You stay alive you stupid asshole
Because you haven’t been excused…
–Tony Hoagland, from “Suicide Song“
Depression is a wildly confusing, exhausting trip to someplace you didn’t actually ever intend to go. Let’s say you set out for Austria, had in mind a little singing on mountaintops like in The Sound of Music, and you end up getting on the wrong plane and find yourself in Antarctica. Did you know the average temperature during the coldest three months in Antarctica is MINUS 81 degrees Fahrenheit? So you are in this place, so bitterly cold that it’s hard to move, your limbs lock up and your face freezes if you try to uncover it. If you expose any of your tender self, even a little, it goes from cold to burning to numb so fast you just know you’ll be dead if you don’t cover up again. You didn’t intend to come here and you don’t quite know how you got here and you haven’t figured out how to leave. You don’t really want to see your loved ones here because you’re afraid they’ll freeze, too; sometimes you feel like you’re talking to them through a video link, and they’re far away, and you sort of wonder if they aren’t just better off staying far away from you and your inimical tendency to lose yourself in dark and dangerous places.
I don’t know much about drug trips from personal experience (unfortunately? I don’t know—I overheard some writers behind me at a reading recently talking about traveling the country on LSD when they were younger, and these were women in their 40s and 50s who were clearly oh so much more badass than they looked, and I confess I felt a bit envious, if also a bit ashamed at my own timidity), but it seems to me depression is like a drug trip for a lot of reasons. You don’t seem to have any control over how you perceive the world, or how you respond to it. You feel like you’re not your usual self, and you fear you may never get back to being your usual self, or that your “usual self” is in fact your “unusual self,” and the majority of who you are is actually A Depressed Person. Other people can tell you that your perceptions of reality are not accurate, but even when you accept that truth you still can’t make yourself perceive reality differently and react to it appropriately.
You can’t actually stop traveling, slogging through muck, unable to find a place to sit down to rest that isn’t even more miserable than the continual push. Once I overturned my kayak and sank to my crotch in silty mud. When I tried pulling one foot up, up, to the surface of the mud and putting it down again, I sank just as far. Other people went by in their kayaks and said, “Are you okay?” and I said, “Yes, I’ll get back on in just a minute,” though I had no real idea how I would do so. Embarrassment, shame, helplessness. No choice but to engage the mud.
I’ve been on these trips before. It’s terribly embarrassing because people often believe you bought that train ticket yourself, or something that happened to you gained agency—A. Death, Job Loss, Another F. Rejection—and all you need to do is track down that entity and face it in order to get off the train. So you’re on the Depression Train, it’s speeding along through a concrete wilderness, and people are saying, “Hey, why don’t you get off the train?” Well, more often they’re saying, “You could try this or this to get off the train,” helpfully, really, but the thing is you just can’t get off the effing train. It’s going full steam and if you managed to pry open one of the doors you’d just find yourself bruised on the hard gray world anyway.
Well first you apologize to the people who love you, over and over, when you cry daily or don’t even get off the couch to go to the grocery store for toilet paper or turn down invitations to do things or accept said invitations and then feel like your company is a burden. You apologize and you try to explain that some day, you suspect, you’ll be able to get off the Depression Train. You just don’t know how, and you don’t know when, so you can’t tell them when it’ll be easier to be around you and you can’t tell them how to help you.
And then you remind yourself, over and over and over, that the train WILL stop. It will stop. It always has before. The train will stop. And you’ll get off, stepping out into ordinary sunlight. The air will have smells again, other people will seem real, you’ll be able to smile. There will be possibilities, choices. You will be able, again, to choose whether to walk fast or slow, turn left or right. You won’t suddenly be able to fly—that yearning will never be satisfied—but you’ll have choices about how and where to go with the means you actually have.
Knowing this won’t stop the train, of course. So, when you can, you engage in the activities that make the journey slightly more bearable. You meditate, accepting where you are, noticing the train, the gray outside, the lack of smell. You notice and do not judge. You cry. You try to eat the cardboard-tasting food in the snack bar when you can make yourself get there. You stay alive, even though staying alive means staying on the train. This is where you are, now. You keep breathing.
Later, you’ll make notes about where you went. You’ll have learned something about yourself and your own depths, your astonishing ability to despise yourself, your even more astonishing ability to survive. You’ll see that this journey wasn’t exactly like the others, each one different, this last one perhaps less time in the Country of Despair and more time in Shame City. You’ll make lists of supplies for the next involuntary trip, if it should happen again: warm blankets, old hard-bound books, herbs to help you sleep, a foreign language phrasebook so you can still communicate with your loved ones, and they with you.
However you are, it’s ok. I know you didn’t buy that ticket yourself, plan this trip for yourself. You’re allowed to cry. You are just a person, not a Depressed Person. You will return. You are valuable even when you’re not functioning well. You are unique, a miracle, the most beautiful and perfect you there ever was. You will return. You will return. You will return.
Katie also blogs on empowerment and mindfulness topics at The Manifesto, and her self-help/empowerment book is available here. Please also check out her brand new memoir/short essay collection, Letters to Colin Firth.