The arrival of autumn always coincides with a sense of melancholy for me, because autumn beckons the inevitable arrival of winter, beckons shorter days and less exposure to sunlight, more temptation to hunker down, and less incentive to emerge from bed each morning. Autumn reactivates my awareness of my mental illness or wellness in a particular way.
In case it’s not already obvious based on the content of this blog, I think a lot about mental illness and wellness. I think about the ways both have been foundational to my lived experience since adolescence. I’ve written about my feelings of ambivalence toward my depression. Emphasis on the possessive adjective: my depression. It is mine, and at times it feels fundamental to who I am. There has always been a subdued, melancholy aspect to my spirit and presence. I think it is the same quality that leads people to tell me that they feel calm around me, at ease, like they don’t have to try so hard or put forth so much energy in our interactions.
This is a hard thing to articulate to my loved ones, or even to my therapist. That depression feels like a part of me, and that in some sense, I would not recognize myself without it. It has drifted in and out of the landscape of my life for the past 18 years, and I have had to reject any notion that my depression is something that can be “fixed.” It feels more like a relationship that I have to manage. This idea of being in relationship with my depression to me echoes the medical model of depression as disease. Both require management, for the long term. Sometimes depression tries to take the upper hand, to rule and dominate, and I have to problem solve to force it back in line with the other parts of my being. I imagine it is hard for the people around me to accept depression as a part of me, because when someone we love doesn’t feel well, we want them to feel better. And depression is painful, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. So I can understand that when the people who care for me see me in pain, they want to help me find ways to “fix” it.
To be clear, I do not enjoy the pain of depression, and I don’t want it to be my daily lived experience. It’s a difficult balance. Whether it is wrong or right, true or untrue, depression feels like a part of me. And it is for this reason that I have had ambivalent feelings about “getting better” and recovering from the major depressive episode I experienced in the fall of last year, and recovering from what feels like a lifetime of chronic low-level depression. In some sense, I know that recovery has been necessary, that the reality I was living in was a false one, and that having casual thoughts of passing away from this world is not a good thing. And yet, even though that reality was not / is not permanent, I can remember it quite clearly, and I can remember that it felt so fundamentally valid and rational, even as I knew it was unthinkable to those who love me.
To say that being depressed is always and fundamentally bad is to condemn a piece of me. To say that I will have arrived at the perfect pharmaceutical solution when and only when I no longer experience depression is to say that part of who I am as a person is wrong. A revolutionary shift has taken place in my thinking within the last year: I expect the people who love me to accept my depression, and love me even when I am depressed. The fact of the matter is that they have to, if they are going to love me at all. My relationship with depression is not a short term or temporary one, and so anyone who cannot love me when I am depressed is going to have a difficult time loving me for the long term. I expect their love, and I want them to expect mine in return, but I also, expect this reciprocal love to be difficult and painful and complicated. I also expect that some people will not be able to love me in this way and that our relationship will be different because of it.
Another revolutionary thing happened after the major depressive episode that I experienced last year. For the first time, I made efforts to describe my full, unfiltered reality to other people. To my therapist. To my friends. A reality so lucid that I was actively pushing away thoughts of dying on a daily basis. The thing that saved me from dying was naming my desire to die, out loud, and asking other people to respect it, even if they were unable to understand it. It was a strange thing being suicidal. It meant I was in total disagreement with everyone around me. I thought dying a very reasonable solution, and they disagreed. What was I to do? I decided that if I was going to continue living, I needed to be known and understood. And so I asked my friends and my therapist to put forth effort in understanding, and I agreed to put forth effort not to act on the desire. I more or less made a demand that people try to understand my reality as I was experiencing it, demanded that they not write me off as wrong, troubled, misguided. And when they were able to do that, I was able to stay alive, because I was able to be fully myself, without worrying that the profoundly depressed part of me would be rejected.
In order to stay alive, I also had to consent to safety planning, and come to understand that I cannot burden others with total responsibility for my safety, but that is another post.
A friend of mine posted a link to this article titled “Rethinking Mental Illness: Are We Drugging Our Prophets and Healers?” What would it look like to not immediately condemn those of us who experience depression, mania, psychosis, delusions? What would it look like to put forth effort to understand their reality, and empathize in what ways we can? What would it feel like, for those of us who love someone with mental illness, to be honest and say “I feel so sad knowing that you are sad/scared/hurting,” and not to immediately follow it with, “what can I do to make it better?” because this question implies that being sad/scared/hurting is not an okay way to be?
I don’t know. But I’m curious. And I’m committed to being transparent about my own experience, in the hope that we can talk more honestly about what is possible,