Depression is an inverted mountain-top experience, and for anyone who has ever had an actual high-elevation climb, the feeling is comparable. Exhaustion sets in, not for lack of physical fitness, nutrition, or otherwise, it’s the lack of oxygen in the air. One goes from a 2,000 calorie diet to a 5 or 10,000 calorie diet. The twenty pound pack feels like a thousand. The only escape is to get off the mountain — and when finally doing so there’s this breath, a nice big breath of rich, real air. I look back up to the mountain, feeling none of the previous exhaustion and tightness, the weight of mental fog is instantly gone. “What was that about?” I find myself saying, looking back up at this mountain. Suddenly, my heart isn’t racing, my lungs aren’t on fire, my muscles don’t ache. I’m rested just standing there, breathing in proper air. I can scarcely make sense of depression in my own head, let alone to those who have never experienced it. There are dark days for everyone, precipitated by death and other real loss. Some people can eventually move on after months or years, and some never snap out of it. I am not making a case for one being real over the other, except to point to my own struggle — I experience depression, chronically, with no reason or cause found in circumstance or environment. It has been the story of my spiritual life, to an extent, finding and connecting to God with an injured spirit.
It’s trying to laugh in the middle of a blizzard. It is trying to “snap out of it” when your arm is broken, or a few front teeth that get knocked out. It is turning on a faucet that’s connected to nothing — no plumbing connected, no water waiting on the other side of the wall, nothing. The emotion won’t flow from this porcelain edifice, it’s just for display. The spiritual joints and muscles are not functioning like the real thing. Depression is the invisible force all around that’s sucking the air from my lungs. It turns the task of answering the phone, the mere motion of putting a cell up to my ear, into a marathon-level exercise. The task of opening my lips to make a smile becomes prying open an ancient tomb. Everything takes more energy than it should. The daily routine of putting on contacts in the morning, brushing my teeth, shaving, showering, all of it becomes too much. One day, the contacts become optional, saving me some precious energy and willpower. The next, brushing gets halfway done, made up for with some mouthwash. The corrective lenses stay out of my eyes indefinitely, and shaving is only done when it’s of the utmost importance. Certainly not every day. A normal, emotionally healthy me would notice the crease in my pants, the relative cleanliness of my black shoes, the color of my belt matching properly. But it’s like going through a morning routine with the flu, a migraine, an injured back — only the bare minimum, if that, will survive the season. What absolutely must get done, personally or otherwise, is what’s going to get done. Then, there are moments when it gets even worse than that, where nothing gets done, where I’m crippled. When I am deeply depressed, I go through cycles of sleeping too much to sleeping too little. Everything in my schedule makes way for sleep at times, but then gives way to lying awake at night for hours on end, night after night. It swings back and forth, the anxiety that is so often in conversation with my depression. There’s this meta-depression, being depressed about being depressed, and within that, I don’t have the energy to make myself go to sleep at a proper time. I don’t have the energy to reach out and get the help that I need to get, change my diet, take a pill, whatever I should be doing. Everything just falls apart.
I don’t know that there’s any beautiful “God” thing that makes it okay. I’ve been lied to about that before. Yes, prayer can heal anything, including depression. I’ve seen prayer heal people, addicts and injured people, all of this. I also know about prescriptions, chemicals that God created that give people relief and full recovery. There’s a spiritual wrestling match I know, where I have been telling God about this problem for years but I haven’t seen relief like I have seen in others and their problems. I rationalize that God has bigger problems to fix, more important prayers to answer, even among my prayers, and that he is satisfied with the level of joy that I receive right now. Or, at times, I blame myself, and I try to figure out what secret sin I’m hiding from myself and God. Could it be the dirty image that erroneously popped up on my computer screen that triggered this bout? Or otherwise, is it my stubborn self reliance that God is trying to break? Maybe a lack of forgiveness, or a lack of willingness to let myself be healed. But, perish the thought. I find it hard to believe that anyone anywhere would be reluctant, anything short of desperate to be healed in any way — but then pride seems to do strange things to otherwise great people.
I don’t know how to segment various feelings or states into spiritual, physical, chemical, and otherwise, but people often do. I’m just saying I don’t, or I don’t know how to do this well. There seems to be a spiritual component of my depression, a personification of it exists, a person that comes and goes. In that way, I’ve made progress, in so far as I have been a little bit more willing to let God heal this part of me. It is frustrating how this person, as it is, comes “into” me somehow, by my will or permission or otherwise, and becomes a part of my person. I send him away, and he comes back, standing in nearly the same spiritual space as before. Sometimes I can displace him, but not by my own strength, and not by my own will. I see clearly now that this is so much the problem. In the midst of an extreme depressive state, a binding prayer is the inverted mountaintop — it’s further away, heavier, harder than I can ever describe. Common in any mental, spiritual state of mine, there is this profound spirit of pride, and self-martyrdom that’s keeping me stuck. It’s that self reliance, my will power that has held me up even in the midst of crippling depression, that has kept me from reaching out to God in earnest. It has to get worse than this, it seems, before I submit this problem to God. However, writing this, I know there have been plenty of times where I have cried out to God and heard nothing. Both are true, I suppose, that my desperation and my stubbornness have wrestled for an audience with God.
