It’s high time I write a bedtime story about depression.
When I use that phrase, “bedtime story,” it’s a trick. A story about bedtime technically qualifies as a bedtime story, but that’s a slippery way of looking at it. Slippery is how stories about depression have to come out, though, because everything about depression is slippery. Those who want to talk about it have trouble stating their case directly, and those in a position to listen often are not inclined to hear about that particular color of pain. Likewise, the meaning of the word “depressed” is infuriatingly hard to pin down: are you talking about losing a favorite toy, missing out on a big concert, grieving a miscarriage, or contemplating taking your own life? The word can be used for any of those, and more, because depression is slippery. Blunt, direct, literal language can be an effective tool to stun it insensible, hopefully for long enough to get a point or two across. In that spirit, I am writing a bedtime story about depression.
Once upon a time, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I have a fearsome will, but I was mostly unaware of that fact at the time because my will was mostly being used to keep me from being swallowed up by a spirit, the presence of which I had only recently come to recognize. When I set my will to a goal that was aligned with the desires of this spirit—remaining in bed—my will was unfettered to achieve that end. There were certainly occasions I simply had to move about the apartment, but I could masticate, fornicate, cogitate, and ruminate from the comfort of my ill-laundered bedclothes. I can’t say exactly how I managed to have enough money for food or charm for a sex life, but I did it without going outside that much, at a time when home internet connections were still years off.
That bed of mine carried memories of not only dreams and desires, but also some terrible tragedies including a miscarriage and a broken marriage. It had developed an emotional gravity that drew me back whenever I wandered away, back to steep in a sense of failure and inadequacy. That toxic combination took on a veneer of familiarity, of comfort, of safety. I’d learned as a child that it was possible to ward one’s room with mess; this too I did during this period of young adulthood, protecting myself from the pain that came from being out in the world. These kinds of wards are fairly effective in blocking many outward threats, but ensure that inward dangers are given leave to feed upon the caster. It was an excellent time for my spirit of depression.
I cannot move in this next paragraph to “they lived happily ever after,” because a relationship with depression is almost always more complicated than that. Who gets to live, much less happily? Any human who has experienced a story like this is not experiencing happiness, but sometimes the sense of comfort, or security, or predictability is more highly valued than happiness. When depression is near, it’s possible to forget what happiness feels like altogether. I would argue that keeping its human safe—at any cost—is what brings happiness to this spirit; therefore, “depression lived happily ever after” is a very real possibility for a story like that one. There was a time when I believed that depression feeds upon happiness, but my understanding is more nuanced now: depression doesn’t place value in happiness, and is more than willing to sacrifice that emotion for the sake of survival. Depression is also not particularly clever, and does not seem to understand that the sacrifice of happiness or liberty for short-term security will eventually lead the human host to have neither happiness, nor liberty, nor security.
Depression, in that way, is very much like the humans it chooses as companions.
This is a spirit that protects us with the brute force of sickle-cell anemia, a crippling, painful condition that shortens life by years but guards against malaria, a disease that kills in days or weeks. Some of us who experience this spirit’s touch are absolutely flattened by it, but not all. It’s a minority of those in depression who struggle even to perform daily tasks, and it’s a smaller minority still who choose to end their lives rather than endure in this manner; such is the brutal logic of the natural world. In an earlier time, what I experienced only would have been triggered by the stress of infection or serious injury, but the factors that subject humans to stress today are far more numerous and varied. Nothing about spending months barely moving, much less making social contact with others, did anything to promote my own healing or to protect my tribe. Humans respond to stress in an ancient, straightforward manner; the subtleties of work-life balance and other modern factors are irrelevant. Stress results in inflammation nearly always, and enough stress allows for depression to set up housekeeping. Much of modern medicine is about preventing our own healing factors from killing us. Perhaps it’s because depression kills more slowly and infrequently that it’s endured as long as it has as a human companion.
Not being able to get out of bed is a stereotype of depression, but as with any stereotype it’s rooted in experience. It’s important to acknowledge that some of us are suffering in this manner right now, and that it’s a horror. It’s equally important to remember that an even larger number of human beings are just a little bit better off than that: they go through the motions of life, surviving from day to day, but not especially living. Even those of us who have never felt the foot of depression upon our necks are probably far closer to that form of living death than we realize.
Depression endures because for all the pain it brings, this partnership with humanity has actually helped our species survive. I cannot speculate or how or when humanity may finally part company with depression, but until that day comes it’s essential that we recognize that this spirit is always in the shadows, and that being touched by it is neither a failing nor a flaw. Mindfulness for ourselves and patience for others will do more to help us manage this problematic relationship than any combination of stigma and denial.