The Anatomy Of Depression
originally published in Thought Catalog

in which i interview 10 people about the big “D” and how it affects the creative spirit

 

Illustrated by Livia Fălcaru


In November 2009 I went to see Diana Krall perform in a big theatre in my home town. What could’ve been a casual night out spiralled into an unanticipated nightmare. I can remember it vividly: the mellow autumn air, my grey leather jacket under a big scarf, the smell of gingerbread in my hair. And this strange feeling eloping from my chest, which followed me in the music hall and made me rise after the fifth song and head home in a rush I could not contain. At the time, I could not put my finger on that state, give it a name, as I later learned in therapy, or call it out. I simply did not know what it was.

Last time I’ve seen my therapist, I told her:

“I recall these days when I was eight or nine. If something bugged me, I’d either be mad or go to bed, but the next morning that feeling of anger would be flushed”. She nodded. “So in your adult life you turn to sleep as a rescue method?”. I didn’t quite approve but I realized that the depressed organism turns to bed hours more than the healthy one, in a search for solace between the sheets. We regard the pillow as the airbag of our crisis.

I don’t know where depression starts or ends. It is not clear even now if that moment in the fall of 2009 set the premises for me, or just came as the breakout of accumulated fury I couldn’t address. I’ve fought it for 7 years. Then I’ve decided to ‪‎tame it. Make it my friend. Shake hands with it, the way I do with people. With time, I stopped resenting it and decided I have to love it.

But up to that moment, the documentation has not been easy.

Because depression is demanding.

Today’s first world trifecta of wellness calls for finding the right partner (in yourself, presumably), the right job (freelance, because follow your passion is a modern anthem of high consequence) and the right therapist (to answer Why’s). Capitalism is no longer about meeting the one husband or wife to share a life with, having children and working just about enough so you can afford 21 days of holiday in a sunny resort in January. Now we rejoice in sabbaticals, jobbaticals, apps that help us have sex, track our hormones, measure our sleep cycles, challenge us to become a yoga guru in 30 days, pay women to date men through ambiguous services that praise independence but smell like escorting, and a maddening fear of missing out, all packed into a new age type of marketing that literally crushes our souls.

The rush to be well which the media has ingrained and the general living context clashes our natural pace with the adrenaline rise of a TRX class. It’s nonetheless abusive to focus your goals on living the dream when the dream is to be Kim Kardashian and live off Instagram.

And that’s where depression settles in.

The new middle age crisis hits pre 30, when people decide Chiang Mai would be a good real life adaptation of eat ayuhuasca, pray for Turkey and have elevated tantric experiences.

The problem is, when you board, the demons board too.

Over coffee, Adrianne aimlessly pierces a white sheet of paper with an unfortunate pen that afterwards ceases its existence. For a 30 year old woman with a brimming career, a successful relationship topped with the benefit (or the curse) of being able to bootstrap for the expensive webinars she holds, you can easily say she achieved a lot. After having kicked off a one year journey around the world with her spouse, her depression had as many plot twists as the number of plane tickets she bought. In her case, writing is what made a difference. “It may sound like I was surrendering to that state of being, emphasising it with rage, with a written black on white proof, making it even more real, providing it more strength for it to press her heavy fog upon me. And it’s true. Because it was real”, she argues. “Screaming it on paper was helping me embody it and define its shape. As an artist I know that I can reshape my mind’s creations. And that was step one”. After each session, she sleeps for many hours.

Refining our outlook toward depression is vital. Calling it a mental disorder is unjust. Because, truth is, depression is only a quarter mental. Any reliable clinician will ask you for biochemical tests.

Depression is also genetic.