I am able to go about my day, do my job well, be sociable and available for my wife and friends — at least from my viewpoint — even if it’s out of sheer will, devoid of any desire or emotional response. Flatlined emotionally, I can still get out of bed and be in the gym at six, firing off emails and phone calls before I start a long, productive day of work. But I may as well be asleep, or dead for that matter. Usually, someone has to be a roommate, with me for an extended period, or have some elite detective skills to sense my depression through my act. My behavior lies about what’s going on underneath in a way that is difficult to spot. This, I am proud of when I know I shouldn’t be. “I had no idea you struggled with depression,” people will say, often with the caveat of, “I just thought you weren’t that friendly.” There are those who can spot it if they have family members who follow the same pattern — winter hibernation, followed by spring disconnection, and summer withdrawal. Sometimes, an exceptional moment of joy will break through, lifting up my daily routine to the its proper level of self-actualization and fulfillment. That it is hard to spot at times makes it all the more difficult to send away. The isolation that comes from that disintegration, the separation of my internal reality from the external, again reinforces and strengthens the spirit that haunts me. Depression is this hollowing out of my own spirit with a constant voice telling me there is nothing. I am, and the world is, always was, and always will be nothing. The isolation of depression works wonders as a self-reinforcing reality. There’s an emotional disconnect that takes place, where so often the remedy is company and relationship, but this isolation breeds isolation. I feel alone, so I am alone, and then in my hurt, even more, I want to be left alone. People require and suck away so much energy, energy which I certainly don’t have in the depths of melancholy, but the resulting isolation only drives the dagger deeper. It’s the need in a battle of wills with my wants where, paradoxically enough, my conscious desires are crushed under all of this nothing. These voices, filling in what would otherwise be spiritual silence, remind me that I am alone. They reinforce what is true, but not the truth, that no one understands, no one ever will, and I am alone in this. And it starts over, that isolation, turning on itself, as the hypnotic reality of separation holds my attention stronger than anything else in the world. Depression is so hard to describe because its so endemic, so deeply internal and personal, and so shameful. How do I describe the weight of nothing to someone who has never felt it themselves? What does it look like, feel like, where did all your “wants” go, what’s going to help, what could possibly displace such an enormous thing — this nothing that separates me from even my own self?
Imagine sex in the midst of depression. Such an emotional, spiritual expression of intimacy and relationship. I understood, at some point in my marriage, that sex is more than a physical act. Depression snatches that back out of my hands. Imagine a day of work — for me, one that requires constant relational, emotional engagement — with that part essentially shut off. These sometimes profound interactions get shushed and swept away. I look back, months later, after I essentially wake up again, and lament what amazing, joyful, cathartic, or even mournful moments I missed. Or, imagine a celebration of some kind, a birthday or a wedding, and there’s this knowing that yes, this is good, I should be having fun, but the knowledge doesn’t reach reality. I am physically there, and sometimes that’s the best I can do. The sentimental is drowned out by the misery.
I get that there are spectrums of feeling, where there are people who hate their jobs and they have no desire whatsoever to do it. There’s some kind of spirituality, or spiritualism, or metaphysical state that brings God into the job of a blacksmith, a McDonald’s cashier, a cop, or even the life of a prisoner. I understand that not everyone has easy to find joy. Depression isn’t that, though. It’s when there’s no amount of good or bad things happening in life or in the world to shake that spirit, that state. For me, it’s that the “chore” turns into everything, and really not the more logical way around — life becomes a nuisance, all of it becomes a hollow endeavor. Every motion, every time I get out of bed, every word I speak. It is a coma for the spirit. That I can make myself do what I’m supposed to do even when the desire is completely gone is impressive only insofar as it hides what’s going on in the spirit all the more. Nobody need see the ugliness that is a nothing-life. I am able to manage, without much help, and so I continue along this course, really staying stuck in my stuff. That email I was supposed to send? Got it done. I returned every phone call on the day, I went to all the meetings and events I had to, I got things done. I remember at times, that the nature of spirituality, worship in the sense of one’s lifestyle, is that which depression so easily takes away from me. It’s a life, for weeks and months, of grinding through life without a sense of ought, purpose, beauty, or even loss — everything is painted the same existential color. Depression is the living hell of life devoid of desire, a life lived, even in a white collar career, with only survival and self preservation in mind. And I recognize that this is the nature of our community wide, culture-wide depression, that we need more than survival-level, maintenance level living to experience joy. One maintaining their career, no matter how glamorous or well paid, finds themselves trapped in that same abyss. This is the void, so hard to escape, that marks depression. I would normally so want to do all of this, the flossing and the sex and the business meetings, with excellence, with joy and love and life in me, but depression turns it into just what it is. Nothing.