I wasn’t the only one breaking down that weekend. Back home, our two sweet international homestay students had morphed from best friends to mortal enemies, and the police, a fire truck and a translator came to the house at 2 a.m. to break up their ugly, hair-pulling fight. (Clumps of long, yanked hair on the floor the next day were chilling.) Henry’s as-yet undiagnosed cyclothymia (a milder form of bipolar disorder) was rapid-cycling him from euphoria to anger every twenty minutes, to the devastation of my suicidal self. I’d been open with the Nashville leaders about my breakdown, and we had one week to decide whether or not we still wanted to move.* As we drove home from the airport, we listened to breaking news of the BP gas explosion in Louisiana — an apt metaphor for the hidden cracks and underwater poison leaking inside me. Florida felt like a bad dream, but I knew my death wish was not a dream, and it had flown home with me.
How does it feel to be clinically depressed? For those who’ve been there, no description is needed. For those who haven’t, I give you this poem.
The View from Melancholia
There are people who know nothing of despair,
cannot conceive the crushing waves that sink the soul,
cannot perceive the dark at dawn, the noon-day gloom,
the evening’s welcome tunnel into night.
Those souls without a window to the moon.
There are people who know nothing of a world
that rushes by, without the will to carry on,
who carry confidence as lightly as their names
along with others who know nothing of despair.
There are people congregating on the shore
who have yet to see the islands
Read the poem again, and let the words do their work. Now I’m going to put on my English Teacher Hat, and walk you through the lines again.
Q. What does this poem teach about depression?
1. Depression is extremely isolating, and the depressed know they’re living in a completely different world from everyone else. We know others don’t get it when they blithely tell us to ‘cheer up’ or ‘get over it’ – or fail to notice that we’re barely functioning and are miles from our true selves. The worst comment is “I’ve never been depressed a day in my life!” If that’s even true, don’t boast about it to someone who’s in the slough of despond.
2. Depression is “crushing”, dark, and unrelenting. Mornings are often the worst times, as another hopeless day stretches before us. Noon is excruciating because the sun mocks our inner mood. Evening is more welcome; at least the darkness of night matches our inner state. But insomnia can be a grave problem for those with depression, and nights can be equally harrowing, even if we can hide for a while as others sleep.
3.”Those souls without a window to the moon” is a purposely ambiguous line. Who’s missing the window? It could be those with or without ‘melancholia’. There is a deep sense, for the afflicted, of knowing the valley, the night, the pale light of the moon, in an achingly intimate way. Or it could be that glancing at the reliable moon is enough to get ‘normal’ people through the night.
4. When you’re depressed, everyone else seems busy, purposeful, and mindlessly happy (“a world that rushes by…”).This reminds me of times I’ve been very sick and weak, and I marveled at healthy people energetically running through their days. It’s similar when you’re depressed: you can’t believe how easy and effortless life seems for those who are ‘normal’. And you can’t imagine ever feeling, or living, that way again.
5. “Without the will to carry on”: Even though you envy the vigor of the regulars, everything seems pointless through the veil of depression. Solomon’s words, “Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless!” become your mantra.
6. The regulars, “who carry confidence as lightly as their names”, don’t struggle with the worthlessness and self-hatred that cripples depressives from doing anything new, original, or light. (Although I do believe that depression can eventually lead to greater creativity, this doesn’t happen in the deepest throes of it.) We also feel we’re failing to live up to our name, to who we were supposed to be; thus, we are a painful disappointment to those who’ve believed in us, and to ourselves.
7. The undepressed, those “congregating on the shore”, love to socialize, find plenty to talk about, and obviously don’t feel like we, the walking dead, do: we shun socializing, knowing we’d cast a pall on any gathering — even if we had the energy to show up.
8. But the regulars “have yet to see the islands of alone”. This means they don’t see us, on our separate islands of pain, but someday they might find themselves on their own lonely islands. At which point they too will gaze back at the shoreline, marvelling at those who know nothing of despair…
Perhaps you can find even more inside this poem than I intended. (This happens all the time in English Lit classes!) Share your own thoughts about how depression feels with the rest of us. (And don’t you already feel a bit smarter, having parsed a poem today?)
Here are a few more observations about depression.
Just as no two people are alike, no two depressions are alike, although they share common traits. Depression tends to manifest in one of two forms: ‘anxious’ and ‘vegetative’. I’m the anxious type of depressive, who struggles with restlessness, agitation, insomnia and irritability when depressed. The vegetative types are more likely to take to bed, sleep a great deal, and lack any measure of motivation or energy to get moving. Both are equally horrible.
When an anxious depressive ventures out, it might seem like a positive act, but for me it was anything but. I don't know how to fake 'happy', and talking about my true state was more than most listeners could handle. Going to parties was disastrous: I felt allergic to happy, smiling people and always wanted to leave within the first five minutes. As for going to church, I sometimes stayed home, knowing I couldn’t keep it together for the duration. The first hymn would be enough to undo me.
The right medication can work wonders. But finding the right one, at the right dose, can be a scary and harrowing experience if the first meds don't work for you. It’s worth the struggle to get yourself out of the pit and on level ground, where you can start dealing with your issues. Trying to 'fix yourself' when you're in a deep depression is impossible. The right medication can give you clarity and a measure of control over runaway emotions. At least that's my experience. I’m no professional, just a former island dweller who’s found her way to the opposite shore.
But I can still see those islands. And I brought back some priceless souvenirs.
*The church in Nashville kindly offered to send us for a week of intensive counselling in preparation for our move. But I knew that whatever needed fixing would take much longer than a week. In fact, it’s taken years. As you can probably guess, we decided against the move to Tennessee, which turned out to be a wise decision as more personal issues surfaced. More about those later…
Categories: My Story: Turn, Turn, Turn