At 21, my father climbed a ladder to change a light bulb. The electricity panel was not switched off and he got electrocuted, fell off the stairs and fainted. This can happen to anyone, yes. But months followed and my dad lost about 30 kilos, lost his ability to feed unassisted, talk, or walk. He cried at night in his sleep and became a classic case of psychosis. It was what doctors today call and a blasting chemical imbalance that upon electric shock revealed a whole bunch of underlying issues. My father got treated one year with minerals and injected nurturing, and he got well. But he was advised never to get angry again. Never to watch sad movies again. Never to sit and have his mind wonder. To always stay busy, because that’s when the brain decides to allocate less space for post traumatic stress.

I am the same. My last therapist told me I have to decide whether my artist self and my human self can shake hands and co-exist. I have decided there’s no other way. I know after each great achievement I will have a downfall. I know that downfall will only be sweetened by the perspective of a new achievement. I’m a go getter. And go getters are often depressed. But I’m also a seeker, and seeking into others has helped me seek into myself.

How To Have Fun When You’re Depressed

A friend told me once “Depression is waking up on a sunny Monday, going to work and hating all the nonsenseness of the work you have to do to pay your rent”. This was 10 years ago. A decade later, people complain about having embraced their independence, sexuality and finances with wit, care and social media presence – and still not having it figured out. Nonsenseness couldn’t make more sense when you live by goals you need to tick but you don’t have what you actually need, even though what you need seems quite affordable. Peace of mind is sold in 3 $ e-books. Relationship recipes to spell the man of your dreams forever and marry him are top of the marketing line. Lists to revive your spirit after an emotional breakdown come into our newsfeed each day. Therapist armies pop everywhere in and out the internet, promising to get you better.

But have we lost it to trying?

Or have we genuinely lost our ability to be happy?

My trigger to write this study was a simple Google search. Like any conceited millennial, I Google all my problems. Yeast infection? Google. Shared car ride to Greece? Google. Taxes? Google. How to use Adobe Lightroom? Google. Try to Google “How to have fun when you’re depressed”. Zero results under this headline made me smell an issue bigger than the world crisis. The fact that there’s no infografic, infotainment, not even one crappy viral Buzzfeed article on this made me wonder how do people actually cope with depression when the fun factor is disassociated completely with this condition. Which leads to an even more frightening question:

Has pleasure been completely eliminated from the depression equation?

For me, depression is marked by silence. I can no longer stand music, I have no interest in talking to anyone and I resent the beeping sounds of my phone. I’m sitting in silence but I’m surrounded by noise. I can’t however stop everyone else from talking, shrieking, strutting, trampling, carousing, I can’t silence trams, trucks, motorcycles and extroverts, I can’t stop people from walking past my door and breathing down my neck. It’s an unspeakable aggression, an unforgivable invasion. So I just sit there quietly, tiredly, hoping to slide down further down the hole and hit bottom with a muffled thud”, Andreea recalls, making it painfully clear that her previous music booker career speaks volumes of how tuned out she feels from a satisfying life.

For artists, the concept of depression and creativity working hand in hand is older than the world. Michaela moved to London last year in October and had bouts of depression after switching to a more active, but not at all interactive lifestyle. “I turned to photography and managed to put that nausea in dreamscapes. And when I crash in a very low state of mind, I just buy a ticket to a destination in Europe to visit my friends and have a glass of wine or beer with them. Depression made me cope up with my fear of going alone in city breaks and eating alone in a restaurant or just to get lost in. For my, depression and creativity are not separated, they make a whole”.

When her sister fell into severe depression close to graduation, Maria asked herself the mundane question we all ask. Why? Further into reclaiming her sibling’s mental health, she portrays depression as a black hole. “When you fall in it you start to lose yourself. It’s a gradual fall that takes you to the point where light is a matter of the past with no future, a place where time has no sense anymore. You erase the day you were born on from the calendar, and you start replacing creation with denial”.

