Years ago, when I worked in the claims department of an insurance company, my supervisor called me into his office to discuss what he referred to as my “marked decrease in productivity.” He provided me with an official-looking document that ranked all the workers in terms of their contributions to the company. My name was at the bottom. “I thought you were supposed to be smart,” he said. “So what’s the problem here?”
I considered his question for several seconds, then made the mistake of telling him the truth. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said, “but lately I’ve been depressed.”
Something about this answer made his hummus-colored mustache twitch. In the silence that followed, he picked up a fountain pen and began to slap it against his knuckles in a gesture that meant, I don’t have time for this bullshit.
“Depressed?” he said, still slapping.
“It’s something I’ve struggled with since I was a kid,” I said.
I intended to say more, but between the slapping of the pen and the look on his face — which, in fairness, seemed more uncomfortable than angry, more annoyed than judgmental — I decided on a different approach. “You know what, sir?” I said, standing up and folding the rankings document into a crisp square. “I don’t believe in excuses. Check the stats in a day or two. Expect to see a difference.”
At this he slipped the fountain pen into his pocket and stood up with a smile. We shook hands, and I returned to my cubicle.
For the next several hours I stared out a window. Across the parking lot was a blue heron standing alone in the scummy center of our business park’s pond. He looked pretty depressed himself. Watching the heron, I thought about the conversation that hadn’t occurred, the one where I helped my boss understand that depression is a condition, not a choice, and that it can make even the simplest aspects of a job feel impossible. I mentally tested out different ways I could have explained it before realizing that, with all this thinking, I had already broken my promise to work harder.
I had to force myself to stop thinking — which, in a certain sense, is a base-level requirement for working in the claims department of a major insurance company. It wasn’t easy, but I succeeded, and the next time my boss circumnavigated the office, he found me completing tasks at double speed. He gave me a vigorous thumbs-up. His hummus-colored mustache was exultant. It said, I see you working over there! You look fine to me!
Depression, of course, doesn’t stay at work. You can shut and lock the doors behind you, but it follows you home. Depression goes where it wants to go, even your bedroom.
Take last Saturday morning, when my wife and I slept in because our kids were away at camp. Our house was quiet, and our bedroom was swimming in a soft shade of morning light. My wife played Nick Drake on her phone and started touching me. I touched her back, hoping that my impression of someone who was excited about sex would be convincing enough to fool her. It wasn’t. She stopped touching me. She stopped the song.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s not you. I’m just depressed.”
My wife waited for a better explanation, but I didn’t have one. I told her I could try to act like someone who loved being touched on a perfect morning. Then I apologized again. She accepted my apology and said, “I’m getting a shower.”
As I lay there on our bed, surrounded by the gorgeous light and listening to the sound of my wife in the shower singing “Pink Moon,” I thought about how nice it would be if there were just one room that depression could not enter. One room. That’s all you would need.
My sister says her depression feels like the “relentless tentacles of a stalker octopus.” She says, “Some days the tentacles are just wrapped around my legs. They slow me down and trip me up, but I can still move. Other days they have me by the throat, and even breathing feels like work.”
A writer friend calls his depression “the weight.” He once told me, “When I’m depressed, everything gets heavy. Is it hard to write? Yeah, but it’s also hard to peel an orange.”
Winston Churchill compared his dark childhood moods to a black dog that followed him everywhere. He is reported to have said that, despite the dog’s bad behavior, he grew fond of the animal over time. It was, after all, his most constant companion.
To say I was depressed during childhood is not to say my childhood was depressing. I grew up in a small town in upper South Carolina where, despite the relative poverty of the area, happy kids were not hard to find. I played alongside such optimists in my neighborhood and at my school, and for the longest time I convinced myself that, if I matched my life to theirs, I might share their joy.
