I have a few more posts about depression in the works that I hope to put up sometime this weekend. In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting and edifying for you to hear about something a little different: my life apart from clinical depression.
My type of depression (and it's just one of several; depression is a rather misleading, catch-all term -- that's one of the in-progress articles) is particularly noxious because clinical depression is one of those illnesses that becomes a life-definer. Oh, yes. I also saw Rent, and I know all too well how our culture now encourages people with chronic illnesses to think of themselves as "living with" not "dying from" them, and not to define their lives by them.
It doesn't work that way for depressives. Or for most people with mental illnesses, for that matter. Unless you happen to be a very resilient person with an incredible support network (both of which depression tends to chip away at), you're not encouraged to look at things this way. The way American culture sees it, mental illnesses are different from physical illnesses. A diabetic, for example, isn't defined by the fact that her pancreas can't process insulin, but a depressive sure as hell is defined by the fact that her brain can't produce seratonin. You see, apparently you can't control your pancreas' biochemistry, but you can control your brain's. Also, your pancreas isn't the seat of your personality/person-ness/self/whatever, so a disease affecting it isn't one that effects the essential nature of you, you see. So while it doesn't really take much imagination to say that a diabetic isn't her diabetes, it takes much more to overcome our schooling to the contrary to say that a depressive isn't her depression.
By the way, this is complete bullshit thinking, but historically bullshit has also been the leading cause of human isolation and suffering. Anyway, this is a really, really long way of saying that depressives are often seen not as people living with an illness, or even as people dying from an illness (which we often are, believe me), but as the embodiment of an illness: What does a depressive do? Why, we lie in bed crying and cutting our arms, of course! That is, when we're not doing it just for attention and pity, don't you know.
It's not often discussed, but depressives have lives when our illness isn't ruining them -- and even when it is. As part of this depression diary, I want to show you a little bit what my life not just because of my depression (which does limit me in many ways, admittedly), but inspite of it. And since 1990, my life has more or less revolved around my writing -- with adjustments made for things like age, course loads, employment and, yes, the severity of clinical spells. Next to my Salvation, writing is the most important task of my life: it is my highest goal, my calling and my art, and without it I would likely not be here to have this convetsation with you.
You see, I don't think my depression in and of itself makes me an interesting person. How does having a chemical malfunction in one of my organs make me interesting, uninteresting, attractive or repellant, "safe" or "unsafe"? My writing, on the other hand, I consider to be the most interesting thing about me because it has been my motivation for most of my major life decisions (tm) since I was ten years old. It, and not an accident of biochemistry and the fallen nature of the world, has defined my life. I am not a puppet for my illness, and I refuse to be treated as such no matter how loudly popular thinking insists that I mope, weep, and sit helplessly by without bathing. I refuse to be defined as "not depressed enough" because my depression happens to effect me in less visible ways.
So, then. This is Life as Writer, not Life as Depressive, and I honestly hope it will be just as interesting if not moreso than the discussion of an illness.
I have always told stories. When I was younger I had profound difficulties with my handwriting. Printing was difficult, cursive almost lmost impossible, and the results were illegible either way. So I would dictate my stories to my grandparents, or just tell them a story if neither of us felt like writing it down. I liked taking refuge in my imagination in part because I was a lonely, overweight and isolated minority kid (depression + fat + non-Mormon, non-white-looking girl =/= popularity in Utah in the late 80s), and in part because the stories were always there. They grew inside me like night mushrooms, thick and heavy and strange. I could no more stop them than anyone can ever get a fairy ring out of the lawn. And I had no desire to stop. I had two friends in elementary school, and my stories were my friends also when people pushed me down on the playground and made it patently clear that I, out of literally everyone else in the classroom but the "poor girl" (who was also my friend), was *not* invited to their parties, my stories accepted me.
At ten years old, a wonderful teacher pointed me in the right direction. Instead of becoming one of the Lost Girls whom childhood depression devours in the form of sex, drugs and underachievement, she gave me a goal and a purpose when she told me that I wrote well -- and read my story aloud to the entire class. In fifth grade, before acne, before menstruation, before the heartache of dating and coming out of multiple closets as a gay woman, as a depressive, as a Catholic, as a gay, depressed Catholic, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Has it been an easy road? No. Many times I have wished that God had seen fit to gift me with something society considered more useful, or at least something easily marketable and therefore less uncertain. Like plumbing. Yes, plumbing would probably be more lucrative. Despite what movies and glittery biographies tell you, it isn't an easy life, nor is it glamorous. It's four a.m. now and I'm sitting up typing this out while working on a novel. I have a viral cold and would very much like to be in bed. But going to bed makes the writing not get done. How is this easy? How is living on an unagented, unrepresented and for the most part unknown writer's salary glamorous? Trust me, buying a ten dollar DVD or a bottle of decent perfume -- not to mention food -- is something of a luxury. No writer's life has ever been easy glamorous. Stephen King was told that he was an unpublishable idiot at my age, and J.K. Rowling started out writing Harry Potter as an unemployed single mother. Despite their successes, they still have to write every day avoiding family, the television and any other distractions. They still have deadlines and contracts and writer's block on top of the usual mess life hands out. Sure they go to some red carpet events and people return their emails, but how does this make what they do easy or glamorous? It's very hard work, every bit as difficult as decoding a genome, or even plumbing when the writer is really good at it.
It's not an easy life, and it's a doubly hard one to live for someone with depression. I would not recommend it to anyone unless, like me, it's just What You Do -- and nothing short of the threat of Hell could stop you. Maybe even not that.
So, what does a typical Writing Day (which is every day) look like to me? I drag myself out of bed exhausted from writing the night before and get on the train to go to my job where I edit and write for a newspaper. On the way there, I write in a notebook -- usually trying my best to politely avoid conversations with men (it's almost always men) who see a girl writing and feel compelled to tell her "so...you like writing, huh?" like the person who always has to narrate the movie while it happens (and who always sets behind me for some reason). I go to work and come home, writing on the train and avoiding obvious comments all the way. I try to write for most of the evening and/or well into the night. Sometimes I go out with friends and watch a TV show or film and immediately feel guilty for not writing. I have had mentors, teachers, colleagues and friends tell me all the while that I do this that my writing is bad, that it is derivative, that I will never go anywhere and Might As Well Give Up. As I have aged, I am learning to shrug and gently push them out of my life between dotting the i's and crossing the t's. It's difficult, especially if you're already prone to the judgements of others thanks to brain chemistry, but I am learning.
I'm not special because of this. I don't somehow deserve Stephen King's awards or JK Rowling's red carpet or even a contract because I work hard, and damned hard, at what I do. But I do deserve recognition that this is what I do and who I am -- that I am more than a disease or the stereotype of someone with that disease. I will insist on this until my dying day and beyond, if God allows catankerous depressed writers to haunt people whose ignorance and cruelty makes life hard for other catankerous depressed writers.
I will insist on this because America should be a nation of justice and fairness, where everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness no matter what their neurotransmitters do. And every time someone defines a depressive by their illness and not by the work they do, the friends they have and the lives they touch, that someone mocks this right for people like me. That someone becomes the idiot interloper on the train, eternally butting in, eternally making life even more difficult.
"So...you like writing, huh?"
Damn straight I do, sweetheart.