|Shifting clouds, with some open spaces.|
Last week, a celebrity tragedy provoked lively and sometimes intense discussion about depression and mental illness. Television and the standard media outlets gave out a steady stream of commentary, analysis, and speculation. Internet, social media, and the blogosphere also presented a very wide spectrum of opinions.
Some of the things expressed were simply cruel, and/or appallingly ignorant. Others were well-intended but poorly expressed, or clearly emerged from people theorizing abstractly in realms beyond their competence. Others still were conflicted and even disturbing because they came (at least in part) from people's own experiences and sufferings, and their awkward attempts to make sense of personal traumas. Then there were those who wrote good and sympathetic things, and those who honestly opened up about their own vulnerabilities. Finally, as always, there were a few offerings that were remarkable and truly able to educate, clarify or render vivid through personal testimony the objective reality of depression and mental illness.
I watched/read/listened-to a lot of this discussion. With the exception of a couple of brief comments, however, I did not contribute to it.
I found myself at something of a loss for words.
I've been struggling with my own most recent bout of depression in the past several months. I'm working with my doctor. We've tweaked the medications, and I've made some adjustments to my regimen. It's... okay... kind of.
People see me and say, "Oh, you look good!"
Dear friends, it takes an immense amount of energy for me to "look good" during the brief period of time you see me.
Try to imagine this for a moment. I am not here describing a real circumstance that I currently face, but trying to use an analogy to help people understand what it's like to have an "invisible illness." Imagine: what if I had a painful back injury, but I appeared after church on Sunday looking straight in posture, with no apparent pain? I am cordial, even animated in conversation. As far as you can tell, my flexibility is pretty good. I look "fine," basically. Right?
What you don't see, however, is that I'm wearing a back brace under my shirt; something well-concealed but essential for me to spend a few hours in an upright position. I've taken pain medicine. I'm going to be exhausted by the time I get home, take off the brace, and collapse into bed. But you won't see any of that. Do you still think I'm doing "fine"?That's the analogy. When you've seen me lately, I've been wearing a "mental brace." I'm not doing this to "pretend" I'm okay, but because I really want to be myself for a little while, to communicate, to be with my friends and neighbors. This depression is not so severe as to obscure entirely my interest in life, or my interest in people. Please don't avoid me because you think it will make my life easier. Quite the contrary. I need to "wear the brace" and get out as much as I can manage, not because it's therapeutic or because it's making me get better (because it's not, really... we go over the hills and valleys of chronic illness by using a whole bag of tricks, and sometimes just riding it out). I "get out" from under the cloud (whenever possible, for however long) because I'm a human being. It's worth the effort.
I need the same "mental brace" when I write, which may account for why I am not writing very much lately. It's worth the effort to do whatever I can.
There is a fundamental difference, of course, between the effort to live within my constraints by doing what I can, and the illusion that I can "cure myself" if I just try hard enough. It doesn't work that way. To change the analogy, if I have a broken leg, I have to put it in a cast and let it heal. Meanwhile, if I want to get around, I have to use crutches. The crutches don't heal my leg, but they let me function, somewhat, while nature and the arts of medicine take their course. People with mental illnesses (and also people with chronic illnesses of all kinds) use crutches and props and bandages and whatever they can rig up so that they can live and interact with other people and do valuable work... as much as possible.
The crutch has something of a bad rap in our culture. We are encouraged not to "rely on crutches" but to stand on our own two feet. That makes good sense... unless your feet are broken. Then it's stupid. You can't "stand on your feet." You need help. There is no shame in using crutches when you need them to get around. When the brain and the mind are broken, a person needs a lot of creativity and energy to find ways to keep standing up. Crutches and braces need to be reinvented and adapted to changing circumstances.
If you're around me often enough, you're going to see me pooped. You're going to see the whole mess. Please don't think it's your fault. Or that I wish you would go away. No. Stay. Work with me.
Meanwhile, I don't have it in me to write a coherent blog about all this, nor to address the issues surrounding last week's tragedy. I've finally managed to put on my "mental brace," take up my well-worn crutches and limp over to the blogosphere in order to share pieces of my own experience.