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Coming Out of the Room: A Journey Through Major Depressive Disorder
Words by Emily Linstrom
Image by Julia Margaret Cameron
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at 23, though it’s been enjoying a rent-free existence in my right anterior insula since puberty. There are many types of depression—manic, atypical, situational, etc.—and they all sort of fall under an all-roads-lead-to-Rome type umbrella. And because depressives really are like snowflakes—no two the same, and yet exactly the same—I am the product of equal parts genetic predisposition and childhood conditioning.
On the genetic side–look, I’m primarily Scandinavian. Which means my distant ancestors chose to migrate from the African basin up to a frozen alpine tundra where even the sun’s bipolar. The History Channel may have GQ’d the vikings but seriously, have you read Norse mythology? It’s fucked up. My family gatherings resembled not so much the plucky freckled free-for-alls of Disney’s Frozen, but an Ingmar Bergman film.
Schematically speaking, my sister and I are estranged from our parents. All roads lead to Rome, right?
It would take a separate article to plumb the depths of my depression, the effect it’s had on me and the many people in and of my life. Then again, all memoirs are really just fleshed out checklists, so in short: I’ve got two suicide attempts (one of the Russian roulette variety, the other an hour short of obituary), a brief but far from bitter affair with opiates, an ill-fated attempt to check myself into a mental facility, and otherwise saga’s worth of misadventures under my garter belt. My story follows the general outline of Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation in that I’m young, white and female, but the similarities end there; I lack both the familial and financial backing to fund my madness
For years the task of trying to explain myself to family members, boyfriends, friends, and pretty much anyone whose spent substantial time with me felt hopelessly impossible, self-indulgent even. More often than not I felt like some hybrid of Lana Del Rey (pretty people with problems) and those stand-up comedians who kill it onstage but make you want to kill them once they’re off.
I’d learned since childhood to be that funny kid at the breakfast table, cracking jokes to lighten our household’s grimly dysfunctional mood, graduating to similar guises as an adult. They say the best comedy is borne of tragedy—a tactic I’ve adopted with a devotion to rival Brangelina’s. Eventually, as it often happens, it took a kid to adequately size things up. Kids are assholes, but you have to hand it to them: they call it like they see it, and it’s usually spot on. After an inquiry regarding my friend/ his mother’s clinical depression—a term the ten-year old didn’t understand–I found myself grasping for a way to explain something that was neither a “your mommy’s just sad” nor a “your mommy’s a walking Molotov cocktail.” After a while it dawned on me that the accurate description of depression is more or less that of a Lewis Carroll-esque conundrum. Obviously I kept the details appropriately precise and simple for the sake of the ten-year old, but what follows is the no-chaser version.
Imagine being in a room: four walls, a floor, a ceiling, no windows and a door. The door changes in size depending on several factors we’ll list below. Call the room your psyche, equal parts what’s inherited + what’s acquired by life experience. The room is DNA, genes, childhood traumas, mistakes, heartbreaks, and that elusive sensation that life is a sentence you have to fulfill, rather than the gift others claim you should savor. We’ll get to the interior design later. (Hopefully GOOP will take an interest.)
Anyway, your friends, associates, partners, children, and family members all keep asking you to come out of the room. They stand on the other side of the door and wave, maybe put an arm through, ask why you won’t come out? From where you are, the door is barely a foot high and half as wide. You wish you could make them understand that you would give anything to get through that door, that you’re not in that room because you’re stubborn or really like the décor or just want to be alone—you’re in there because you can’t get out. Take note: can’t. It’s not a question of won’t.
Certain things make the door a little wider or taller at times. You try meds and/or therapy, and that gives you a little wriggle room to at least get your upper body through, get some sun on your face, converse with all those people standing on the other side. But sometimes those treatments create other problems and conditions that constrict the door, keeping you confined in other ways.
Sometimes you find yourself in a relationship and oh, sweet relief! You’ve met someone who is literally a miracle in the flesh, who lifts your spirits, fills your heart with something like top shelf liquor and Wonka’s chocolate river, who gets you out of bed in the morning and likewise sends you diving for it ifyouknowhatImean. That door widens and elongates and damn if you don’t actually get to go outside and play. And if you can’t get all the way through all the time, someone willingly shares that room with you, making it just a little more inhabitable. They make a window, and the gutter becomes the stars.
But sometimes the relationship starts to fray around the edges—you know, the honeymoon ends, reality sets in. Your partner tries to help, really they do, but the door just keeps shrinking and they’ve had all they can take. They squeeze through just in time to get the hell out and away, and once more you’re alone, only now with a door the size of a keyhole. Or the door closes before they can get out, and they’re confined to the very same room as you. You start to feel more like inmates than lovers.