I find depression interesting, muses Keith, whose short films dig deeply into the pulsating root of depression. “I am genuinely fascinated by it. Depression inspires me because I can feel it so keenly, feel the world all around me and my place within it. I’m sensitive. I want to share this experience creatively so that others can relate to my pain without annoyance or judgment. The magical connection between creator and audience makes it all so much more bearable – we are one. The result can be so beautiful, like a field of flowers growing from the rain”.

Depression does not discriminate.

Like a truck driven by a drunken man, it can hit any of us, regardless of ethnicity, religion, school of thought, sexual orientation or career choice. So what happens when you’re a Miami fashion socialite and the D has got the hots for you? “When I feel depressed…I take long showers. Last week I took 31 showers. It’s Tuesday night and I just took my 7th shower”, Christina opens up on her blog.

When I feel depressed…

I take long showers.

Last week I took 31 showers.

It’s Tuesday night and I just took my 7th shower.

 

Juliana comes from a country where depression and other mental disorders have always been treated like weakness. That is the awful heritage of the post-USSR countries we still need to deal with – the main motto of human life seems to be: “However shitty you feel inside, get up and go to work, don’t let anyone know there is a worm of ennui eating you. Put a smile upon your face and suffer until it just goes away.” She was raised up in Ukraine by a communist grandmother, and, eventually, following this lifestyle made her schizophrenic. Whatever you feel, her grandmother said – don’t show it to others. They will notice your quirk and it will be a shame. Each time she felt sad, Juliana would receive candy. If I ate them all, I would end up heavily overweight and, probably, diabetic, she screeches.

 

Juliana grew up choking with her feelings to hide them, and, in the end, got so lost with receiving no love from anyone around, that she barely learned how to express what she felt. After several awkward attempts, which just strengthened her belief in her eternal loneliness, she simply gave up “and learned to live as a sad eggplant, being an emotional castrate as I was supposed to.”

 

Across years of ignorance, we lose the ability to listen to ourselves completely. It’s easy to feel like you don’t know yourself anymore. Or that you never knew yourself, in fact. Learning to hear your internal voice is like physical therapy after an awful car accident – it takes time and requires an enormous effort. Now 28, Juliana found her own method of hearing herself – sensory deprivation tank, so-called floating.

 

My conversation with Mladen on a balmy July afternoon bounces off clouds and dreams. The 19 year old conceptual photographer calls depression a serial silent killer. His struggle to tame it began when he was still in high school and suddenly lost his appetite for life. “I’m a fighter. I struggled with depression for four years. It may sound short, but it’s a thousand and one hundred and forty days. Every morning I wake up broken. I was not present in school. I was physically there, but mentally never. I was lost”. Depression did not kill his passion for lecture, dance, art or music, like it did to others, but rather gave him a final push to seek professional advice. “I went to a psychiatrist, then a psychologist. I think it was just the beginning of a new me. Then I realized that the whole life is a battlefield and that the strongest survive. During this period I started to photograph, then edit these images in a very strange way. Each photograph would talk about my life.” But finding consolation in art and in the outcome of his work was not the only thing that helped Mladen move further. “I met a boy, I fell in love, he smirks. Now, since he is there, I ignore these anxiety attacks, and consequences of depression. Thanks to him, thanks to family, friends. Thanks to me”.

