I like living in America. Given, I am a white Protestant from a middle-class family, so it’s not really that difficult. I like having indoor plumbing, twenty grocery stores in a five-mile radius, access to excellent medical care, electricity, a car, a bachelor’s degree, a 500 square foot apartment all to myself, a laptop, dozens of shirts, and a mattress. I like that I never really have to worry about my female reproductive abilities being my death sentence. I like that I can be reasonably sure that no one is going to kidnap my family in the night and that I can take a bus home without having to fear it will be the last thing I ever do. On top of the cushy luxury of American life, I also happen to have a fun, intact, loving family, lots of friends, and a pet with eerie longevity. Oh, I’m also perfectly healthy. My limbs work, my organs work, all five of my senses are up and running, and the most serious ailment I’ve ever had was mono.
All this is not to sound paternalistic; I definitely take care to avoid the attitude of “poor non-Americans, they’re hungry and sick and their lives suck.” People the world over have vibrant, awesome, and fortunate lives, some in ways similar to mine, many in vastly different ways. I happen to be American though, and being so, I’m lucky to have a degree of health, wealth, comfort, and safety that many people in the world don’t have. But, by recognizing these privileges, I certainly don’t intend to degrade the quality of life of those who have not been granted them.
So, despite being, very much like Ariel in the first half of The Little Mermaid, the girl who has everything, why in the hell have I spent so many periods of my life feeling so depressed? Well, first of all, that’s kind of the thing about depression. It’s not (necessarily) being sad about something. Secondly, that’s also kind of the thing about not having too much to worry about – you start thinking about eternity and finitude and purpose. Yuck, right?
After my professionally-handled fling with adolescent depression fizzled out, I was never again officially diagnosed with a depressive disorder because I never went to see someone with that diagnostic power. I dealt with it the old-fashioned way: black eyeliner and Velveeta mac ‘n cheese. Here’s a fun tip for all you kids out there: if you have even the most cursory knowledge of emo and post-hardcore bands, you can easily disguise your depression as angst. Trust me, it’s much artsier, cooler, and more interesting. (Pause for collective eye roll.)
I didn’t go to counseling or strike up a romance with Xanax because I didn’t want to, for two main reasons. First of all, being depressed is so diametrically opposed to my personality and values that I still want to be able to convince myself it was all in my head. “Happy” was my first word, for crying out loud. When I was a baby, my parents would wake me up in the middle of the night on purpose because I always woke up giggling. As a kid, my mom described me to friends and teachers as being neither a glass-half-empty nor a glass-half-full person, but a the-glass-IS-full person. 90% of the compliments I’ve received about my personality have something to do with my cheerfulness, sense of humor, or optimism. I’m all about picking yourself up by the bootstraps, looking on the bright side, and choosing to be happy. So, if I’m depressed, what’s left of me? What identity do I have, other than being a hypocrite? Is there anything leftover that people will still like about me? It feels like I’m not only sad, I’ve disappeared.
Secondly, and more strongly, is the feeling of intense guilt. I desperately did not want to be another sad bitch with a perfect life. Sometimes, I feel like everyone around me struggles with anxiety, depression, and the like. It kind of scares me and makes me ask, what’s happening to my generation?! Why are we all so worried and sad?! I hated feeling like I was sinking into the quicksand of millennial ennui that I believed my sunny disposition could be the buoyant cure for. I felt so angry with myself 24/7 for being such a letdown, for being such a fake, for being so insufficient, for giving in. I felt like there was a hole where something was; something I would never get back.
Fast forwarding a bit – after a little time and a lot of introspection, reflection, prayer, and thinking, a change in environment and company, a significant decrease in stress, and a positive job switch – I’ve realized something. I am that happy girl. But I’m allowed to feel sad sometimes. I know; unreal, right? Multiple emotions – who’d have imagined?
This is the other thing about living in America. We’re obsessed with being happy and seeming OK. Present a nice face to the world, be happy and shiny, and if you’re gonna be a train wreck, please go home. Here, I’ll call you a cab. Well, looks like my job here is done. Byeeeee! Seriously, sadness freaks us the hell out. Don’t believe me? Think about the last five hundred million times you choked back your tears or said you didn’t want someone to see you cry. Why is that so bad?
