Recovery Share: Some Thoughts on Depression

I was going to call this one “Thoughts on the Looming Darkness,” with September in Oregon always making one start thinking of November in Oregon, but that whole thing seemed a little … well, dark. And click-baitish.

Also, it’s not that bad. But it is a little window into what I want to write about today, which is depression. A more or differently depressed person might well have led with “looming darkness,” because that’s how it can seem when you’re that kind of depressed. But what does it even mean to be depressed? And what would be the motivation for leading with such drama? To cry out for help? Feed into one’s own story of depression? Try to reduce its power through ridicule?

Off we go, into my confused (and often depressed) mind.

Most people, when they hear you’re depressed, will ask “about what?” And to be sure, there is a form of depression that hits when something bad happens. Lose your job, have financial insecurity, lose a loved one, experience isolation and loneliness, get sick … all these things can trigger a depression.

Put all of that together into one pretty shitty 2020? A guy could sure as hell get depressed.

But I’m not even talking about that kind of depression. I seem to have this other kind, inherited from at least one side of my family with more than its share of alcoholics and what I would call depressed folks. This type of depression isn’t triggered by anything in particular. I think of it as bad emotional weather: Sometimes you just feel bummed out, and it’s not because of anything in particular.

In other words, 2020 has sucked in many ways. It’s also had its share of blessings, strangely enough, and one could easily make an argument that I’ve been incredibly fortunate this year. But the kind of depression I experience on occasion isn’t going away even if 2021 is spectacular. And it existed well before the shitshow of this year. It also defies any logical attempt to clear it up.

For example: I have been actively trying to re-integrate backpacking into my life. Now, by most people’s definition, I have always had it in my life. But in a large part of my mind, it’s never enough, or I’m not doing it right or well enough, or I should be doing it more, or farther away … God only knows what my brain can come up with. So my whole relationship with backpacking (and many, many other aspects of life) is colored by this gray-ish malaise. The energy of it is stuck in knee-deep mud. My perception of “how it’s going” is like a 1-to-10 meter with a peg at about 6.

I go on a five-day trip, cut it short at three days for perfectly good reasons, and instead of walking out of the woods with a spirit of “Let’s fix this and get back at it!” I walk out with thoughts of failure and despair. Then I read about other people’s trips and, instead of feeling inspired to get back out there, I think some combination of “I can’t seem to do that,” “I should be doing that,” and “Why the hell haven’t I been doing that?”

These thoughts then swirl together into a little tempest of unhappiness and drag me down into a pretty dark place — not a suicidal dark place, or a relapsing dark place, or even a curled-up-in-a-ball-crying dark place. But a dark place which the lights of inspiration, aspiration and even hope can’t fully penetrate. And so day after day, week after week, can slip by without me even thinking seriously about “getting back out there.” And this, in turns, both confirms the story (“I am a failure” and “Life isn’t going well”) and also drains my energy to change it.

These same emotionally cloudy days happen in other areas of my life, seemingly all the time: work, money, relationships, friendships, health, spiritual life, you name it. I take action, results occur, I generally decide it didn’t go well (or as well as I hoped, or “it should have”), and I retreat back into my kind of semi depressed shell of safety. Nothing bad will happen if I don’t try, after all. And when I don’t try, nothing happens, which confirms its own story, and then I look around weeks later and wonder what the hell I’ve been doing.

So for me, depression isn’t the classic image of a person who can’t get out of bed or is never happy at all. It’s more like living life in a muck — just hard as hell to get any positive momentum going. Or it’s like wearing a pair of glasses that darken everything just a bit.

Obvious questions arise: Why not take those glasses off? Why not try a little harder to emerge from the muck? Why not “lean into it” to learn what it’s about? Why not go to therapy or take antidepressants?

And the honest, simple answer — not a justification, just what my brain says in response to all those things — is something along the lines of “I can’t” or “It won’t work anyway” or “I already tried that” or “What’s the point?”

That’s depression in my world. It’s not always around, and it’s not always real bad. But it always is, as a kind of default setting it seems.

So what do I do? I take little steps. Try to get a little momentum. Try to hear “You’re failing” instead as “Here’s something to work on.” Try to do things that bring me a little connection and energy, if not actual joy. I go backpacking, in other words, even when I don’t feel up to it or I expect something bad to happen. And I do try to get better at it.

And I write. Writing gets something out of my head and helps me possibly make some sense of it, see it in a healthier perspective. It also connects me with you, whoever “you” are. And maybe it will help you somehow.

So there: I wrote. Small steps. On with life.