As Marketing Coordinator, I generally stay behind the scenes, churning out graphics, maintaining social media accounts, updating analytics spreadsheets, etc. Part of my job is looking at what is popular with our patrons and learning from that information. One of the books that has been a hit lately has been Matt Haig’s Midnight Library, which made me think about one of Haig’s other books and his openness about his struggles with mental health issues. This brings me to my own mental health and the role books play in my life.
There is no quicker way to spiral downward as a depressive than to start thinking about all the things you want out of life, all the things you expect and desire for yourself. In Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig warns against getting lost in thinking about where you are in relation to where you want to be. My wife echoes this sentiment often when she tells me to live in the “now.” I find it impossible to heed this advice, just as my own standards of who I should be and where my life should take me are impossible. Of course it is unhealthy, but this is life with bipolar disorder.
I’m open, maybe even too open, about my mental health (hello, writing about it for work), but I am also closed off, quiet, and removed. It’s a paradox that shadows the war my brain wages against itself. I believe there is value in sharing my experience, that good can come of the honesty. But it is also intimidating.
Words are important to me, especially as someone in a constant struggle with mental illness. “Sad” is a word that has lost its meaning. It is a depressive “cute.” Its connotations have morphed into a childish descriptor. But the meaning of “depressed” has changed as well. It is a catch-all, a fishing net ten times the size of the boat. “When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease,” William Styron writes in Darkness Visible, “I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word ‘depression.'”
I don’t have the words to both illustrate how I feel and assuage the concerns of those around me. Maybe those words don’t exist, except in hollow platitudes. Haig takes platitudes to task when he says, “What doesn’t kill you can leave you limping for the rest of your days.” He also tackles the difference between “despite” and “because,” rightly stating that more often than not mentally ill people who accomplish great things (or anything at all, really) are not accomplishing them despite their struggle, but because of it. There is a more important word, though: “endurance.” There is no choice when it comes to how I feel, only in how I carry on.
The most powerful and honest part of Reasons to Stay Alive concerns the word “happy.”
“If you have ever believed a depressive wants to be happy, you are wrong. They could not care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain.”
When you are depressed, people talk a lot about happiness. They ask what will make you happy or what has made you happy in the past. This creates a polarization between depression and happiness, leaping over any middle ground. I don’t need to be happy to be “okay.” People will say, “just okay?” But okay is a lot when you are in the throes of a deep depression.
Depression makes a person feel like they are doing something wrong because they aren’t happy. It doesn’t sound as cheery to ask someone if there’s something you can do to help them feel okay, but there is less guilt involved for the depressed party. I came to terms a long time ago with not needing to be happy. If I am going to ever come close to living in the now, part of that will have to be not thinking about the concept of happiness.
This goes for “loneliness” as well. Loneliness is not a synonym for “alone.” Alone is a numbers game. Loneliness doesn’t have a maximum occupancy. I can feel lonely when I’m by myself, or when my younger son is cuddling me on the couch, or when I am socializing with a larger group. Next to failure, my biggest fear in life is that the loneliness will never abate. “Failure of alleviation is one of the most distressing factors of the disorder,” Styron wrote.
Haig echoes the sentiments of many, that knowing others suffer from depression, that they are not alone in their struggle, helps them cope, gives them a little something to hang onto. I wish I could say the same. I’ve never found this comforting. The idea that so many people in the world suffer from mental illness makes the pain a little worse. There is “strength” in numbers, but there is also “despair” in the reality of scores of people suffering in the world.
What books like Reasons to Stay Alive and Darkness Visible illuminate best is the value placed on words when the mentally ill talk about their struggles. Words can’t be thrown about, they have to be carefully chosen.
For more memoirs about mental health issues visit this booklist.
Register for “In Our Own Voice” a panel discussion on mental illness on Thursday, 5/13.
Experiencing depression? Check out these mental health resources in Jackson County.
This post is adapted from a longer essay entitled “The Language of Depression,” first published by BULL Magazine.