Compassion and collapse

It’s been brought to my attention that my writing of late has been subpar. Not only by real people, but also by the mathy robots that keep track of all the clickety action on my website. Apparently I not make sentences good out of stacks of word things no more.

That hurt my brain, even though it was a joke. Ouch. Gah.

So, I feel like a little bit of explanation is in order. With just a touch of clothes rending and some screaming “mea culpa.” Maybe. If we get around to it.

It’s almost fall. It’s not quite here yet, but it’s coming. The air smells different. The light feels different. If there were anything but pines around here, I’m sure they’d be trying to change. (Fun fact: the only colored foliage I get to see in fall is poison ivy, because mother nature doesn’t like to clearly mark her more annoying darlings when I might be wearing shorts and sandals. She’s an asshole.) Fall’s my favorite. It always has been. I’m from Appalachia, and for those couple of months before the leaves come down and it gets too chilly, southern Appalachia is the most gorgeous place in the world. Screw white sandy beaches. Screw ancient ruins. Screw snow-capped alpine vistas. Give me orange leaves and small backroads and the smell of a woodstove any day. Especially if there’s any sort of spiced apple product involved.


I also have seasonal depression. So for as long as I can remember, my autumns have been difficult. And the anticipation of that difficulty makes for a pretty nasty hamster wheel. I’m in my head going Is the black wave of hatred and fear coming? When is it coming? What if it doesn’t come? Am I wasting my time waiting for it? Am I wasting my life in general? Why am I so worthless? Why am I here? Maybe I shouldn’t be here? But it’s so fucking beautiful out. I should go for a walk. But I’m afraid to leave the house. Why am I afraid to leave the house? Oh, because I’m worthless. That’s right, I forgot. I also forgot to eat today. And shower this week. Because I have to wait for the black wave to show up. It’s like that scene in Trainspotting when Renton says “The sickness isn’t here yet, but it’s in the mail for sure.” And that’s before the wave even hits. That conversation with myself happens eight hundred times a day before it finally gets quiet and all I can think about is sleep and hating myself for a couple of months. And then it’s Christmas. Fucking bonus points, Christmas, for having great timing.

Fortunately, I’m a farmer now. Through the worst psychological part of my year, I can just keep my head down and my mouth shut and work my ass off. Nose-to-the-grindstone my way through it because the work absolutely must get done. I may be tremendously unpleasant, but I’m still a useful set of hands. So there’s the upside, I guess. I don’t have to fake nice for idiots anymore while I work retail this time of year. Silver lining, right?

So, why am I bringing this up? Just to bitch? No, although that is proving helpful (thanks, y’all). My buddy Jessica from Seattle came to visit this past week. You remember her. While she was here we were chatting about our different flavors of mental illness. Comparing notes, if you will, and she showed me this article. It’s a response to one of those cheesy lists. You know the ones. The internet’s full of them: 32 Jokes Only Kids from the 80s Will Get, or 87 Cutest Puppies Evar, or 24 Things We Can All Learn from Miley Cyrus. (The internet is just one massive distillation of our innate need to categorize, compartmentalize, and catalog everything. It’s pretty fascinating.) The particular list that started this whole thing was 21 Habits of Happy People.

Whoever wrote the 21 Habits of Happy People can bite my shiny metal ass. First of all because the website is called “Mind Openerz.” With a Z. And I get that it’s a hippie dippie airy fairy site about aligning your vibrations with the universe and chakras and mushrooms and The Secret and all that other bullshit, but they could still at least try to spell like grownups. Secondly, because it’s bad writing. Just…bad. There’s no way around that. And thirdly, no one signed their name to this piece of shitty writing. I hate that. Take responsibility for your awfulness, bad writers. Do it. Man up, coward.

Having said all that, let me clarify that I don’t think their intentions were malicious. The thing was called 21 Habits of Happy People, not 21 Things You Should Do to Be Happy. See the difference? Assuming that the writer meant it to be the other way around is a little bit post hoc ergo propter hoc, I think. And it certainly wasn’t meant to address serious mental illness. Hopefully. Dear ghost of B.F. Skinner, I hope not. I don’t think it was, though. The language of the thing is all wrong.

There is a distinct difference between people with serious depression and your average human’s normal blues. Everyone has bad days. Bad years, even, sometimes. But that’s not the same as being clinically, provably, diagnosably messed up. (Diagnosably’s not a word. I’m aware.) This assertion has been debated. I, however, am not willing to debate it. If you don’t think that depression is a real illness/disorder, please skip to the front of the Fuck Off line because I’m not having that discussion. We can banter about the use of the word “disease,” maybe. But, semantics aside, you can’t tell me that there’s not something deeply and fundamentally wrong with me. Sorry.

