I’ve been trying to write something like this for a couple of years, but it has been difficult for me to find the right words. I am not sure if I have, even now, but I think it is important that I try.
When I was diagnosed with depression, it was late summer in California, and I was wearing an itchy skirt, sweating slightly in an air-conditioned doctor’s office. The psychiatrist asked me a bunch of questions, wrote a couple things down, and then called in a prescription to the pharmacy. “You’re depressed,” she told me. And despite everything, despite expecting to hear her say it and knowing that it was the truth, it still confused me to hear it out loud. “I’m what,” I said.
For weeks after, I could not shake the sense of alienation or the feeling that something was terribly wrong with me. When I was finally able to tell my best friend, she told me that she got sad, too, sometimes, which just made me feel worse. It wasn’t sadness that I had been dealing with. It was something else, something much more permanent. It was the most difficult thing in the world to explain, but it wasn’t just when things were hard that I got sad. There were ordinary moments, too, when unhappiness would spread through my thoughts. At the most mundane, unexpected times — coming up for air in a swimming pool, drinking a glass of water on the back porch, stringing up laundry — I would suddenly be overcome with hopelessness. This was something I had been experiencing since I was about fifteen.
When things got really bad, I attempted to detach myself from reality. I hardly spoke to anybody, and when I did, my words were heavy and cruel. I drove spaces between myself and the people who cared about me and felt no remorse as I did. I grew my hair until it reached my hips, I stopped wearing shoes, and I scrubbed my hands nine, ten times a day. Somehow, they felt unclean no matter what I did. I only took cold showers, and I ran every morning until the only thing I felt was the ache of my body and a heartbeat in my left ear. I figured the more worn out I was, the easier it would be to sleep again.
I hated how cynical I was about everything, but I also didn’t know how to change what I thought. I only listened to very soft or very loud songs. I recoiled into my music and my writing and my silence. There was a simultaneous rapidity and idleness to everything; months passed with a persistent sort of speed, but the days were long and tedious. People who did not understand the tenacity of depression told me to “just be happy,” as though being happy is a decision we make. Maybe it is, but I don’t know how it could be.
Without getting into a lot of the things that lead to me actually going to a psychiatrist, because that’s really not the point of why I’m writing this, I will say that, generally, what a lot of it came down to was sticking around places and people that were not good for me. My problem is that I have such an incredible amount of fondness and love for all of the people in my life.
And yet the most important thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years is that it is possible to love a place or a person, but also know that they aren’t the right fit in any sort of permanent way. I have also learned that it is possible to know a lot of different things about a person but nothing about what they are actually like. I do not know if I will ever get used to it — having to quietly get rid of someone, having to leave some place — but I do know that it is the only thing I can do to help myself sometimes. It is the most difficult and important thing to understand that just because you need something to end in order to move on, doesn’t mean it wasn’t once the most significant, beautiful part of your life.
Another reason is that I have often found myself fixed in a horrible, temporary way of life, stuck between trying to start over where I am and being unable to forget what it was like somewhere else. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that so much of my happiness depends on how I perceive everything and everyone around me. And so I am learning to find the benevolence in everything and everyone.
Today, I can honestly say that I am content with where I am and with the people that I have surrounded myself with, but that is not to say that I am not still depressed. I am, but I am also so much better at dealing with it. Today, I know that learning about happiness has made me so much sadder and I know that summer is the same as winter, only warmer, and I know that, above all, it is okay to get like this sometimes. This past spring and summer especially, I poured my focus into the world around me. It didn’t fix everything, but it made me feel less isolated from myself and from other people.
I went to film viewings uptown and art galleries downtown. I bought a New York Times on my street corner every day and read it cover to cover. I read a lot ~ non-fiction pieces on grief, collections of french poetry, textbooks about the economy. But more than anything else, I wrote. I filled about a journal a week, and I spent the entire summer traveling and writing and writing. I finally finished my novel. And the day that I did was the only cold day of July but I was happy and impossibly full of love and empathy and care for everything and everyone.
I guess that we can’t really account for each other’s unhappiness, just like we can’t account for our own unhappiness. For a long time, I thought it was the most important thing in the world that I understood the sadness in me and in him and in her, but the truth is, I can’t make sense of any of it. That’s not really the point. A long time ago, somebody told me to look at the world with a certain disinterest — without any sort of selfishness or innocence or anything and I am trying so hard and it is making everything so much easier.
Additionally, some songs, art, books, and films that have made things better:
New Slang ~ The Shins
Black Flies ~ Ben Howard
Re: Stacks ~ Bon Iver
Do You Realize?? ~ The Flaming Lips
Down By The Water ~ The Drums
Red Eyes ~ The War on Drugs
Comfortably Numb ~ Pink Floyd
April Come She Will ~ Simon & Garfunkel
A Rush And A Push and the Land Is Ours ~ The Smiths
Trust Me ~ Moyra Davey
Any of Nan Goldin’s photographs
Porte-bouteilles ~ Marcel DuChamp
12 Shoes For 12 Lovers ~ Sebastian Errazuriz
The Plum ~ Manet
A Lot of Sorrow ~ The National
The Year of Magical Thinking ~ Joan Didion
Slouching Towards Bethelehem ~ Joan Didion
The Bluest Eye ~ Toni Morrison
The Dharma Bums ~ Jack Kerouac
Changing My Mind ~ Zadie Smith
South of the Border West of the Sun ~ Haruki Murakami
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Lost in Translation