I have suffered from depression since I was roughly seven years old and yet depression is still not treated as what it is, an often curable but sometimes fatal progressive illness, just like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and even cancer. If only at seven they had known what it was, I would have gotten so many more McHappy Meals.
As an adult, I know I’m depressed when I don’t even want to masturbate, when I don’t have the heart to turn on the new season of House of Cards, and when I look out at my view of the ocean in Malibu and think “Meh, what are those fucking dolphins so happy about?”
If I had cancer, concerned citizens would come out of the woodwork to bring over potluck meals, pop over to check how I’m doing or offer to drive me to a shrink’s appointment, when I can barely walk from my bed to the toilet. If it were cancer instead of depression, people probably wouldn’t judge me because sometimes I can’t do laundry. If the nausea from chemo were making it impossible to get out of bed, someone would be over here like a shot, playing basketball with my youngest, and reading stories to my oldest, as opposed to advising me to take a walk. “You’re sick from chemo? AGAIN? You just need to exercise!”
If depression were cancer, people would understand that when I say “I need help with my kids tonight, I’m too sick and I don’t want them to see me like this,” even though my hair isn’t falling out, it’s real. Remember when you said you’d “be there for me,” well here I am in jail, and I’m calling you for bail money. I’m using my coupon, cashing in that chip, and you are my “Get out of jail free” card, and if you’re busy and just want to send me “love and light” or “pray for me” that’s sweet, but I was looking for something a tad more practical, like taking out the trash?
Sure the fatality rates for cancer are higher than depression, but it all depends what kind and at what stage. There is a one in ten chance I will commit suicide in this lifetime, which is greater than the chance for rain in Los Angeles. I have a terminal disease too, it just doesn’t come with a cute rubber bracelet, a black-tie dinner or a funky ribbon.
I’ve done more therapy than Woody Allen (and look how that turned out) and tried every medication and natural cure on the market. Yet people still feel they have to suggest meditation, vitamin therapy or yoga. I do yoga—though that didn’t stop me a while back from throwing my yoga strap over the closet rod, and testing to see how much it would hurt to hang myself. Zen, right?
Yet once a week someone says something inane like, “You know, I read that depression is anger turned inwards.” Really? You’re kidding? I can’t imagine if I came up to someone with a Stage 4 brain tumor and told them, “If you processed your anger, your tumor would disappear.” Even after turning it inwards, that person would have plenty of anger left over for me, and justifiably so.
Meditation certainly helps, but some days that involves sitting quietly for twenty minutes and observing your misery. “Don’t look now, but here’s that suffering again, cool!” Tell a person with Pancreatic Cancer to spend twenty minutes trying not to think about their disease and that all they have to do is “detach.” Buddhism can be a real cunt.
Someone with a cancer diagnosis is not shamed, and yet I find that often enough when I tell people I’m depressed, they look at me funny, like I should keep that icky stuff to myself. No one congratulates me on managing to take a shower, after three days of not, or stacking the dishwasher when all I want to do is self-harm. (Fortunately I am learning to congratulate myself and surround myself with people who do.)
Nobody would tell a Breast Cancer sufferer that it’s her (or his) fault for using aluminum deodorant. The first response to a diagnosis of Stomach Cancer isn’t “Oh well, you should have eaten organic, because those pesticides are just full of carcinogens.” And yet people still think that self-harming (a common by-product of depression and many mood disorders) is just a way to get attention. The reality is that self-harm is a flawed coping mechanism, and it takes a lot of courage to share it with someone. Trust me when I tell you, I’m not having “I self-harmed today” stitched on a pillow.
Sometimes just coming to sit with someone who is sick is a huge act of service, yet when it comes to depression, people often don’t see the urgency. About a month ago, I called about twenty different people in dire need of company, before one said she’d be right over, and I felt lucky to find her. I understand that people have kids and lives, but it may be a few times a year that I really need that kind of supervision, and if it were cancer related no one would think twice.
Some of the people I called, treated me the next day as if I were “crazy” and needed 90 days of rehab, or a week in the psyche ward because I admitted I’d self-harmed, instead of seeing how far I’d come. I just need help sometimes, and that may be “needy,” but when someone’s white blood cell count gets too low (or too high) people don’t refer to them as “needy” if they want support. “There she goes again, with that attention-seeking immune system…”
The stigma of mental illness is less than it used to be, but still way too high. Depressed ex-NFL players generally shoot themselves in the chest, so that scientists can study their brains and figure out how they are different. I wish I could do a cross section of my brain to show that I physically feel things more than “normies.” That would be a great after dinner party trick.
Sometimes I think that’s why depressed people feel the need to make suicidal gestures—it’s the only way to let people know that we’re not fucking around and really need help managing our lives. Otherwise a call for help is just treated like a fire drill “Don’t worry about that piercing sound, she does this every week. Just file outside as if nothing is happening, it should switch off soon enough.”
For the record, I’m not depressed right now (just the standard, low-level malaise) and if I were I wouldn’t be able to write this. I do not feel sorry for myself for having a mental illness (for having children, maybe) and like a cancer patient, I don’t want to be pitied. Let’s all just have compassion for each other’s suffering, no matter what it looks like. And take a depressed person literally, next time they say, “Please help me, I’m dying here…”