While some carry their battle silently or turn to art, George, who qualifies as the IT guy with a larger than life lust for creativity, has pushed his limits into understanding depression as a standalone product of the brain. We have lived for thousands of years in the woods, fighting for our lives and food. After that it came a much smaller period of time in which we learnt to build houses and cook our food and in the end, in the last centuries of our existence we learnt to read, write and ended up working in a cubicle. Now try to see the whole picture. Imagine that your body has the memory of all those centuries, it remembers the good old times when he was hunting or just sitting by the river near a cracking fire and he craves for those moments. However your brain is not that old. It is let’s say 25 years old. He’s like a person. He doesn’t know anything about hunting, fighting to survive. He likes computers, clubbing and fancy dinners. Now just think about it. What will your body feel when you will put it to work 10 hours a day, breathing the same air like 100 other people sharing the same office, without changing a word one to each other, instead sending mails? And what will your brain feel when you will sit for months, next to a river, fishing and eating meat like your ancestors? Face it, you are trapped in the middle. You have the body of a monkey and the mind of an aristocrat with expensive tastes. So call it however you want depression, BPD but don’t use a too fancy word because it’s not something that rare, it’s in all of us. The only difference is that some of us are acting like monkeys, others like aristocrats and the others are sitting in the middle wandering what they really are. My aristocratic opinion is that we are both and you need to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Maybe doing a lot of sport will make the monkey within you to be happier or a lot of sex or expeditions on Everest. Maybe teaching in an University or being a curator will make your other self feel better. You only need to find the right balance and when you’re done, write down the proportions, do whatever is needed to fulfill them and then step back and feel that you’re not a monkey, neither a dumb aristocrat but a happy human being, he explains.

Meeting twenty four old and 5.8 feet tall Diana at the market is a refreshing experience. With the height of a basketball player and the allure of a healthy Nordic woman who speaks fluent Japanese, you wouldn’t think she’s ever had any emotional downfall whatsoever. But you can read it in her eyes – the melancholia of unfinished conversations laid out like a dash of a plane in free fall. She tells me her story calmly, and I feel like holding her hand under the sun and make up for all the silent shouts depression bears.

“When you are submerged in your tub, you think it unnecessary to name the diffused quality of the few sounds that manage to pierce through to your ears. When you are on your lover’s kitchen floor looking him guiltily in the eye after swallowing six Xanax pills he bought for you from a dealer you’ve never met, you don’t think to give it a name. These are not moments you want to be linguistically accessible. These are lightning fragments you lock away somewhere because they make you feel ashamed of every minute gesture, of every distillation of sound and colour, of you having proven to be the weakest link. But it is important to name the moment he picked you up and forced you to throw everything up, confiscating the rest so you wouldn’t swallow more. You give that moment his name. You call it your revival. You learn to go to parties again. You meet people. As autumn rolls in you find yourself running away to the park when feeling gloomy, watching the ducks without a mate and feeding only them. Without forgetting to name them. You give the ducks your name, and a number. You have seen 27 in the past 3 years. Here’s to many more.”

Working on this story confirmed how much of the stigma depression still bears although it’s a hot topic over the internet. Asking people in my Facebook list upfront in a wall post to debate their view on depression brought me dozens of private confessions but not one public commentary. I often tried to imagine what sitting over drinks with your friends, business associates or peers and breaking out about your depression would be like. Say my client Martha giggles “I got a new dress today”. And I’d say “I got a nervous breakdown this morning”. In fact, Sex And The City made this kind of blunt portrayal in the episode where Samantha Jones confesses her cancer over brunch after her friends discussed outfits and parenting. It’s the sort of thing you would find pleasurable to spit out even to see the reaction of guests at the dinner table. But, in all honesty, it’s healthy.

Talking about my depression upfront brought me waves of empathy, casual dates with sympathetic men, raised eyebrows and piles of advice I could literally make into an e-book, from religious upheaval to clinical support recommendations. When you live with depression it’s like living with another you on the same territory. And you have to learn to love it. At least accept it.

It’s 2 AM and I light a cigarette. Messages still pop in my browser. I have created a dashboard confessional of real life tales, one bolder than the other, one more honest than the other. Looking back to my younger self, I replay all the bouts of wishing I had when trying to understand my condition. My anxiety and racing heart are the ones making me go on, paradoxically, because they help me build up momentum in my writing. My tattoos are symbols for hope. My photography is a way to deal with the writer’s block I had when faced with nervous breakdowns. I want to be able to be who I am in spite of my shortcomings, and mostly, in spite of a challenging outlook on life. If we meet, I hope this confession will lift the corners of your mouth, instead of eyebrows.


Some names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees in this study.