to bad places, remembering that we’ve been there before and its OK to visit as long as we have some sort of road map to lead us back. We watch Fight Club and Children of Men and soothe ourselves with David Attenborough-narrated ocean documentaries while clinging to hot water bottles in order to feel warmth—tricking our minds into believing we’re not alone. Then we crawl into bed with our kids, holding their tiny hands while they sleep. Their breath keeps us from unraveling.
Sometimes we blast Public Enemy and Crimpshrine and scream. We tear everything off of the walls and paint them red. Or Green. Or gray. We read somewhere that changing our environment can change our moods. We’ll break shit and burn things and chop wood or take a mandolin that we can’t even play and sit and watch our chickens scratch and peck at leftover salad. And we’ll cry.
We still try to help each other, delivering tacos by bike, driving each other to doctors and funerals and the unemployment office. We’ll send inappropriate texts to make each other laugh out loud at work or on the bus. We sleep on kitchen floors with each other while we wait for inevitable bad news to come. We cook together and for each other and never turn away.
And, if we’re really fortunate, we can wipe some soot from our eyes and see it all as a twisted and necessary gift. Not like a new watch or a first edition autographed copy of our favorite novel, mind you, but a gift nonetheless, one that gives us the super power of loving with the passion of fifty sex-crazed poets. One that helps us find more than cracked sand dollars and polished glass as we sift through sand at the beach. One that reminds us how incredible and beautifully disastrous life is when the shadow lifts for that month or year and we can smile again and all of our depressed friends think we are total fuckers.
We know it will come back, like an audit or a flat tire late at night—unexpectedly, ruthlessly—so we enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.
Our therapists say we’re doing OK, that we are actually coping quite well in our cuckoo’s nest.
And one day, with what feels like scratching the silver from a winning lottery ticket, we’ll wake up and actually believe it’s true.