The problem was that, at the very moments when my heart should have soared — say, the time I was eight and pulled a spotted bass out of the creek behind my house; or the time I was ten and rode my bike all by myself to Wilson’s Five & Dime to buy candy with the money I’d earned raking leaves; or the time I was twelve and ditched the winter dance to smoke a cigarette and listen to Pink Floyd beneath the bleachers with the girl I loved — I would not feel happy. At such moments I would feel only an awareness that I was supposed to feel happy, which is a feeling that depresses me almost more than anything.
I could see others finding happiness, but whenever I approached it, an invisible sheet of ice stopped me from getting any closer. I could never cross over to the other side; I could only pound on the ice that never cracked.
I pressed up against that ice one Halloween, the year I went as Mighty Mouse. Unable to afford anything store-bought, my mother fashioned my costume using a yellow sweatshirt and a roll of old red felt. She made a mask with some cardboard and a Sharpie. I felt grateful, even somewhat confident, until night rolled around.
My mother waited at the curb while I knocked on each door, and a grinning adult with an armload of candy popped out to say, “Hey! It’s Mighty Mouse! Happy Halloween, Mighty Mouse!”
At first these awkward interactions could be justified by the abundance of free sugar. After a while, though, the situation revealed itself as pathetic: I was not Mighty Mouse, and everybody knew it. All the pretending was creepy. The whole ritual was creepy. And yet, because the adults’ kindness was so sincere, and because all the other kids seemed happy, there was nothing to do but keep knocking on doors and answering to “Mighty Mouse.” Which is to say, there was nothing to do but keep feeling miserable inside my mask, wishing the night would end and hating myself for ever believing this was a good idea.
Here, for me, is the heart of depression: the lack of control, the constant pressure to perform, and the sickening feeling that you are the only asshole in the world who can’t turn off his brain and have a good time. Except that, with depression, there’s no mask, just your face; and it’s not just Halloween, it’s every day; and, perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, there’s no free candy.
I can’t explain my depression, and yet I must try, knowing that if I don’t, my friends, especially the happy ones, will attempt their own explanations. I have some of the best friends in the world, people who are kind and intelligent and generous to no end, but many of them mistake depression for a kind of active (if not willful) pessimism. They believe its cure begins with the recognition of existing good fortune, which, if repeated enough, will culminate in a state of gratitude. These friends say things like “I know your job isn’t perfect, but at least you have a job, right?” Or “You have beautiful, healthy kids and a wife who loves you dearly — don’t forget that.”
Certain friends have even set my life against that of someone dying of cancer or a starving child, the implication being that the sky hanging over my life, which I treat as gray, is actually quite blue, and if I would only stare up long enough to appreciate this, my mood would elevate, and I would say, “I guess I have it pretty good, don’t I?”
The problem with this approach is that it misunderstands how depression — or, at least, my depression — works. When I’m depressed, it’s not that I look at a blue sky and see gray. Quite the opposite. I see blue, and I tell myself (a hundred times before breakfast) that blue equals happiness and that I’m an idiot for not being able to perform this calculation.
After a few years of this, I had no choice but to accept that whatever is broken in me functions at a level beneath the rational mind and its tidy sums.
In graduate school I had a professor who was a novelist. He was also something of a depression coach, especially when we drank together at a dive bar that offered three-dollar pitchers of beer and free baskets of buttered popcorn. This man — let’s call him Coach — once told me while we were drinking, “It’s not that I endorse self-destructive tendencies. It’s just that there are seasons where sabotage is inevitable, in which case you should at least be smart about it.”
“I’m listening,” I said.
Coach continued: “If you need to get numb, avoid the pills. Stick to booze. And if you must drink at work, drink vodka, which mixes well with coffee and carries less scent than whiskey or gin.”
This being the kind of questionable counsel I secretly wanted but never expected to receive, I signaled my desire to hear additional expert advice.
Coach went on: “Prepare jokes for when someone observes you’ve worn the same outfit three days in a row. I used to tell people I was like Superman, and that I had a closet full of identical outfits. Invest in a good dry shampoo so your hair doesn’t betray the fact that you’re too depressed to shower. And always carry high-intensity mints, since there will be days when brushing your teeth feels like torture.”