First of all, crying is awesome. It’s like laughing. It’s a weird gyration your vocal cords do, and your face gets scrunchy and red, and you shake and look a fool. It feels amazing, it’s cathartic, it’s an outpouring of genuine emotion – it’s literally sad laughter. It also shows we’re soft and squishy and sympathetic, no matter what else we may be. I wanna see some staged crying group selfies posted on social media! We treat laughing together as a bonding mechanism, so why is crying reserved for the select few we trust and love the most? Secondly, we need to start normalizing sadness. Depression, of course, is more serious and powerful than sadness, so my point here isn’t that depression is just glorified sadness, so it’s okay, and we’re all okay! My point here is that no wonder depression, an illness, is so alienating and soul crushing – sadness, an EMOTION, is barely tolerated by our society, our friends, and even ourselves.
The sad, sucky truth is that, even though sadness should be the great emulsifier of humanity, friends sometimes abandon you when you’re down in the dumps because you are no fun. You may be prone to outbursts that only seem excessively melodramatic in retrospect. You probably make them feel bad because it’s hard to express insecurities (“I feel like no one truly loves me”) without sounding like you’re accusing them (“You don’t really love me”). Not to mention, there is a definite cultural script when it comes to depression. There are depression story arcs in TV shows and movies, lines we recite from the literature we’ve read on the topic, and slogan-y aphorisms we pick up from progressive web sites. But the truth is, dealing with depression in real life doesn’t follow that script. You realize that from inside the circle, but not outside it. Outside it, there seems to be a linear progression for how you help your depressed friend. If he or she doesn’t go along with it, well, then, there’s nothing you can do.
A pause to issue a PSA to any reader who may have a depressed friend: listen to them when they tell you how they feel. Believe them. It’s not fair for them to ask you to act as a counselor, to “fix them,” or to bend over backwards to indulge their every whim until they feel happier. But you still have a responsibility to that person. Just sit with them for thirty minutes. Ask them over for dinner. Be kind to them, for God’s sakes! If you see yourself about to have a staged-conversation, intervention-ish interaction with them (***IF THEY ARE NOT SUICIDAL, i.e. they have told you, I AM NOT SUICIDAL) – stop. Take a step back. Look at your choices. Are you listening to your friend? Are you expressing more love than anything else? Or are you following some worn-out, as-seen-on-TV cultural script where your friend is in denial, you yell at them “tough-love” style to get their head out of the clouds and seek help, utter a few gentle platitudes, then you hug at the end and your friend cries quietly and ashamedly and says “Thank you, you’re right!” and then you have brunch that weekend and they obsequiously thank you again and tell you how they’ve seen a counselor once and already feel so much better? It doesn’t work like that. That’s a script; it’s not reality. (If this sounds weirdly specific, there is a reason for that. But I think it’s generally pretty applicable.)
On what I hope and believe is the other side, I’ve learned a couple things. I’ve learned what brings me down, and now I will always make it a point to seek out only people who love my best qualities more than they hate my worst ones. I’ve learned to be okay with my emotions – embracing the crappier ones doesn’t make me a different person, it just makes me a person. It’s okay to feel things, it’s okay to struggle with the demand to always seem upbeat and chipper (because no one can do that for real), it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to not feel emotions in moderation only. While it is wise to turn to medication in extreme cases of depression (and always a great idea to snap up them vitamins if that’s part of the issue), I’ve learned to stop feeling like my feelings should be fixed or medicated. Most importantly, I’ve learned the true and immeasurable value of answering sadness with love. That’s what it means to be a human being living in community – holding up our fellow human beings, pouring out all we have even if they have nothing to give, being present through the darkness, meeting them where they’re at, trying to understand, and being there with arms outstretched and legs jumping for joy when they approach the light at the end.
So yeah. We’re all sad bitches. We all have joy in us, too. And bitches stick together.