Look at me on the street, or scroll through photos of me clogging up your social media stream, more than likely what you’d see is an active, healthy, and smiling middle-aged man—an endurance athlete with an insatiable appetite for cookies. But here’s the truth… just like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s iconic poem, I feel as though I’m wandering around encumbered by the greatest of weights:
Ah! wel-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.
But instead of albatross around my neck, my toxic stowaway is something far less visible, and far more socially corrosive—fragile mental health. That smiling athlete you see on Facebook is the same person who at one time, tried to take his own life. He’s all too accustomed to seeing the fear in the eyes of the people who despite the struggle, love him deeply, even at his darkest moments when he can’t love himself.
I take little solace in knowing that like me, millions of others around the world, dread this time of year—not because of the shortened days and biting cold, but because they know that these conditions are fertile ground for depression’s talons to imbed firmly in our marrow. When it comes to living with a mental illness, it is the stigma that can take its greatest toll. Even though I currently find myself on the other side of depression, I am ever so aware of how thin that veil is between me and fragile mental health. It’s times like these, when I’m feeling my strongest, that I realize how important it is to bring depression to the fore—to engage people in conversations about what depression, anxiety, and PTSD feel like. So, how do you describe the aching cavern of mental illness to someone who has never lived through it? I’m not sure if I can, but I’m going to try…
Depression has nothing to do with feeling sad, and everything to do with feeling nothing. Imagine a total loss of direction, a complete disconnect from anything sound, comforting, and forward-looking. Depression is not here one day, and then magically disappears the next. I also believe that no one is ever “cured” from depression.
If you’re fortunate, you may get a blessed reprieve, a gradual clawing back to a life of normalcy, for we know that depression is not an endless blanket of smothering darkness, but rather, more closely resembles a mysterious series of shape-shifting, and what I would describe as quiet, internal seismic victories.
Sitting within the depression, you are forced to draw on a will buried so deep inside that ironically, many of us never get to witness its birthing. And often what this looks like is nothing more than the quietest, yet bravest decision that lies just on the other side of consciousness—a subtle grace that allows you not to take your own life for just one more day.
For me, it was finding that place nestled within the architecture of my being where I unearthed the faith that allowed me to believe that the next moment of my life would arrive with less pain than I was in now. When you are on the outside of depression and are looking in, you will be baffled because depression does not play by the rules. It is a wily, and at times, vicious animal that has slipped its snare and has entrapped someone you love.
From a vantage point on the outside, it’s as though we are looking through the wrong end of a telescope. From the perspective of the individual ensnared in the depression, what is needed most is not the decree of the sane, but the empathetic presence of those who bear witness to that of which they have an absence of vocabulary, yet an abundance of caring.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that hope, and by that I mean a faith in our resilience, lies within authentic conversations about uncomfortable topics such as depression. I’ll leave you with a beautiful poem entitled, “The Gates of Hope” by Victoria Safford because within her beautiful words, I find solace in knowing that resilience comes when we sit with the uncomfortable—when we begin to see ourselves in the struggles and joys of others.
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”