If one were to read the 21 Habits list with the mindset that it’s expressly intended for people who are actually ill, I can see how that would piss one off. It comes across as utterly condescending. I get that. It’s happy slappy drivel meant to get you through a shitty day or a rough patch. Let’s just assume that this bad writer didn’t fuck up too badly on that, shall we? Some of it is actually decent advice for those situations. I’ll grant them that. Even if they write like a twelve-year-old. Maybe they are a twelve-year-old. That would make sense, now that I think of it.

Moving on.

The response article, 21 Tips to Keep Your Shit Together When You’re Depressed, takes the opposite tack. And I’ll say the same things about it. It’s not intended for helping you through a bad day. It’s for people who are suffering through a legitimate mental illness. It’s well-written, thoughtful and sensitive. Sympathetic. And it also contains a lot of good advice. Worth the read, absolutely. But what’s interesting about these two articles is their juxtaposition. I don’t want to say that they’re having an argument, because they’re not even really in the same conversation. They think they are, but they’re not. They’re essentially coming at the problem from different points on a spectrum of experience, but missing a crucial middle piece of information, I think. So it seems like an argument, like you have to choose a team. She even refers to the non-depressed as “The Happy People.” Frankly, I’m not okay with making “normal” (whatever that stupid word means) seem like a bad thing. Not that it should be everyone’s goal, but normal is perfectly fine. The Happy People aren’t lacking in depth or empathy across the board. Of course they aren’t.

But she brings up a few good points that are worth discussing here. That whole “buck up little buddy” thing that people do, while I’m sure it’s genuinely meant to be helpful, is beyond annoying. There is nothing wrong with my life. I don’t have cancer or eight kids to take care of. I’ve got a roof over my head and food in my belly. The sun rises every day. I continue to breathe in and out. I’m fine, on the outside. It’s the inside of my skull that is the problem, and dishing out platitudes and hammy inspirational quotes, especially unsolicited ones, makes everything worse. Because don’t you think that if it were that easy to fix the problem, we all would have done it by now? We’re depressed, we’re not stupid. Matter of fact, the rate of mental illness is much higher in people of above average intelligence. Besides that irksome behavior, the bigger cultural problem is the stigma of mental illness.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who said she didn’t want to seek help because she didn’t want her family to shun her or anyone to say that she’s crazy. That’s fucked up, right? What’s more fucked up is how predictable that conversation was because I’ve had it so many times. How is it possibly better to suffer in silence and get worse and worse? I think there’s this idea that once you get help, therapy or medication or even a diagnosis, that you’ll be irreversibly damaged forever. That’s simply not true. You break a leg, you go to a doctor. You break your brain, and why should it be any different? Treatments are many and varied. Some you have to do for life. Some you only have to do for a little while until you can get your feet under you. Some are easy. Some are hard. Some are up to you. Some require a team of professionals. Point is, none of the solutions are worse than the illness itself. That’s the bottom line. Don’t wait to get help.

Which brings me to our mental health care system. I could write a fucking dissertation on everything that’s wrong with it, but let’s curb that impulse before this gets out of hand. Some people need medication. A lot of people don’t. Throwing pills at every problem and then expecting that to be the end of it is not the answer. But it’s a first step, at least. It should be as easy for everyone to get to a therapist or a psychiatrist as it is to get in for a cold or a bad tooth. We shouldn’t have to wait until we need stitches on our wrists to see a fucking doctor, is all I’m saying. And if you need help, even just a counselor, and you’re worried about paying for it? That is not okay. Get to a professional and worry about the money later. It’s just money. It’s not the end of the world. You know what’s the end of the world? Suicide. I know that seems like a weird position to take on the issue. But seriously. Fuck money if it’s standing between you and treatment. Once you’re in there, a lot of places are more than willing to work with you. The money will sort itself out. It’s a stupid, made-up system anyway.

I certainly don’t mean to sound like I have all the answers. Clearly, I don’t, or I wouldn’t still be this messed up. I’m not one to dispense advice willy nilly. The only thing I can really say for sure is that depression (or anxiety or substance abuse or whatever your mental glitch may be) is a result of being a creature that requires a body. It’s treatable, if not always fixable. Illnesses of the brain can be managed, just like diabetes or any other chronic, debilitating affliction. Don’t let people tell you that you’re less of a person because of it. Don’t let your depression tell you that either, for that matter. And if you don’t have a mental illness, if you’re a happy, healthy person, think twice about the advice you give to people who are suffering. Choose your words carefully. Ask and listen before jumping to conclusions about what the problem actually is. Cut out the banalities, maybe. Don’t be flippant or dismissive or make assumptions. People with these kinds of problems are all around us all the time, not sequestered or cloistered in some other, mysterious place where the crazies live. For the most part, anyway. We’re friends and family and all we need is an ear to talk into or a hug or someone to say they’ll help in any way they can. That’s it. Easy.

