It’s award season, and so this special Academy Awards edition of “Ramblings of a Depressive Mind.” Art is a wonderful thing. It has been said that labor is how we live, but art is why we live. Certainly a wonderful sentiment. Art does, indeed, bring beauty and often meaning to our lives, but one of the principal purposes of art, particularly in popular culture, is to reinforce our cultural values. Which brings us to The Oscars.
Let’s take a look at the films nominated this year for Best Picture: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Spotlight. With the possible exception of The Big Short, all these films share one particular feature; they all reinforce our Western cultural bias against weakness. All these films are about protagonists who, when faced with almost unbearable circumstances, never give in or give up. They all persevere as we celebrate the “triumph of the human spirit.” Is it any wonder that depression is, perhaps, the most stigmatized mental illness in America?
Admit it. We admire strength and admonish weakness. Strength is often expressed in action. When the going gets tough, we are reminded, the tough get going. Not one of the heroes in the films nominated did nothing. They all acted. They all fought back. They all refused to meekly accept the circumstance and took action to change it, and we all cheered their triumphs. We unwittingly bring this same bias to our understanding of mental illness.
Yes, we have made tremendous strides in bringing issues of mental illness (as well as some of the people with them) out of the shadows. Yes, we are having more substantive conversations about the causes of and treatments for mental illnesses. Yes, there are much better treatment options available. However, all of this progress is tempered by our innately human ability to create hierarchies, even hierarchies of victimhood, and so we have privileged some mental illness over others.
“Is it any wonder that depression is, perhaps, the most stigmatized mental illness in America?”
In the hierarchy of mental illness, privilege is given to conditions we associate with — drum roll please — action. Depression is often seen as personal weakness. Depressives are blamed for giving in to their emotions, their “feelings of sadness.” Schizophrenics, on the other hand, either act on their hallucinations or take action to fight them. Narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths, while their actions often result in harm to themselves or others, are the objects of romantic fascination. They have their own television shows, as do the detectives with OCD who hunt them. I can’t recall one show featuring the hunt for a dangerous depressive. Depression, after all, is marked by inaction. It is difficult to take action when your own thoughts literally render you immobile, paralyzed, or, as in my case, catatonic.
I have always had depression. And, even before I ever had an official diagnosis, I was aware of the social stigma depression brings. An example. One of the ways in which my depression manifests is sudden, unprovoked “crying jags” (if you have ever had post-partum depression, and I apologize for my sexism here, you will understand this). Let me set the scene: you are in an otherwise benign situation when you suddenly go cold, feel your stomach start to flip, and your heartbeat begin racing. Waves of utter and absolute despair start to build; starting in your feet they roll over you with increasing frequency and intensity. Suddenly, with one stuttering gasp, the sobbing begins. Eyes, blinded, burn from the salt in your tears. Ears hear only the pounding of your pulse. Body convulses as the sobs give way to howls. Hands search for something to grasp as there is nothing solid supporting you. Eventually the storm subsides, your eyes clear, you catch your breath, wipe the tears and snot from your face, and look around hoping no one is staring at you in alarmed concern.
The first time I can remember this happening, I was six years old. Now, kids are observant and smart. I never saw anyone else do this, so I knew it was not normal. No one likes a crybaby. At home I had several convenient sanctuaries: closets, under furniture, out in the garage. If I was in public when these “crying jags” began, I would find a place to hide until it was over. In school, I would make my way to the bathroom, squeeze myself in between the toilet and the wall, and wait for the feelings to pass.
“Waves of utter and absolute despair start to build; starting in your feet they roll over you with increasing frequency and intensity. Suddenly, with one stuttering gasp, the sobbing begins.”
Once, in second grade, I was taken by a particularly strong wave and could not leave my desk before the crying began. My neighbor called the teacher’s attention to my condition. The teacher called me to her desk and asked me what was wrong, what had made me so sad that I was crying. Even at eight years old I knew that “Nothing” was not an acceptable answer, so I lied. My older brother had been away on a school trip, so I told the teacher I missed my brother. “Well,” she said, “what if your brother were home and had been mean to you. You wouldn’t miss him so much, would you?” An interesting choice; being sad over my brother being away – bad, being angry at my brother for being mean to me – good.
The stigma of depression was reinforced again when I was in high school. It was late in my senior year, and I was struggling to even crawl to the shallow end of the pool. The Assistant Principal had noticed in my behavior some of the classic signs of depression: I was lethargic, had disengaged from friends, and had lost interest in activities I had previously enjoyed. Concerned, she called me to her office. She said that at first my behavior was an attempt to get attention but now she recognized I was depressed. She then reprimanded me. I had loving parents, good friends, food and shelter, new clothes; therefore, her reasoning went, I had no “right” to be depressed. Apparently, not only was depression the result of outside conditions, these depression-inducing conditions must be earned!
I have always had depression, but as of yet I have never been hospitalized because of it. This does not mean there have not been times I should have been hospitalized: I just have not been. In fact, I can point to at least three times in my life I should have been hospitalized. Three times I experienced a major depressive episode (what was once colloquially referred to as a nervous breakdown). Each time, though, I managed to pretend to function enough to fool people into thinking I was ok. As I expressed in Part One, when you have depression, you learn to hide it. You become a “functional depressive” in very much the same way some people are “functional alcoholics.” But it wasn’t denial that kept me out of the hospital, it wasn’t the fear of treatment or the loss of freedom that pulled me back from the abyss. The force which kept me connected to reality just enough to avoid hospitalization was the anticipation of the scorn and derision with which I knew my hospitalization would be met.
We admire strength and hate weakness. “Giving in” to depression is weakness, and seeking treatment, particularly hospitalization, is not only to admit weakness, it is also selfish. If I were to be hospitalized, my decision would not be met with support or even casseroles and platitudes. I would be chastised. “How can you put your family through this?” “What about your students? Do you know what this will do to them?” Or, as a former supervisor, a man with a Ph.D. in Psychology once told me, “Just get over it!”
And so I live with depression and with the stigma of living with depression. I have become a “functional depressive,” smiling and laughing, keeping just enough of my head above water to fool almost everyone. What a depressing way to live.