“What the hell? How is depression a tango?”
It’s a term I came up with largely by accident that refers to the back-and-forth routine of thoughts, feelings, and reactions that I seem to go through over and over again. Like in a dance, sometimes you lead and life is almost normal; however, even at its best, depression is following right along and making counter-moves for all of yours. When the time comes for it to lead, it can often feel like you’re being dragged across the floor, stumbling and trying to react to each new step, every dip and twist. I chose the tango especially because it’s a close, fast, aggressive dance between the partners. Depression has more sharp edges than the average person knows; it’s not a waltz.
The commercials say “Depression hurts.” They’re right, it does. But it can also sabotage you, cloud your judgment, and even fill you with a hot, seething, directionless rage. They don’t mention those parts on the pleasant commercials with their wistful-looking actors gazing out windows. When you have Depression, you don’t call the shots—or the steps, to continue the analogy. Your emotions aren’t under your control anymore and that’s the most frustrating thing to try to make someone else understand.
Honestly, depression is really a shitty name for a mental condition as profound and all-consuming as it is. Lower-case-d depression is a term we use to describe a bad mood. It’s sadness. That’s what the average, non-afflicted person pictures when they hear the word. Capital-D Depression is a mental health condition. A disease. And it’s a tornado of emotions. Depression sucks the joy out of life, but also drains the energy you need to fight against it. It’s like a vampire in some ways, leaving you weakened and vulnerable. I used that analogy before in a piece I wrote a few years ago.
“So why can’t you just cheer up?”
This is every Depressives least favorite question, akin to asking a cancer patient why they can’t just not have cancer. But, again, Depression is more than just sadness. If I’m hanging out with friends, I can crack jokes and laugh even with Depression—maybe not when I’m at my worst, because then I won’t want to be near anybody and laughter will be a distant memory. But, sure, with medication or other treatments, I can make people forget that I suffer from Depression, but it hasn’t gone away. To continue the cancer comparison, just because the pain lets up sometimes doesn’t mean that the disease has magically disappeared.
For a few minutes, you can cheer up, but you could just as easily break down crying a few minutes later. Others are really good at covering their symptoms and don’t let other people see them in the worst of it. For still others, Depression might manifest as a deep anger that comes out in dark humor or bitter contempt. It’s usually not pretty. If the disease could be said to have an intention, then that intention is to make its host as unpleasant to be around as possible for others. Hygiene suffers, obligations go unmet, and things that would normally be important take a back seat or vanish from consideration altogether. This doesn’t even cover things like the memory problems, difficulty concentrating and remaining focused, and lack of patience that are often also part of the package.
“But it’s just feelings, right?”
No, there are other considerations, too. Depression sufferers often have what are known as cognitive distortions, which is a clinical term for distorted thinking. This can range from tendencies to ignore positive facts in favor of negative, emotionally-based reasoning to getting stuck in “feedback loops” where thoughts trigger negative associations leading to more thoughts that lead to still more negative assertions and on and on until one’s entire reason for existence might be called into question. Example: “I’m so bored, there’s nothing to do. (hopelessness) There’s nothing to do because I don’t have any friends. (bitterness) Of course I don’t have any friends, who would want to be around someone as depressing as me? (despair) I really don’t contribute anything worthwhile to the world, do I? What’s really the point of living a life like this? So you see how nothing good on TV can suddenly spiral down into suicidal ideology. I’m not exaggerating here, by the way. I can’t count how many times I’ve done this mental dance.
Yet another set of steps in the Depression Tango.
To a healthy person, these sorts of exaggerated thinking might seem as hard to credit as the convoluted conspiracy that a paranoid schizophrenic believes influences the details of their everyday lives. This is why it’s so important for the general public to recognize and understand how serious a mental illness Depression and anxiety disorders can be. In Depression, we create thought patterns that become ingrained in our brains over time. Those patterns become increasingly difficult to fight, much like the ritual behavior of someone with an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What makes Depression so insidious is that its effects are largely invisible. We Depressives learn to mask our symptoms and deny our damaged thought patterns when around others. We want to belong, we want everyone to think we’re just like everyone else.
“Why don’t you get help?”
The fact is that many of us do seek help. The problem is that what works for one doesn’t work for another. Because of the personal nature of Depression, that dark and crippling voice we hear often takes many different forms. Medication is only about 35% effective for most cases of Depression. Thirty-five percent! Therapy works more often, but therapy is a long and difficult process that requires a lot of insight on the part of the therapist and an enormous amount of work on the part of the sufferer. Now, imagine that you felt the way I’ve been describing and ask yourself how well you think you could keep working steadily on this while also trying balance whatever else you’ve got going on in your life. On particularly bad days, you could have told me that the cure for my diabetes was sitting right in the next room and it might not have been enough to motivate me to get up and walk there. Depression fights back. It sabotages your efforts and undermines your resolve. It questions and picks apart every promise of hope because it wants you right where you are.
Depression is an invisible illness, but those fighting it need your support and understanding. We need to erase the damaging stigmas of the mentally and emotionally ill so that those who suffer Depression don’t also suffer the shame of society.
There are treatments that work and there are those who are willing to help and I’ve seen their effectiveness first-hand, which gives me hope. Depression can be fought and, even if not necessarily beaten, we have the power to take the lead in this dance. We have the power to fight back against that dark voice inside.