Our letter writer writes to himself in childhood, to warn him about depression, but mostly about the shame that comes with it.
Dear Young Jarod,
I picture you reading this high in your favorite maple tree, the one that makes you feel secret and special. The one where thirty feet above the ground you lay astride a great forking limb like a big cat in the dappled sunlight. The one that, forty yards off, looks into your childhood bedroom. Let’s say you’re thirteen and that from a distance it would seem that your thoughts would be as light as the pale green leaves fluttering around you. But, of course, we both know that’s not true. You are carrying two very heavy stones. One of those stones will take a great deal of work to chip away over time. The other, with some courage and persistence, you can set down right now.
You are struggling with both chronic depression and the shame you feel about your illness. I don’t need to tell you that depression is brutal. Depression piles pain upon pain on your shoulders, mental and physical. You know this and that’s not what this letter is about. This letter is about shame. The shame is, in some respects, more insidious because it tells you that your depression is the natural result of being an inherently broken person. The shame tells you that the depression is a natural symptom of being a weak and flawed creature. In this way, the pain of depression becomes the punishment you’re owed, not the enemy you resist.
We’ll get back to shame in a moment. Let’s talk about our mental health in general.
Mental health is work and if there is a way to master it permanently and decisively, I haven’t found it yet. I expect that’s hard to hear at your age. I get it, but it’s not all bad news. What I have found is skillsets and support structures that strip away that feeling of powerlessness that accompanies depression. If depression is akin to weather, then I’ve found a reliable source of umbrellas and a good supply of sturdy outerwear. It’s progress, but the real progress came after I found ways of addressing the shame and secrecy surrounding my illness.
Part of my shame has always sprung from a mix of pride and fear. Pride in my talents. Fear that those talents are fake, inconsequential, or utterly outweighed by my shortcomings. In school, I was called gifted. In writing and poetry, I was even called a prodigy. What do you notice about these labels? Gifted? Prodigy? Well, they had nothing to do with effort or skill and everything to do with innate qualities. So, that suggested that my achievements were not about choice or effort or exercising my agency. No, they were a natural function of who or what I am. So, if that’s the case for my successes, what does that mean for my shortcomings? It means they aren’t the natural mistakes made by every human being. It means that my failures are woven into my identity as surely as my talents. Either I am success, or I am failure. Shame can grow from many seeds, these are just a few of mine. Still, you haven’t noticed these things yet and I hope that noticing helps. I hope you recognize the source of that fear when you shy away from trying something difficult or taxing. That fear is the fear of being imperfect, the fear of being human and, like depression itself, it’s isolating and withering.
What is it about depression that makes it such rich soil for cultivating shame? I think it has to do with the nature of mental illness, specifically the mental part. When we suffer from an ingrown toenail or a toothache, we rarely jump to the conclusion that the illness is evidence of a flawed character. That’s because these aren’t maladies of the mind. We like to imagine our bodies are just the machines that carry around the ‘real’ essence of who we are, they are the houses we haunt. Bodies get sick. They age. They fail. That’s intrinsic to their character and that reality is bound up in what we understand to be the human experience. The mind, on the other hand, is supposed to be the ‘real’ us, the part of us that is not so crude or mundane as meat and blood and bone. So, if the mind is sick, that’s an indictment of our “who,” not merely our “what.” It means our identity is sick, not just our substance.
This makes a kind of sense, except that it’s completely ridiculous.
Your brain is a special, fascinating miracle of the natural world, but it’s also an organ of the body. It’s flesh and water and electricity and the fact that it’s the seat of your thoughts does not make it immune to malady. Depression is, without any doubt, an illness and should be thought of as such.
If a virus hijacks the machinery of your cells to manufacture more viruses, you wouldn’t take ownership of the decision to produce viruses, would you? If you have an allergic reaction to poison ivy, you wouldn’t measure your self-worth by the itching of your skin, would you? No. So how is it that self-worth and the value of your personhood becomes tied to the painful negative thoughts that you neither willfully created nor invited into your skull. Depression is not a mirror of your identity nor a yardstick with which to evaluate the quality of your personhood. It’s the flu. It’s a poison ivy rash. It’s the emotional equivalent of a persistent headache.
Of course, poison ivy doesn’t usually make its victims wish for death and depression often does. That’s part of the problem.
I’m sure, young Jarod, that my metaphors make a kind of logical sense to you, but we both know that depression doesn’t always obey logic.
Well, In fact, it does obey logic, but it obeys logic in the way stone obeys water. The process isn’t a sandcastle being swept away by the tide. It’s more like the slow erosion that carved the Grand Canyon. It takes a steady, willful application of this kind of logic to make a dent in shame and depression, and the whole time the depression will be insisting that resistance is both exhausting and ultimately pointless. It will insist that it isn’t really depression because you have legitimate reasons to be miserable. It will insist that bone deep sorrow is what you deserve.
Despite all the illusions that depression can conjure, your brain is still your best ally in this fight. Yes, it’s the seat of the disease, but you need to trust me on this most vital point: depression does not own all the real estate of your brain. It wants you to think it does. Through the mechanism of shame, depression will tell you that the entirety of your mind has been coopted and rewired to produce only doubt and hopelessness and pain, but that just isn’t true. Your brain is more complex, resilient, and expansive than that. Depression is an occupying force in the castle of your mind, but you have a wide variety of secret passages, hidden rooms, and sliding bookcases from which to wage a guerrilla war to take back your skull.
The main progress I have achieved at this stage in my life has been thanks to medication and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Except it’s not quite that simple. It wasn’t one medication. It wasn’t one therapist. It was trial and error and then more trial and error. You have to approach the situation as a scientific question. Hypothesis. Experiment. Data. Conclusion. Repeat.
The thing is, you can only do this kind of work once you step out from the shadow of shame and that paralyzing fear of failure. The good news is you don’t have to do it perfectly. You hear me, you stubborn arboreal weirdo? If you have to go at it with an all or nothing attitude, then try this -resolve to do an imperfect job on your quest to escape shame and build coping skills. There, now you can be perfect in your pursuit of imperfection.
If you think that’s nonsense, let me tell you some things I learned later in life.
Down the line, you get pretty interested in weightlifting. In the pursuit of that very physical hobby, you discover some very nonphysical quirks. For example, when lifting heavy weights, it’s easier to count to three four times than count to twelve once. Why? Because the higher numbers seemed to que my body to prepare to failure, whereas the simple trick of counting to a lower number multiple times short-circuited this issue.
Simple? Yes. Silly? Sure. But if you haven’t figured it out by now, words are actual magic. Language is actual magic. I think you have always known that, but you have yet to ask for its help with your own inner life and struggles. Please do so. You can use language against shame. You can use words against depression. Language can be both your art and your ally. Doesn’t that feel right?
I known that change is scary. I know that trying is scary, not least of all because the hope of recovery is such a bright and fragile thing that it hurts to look at and seems too precious to touch.
Well, remember years ago when you were afraid of the woods at night? How did you deal with that fear? How did your comfort in the dark woods finally become a point of pride and a quiet pleasure? You remember. You stood at the edge of the dark trees, not once, but night after night and, little by little, you went in until the unknown and seemingly unknowable lifted like morning fog. This is a bit like that. Walk into those dark woods and discover a new kind of secret peace there. Fear is the monster that guards the treasure.