As a depressed person, I’m forever looking for ways to explain depression to those feeling fine with their second-rate grasp of despair. The closest most could get to understanding depression was to admit that they didn’t and couldn’t understand it. Until November 9, 2016.
Now a lot of us (still) feel blindsided, dumbfounded, sucker-punched in the spirit. Some have called it heartbreak, the brutal kind you never burn off that rewrites the future and enshrines the not-too-distant past, as if we’ve gotten divorced. Many have dubbed it “grief,” something that requires a process and steps and stages, like when we lose someone—which we have.
We are feeling demoralized, we're mourning, and most of all—if I were to self-diagnose it without the authority to diagnose anything—clinically depressed.
The election fallout has taken the hopelessness a depressed person feels, the notion that we must all always be afraid, the sense that life is an absurd farce and the world a savage place, and eternalized it. Severe despondency, learned helplessness, an inability to control experiences—a medical condition is now airborne. And, suddenly sympathy, for which I couldn’t be more sorry.
When I first read the headline, “Donald Trump Elected 45th President of the United States of America, Not Kidding,” I puked tears. I was Selena’s husband in the movie Selena when he learns of her death in the hospital scene while “Dreaming of You” plays to an empty stadium. Immediately I thought of Sarah Silverman on NPR’s Fresh Air likening depression to a “homesickness when home.” And I thought of poetry, of Charlie Smith’s “The Meaning of Birds” from Indistinguishable from the Darkness:
“… it is not news that we live in a world
Where beauty is unexplainable
And suddenly ruined
And has its own routines. We are often far
From home in a dark town, and our griefs
Are difficult to translate into a language
Understood by others.”
Today, the incommunicable inconceivability known as Major Depressive Disorder seems well understood.
The day after the election, it rained in New York, which was on point. Depressed people often “enjoy” inclement weather because it reflects and honors the inner tempest. But then two days later, it was sunny—and in the weeks that followed, the weather was aggressively pleasant. The weather is an asshole for normalizing Trump is an example of a depressed thought I had. My body on the other hand, more reflected the mood, as I got my period early, and a nasty cold on top of it, and I was simultaneously excreting green mucus, bottomless snot, blood, and uterine debris.
Once out of bed the week It Happened, I was walking along storefronts and saw a man in a clothing store, touching clothes, as if he were considering buying them, as if he were considering wearing new clothes, as if he had optimism in his heart. The lingerie store for pregnant women was having a sale; everywhere else aloneness was on tap. I turned on the radio, which after a few days I remember existed, and actual music was playing. How on Earth? (Music is, to this day, on the radio, despite everything.) At the magazine where I edit a humor column, my managing editor told me to push back the publishing schedule until further notice; jokes are on hold indefinitely. The clothing-store pod person, pregnant women in lingerie, pop songs, comedy—it implied that not all events were cancelled, that more generations awaited, that people were still getting dressed in the morning. Who could think of tomorrow at a time like this?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: spontaneous crying, paralyzing rage, phone as crutch and foe, the instability of the moment, nightmares for breakfast, nightmares for lunch, nightmares with a side of nightmares for dinner, for dessert, second dessert, for midnight snack, 3 a.m. snack, 4 a.m. snack. The third worst part of the day is going to bed; waking up is obviously first and a close second is the rest of the day. The pain has one mode, and that mode is Dead Pet.
Depressives are chewed up by their own thoughts, which turn feral and surreal with worst-case scenarios, fears and anxieties on a loop, and compulsive negativity, like What if the least qualified, most unstable sexual predator-bully-demagogue reigned over the free world and surrounded himself with more and more anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, bloodlessly white nincomshits to run the America show?
Instead of getting better, it doesn’t. “If” becomes “when.” We skip the foreplay and go straight to the apocalypse. I’ll name my rape baby Roe Wade—is how far thoughts can go. What used to matter, doesn’t; what did not matter, matters greatly. We’re at odds with reality, and our allegiance is to alternate universes: shouldn’t it, wouldn’t it, couldn’t it? The moment you forget, you remember. Regret amasses its own regret. Overnight, what we believed is obsolete. We ruminate like there’s no tomorrow. We get so sick of thinking about it, but can’t think of anything else. Usually, it’s your compromised mind not allowing you to ignore yourself. Now it’s the news. I unsubscribed from New York Times notifications on my phone, but NPR notifications mysteriously kicked in. Steve Bannon, Frank Gaffney Jr., Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Dr. Ben Carson, Kanye West.
“That’s enough. You can stop now: the phrase Sedgwick said she longed to hear whenever she was suffering,” writes Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts. But bad news stalks us, refreshing depression.
“Medically defined,” William Styron explained in his “memoir of madness” Darkness Visible, clinical depression is “a set of emotional, psychological, somatic, and behavioral symptoms occurring over time,” joined by feelings of meaninglessness and suicidal romanticization. Imaginatively defined, Styron suggested, depression at its ghastliest is “a simulacrum of all the evil of our world: of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse toward death and our flight from it held in the intolerable equipoise of history.” Darkness is visible, literally, and getting darker by the news cycle. The hires, the proposed registry for Muslims, the U.S. “precedent” of Japanese internment camps, the unending comparisons to the Holocaust, inherited pain and culturally transmitted trauma, the inability to write complete sentences because the room is melting. (Researchers have been investigating if we can inherit memories and invisible wounds or pass on suffering—it’s known as “epigenetic inheritance,” the notion that environment can affect the genes of Holocaust survivors’ children and grandchildren, and 11/9/16 seems to make a strong case.)
