Thursday, September 12, 2013

I've Been to the Mountaintop

I have a chronic illness.  At times it's debilitating.  Since it effects my brain some folks would want to label it a mental illness, yet since the brain is an organ of the body I'm not sure how helpful that distinction really is.  But as there is such a stigma around having a "mental illness" I'm willing to claim that terminology.

I struggle with depression.  My psychiatrist is exploring whether "Bipolar Type 2" would be a better diagnosis, but my struggle is with depression.  And for the past I'm-not-quite-sure-how-long I've been in what I call a depressive funk.  Oh, I'm able to muster the energy to push on through, to muscle through when I need to -- when my kids absolutely need my attention, say, or it's Sunday morning and the church needs its preacher. 

I realize that I'm actually pretty lucky to be able to do this.  Some people can't make it up from the mat even when they're needed.  Some people are so depressed -- pushed down, crushed under the weight of it -- that they can't do anything while in one of these funks.  But I usually can.  Usually.  Trouble is . . . after pushing through like that I usually have nothing left.  When I have the strength, the focus, to read my e-mail I don't have the wherewithal to respond.  I can't check voicemail.  For the past couple of days I stayed at home, and yesterday I couldn't even get up the energy to eat junk food or watch TV. 

This isn't anything new for me.  As I said, this is a chronic illness.

I'm writing all of this as a way to come at an idea I recently had.  The metaphors people use to describe depression -- both those who know it from the inside and those who've observed it from the outside -- are fairly common and well known.  You're stuck in a hole.  You're in a dark place.  There's no light.

A while back I read a fascinating piece about how violent some common metaphors are -- "to kill two birds with one stone," for instance.  We even use "bullets" when trying to make a point.  Having heard this, I've made a conscious effort to try to change the way I talk.  I now "feed two birds with one block of tofu" (making a nod to my vegan friends), and my "bullet list" is now . . . well . . . just a list.

Much has been said by others about how some of our other metaphors play into stereotypes about race.  "Dark" things are generally regarded as negative; "light" things are almost invariably positive.  So I was thinking about this whole "stuck in a dark hole" thing and had an idea:  what if depression could be described not as too much darkness, but as too much light.

So what if being depressed is like being on the top of a mountain?  The sun is blaring down on you and there's no shade to hide in.  You feel so vulnerable; so exposed.  You're being buffeted by the winds, and the sides are so steep that there's no way down.  You're trapped.  And from this vantage point you have a commanding view, but it all looks like fetid swamps and industrial parks.

So I haven't been in a hole for the past however-long.  I've been on the mountaintop.  I hope to be bak in the valley soon.

Pax tecum,

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10 comments:

kloppski said...

Beautiful post. I experience depression, but it is manageable. I have found as I'm older that big life changes affect me more deeply than they used to, thanks to ongoing depression. With regard to your light/dark reference, I'd like to recommend this book: In Praise of Shadows. Nothing really to do with depression, but a lovely meditation on light and shadows. Best to you.

Sarah said...

Erik dear, I'll ask what others have asked me, since I went through a very different but terribly painful time losing Andy: "What has anyone said or done that was helpful?" For me there has always been comfort and relief in contact with my nearest and dearest, but maybe your struggle with depression makes that harder for you than it was for me.

Thank you for describing what it is for you, in a way that more of us can understand. Sending wishes for peace.

Plus this book recommendation... I'm sure you have no time for it but if ever, I'd love to know what you think.

The Light Inside the Dark, by Buddhist poet and therapist Jonathan Tarrant.

Adrienne said...

Sending you a block of tofu, sunglasses, a windbreaker, and lots of love.

Cathy Finn-Derecki said...

Erik, I've always experienced depression as being underwater. There is a perceived feeling of separation from others, an acoustic quality of sounds being muffled and hard to distinguish from one another. The underwater feeling is nearly antithetical -- and therefore identical -- to being on the mountaintop. My fear is drowning. Perhaps yours is burning and blowing away. Either way, those feelings are ones of doom and alienation. My friend, I know them all very well, and I am with you in my heart.

JimS said...

What I know depression to be, in my own life, has no light component... it's a shortage of light, unless you invert the metaphorical meaning of "light"

Anonymous said...

At times, I use the description of being down in the basement to describe my depression. And for me, it is a grim, hopeless, and helpless feeling, a sense of nothing being able to touch it. I have learned slowly to recognize the signs, try to remember it hasn't been permanent (yet), and most of all, take care of myself -- as it sounds like you are doing. It is hard, in this society, to allow yourself time to rest, retreat, succumb, reduce demands and lower expectations. I struggle, too, and I appreciate very much that you lift this up into the light.

Anonymous said...

I found comfort in the 12 Steps and Emotions Anonymous...you are never alone...there are many of us. Thanks for reaching out.

JamieMcR said...

I have experienced depression as a bell jar, descending over me and disconnecting me from the surrounding world. I've also experienced it as a light switch, or maybe a 'dark' switch would be more apropos. One of the most helpful descriptions I've read about depression comes from Parker Palmer, relating the advice of a friend when Parker was in a deep depression, who suggests viewing depression as a friend, pushing you down onto ground upon which you can stand. Whatever the metaphor, I truly feel your pain, Erik, and send you love and light, as you wrestle with the 'Noonday Demon,' or noonday friend. An image comes to mind of wrestling with the angel and not letting go until you receive the blessing. Many blessings, my friend.

Martin said...

Thank you for pointing out how the metaphorical meanings of light and dark feed into racism. I, too, struggle with depression, and I've been thinking of how I could describe it. Maybe there's glaring light that makes the whole world seem garish, letting me see only the foul aspects of it. It's as if everything, especially myself, has fuzzy, white mold on it. For anxiety, I could be in trapped in a stark white room filled with bright, burning light, with no where to hide.

There's also the common religious expression of "sending you light" or "holding you in the light." Perhaps an alternative would be "holding you in the comforting darkness of God's womb"? Or simply saying "sending you love and hope"?

RevWik said...

Martin . . . thank you for going with the project of reframing the metaphors. (And I love, "holding you in the comforting darkness of God's womb!" Beautiful.)

To all of you who offered words of support -- gracias.

What struck me most, I'll admit, is how many people -- here, on FaceBook, and in personal e-mail -- responded to this post by acknowledging their own struggles with depression. One person asked, "can you imagine how different the world would be if people recognized it as a commonality of life that doesn't need to isolate us into despair?" To which I can only say, Amen.