Recently, I’ve had three friends announce publicly that they’re going through depression. They are all women, all beautiful, all incredibly accomplished. The sorts of women that other people want to be, and want to be around.

When I was going through depression, I was public about it too. I’m not sure there’s any other way you can be, particularly when you have a public presence, as they all do. People begin to wonder what’s wrong with you, why you’re not tweeting, blogging, writing. Still, there’s such shame associated with it, with admitting that you are less than all right. That you can’t, in fact, deal. And people can make it worse in a variety of ways, by saying it will pass, you will be all right. That you should cheer up, shouldn’t be so sad. The worst is when they remind you of how lucky you are to have what you do have, when they tell you that you are so much better off than many other people. The implication is that if you have a best-selling book, or a major award, or significant publications, you really shouldn’t feel depressed. That your depression is a sort of ingratitude.

Which ends up making you feel depressed, ashamed, and ungrateful.

When you’re depressed, it’s impossible to ignore the criticism, because it’s an external form of your own internal dialog. When you’re depressed, nothing rolls off your back.

(Funnily enough, a blog post I wrote recently received a similar critical comment from a nameless reader — that I was unaware of my own privilege, and ungrateful for it. I left the comment up because it demonstrated, better than anything I could have written, my point that if you have a public presence of any sort, you will be criticized by people who don’t know you or where you’ve come from. But that criticism is much harder to take, almost impossible to take, when you’re depressed.)

My depression was connected to a specifically difficult time in my life, the two years in which I completed my doctoral dissertation. It took a while to go away, even after I graduated. And it changed me permanently. I’m stronger than I was before in some ways, but more fragile in others. I will never again have the easy toughness I once had. I miss it, sometimes. Nowadays, my sense of joy is more delicate. I am more aware that beneath the sunlit earth, there are Shadowlands. (I used to call depression “going to the Shadowlands.” Depression isn’t sadness. It’s blankness. It’s when reality loses one of its dimensions and becomes flat, monochromatic.) I can feel them there, and I can tell when stress or loneliness or tiredness, those things we all experience, brings me closer to them.

I’m not writing this blog post to say anything in particular, except that it makes me sad (not depressed, but sad) to see such wonderful friends, such creative, artistic spirits, going through that. When I heard them speak out about it, I thought, what is the appropriate response when someone tells you they are dealing with depression? Back when I talked about my own depression, there were a few people who gave me the only response that helped, which was “I’ve been there too.”

I thought that for this post, I would use one of the photographs I took at Stonecoast, of a stone wall.

Stonecoast 2

It fits the mood of this post because it shows the cold monochrome of winter. But the truth is that when I took this picture, I was wonderfully, gratefully happy, because I was in an environment that was all about writing. I suppose that contradiction is appropriate . . .

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16 Responses to Shadowlands

  1. pambelina says:

    My family sometimes chastises me about speaking so openly about my suicide attempt and the aftermath of making that choice. It was almost 6 years ago and my life is so much better than I ever thought possible, especially when I was in that mire of depression. I talk about it to show people that although my life is sunshine and roses now, it was once all shadow and thorns.

    I think you’re right, one of the only things that can help is someone nodding and saying, “I’ve been there too.” That’s why I talk about it.

  2. Thank you for posting this. You are exactly right, the feeling of ‘blankness’ that grip s a person… and how very, very difficult it is to move away from that landscape of the soul.

    Knowing I’m not alone, that makes it so much easier to move back toward life and joy.

  3. Jon Awbrey says:

    Sue and I went to see Broken City today. Good film noir, if you like that sort of thing, but so depressing that we couldn’t go home in that mood. Went out for shrimp tempura, hot sake, then went back to see Arnold in The Last Stand as a chaser. There are of course many flavors of depression. One thing to think about is whether there might be a store of repressed anger bottled up somewhere inside. It’s not always that, I know, but just a possibility to consider.

  4. Yes, depression is very monochromatic (though the photograph is lovely). I’ve knowingly struggled with it for years now, some days better than others, but refuse to give up. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Maery Rose says:

    I’m not much in a public figure, except for having a blog, but in trying to write a post for this week and admit that I’m depressed and struggling with having everything I write be as you say “monochromatic” and flat, I just couldn’t take the risk. To simply write something badly is preferable to the criticism of saying you are depressed, although people like me feel relieved of a bit of shame when we know we’re not alone.

  6. Jon Awbrey says:

    Another road to depression is sheer exhaustion — month after month burning every last quantum of energy every day. Then again, you can get overwhelmingly angry at the people who drive you to the point of exhaustion, even when you know you are complicit in their power to compel you.

  7. Ali says:

    What frustrates me is that there is so much stigma attached to being depressed, as though it is something you have any control over or can help in any way. I’ve battled with depression on and off for a large percentage of my life, and in fact these last two years have been the only ones in my life where I haven’t had more than one fairly brief encounter with depression. I refuse to be ashamed of it any more. It is not weakness, it is something to just work through as best you can, and what you need on that journey is people willing to hold your hand, hug you when needed, walk with you and give you space and room to cry and talk and just be silent if need be as well. You need people who do not judge, who accept and listen and do not criticise.

    To all those who are struggling with depression right now, or have in the past, or will in the future – my thoughts are with you. Breathe. Keep walking. This too will pass. *hugs*

  8. helen says:

    I agree that it takes courage to speak of depression. It’s surprising, and saddening of course, how many people have suffered or continue to suffer from it. My very best wishes to all in that position.

    (I also wanted to add that I’m so sorry, I found this post and your very gracious response to that comment after I had written my reply to it; I do apologise for interfering!)

  9. Heidi says:

    Some of my darkest moments have been while realizing that I *do* ‘have it all.’

  10. Dana Whitney says:

    Sometimes, being human with each other, depressed or not, seems to be all we have. (Apologies in advance for my casual/incorrect punctuation.)

  11. Annie Finch says:

    That’s an eloquent and beautiful picture of the wall by the Stone House which I know so well from the Stonecoast residencies! One thing that may explain the contradiction between your mood and the tone of the picture is that if you look closely you can just see the entrance to the garden, the break in the wall, at the right hand side of the photo (or, rather, you can see the clues–the height of the pillars, etc) from which you can infer that there is an entrance there.

    Depression feels like an endless wall, but even in a depression there are always clues to the way out, beyond the depression–or, more accurately in this case, the way IN, beyond the depression (in my case, through claiming repressed anger) and into the self’s own garden!

    Thank you for the beautiful photo and important thoughts….

  12. Many of my most accomplished friends have depression. We share tricks of the “How to’s.” My deepest fall into the abyss was thirteen years ago, and it is the kind
    which some go to a hospital for, but since I had a job then, I kept going to work, like
    wearing iron boots. Learning to rely on other people was my way up and out; a life-
    long struggle, but less so now.

    • PS…I forgot to thank you, Theodora, for your courage to take depression out of the closet and into revelations.

      PSS…When I was nine I was thrilled to be given a princess
      doll I named Theodora for my Dad, Ted. She had many wild
      adventures when stranded in the woods after outwitting
      bandits. Along with her, a dull prince she does not really want
      to marry and a clever Real Prince cursed into looking like a stuffed monkey. So I like calling you Theodora.

  13. Depression haunts me like a persistent ghost, one who won’t show his true colors or explain what he wants of me. The wall is apt, for one not only feels these boundaries but feels like he is carrying grey stones. It helps us, I think, to hear from others who suffer clinical depression and share their feelings and stories. That compensates for the weight of the stones along with the heavy judgements of those who think clinical depression is no different than blue moods.

    Thanks for your post.


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