My sob story is not your charity case.
I was 14 when I started on Prozac and regular therapy. I remember the awkward 15-minute drive home with my dad after each family session, feeling guilty for airing my grievances against him in what was supposed to be a safe space. I remember we usually stopped by some greasy fast food joint afterward, as if soggy fries and a large soda would make up for the years of trauma we’d just discussed amongst white-noise tones and the quiet “yes, mm-hmm, I see”s from my therapist.
My depression was — and is — a product of nature and nurture. It runs in my family, among a host of other incurable disorders, and was perpetuated by what can only be described as a “troubled” upbringing. I try not to blame my parents too much for the person I turned out to be, but sometimes my coping mechanisms are so similar to the toxic behaviors I witnessed during my childhood that it’s impossible not to. Still, I love and respect my parents for trying to do what they could to nip my depression in the bud; after all, I can’t deny my privilege of being allowed medication and professional help — something so many kids my age never had access to due to financial or personal barriers.
I lost count of how many different medications and therapists I’d tried before I found the perfect match for both, but I was fortunate enough to “get better” in my early twenties. Though I still struggle with anxiety, disordered thinking, and OCD, I’m not even a fraction as damaged as I was in my early teens, and for that, I’ll forever be grateful. There still remains one symptom, however, that’s never fully gone away. It lingers in the back of my mind like a tiny brain-eating parasite, nibbling at my self-esteem and implanting eggs of self-doubt, which sometimes grow into a nymph-hood of self-loathing and despair:
How could it not remain? Suicide attempts will do that to you, I suppose. Something like that is bound to rewire your brain, even if it’s in a positive way. You’re either thrilled or afraid of standing too close to the train platform. You can’t help but wonder if the water in the ocean you’re driving over is as soft as it looks from up above on the bridge. When you take a sleeping pill, you participate in the Mental Math Olympics as you try to determine how many you’d have to take to never wake up again.
When you tell people you’re unhappy, the first thing everyone wants to do is pat you on the back and tell you to hang in there.
Sometimes these thoughts are subconscious and fleeting. They’re intrusive, buzzing around your head like a swarm of gnats. Other times these thoughts are deliberate, prodding, severe. You linger on them like a dream gone too soon and drag them to the surface to observe them like pucker-lipped koi fish.
Let me be clear: I’m not suicidal.
I don’t want to die. Not anymore. I need to stay alive and well for the sake of my boyfriend, my cats, my parents, my sister, their pets, and all the people who’ve ever loved me. I know I’m loved. I know there’s a reason to live. I know that each time I scroll through the #lonely tag on Tumblr, the black-and-white vignettes of heartbreaking quotes and cigarette-stained lips are merely for aesthetic purposes rather than a siren’s call to join the other 45,000 people who’ve attempted suicide in the US each year.
But I am miserable. I struggle at my job, I’m constantly in pain from my chronic illness, I’m mildly agoraphobic with a severe case of generalized anxiety disorder, and my skin is constantly red and wounded from my OCD behaviors. Because of my anxiety, I gave up music and dancing, so I’m out of shape and my singing isn’t a quarter as angelic as it used to be. I moved across the country, so I’m lonely and homesick and feel guilty for leaving family. On top of all that, I can no longer afford therapy — no, not even the cheap kind.
When you tell people you’re unhappy, the first thing everyone wants to do is pat you on the back and tell you to hang in there. They may offer essential oils, yoga, meditation exercises, or some Gwyneth Paltrow-esque combination of the three. They offer platitudes like “you’re not alone!” or “this too shall pass” as if you couldn’t have figured that out on your own. What everyone fails to notice is that depression doesn’t care about these things. It doesn’t care that everything is temporary or that I’ve survived 100% of my hardest days. All it cares about is its daily reminders that things aren’t going well right now, and that somehow that’s all my fault.
That pain is my own, though, and I own it entirely. For some reason, owning your misery is frowned upon in society; we would much rather jump on the self-help bandwagon and try to reverse the damage that’s already been done. We see this all the time with troubled celebrities: when someone opens up about their failing mental health, the first thousand comments are usually tired phrases about how that celebrity has so much to live for, how they’re not alone, and why they should just keep trying and keep living. Society doesn’t want to hear about how hard living really is — they want to cure it and solve it so they don’t have to hear about the pain anymore.
Why does the default have to be joyous? Why can’t we be comfortable in our misery? Why can’t we acknowledge that sometimes life just really, really sucks, and that’s okay?
I don’t mean to imply that it’s wrong to try to help people. It’s not a selfish act to try to convince someone to keep fighting. It’s not even necessarily a wasted effort. It’s just not always the right thing to do.
If we constantly tell people that their ugly emotions are something to fight and repress and replace with something more digestible, what we’re really saying is that their misery and discomfort is unnatural and abnormal. Why does the default have to be joyous? Why can’t we be comfortable in our misery? Why can’t we acknowledge that sometimes life just really, really sucks, and that’s okay?
Women are especially prone to the bombardment of emotion-policing that occurs when they dare be vocal about their struggles. I can’t even count how many times I’ve expressed my displeasure about something at work or school, only to be told by male authority figures that it’s “not something to get worked up about”, or to “not let it bother [me]”. Meanwhile, those same male authority figures have the self-appointed right to get angry or sad about a football team losing, sometimes even dominating an entire hour to gripe about their personal misery.
At the same time, men are told to hide their depression and replace it with humor or anger. Regardless of gender identity, we’re all being told to compartmentalize our misery and find the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, when really it would just be healthier for us to process that misery and work through it at our own pace. Misery isn’t something to be feared. It’s just as normal an emotion as anything else. Until it becomes a risk to ourselves or others, we should be able to wallow a little bit.
Women are especially prone to the bombardment of emotion-policing that occurs when they dare be vocal about their struggles.
When someone gives birth to their child, we reward their joy and wallow in that, usually for what seems like an annoyingly long time. So why is it that when someone posts or talks about having a difficult time, we immediately herd them into “looking on the bright side”? If we stopped policing the way people process their emotions for our own sakes, maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to drown those emotions for their sakes.
If we started normalizing all emotions, not just the fun ones, we might not feel the need to repress the more difficult ones. We might not drink to drown our sorrows. We might normalize therapy as something everyone can benefit from, not just miserable people. We might even make invaluable strides for mental health as people feel like they don’t have to hide — and thereby perpetuate — their depression.
Give people permission to feel like sh*t every now and then. Keep your holistic remedies and MLM solicitations to yourself. When someone tells you they’re feeling down, give them a hand to hold and a shoulder to cry on. Tell them “yeah, life sucks sometimes” and that you’re here for them in misery and cheer. Don’t make them feel like their misery is making you uncomfortable. If you truly fear for their safety, check out some mental health resources and refer them to a trusted professional. Otherwise, just let them wallow a bit.
They’ll be okay. I’ll be okay. Just not right now, and that’s okay.