Alcohol, drugs, sex: I enjoy all three and recommend them to anyone. But there’s indulging from a moderate place of healthy gusto—and Gollum. Nuff said.
Projects and pursuits always put a dent in the door, allow you to express yourself, exorcise some demons. You play a musical instrument or sport, paint, dance. You volunteer in your community. You adopt a pet. You take classes in something, do yoga, meditate. You explore spirituality, philosophy. You have trips planned, you got a raise at work; instead of being broke and depressed you can now be financially OK and depressed. (Believe me, there’s a difference. I’ll take financially OK and depressed over poor and depressed any day.) I found circus and burlesque at one point, explored photography. I’m learning how to sail. I write.
All these factors contribute to The Door. But ultimately the door is there, and while you have a say in certain factors that expand or contract the perimeters, ultimately you’re never really truly out of that room. It’s You and you’re It. All of the above factors I’ve noted furnish your well-being, add splashes of color and productivity and optimism. That room, depending on what you pursue, can look bleak as an interrogation cell or lush as a Versailles boudoir. But make no mistake—you’re still confined to it. So I guess it’s kind of a why-the-caged-bird-sings type riddle. If you’re like me, you’ve maybe even tricked yourself into liking the room, Feng Shuing the quarters to match your malaise, and that can be a danger unto itself. As Will Franken wrote, “better to be free and suicidal than imprisoned and happy.”
And on that note, yes, there’s suicide. Whatever your beliefs are on the moralities of the act, the fact is it’s definitely a way out of that room—though by what means and to what destination, and whether you’ll really be free of the room or just have to return to it in another incarnation, let’s face it, we can only surmise. (Nobody has that answer except those who went that route and never came back, so don’t even bother clogging up the comment boards. This is not a suicide article, so let’s stay on track.)
The point is, just like little Alice, there are cakes and elixirs and one-pill-makes-you-larger-one-pill-makes-you-small, but the door is still the door and getting through it isn’t mind over matter, it’s matter over matter, because that’s what illness is. No one goes up to someone with a physically life-debilitating condition and says “Snap out of it! You’re so selfish, look at what you’ve got going for you! Think about someone besides yourself!” Unfortunately mental illness falls under the “because I can’t see it, it must not be a real thing” category, and more often than not people, even well-meaning people, don’t understand that it’s not a choice—because if it was, you’d sure as hell be through that door and out in the sunlight where you belong. All we can see of mental illness is the outward consequences, which range from barely noticeable to grounds for incarceration.
I don’t believe in using the “some people have it worse than you” trope, as essentially it’s a lazy and insultingly dismissive fallback policy. I’m fully aware that there are millions of people in the world born into impoverished, brutal conditions, predisposed to prejudices and abuses I couldn’t and wouldn’t begin to take inventory of in comparison to my own. I make no claims on whose external reality sucks the big one more. But that’s external reality, which helms your internal state but isn’t always the ultimate defining factor. Otherwise the world would be populated by the fiscally/geographically/genetically advantaged only, and the rest of us would fuck off to the sweet hereafter. (I had so many *’s on the end of this for points of reference that it actually took up an entire page. It was more depressing than the article itself.)
As humans we’re all susceptible to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.* We’ve all lost loved ones, had our hearts broken, been abused by those we trusted or conversely, carry the gut-sickening guilt of having hurt those who only meant the best for us. Most of us will tumble down the rabbit hole at some point. Some will make their way out, some will never stop climbing, and others may stay put at the bottom forever. We are each of us born into, brought up, and ultimately left to our own devices within a set of realities that are specifically unique to each of us, which means none of us are in a position to prescribe blanket solutions to one another’s problems, which includes depression.
The next time you find yourself outside that proverbial room, beckoning someone out and thoroughly bemused as to why they won’t join you, remember the metaphor. Please, remember the metaphor. It’s not that they don’t want to join you, they do—so much it hurts, and the guilt over not being able to join you is more than you may realize. Often it’s the guilt that leads to the more drastic, fatal measures. Instead of telling us to toughen up, pick ourselves up, stop feeling sorry for ourselves, do us a favor? And here comes some whimsy but whatever, you’re almost done reading this: sit down outside that door and just listen. No, really. Lend an ear. It’s the best you can do for someone with depression, the only thing really. There’s no magical tonic of permanence that you can slip us, no sledgehammer strong enough to break down the door. You may possess a more dependable strand of DNA, but you’re not the Hulk smashing his way through mental illness. So just listen at the opening. I speak from experience in saying that just knowing there’s someone on the other side listening, that I’m not just bellowing into the void or curling up next to it or tottering on a dangerous precipice, gives me hope that maybe we’re all just a little mad here.
A friend of mine recently sent me a message in which he wrote, “The earth offers little kindness, you make it kinder.” And isn’t that the point?
*Hamlet, best soliloquy ever.