What I have is dysthemia with cyclical major depression. Dysthemia is constant mild depression. Without medication, I would be depressed all the time, sometimes more and sometimes less. It’s sort of like manic-depression, except I don’t have manic. More like depression-worse depression. This combination is not unusual. It’s called “double-depression”. And then there’s the alcoholism/addiction, which is a whole ‘nother form of fucked-up.
I’ve got it all together now. I’m on meds and I do the things I need to do to stay sober and off drugs, but I am aware that I don’t experience reality the same way other people do.
When I was in college, studying mental health care, I learned about “depressive realism”, which is the theory that people who have depression have a clearer, more accurate view of reality. I was a bit blown away. Studies have been done that indicated that the people who know what’s really going on are those of us who are depressed. It was a vindication as well as being pretty funny, in a black humor sort of way which is the way I think most things are funny. I had long suspected that I was surrounded by people who didn’t quite know what was happening. I did a little more research about depressive realism and found out that there’s some controversy around it, probably because some people are resistant to the idea that reality is actually as depressing as it is. Whether my experience of reality is actually more realistic or accurate than someone else’s isn’t important – it’s different. I experience reality in a way that is not the same as how most people experience it.
Reality is painful for me. Without meds, it is unbearable. I am not able to not see cruelty, injustice and fundamental wrongness everywhere I look. Famine, war, poverty, bigotry and exploitation are facts that I cannot ignore or justify. I know, I know, everybody is troubled by these things, but I am troubled to the point that I am unable to function. The meds make it possible for me to get up, go out and participate in the world, doing what little bit I am able to do on a daily basis to try to make anything better.
Some people find me course, crass or offensive. I generally find those people to be Pollyannaish, reductive and blind to the big picture. Sometimes we’re able to find common ground, but more often, we just nod at each other and say “howdy” and don’t talk much. I try to tone it down in most settings, put on a happy face and stick to conversational topics that won’t offended the Milquetoast liberals who mostly make up my social circles.
An example of what I’m talking about: at this writing, there are a handful of people in the United States who are infected with ebola. All around me, I’m hearing all kinds of concern, but I haven’t heard any outpouring of emotion about the thousands of West Africans who have died of ebola. Why? Because they’re Africans? Does the fact that they live somewhere else make them less valuable as humans?
That kind of thing gets at me and starts eating. And there’s so much of it. I’ve had to find ways of dealing with it. Medication alone is insufficient. I was on meds for a couple years before I stopped using drugs and alcohol. I’m sure the meds did me a little good then – I didn’t kill myself – but the other chemicals cancelled out the best part of the medication and I was approaching life in a way that was guaranteed to fail. I was thinking of myself as a singular entity, a lone deranger, terminally unique and utterly alone. For as long as I continued to think and live that way, I could not possibly achieve any kind of peace.
When I sobered up, I met and got to know other people who were also sober, who also struggled with the same issues I had. I became part of a group, a community. I stopped being alone. It was suggested to me that I find some kind of spirituality. Prior to that, I was a raging atheist, the kind of angry anti-believer who goes around mocking faith and preaching godlessness. That hadn’t worked, so I took the suggestion and started looking for a way of practicing spirituality that would work for me. Joseph Campbell’s The Power Of Myth was the Rosetta Stone that taught me to read myth as metaphor, to look through the symbols and see the truths that the symbols stood for. I learned to see the story behind the stories and that opened up whole universes for me. The reality I live in now is beyond my wildest drug-induced fantasies.
I still have the same defects I had before. I still need SSRI’s and a community of sober people. I am still susceptible to the old ways of thinking. Recently, because of some conflicts at work, I started repeating old thought patterns, thinking of myself as unfit for life. I was becoming isolated in my Self, trapped in my Me-ness. Then, in a group conversation, a friend identified that feeling except he used the word “we” – “we are unfit for life”.
Ka! Satori! I am not alone: I have certain specific, identifiable maladies, which can be treated. There are things I can do to improve my situation. I can get out of my own way.
We all have something. We all struggle and encounter pain. We all have to find ways to deal with tragedy, hardship and conflict. Some people have to work at it a little harder. I’ve had to work at it. I still have to work at it; I still have trouble with very basic shit. Getting along with people is something I continue to have problems with, as some of my co-workers would tell you. But I’m not insane or drunk now. I’m not staggering along the raw edge of self-destruction, unable to function, unable to take care of the most basic life-sustaining necessities. I no longer live in an incomprehensible, hostile world.
I think that I’m an exaggerated version of human trouble in some ways. I think I have the same anxieties, fears and cognitive dissonance as everybody, but a little more so. Mythology and the common truths of the world’s religions have made it possible for me to live and enjoy living.