Tag Archives: empathy

So I went on a little depression-bender the other night. “Bender”, hah, it’s fun to call it that, like it’s something I did because I’m wild and unpredictable and because consequences shmonsequences! A bender is something that is, at least in theory, enjoyable in the moment, but you pay for it later.

My depression-bender wasn’t like that. I did pay for it later — my depression-benders do sometimes come with actual literal hangovers, which isn’t fair at all — but it wasn’t much fun at the time, either. It sucked, like depression always does. It was worse than I remembered, like depression always is.

Maybe it’s a good thing to get depressed once in a while — like in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep:

“I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.” Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. “So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who’s smart has emigrated, don’t you think?”

“But a mood like that,” Rick said, “you’re apt to stay in it, not dial your way out. Despair like that, about total reality, is self-perpetuating.”

“I program an automatic resetting for three hours later,” his wife said sleekly. “A 481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future; new hope that –”

“I know 481,” he interrupted. He had dialed out the combination many times; he relied on it greatly.

Golly, I love that book. Seriously, though, I don’t put a “six-hour self-accusatory depression” on my schedule on purpose, like Iran Deckard does, and I wouldn’t if I could. I love the world and I love loving the world and I hate depression more than anything else I can think of at the moment.

But it does give you some perspective. People who’ve never been seriously depressed can look at a depressed person and say, out loud or (hopefully) not, “Oh, I remember last time I felt like that. I just needed to think more positively.” They can say that and truly not understand that they deserve to be beaten to death with a shovel.

I mean, gently corrected.

And I understand that, because all it took me was a couple of years on a decently even keel, and I forgot how powerless depression makes you feel: how it doesn’t feel like a feeling at all, but as if the atmosphere of the entire planet has turned dark and noxious, and the only possible escape is Deep Space. So how little would I understand if I had never been there at all?

So, depression sucks, but it’s a good reminder, the same way it’s a good reminder when your plumbing is busted and your basement floods and your house smells like a third world country for a day or two. Because, ha ha, third world countries: not everybody gets to not be one.

Last Thursday was my two-month no-Prozac anniversary, by the way. Can you tell I’m feeling the difference? On Prozac, I didn’t have to worry about triggers: I automatically, or with a miniscule effort, processed them like a healthy person would. Sent a text and got ignored? My buddy must’ve been busy. Told a joke and nobody laughed? It wasn’t that funny. Left the kwoon for the day and nobody said goodbye? They were paying attention to Sifu, like they should be.

Typical depressive reactions to the above situations: (1) everybody hates me, (2) everybody hates me, and (3) everybody hates, me. Respectively.

I’ve spent years unlearning that kind of extreme, irrational response. That unlearning has largely been a success. Still, what I have is essentially A Condition: I have to be careful with myself, the way a diabetic person has to be careful about what he eats. Prozac made that caution much less necessary.

What I’ve found, though, is that depression’s got momentum. Apply enough pressure over a long enough period of time, and it’ll turn around; anyway, mine does. I just have to remember in the meantime not to fall for any of the quick fixes — the binge eating, the porn sessions, the self-isolation, any of the stuff that promises quick relief (and sometimes delivers it) but makes everything worse after.

So, what are the pressure points — where’s the steering wheel on that Big Fuckin’ Depression Zamboni? Here are three obvious ones:

  • Am I eating right? Welllll…all right, I’ve been alternating between coffee-for-two-meals-a-day and snarfing down my roommates’ nearly-expired leftovers.
  • Am I exercising? Uh oh, it’s been a week since I went to Kung Fu, hasn’t it? Oh crap, it’s been nearly two weeks.
  • Am I praying every day? Not unless you count grumbling vaguely skyward and a cursory Hail Mary or two around bedtime.

So I do those things and a few others, and wait. The waiting is important, because I know two things from experience:

  • I didn’t get this way in twenty minutes, so fixing it isn’t going to take twenty minutes, either.
  • If I keep applying pressure to those pressure points, eventually things do change.

Oh, and coffee helps.

Gosh, William Lynch just gets better and better:

The sick [i.e. the mentally ill] deeply fear that they are not human. They interpret an endless variety of problems and distresses as nonhuman.

I remember I used to feel that it would be a relief to have the kind of problems that “normal” people had: in high school, worrying about girls; in college, about grades; later, about money. These things seemed to me standard problems, problems you could talk about. And it’s true — I heard people talking about them all the time.

But I was consumed with things that I couldn’t talk about — things that, it seemed to me, it was shameful even to feel, because they were not within the range of the normal, the human.

This is why, when I find myself stuck in a traffic jam, I sometimes can’t stop grinning: how enjoyable it is to be having a normal human problem! I imagine it’s how someone from Haiti might feel when he has to buy creamy peanut butter because THEY’RE OUT OF CHUNKY.

When people are mentally ill they excommunicate themselves or are excommunicated by human society…let us imagine the mentally ill as living the life of excommunicates from our humanity, from the human race.

For many men with SSA, this feeling is manifested specifically as a (real or perceived) excommunication from the world of his fellow men, rather than from humanity at large. If the mentally ill person feels that he is outside of the realm of the human, the man with SSA often feels that he is outside the realm of the masculine: that there is an essential difference between him and other men.

I say “an essential difference” because it doesn’t feel like something that can be overcome: the very fact of having to overcome it in the first place seems to place one outside of the realm of the masculine. So, seen in those terms, it’s an insoluble problem. One feels that, even if he somehow attains the masculinity he thinks he lacks, he’ll still be forever marked — because he didn’t have it from the beginning.

(As if anybody is born knowing how to be a man!)

I remember the look on my friend M.’s face when, from the middle of my own personal Golgotha, I explained this to him for the first time — I used the phrase “insurmountable chasm” (who doesn’t get histrionic when they’re in the Pit?) to describe the distance I sometimes felt between me and other men. And, wow, I could tell he got it because of — God bless him for his empathy — the way the blood drained from his face. He hadn’t really understood, before.

For the sake of the sick, therefore, we must be concerned to enlarge the concept of the human so that it can include everything in them.

Walker Percy, somewhere in Lost In the Cosmos, has the image of a man riding a subway, feeling lost and isolated and alienated. But luckily, he is reading a novel about a man who feels lost, isolated, and alienated. Since the man in the novel feels as he does, the feelings become endurable — because they are something human after all.

What to take from all of this? Our job as Christians, it seems to me, is to “enlarge the concept of the human” to include those struggling with SSA. This is done, not by pretending that SSA is not a problem, but by acknowledging that it is a human problem — which means something that can be talked about, sympathized with, understood.

More specifically, this means — for both the sick and the well — acknowledging that the feelings of inferiority suffered by men with SSA exist precisely because they are men. Every man wants to be a man, wants to love and be loved by other men, sometimes feels inadequate as a man.

For the man with SSA, this desire takes on an extra intensity. But the important thing to remember is that the desire arises, not despite his manhood, but because of it.