Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Living with depression

Like Robin Williams, I perhaps don't give off the vibe of someone with depression, but it's definitely there. It can be incredibly frustrating, because depression induces sadness without justification. Or sometimes it induces something worse than sadness: emptiness. It feels hollow and meaningless. It feels like "blah." Like "meh." Like overbearing blandness that you just can't swallow because it is so flavorless. Even sadness is better than that, because at least sadness is feeling something. Perhaps that's why the "unjustified" sadness is so frustrating. Sadness feels appropriate when it is justified. Sadness is healthy when it comes out of empathy or grief (such as grieving the loss of Robin Williams, or feeling empathy for his daughter Zelda). It's the empty sadness that is frustrating. This isn't the good kind of emptiness that Buddhists strive for. The good kind is a connected sort of emptiness, a unity with all around you; you're "empty" of anything (I believe this is what they call "ego") that would block you from being in harmony with and accepting of your surroundings. Depression is the opposite, a disconnected emptiness that isolates you from everyone and everything. Rather than enjoying the sensation of flowing like a stream, you simply feel detached, like life is just happening all around you, happening to you, but you are not really a part of it. You are flowing, but not because you want to. You are just going through the motions, if you're lucky enough to at least do that instead of feeling completely paralyzed and unmotivated to get up and do anything. Depression is a very lonely thing to experience.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I take Lexapro for my depression. (Actually I take the generic version, but I'll refer to it as Lexapro.) Lexapro does help me, and I encourage anyone suffering from depression to talk to your doctor about how you feel, and consider medication. In the past I've also taken a combination of Prozac and Wellbutrin. I believe Lexapro helps put me in a state of mind that is more capable of appreciating the world around me. I love the smell of trees. I love feeling the wind on my face, and blowing my longer-than-ever hair around. I love the sound of running water, and of birds chirping, and of the kids in my 'hood playing basketball. I love feeling alive and being a part of this beautiful world. It is a gift, a privilege, to be alive. If you have a hard time appreciating the magnificence that is all around you, even though you conceptually know it is there, then you might benefit from medication.

Music also helps me tremendously, as does having a social support system. Participating in the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and in the Oakland East Bay Gay Men's Chorus has provided both music and social support for me, for which I am continually grateful. Singing or playing the piano can put me in a calm and serene, even meditative state. It makes me feel full, instead of feeling empty. I love harmonizing with other singers. It makes me feel at one with those around me. Making or listening to music is, for lack of a better word, sufficient. It doesn't have to be for some greater or future purpose, although it can be. But music creates a moment that is satisfying, a moment of contentment, a warm memory that can lend strength and inspire.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love hugs. Perhaps now you know why. A simple hug from a friend is a huge boost. Any kind of physical contact is beneficial: an arm around me, giving or receiving a shoulder massage, or a simple handshake. Cuddling up with a gay friend; it isn't even necessarily romantic or arousing. It's just human connection. I really noticed my affinity for touch while on my Mormon mission in Argentina. It's common for missionaries to hug each other in a fraternal/brotherly way. I loved that. It's common for Argentines to greet each other with a simultaneous single kiss on the cheek. I loved that. When I don't have regular physical contact with people that I care about, I begin to feel detached. From humanity, from sanity, from reality. Touch brings me back in touch. Wordplay intended. Touch grounds me in reality. Sight, hearing, and smell are all wonderful senses, but they do not give me the same sense of foundation that touch does. I believe Lexapro lifts the mental hindrance in my ability to feel joy in those other senses, but whether on or off the meds, touch has always acted as a powerful antidote to my depression.

Talking, writing, and sharing my experiences also helps me to process my emotions (or lack thereof) and connect with the people around me, even if nobody reads it. Talking to a therapist has been a tremendous boon at several key times in my life. This blog is incredibly therapeutic, as is a private journal. Having a serious chat with a friend or loved one is invaluable.

Alone time, when executed properly, can also be very helpful. This is the paradox of depression. The solution seems to be connection. So why not just love-bomb the depressed person? Because sometimes social situations feel like too much. Like one who is accustomed to the dark stepping into a bright light, too much of a supposedly good thing is overwhelming and toxic. Sometimes I just need to be alone to process my thoughts and feelings. Sometimes too much connection is too much to handle. If you want to help someone with depression, don't force your help upon them. Offer it, and be gentle. Sometimes it feels like the cogs of my mind are turning, whirring, buzzing, but accomplishing nothing. Those are often times where being around people makes it worse, because I have to conjure up my social interaction skills on top of the other busy brain processes that refuse to be relinquished. Alone time allows me to meditate and to calm my mind.

In summary, some of the tools I use to cope with clinical depression are: medication, music, human touch, communication, and meditation. I live a good life, but sometimes I reach a state of mind where I can't see it. Sometimes I forget, I hit a low, I feel like the outlook is bleak and will never get better. I hope that through regular and even scheduled application of these tools, I will continue to consistently pull through the lows, which in hindsight, are always temporary. It is so hard to see that during the low points, though.