On bingeing, Coach said, “If you stress-eat, buy the organic shit, and if you plan on disappearing into television, borrow your brother’s passwords for HBO and Criterion.”
On misdirection: “Have a thoughtful response ready for your loved ones, who, after all the unanswered calls and texts and emails, will want to know if you’re doing OK, or if you’re going to kill yourself. If you’re not going to give the truth to the people who care, at least deliver a well-built fiction. You’re a writer, for Christ’s sake.”
Depression is often discussed in terms of how it cripples one’s inner life, but it’s easy to forget that when the mind breaks down, the body breaks with it. Back when I taught English at a small college in the low country of South Carolina, a student secretly filmed me one day as I was walking across campus. She posted the video online with the caption “Why does my professor move like he’s ninety?”
I was thirty-two at the time and in decent physical health, but, to my student’s credit, there was something odd in my gait. I looked slow and frail. My back was bent, and my head hung forward at a sickly angle. I was shuffling more than walking, and it looked as if a slight shove would’ve knocked me over. There were dozens of comments under the video, most of them jokes, but one user, Hambone3000, saw through me: “this motherfucker is depressed. somebody get him some help!!!”
I created an anonymous account just to reply to Hambone3000. I responded with twenty-two emojis, all laughing so hard that tears were exploding out of their tiny yellow faces. After them I wrote: “Truth.”
The absurdity of depression is obvious, and it’s up to you whether to laugh or cry. Just last week my wife asked me if I would run to the store and pick up eggs so she could bake a cake for our four-year-old daughter’s birthday. I was sitting on the porch when she asked, and I hadn’t moved in about two hours. I’d been staring at the wine-red leaves of the Japanese maple in our front yard and, to the degree that such a thing is possible, thinking about absolutely nothing, which is sometimes the closest thing to happiness that my depressed mind can know.
I told my wife I would go to the store, and I really did intend to go. The problem was when I tried to move, I couldn’t. My legs, my arms, even my head — everything felt stuck, as if I’d been submerged into a bath of thick, warm mud.
About ten minutes later my wife returned and said, “What are you doing? Eisley’s birthday dinner is in an hour, and I need those eggs. Are you going to get them, or should I?”
Still staring at the Japanese maple, I said, “I’m sorry. I’ll get them. I’m leaving right now.” And even though I meant it even more this time, I still could not get out from under all that mud. So I stared at the tree and waited for what I knew would happen next. Eventually my wife charged out of the house, keys in hand, and said, “I’m going to the store. I’ll be back in a minute.”
I tried to jump up and stop her, but the mud was thicker than ever, even covering my voice as I squeaked after her, “Hey! I’ll do it! I’ll get the eggs! Just give me one more chance!”
Of course the real question with depression — possibly with any form of suffering — is the matter of suicide. Some mornings this question appears as Could today be the day? Other mornings it comes as How could today not be the day?
Both of these are what my pastor friend calls “getting a bad story from the brain.” On days that are truly hard, I have to call him. Our conversations, which have saved my life on more than one occasion, typically go like this:
“It’s the brain,” I say. “It’s telling me another bad story.”
“And what story is that?” he asks.
“That there’s nothing here worth living for.”
“That I’ve messed everything up, and that it’s too late to fix it.”
“That everyone would be better off if I wasn’t around.”
“Do you believe all that?”
“Yes,” I say. “But also no. I don’t know. I’m in a really bad place. The ice feels thicker than ever before. What am I supposed to do?” I can be counted on to plague my pastor friend about once a week with this question.
He never changes his answer. Nor should he, since his is the only one that actually works on me. After a deep breath he becomes deadly serious and says, “Your brain has spoken, and its story was dark. But your brain does not get the final word. Now’s the time to tell your brain a story back. Now’s the time for light.”