Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Sometimes I do get to return to the planet of my birth. It's just that I can't recall them. I like to imagine it's a happier place than this one, filled with shady trees, with kind people spread out on the lawn beneath, pulling out containers of Thai noodles and watermelon chunks from their picnic baskets, beckoning me to join them.
One of these people would be my good friend and muse, Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue. Therese has a way of making me feel that on a planet of six billion strangers I have at least one person I can talk to. One day, she opened a blog piece this way:
I spent my adolescence and teenage years obsessing about this question: Am I depressed or just deep?
When I was nine, I figured that I was a young Christian mystic because I related much more to the saints who lived centuries ago than to other nine-year-old girls who had crushes on boys. I couldn't understand how my sisters could waste quarters on a stupid video game when there were starving kids in Cambodia. Hello? Give them to UNICEF!
Now I look back with tenderness to the hurting girl I was and wished somebody had been able to recognize that I was very depressed.
See what I mean? I just know that had we been in the same class at grade school, while the other kids played ball during recess, Therese and I would have found a quiet spot to sit, sharing cookies our moms packed and discussing how Augustine of Hippo must have felt after Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome in 410 AD (which is precisely how I felt when George W Bush was re-elected in 2004).
So - were Therese and I two sensitive souls waxing philosophical, or two depressives acting strange? When it comes to the enduring question - Who the hell am I? - we are all struggling to find the truth.
Part of what we are talking about involves the classic distinction between "state" and "trait." Trait is who we are, our personality. State is invasion of the brain snatchers. But no distinctions are ever as clear-cut as they seem.
We tend to get hung up on DSM-IV check lists while ignoring a key DSM injunction - namely that we are only in a state of mental illness when the symptoms interfere with our ability to function (as in work or relationships). So - from my personal perspective - if I am comfortable and not struggling while depressed - thinking deep, in effect - then I hardly have an illness that needs treatment.
Here's where it gets complicated. When does my productive depression - thinking deep - start becoming a nuisance and when does this nuisance seriously start messing me up? Similarly, when does my upbeat side cross over into social embarrassment and in turn morph into something that causes me to make very bad decisions?
Life, unfortunately, doesn't come with a manual, and the tech support is a joke. Seriously, when has God - or St Aloysius, even - ever gotten back to you? Is it too much for God to stop what He is doing for just one second and tell me that the vital piece of hardware I dropped on the floor - the one I desperately need to assemble my counter extender from IKEA - rolled under the refrigerator?
It's not like I am asking God to move the refrigerator for me. Or, for that matter, to assemble my IKEA furniture, though that would be a very nice gesture. IKEA, by the way, is Sweden's revenge for not being allowed to be Vikings, anymore.
So, back to depression. Keep in mind, medications are designed to treat an illness, not change a personality, which may explain why antidepressants only get some people somewhat better some of the time. In other words, if you are undergoing clinical depression right now, all those around you - including your psychiatrist - assume your brain will eventually boot back up to “normal.”
But suppose your "normal" is depressed? What then? First, this may not be a bad thing. If you’re the type who prefers staying home alone with a book to going out dancing, you may be a lot happier and better adjusted than Joe Cool and Miss Congeniality.
But suppose your normal keeps you a prisoner in your own home? So - here you are, home alone, wondering whether to ask someone out on a date. You punch in three numbers, then you freeze, paralytic. Maybe you're afraid of rejection. Maybe your inner critic is working overtime and you consider yourself worthless. Maybe it's a combination. Whatever the reason, you put down the phone. And now, here you are, alone and socially isolated. How does that make you feel? Well, depressed.
It's a very overwhelming world out there, very difficult to negotiate, and most of the time - very frankly - I don't want to be in it. Certainly, I spent a good deal of my childhood wishing I was very far removed from it. I found refuge, instead, in my own inner world. Over time, I succeeded in tuning out just about the whole world around me.
Engage me in a conversation, and sooner or later you will pick up an odd mannerism: My eyes glaze over, I’m unresponsive. I am not present. Literally - I am somewhere else.
I am probably experiencing what the experts refer to as disassociating. In extreme cases, certain individuals may assume different personalities. Thankfully, my little manneristic quirk comes across as mere inattentiveness. It has nothing to do with that fact that I may find you interminably boring (even if you are). This planet is simply a challenge for me. Always has been. Sometimes, my mind has to flee. Where it goes I have no idea, no recollection. I like to think it’s back to the planet of my birth, a place where I belong.
A kind lady beneath a tree beckons me. She serves up a plate of Thai noodles. I help myself to some watermelon chunks. You're safe here, says the look on her face. Welcome home.