On Depression And The Grumpy Dudes Who Inspire Me To Love Life – A bYLLstory In Five Acts
The Introduction: Netflix and No Chill
Sometimes clarity strikes in the least likely of places. The other night I was re-watching some episodes of Louie, comedian Louis C.K.’s semi-autobiographical comedy series, half paying attention as I guzzled curry and texted my boyfriend. In this episode I randomly chose from my Netflix queue, Louie gets a surprise visit from an old comic pal whose life since their last encounter has been a never-ending series of disappointments and failures. After an evening spent catching up, Louie realizes his friend is contemplating suicide and has resurfaced to say his goodbyes.
At this point in the episode I had put down both my phone and my food and found myself staring rapt at my computer screen. For a comedy show, I thought, this is some pretty heavy stuff. Louie, shaken by his friend’s admission of suicidal intent, launches into a bumbling and somewhat aggressive monologue befitting the grouchy New Yorker that he is, but which concludes with the following (pretty zen) statement – “Life isn’t something you possess. It’s something you take part in, and you witness.” This sentiment has been echoing in my head ever since.
The Exposition: Life – What’s The Deal With That Thing?
What is so compelling to me about Louie’s statement is that it points to a truth so few of us ever clearly comprehend; that our connection to life itself is terrifyingly tenuous. Anyone who has ever experienced a serious illness or lost a loved one suddenly knows this all too well, but many others simply go through the motions of their day-to-day lives without much examination or thought. Of course it’s easy enough to accept the abstract premise that life is short, that any given time we say goodbye to a friend or family member may be the last. These truths are repeated so often as to be trite platitudes, but to really stare these facts in the face is another matter entirely. It calls into question why so many of us get up in the morning and drag ourselves to jobs we only tolerate, engage in mindless rituals, hang on to relationships that add nothing in the way of true value to our existence.
I believe that we do this in order to cling to the notion that we can impose some kind of order on the world, can stave off death, can delay facing the real truth: that each of us are here for a fleeting moment in time, that the enormity of life beyond the fleshy boundaries of our body and the perceptive power of our brains will unravel onwards in infinite directions after we are no longer here to bear witness. It’s enough to make a person question the whole premise of existing in the first place. It feels at times like too much – like something our parents chose for us and that we didn’t sign up for, like youth soccer league or piano lessons. I’ve quit just about every sport my dad ever signed me up for because I either stunk at athletics or hated the coach or the premise of the game.
I’ve hated the premise of life too and there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to just stop the ride and get off. In college I experienced a severe and long-lasting bout of depression that had me struggling to make my way to the dining halls for meals, struggling to find the meaning in the endless assignments and club meetings, struggling even to leave my building without breaking down in a puddle of nerves and tears. In spite of all this internal strife, I did not consider myself to be having a mental health crisis. I believed that my objection to the academe was intellectual in nature, that I was simply reacting to the pressure of upper level coursework, that to avail myself of campus mental health resources would be taking space away from those who “really” needed it – kids who had suffered loss, were prescribed psych meds, or those who had learning disabilities. I was a straight A student involved in every campus club I could make time for with tons of friends, a boyfriend, a healthy grip on my diet and physical activity levels, an impressive list of internships and career-related experience. In short, I was the perfect college student. I was not depressed. I was just over it.
The Climax: In This Corner, Maggie! In That Corner, Preventable Disease, Global Poverty, Domestic Violence, SeaWorld, etc.
As a student of World Politics much of my studies focused on the myriad injustices, conflicts, and trials facing the world at large. Always a sensitive kid I grew up knowing that I wanted a career helping people and consumed news obsessively. I dreamed of working for the U.N., becoming a diplomat or an interpreter and of having a hand in fixing all of the world’s problems. But after nearly four years of collegiate study meant to prepare me for such a career, I was gripped with the unshakeable feeling that it was all just a bunch of talk, that despite all of the ideas I was learning about paradigms, international norms, case studies, et cetera, my eventual employment and life itself would be an uphill and eventually losing battle against an essentially cruel, sad and awful world. I wanted out. It was too much for me. I will never forget laying on the floor of my tiny bedroom one cold October night sobbing to my mother on the phone, telling her for the third or fourth time that week that I wanted to leave school, I wanted to just go away, couldn’t she put me in a medically induced coma of some kind for just like a month or so? “You’re depressed,” she told me. “Please let me get you help.”