And let me go ahead and warn you that if I fall off the cliff again, my writing may take a turn for the dark or the maudlin or the weird. It really does help, though. Writing makes it more of a slope and less of a steep drop into the pit. So thank you, all of you, for that, whether you just read this blog every week or whether I have you on speed dial. Just being readily available sets of eyeballs means a lot. Sincerely, I appreciate it so much. Had to get all that out of my system. I’ll be back next week with something less dire for you. Meanwhile, keep your heads up. Love and hugs all around.

4 thoughts on “Compassion and collapse

  1. Vanessa!

    This issue is very near to my heart, as you know. For those of you who do not, I was diagnosed as bi-polar a few years ago. Growing up I always new that I was different than other people, whether it was the teachers taking me aside and telling me that I was “so smart, and had so much potential” (fuck that sentiment by the way, potential that is) or if it was the fact that after the first time I got drunk and high I thought I was still hungover for the whole next week afterwords. Turns out I was just in a state of extreme depression. All throughout high school I would get into these states where I didn’t particularly feel sad about anything, but I was just watching myself go through the motions of life like I was a few steps away in another dimension and was only marginally connected to the things that were going on around me. I remember telling my parents about it and my dad just kind of blowing it off and telling me that I was fine. Ya know I understand his inability to understand what was going on with me and the fact that we were living paycheck to paycheck and he couldn’t afford to get me checked out. After a few years of these episodes I eventually learned to tell when they were coming and I could focus my mind, in what I am starting to think of as mindfulness meditation, in a way that would keep these episodes at bay.
    Then a few years after that I went the other way and just got totally fucking crazy and was detached from reality in a completely different way, it was like I was standing too close to everything that was happening all around me. Like my experiential existence was one giant raw nerve. So I ended up having to be taken to the hospital because I am a very big man, and if I’m not in control of what I am doing it could end badly for those around me. Not to mention the hell of dealing with all the things that I was saying to these people around me who loved me. Which I think is kind of the problem that people have when dealing with people with mental illness, the problem that those of us with these mental diseases have challenge peoples realities in ways that makes them extremely uncomfortable. Ya know when I was manic no social construct would keep me from saying exactly what was on my mind, so I would say things that were extremely hurtful to those close to me. I’m still dealing with the fallout of those actions and I really hope that the people I hurt will forgive me.
    So anyways the mental healthcare system did what they do which is prescribe anti-psychotics, which for those who don’t know are kind of like jack hammers when what you really need is a screwdriver when it comes to the tools that you need to help someone with a mental disorder. So I ended up being a slavering idiot for a while which I suppose was better than being a raging madman roaming the streets smoking old cigarette butts he came across, talking to birds and being higher than any sane person could ever be. So I eventually came back to reality started going back to school, living on my own ya know I got “better.” Then recently I have kind of come to a new mile stone, I was starting to feel the excitement and high of mania creeping in and I realized that I really didn’t want to destroy the life I had made for myself. So I focused and discovered that I could do this kind of intense focusing that brought me back to myself. It wasn’t quite the same process that I used to thwart the depression episodes I had but it was very similar. So I have found something that works for me, I just wish that the mental healthcare system would have been run in a way that would helped me to discover this method instead of just pushing drugs on me. To be fair though there is counseling that mentions mindfulness meditation and discovering your triggers, it’s just that no one in the psych ward really takes the counseling very seriously, its mostly just arts and crafts and people talking about their feelings until they get stable enough on their meds to go home. Which sucks because I think a lot of people who end up in psych ward just get swallowed by the system and become hooked on these drugs that the big pharmaceutical companies are producing. Did you know that in the mental healthcare system, patients are referred to as ‘consumers.’ That’s real fucked up. It just goes to show you that we are all apart of a system thats pretty messed up when you think about it, and that goes for the ‘normals’ as much as it does for all of us “crazies.”

    Thank you so much for writing this blog Vanessa, I miss you buddy give me a call sometime.

  2. First off – the mountains are truly spectacular, especially in the fall.
    Second – it’s totally crappy when your brain turns against you. Unsettling thoughts and impulses, being sucked deeper into a black hole. It’s awful. Sometimes I can head it off when I recognize the signs, but usually I end up sinking further and further down until I come out the bottom. The way out is through.
    Anyways, love this, love you.

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