Meditation leader Tara Brach says in her podcast, “If you’re suffering, you’re believing something that’s not true.” And yet, all the thoughts that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy coaches us to label “just thoughts” are “true” facts. (As opposed to “false” facts, which isn’t your mind playing tricks on you, but your President-Elect.) The possible repeal of health care for 20 million Americans, the 900-plus reported hate crimes and counting, the popularity of swastikas, the threat of deporting millions, the planet on fire—even the most unhinged mind could not fathom it.
Even therapists—who tell us to banish the word “should”—should be losing their shit.
With depression, you lose and lose and lose: interest, focus, appetite, sleep, sex drive, mobility, sanity, reality—to name a few. Up for grabs in Trump’s America are our freedoms, rights, safety, security, protection, and restraint. As Barbara Kingsolver wrote in The Guardian, “Losses are coming at us in these areas: freedom of speech and the press; women’s reproductive rights; affordable health care; security for immigrants and Muslims; racial and LGBTQ civil rights; environmental protection; scientific research and education; international cooperation on limiting climate change; international cooperation on anything; any restraints on who may possess firearms; restraint on the upper-class wealth accumulation that’s gutting our middle class; limits on corporate influence over our laws.
My stepsister, Jamie Sarche, the director of funeral planning for a Denver mortuary, confirms that we are grieving and must grieve together. She says we’ve experienced “a real loss, an unexpected death, and it’s a death of a future, and in its place is a future we didn’t want, and it’s a scary future.”
Not everyone can live with it. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website has an Election 2016 tab with specific resources to cope, likely in response to crisis hotline calls skyrocketing.
Get over it, accept it, relax and heal already, shower and put on makeup. This is what we hear when depressed—and when an orange-faced bigot triggers your PTSD.
Or Give exercise or a white supremacist a chance.
Or Don’t worry. Wait, I thought we said jokes were on pause?
The mentally ill are told to shut up about it and stop whining, at which point suicide rates go up and another climate-change denier and fossil-fuel enthusiast puts trash in the recycling.
You’re just overreacting translated means This doesn’t really affect me.
For sad sacks, Everything’s going to be okay-mentality is a slap in the dick, which is what I’m calling my vagina now so that it doesn’t get grabbed.
Depressed people are not ready to resume. “Normal” is a profane word. The status quo has teeth. The leftover tempura udon soup I ordered on Election Night is still in my fridge, a symbol of an old reality. There is no letting go.
Move on, we’re told.
Sometimes, we appear as if we’re adjusting, but inside we are screaming and throttling something. You know what we easily forget? How exactly to be whatever alive is.
As we get farther away from the emotional detritus of Election Day, What now?
Deus ex machina?
Depressed people can picture every impossibility except recovery. Medicate it away? Meditate it away, deceive it through yoga, manage it through psychotherapy, swap sugar for kale, whip out mindfulness training, recall the ocean? Move countries, log out, go on permanent airplane mode?
The bright side is that depression schools you over and over on how to deal with it. I begin with D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when he writes, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”
Tragedy has struck. The sky has fallen; the sky is aflame; the sky is also the same sky (minus man-made climate change). Point being, among the ruins, the hard work, the scrambling is—I’m guesstimating: Un-isolate and volunteer or donate; as in, reach out to community and transcend the self.
Call Congressional representatives and sign petitions; as in, don’t succumb to do-nothingness.
Call bullshit; just as depressed people have to call bullshit on their self-narrative, we all have to call bullshit on cabinet appointments, homophobia et al., the President-elect’s tweets denouncing both satire and reportage, and on and on and on and—
That’s just the tip of the thawing iceberg.
Every day is straight-up traumatizing; fear, disgust, fury are reasonable reactions.
The Good News: You are not alone, and you are not “crazy.”
The Bad News: everything else. Which brings me back to the good news: “crazy” is on fleek.
What about a full-on embrace of “crazy,” an externalized crack-up?
The way out of depression is through. Good depressives go through hell, and we do not go quietly. We hit bottom, feel it all, question everything, get in trouble, alienate loved ones, alienate strangers, knock off politeness—all of which relates nicely to defying white nationalism. Now seems like the time to go nuts, to make a scene, to #RESIST and be the social-emotional punks that depressed people have been all along.
Recovery, which I never really got a handle on, involves “battling each moment”; it makes us everyday ninjas who must fight a fight we can’t “win” but must fight anyway, every godforsaken day.
We allow our shock and heartbreak and grief and depression to transform us, eventually.
Depression can be a time for all you ladies to pop your pills like this or to head for the couch and stare dead-eyed into space, guts wrenched—but more than that, it is a starting point. It lets you know when you need to gear up to save yourself.
(Self-conscious disclaimer: None of this is to romanticize or trivialize mental illness, but to make the best out of the worst.)