After months of rejecting the label of “depressed person” outright, despite all evidence to the contrary, I acquiesced. We hung up the phone and I continued to stare at the ceiling with tears streaming down my face for several minutes trying to think of nothing but feeling everything. A few minutes later I heard a soft knock on my door. It was a Campus Safety Officer asking if they could come in and talk with me? Had I been drinking? I hadn’t. Taking drugs? No. Thinking of hurting myself? No, that was the whole point, I wanted to go away so that the hurting would stop. I was mortified. My mother had called the school and notified them, probably in somewhat alarmist terms, that I was not in a good way. That night, with my ego shattered and spirit broken, Campus Safety called the on-call counselor and gave me a ride to the health center where I had my first of many meetings with David Walden, a man who proves that not all heroes wear capes.
That night changed everything for me. Dave talked with me about everything I was feeling and helped me see that yes, I was depressed, no, being depressed doesn’t define me, and that everything I was thinking and feeling was normal. Maybe not healthy or ideal, but normal and treatable. He helped me see that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness and that a person can seemingly have it all together but be screaming on the inside. I found that far from being defined by my depression, having a label to attach to my feelings and thoughts empowered me at last to attack the problem of my depression like I would any other assignment I was given – armed with information and confident in my abilities. Most of all, I learned to cultivate more compassion for myself and examine why I felt a need to hold myself to such a high standard – essentially a perfect standard- without ever leaning on another.
The answers to that question could constitute a novel so I won’t delve too deeply into them here, but in the weeks and months that followed I set up meetings with Deans and professors to clue them in to what was going on with me. I had some tough conversations with my friends and family that ended up being some of the most healing and helpful of my life. I realized that far from having to solve the problem of my depression, much less the problems of the world, on my own, I had a huge team cheering me on. I wasn’t alone. Depression could not take away my grades, my friends, or any of my other external markers of success, but if I had let it, it may have permanently taken away my will to continue taking part in this big, beautiful, truly messed up mystery we call life.
The Denouement: I’m Sad But I’m Laughing, Baby
I wish I could tell you that I never felt depression again after that period of my life, but that would be false. Since graduating from college that spring (Magna Cum Laude, by the way) I have gone on to do battle with depression and painful life events several other times. I’ve lost close loved ones, been on and then went off antidepressants, even questioned whether I had a learning disability while employed in a job for which I was utterly unsuited. But each time since then when that familiar feeling of panic, desperation, and then hopelessness creeps in, I am able to go back to my toolbox and attack the problem with love and compassion for myself and those around me.
As I get older (I turned 24 earlier this month) I realize that life only gets more complex and rich, and at times is more terrifying than we can imagine. However, denying those shadowy parts does not make them go away. Instead, they are the foil by which we can come to appreciate all of the beauty life offers more deeply, and they must be faced. Life is not a possession to guard and keep safe like a football in play, or a car or a fine piece of jewelry. It is the occasion by which we are all invited to explore the self, the other, the in between. To be mystified and obliterated and brought to our knees. We are here to bear witness in our limited way and to glean whatever meaning we can from our short time on Earth. It is our blessing and yes, at times our curse, but the sheer fact of our existence defies all likelihood and never ceases to truly dazzle me.
The Epilogue: Grumpy Dudes and Me
A few weeks ago I was revisiting a work of art I cherished during my college years – David Foster Wallace’s immense masterwork Infinite Jest. For the uninitiated, Infinite Jest is a mind-bending meditation on the pursuit of happiness in America, set alternately between a tennis academy and an addicts’ halfway house. Despite its sports-heavy setting that might otherwise have repelled a younger me (although I always did like tennis more than the other sports I abandoned), I am time and again grabbed by Wallace’s words. I defer to him here and that will be that, for this post has gone on long enough:
“The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution…junior athletics is but one facet of the real gem: life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without… And then but so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end? Maybe no different… except the chance to play. The chance to play, yes?”
Maggie Whalen lives and works in Ridgewood, Queens. She graduated from Hamilton College in 2014 and will be pursuing a Master’s in Public Health at Columbia University beginning in 2017. She is a really awesome person with a million and one interests, especially when she isn’t beating herself up or gripped by fear about the outcome of election cycles. Some of her favorite things are mangoes, yoga, singing, and her parents.