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Depression: to have or to be?

July 9, 2017

If I was depressed I probably wouldn’t be writing this, right? Yet there are still small moments in my life when I feel nothing, or rather, when I might wish to feel nothing instead of what I am feeling. I was once told not simply that I was depressed, but that “what I see is three generations of depression” and later “you and all your friends are depressed.” If I am being honest, I don’t think this observer was very objective – though they are better qualified than me to speak about depression. Their own needs created a special perspective: yes they may project onto others some of their own (felt or blocked) emotion and experience, but also they are so finely attuned to depression that a cycle of emotion that is normal and healthy in relation to real circumstances may still appear as depression.

But before I declare that I have hereby logically demonstrated that I am not depressed, we can turn this on its head in two ways. Firstly we can ask where real circumstances end and our emotional embodied response to them begins. We can ask whether it is possible or even healthy to be un-depressed in a depressing world; we can ask whether depression is a successful strategy for protecting us from certain horrors, temporarily? We can ask, if this were so, does it follow that for some individuals, there is literally no way out, because the cost of traversing the gap from the safety of depressive self protection to something more like a fluid interaction of the full range of emotions, in real time, in live response to live events, is too great.

I often think back to my twenties as a time when I did not know that I had no emotional understanding of myself, and not even the idea (until about 26) that emotions were a thing that I wasn’t doing. That more or less had to be explained to me by a professional. Was I depressed in my twenties? What about before then? I think back to my thirties as a time when I generated a profusion of emotion and spread it thickly over everyone who managed to tolerate me. This crossing of the death strip from silence to freedom required me to endure almost constant, sometimes overwhelming feelings of being pathetic or unattractive, of being weak, vulnerable and a drain on others. The reinforcements they provided, so that I could continue, led to feelings of being selfish, self obsessed and taking advantage of them. I can hardly recommend this experience. But now in my forties, I am beginning to understand that I can be emotional without showing it all here and now, and that that does not mean I am or will become depressed, or, my ultimate fear, that I will go back into denial or hiding, leading to one day where I suddenly have to feel a huge backlog of emotion in one go and will surely break.

In this process I have seen that emotion never goes away until you feel it. Some of us choose to carry it around for a long, long time rather than feel it. That weight suffocates us and I would call that depression. Nevertheless, when an experience overwhelms us and we are not able or free to respond to it gracefully, we are each entitled to choose how much emotional pain we release at any given time, and clearly there are no escapist drugs to compete with our efficiency at anaesthetising emotion by trapping it in the body, using all these mind tools we have evolved to enable us to just keep going in spite of terrible traumas. Then again, escapist drugs are a very popular choice when that shit inevitably starts to leak out by itself. And maybe when it never does is precisely when the universal mental health problem of a fucked up culture becomes the individual mental health problem of uniquely reconfigured psychological coping strategies that no fucker can get a grip on, not even the self, or especially not the self.

Which reminds me of the second way I must turn on its head my observation that my observer was not very objective in defining me and all my friends and family as depressed. The family comment did lead me to seek help. I had had therapy for a couple of years before that comment was made, after other shorter stints, and I had decided to approach an integrated healer who believes you can communicate with the unconscious and combine this with body work to encourage the release of trapped emotion (or if you prefer, to encourage the relaxation of muscles and tissues that have seized up at the time of a traumatic event). Setting up the first session, I told him about the ‘three generations’ comment, and so we worked first on depression. I don’t get it any more. Whenever I think that what I am approaching is depression, my train gets steered down another track, sometimes leaving me wondering why I can’t just have my anaesthetic when I want it like everyone else. When I feel as if I am depressed, I notice it is just the normal flow of emotion, not a layer of numbness underlying or overlaying everything. I think my observer friend could see that I have the layers of sedimented misery and bullshit that comes with growing up in a segregated community with an indoors culture.

To go back to my thick spreading of emotion… maybe some people liked it. Maybe it gives us permission to feel ourselves, or if that’s not a problem, to express our messy selves, when others get messy. I am glad to hear this said more and more often, and have close mutual friends who have told each other this: When you allow us to see that you are depressed, we love you exactly the same way as when you are cheerful. It feels different to you but not to us. Of course, we want to see you happy and fulfilled, not depressed and anxious. But we do not want to see your cheerful mask because then we are not seeing our friend at all. (Some people manage to see only the cheerful mask of their friend, even when the friend is not actually wearing it, because they can only deal with their own need to share. They’re so annoying.)

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