Jul 26, 2013

Is Depression The New Narcissism?

Yesterday I came across the following morsel of horseshit in the comments section of this lovely essay written by a woman who feels lost in her first year of motherhood:

"Depression is massively narcissistic."

Beg your pardon? I wanted to jump into my computer and bitch-slap the asshole who put that out into the world. Since I have yet to master that much-needed superpower, I settled for a nice, calm reply instead. But I can't stop thinking about the ignorance and wrongness and what-the-fuckness of that statement.

What I wanted to say, what I was screaming in my head, was much less elegant and would not have contributed to the conversation. So I'll say it here:

"Oh my god you ignorant fuck! Depression is a goddamn disease, not a product of narcissism! Why you gotta hate all over someone else's suffering?"

Only someone who has never lived through real depression would say something so stupid and cruel, especially to the mother of a 10-month-old baby. While I'm sure some narcissists suffer from depression, not all depressed people are narcissists. Yeah, I just wrote that. Because apparently it still needs to be said.

One of my favorite descriptions of depression is this hilarious and brilliant post on the comic/blog Hyperbole and a Half. (Read it, yo.) Still, I suspect that the people most able to relate to it are those who have been there. In fact, I wonder if anyone who hasn't been through at least one major depressive episode even finished reading it.

I'm going to explain what depression is like based on my own experience. Yes, lots of people have done this in many creative and convincing ways, but I'm going to make it simple and short so that even the idiot who believes depression is narcissistic can understand it. I'm going to walk you through it, and ask you to try to imagine what the spiral feels like. Please stay with me.

One day you start feeling a little sad but don't understand why. Your life is great! You have all the stuff that's supposed to make you happy but you feel sad instead. You might feel a little guilty about being sad because of the starving children in Africa. Maybe you tell yourself it's just a phase, that Mercury is in retrograde or some such shit.

But it isn't a phase. After a few weeks you don't feel just a little sad anymore. You're crying over your coffee or in a bathroom stall at work or during sex. Now you feel sad, guilty, and embarrassed because you can't hide your sadness anymore, and you don't like crying in front of your coffee. You love your coffee and it makes you happy and you don't want it to think otherwise.

At this point, you can still pretend to be normal when you're at work or out with friends or yelling at your kids. These things probably even make you feel better for a while. They're exhausting and you might need to curl into the fetal position and nap more often than you'd like, but you can still fake it when you have to. You can still function.

A few weeks later you stop going out with friends and yelling at your kids because you don't have the energy to fake it. Nothing brings you joy or makes you feel better for even a little while. You still go to work, but you can't focus and your boss is starting to look at you funny. Now you're sad, guilty, embarrassed, and scared, because you don't want to lose your friends or your kids or your job.

You finally summon the courage to tell your partner that you're in a funk, that you might be depressed or something. Your partner nods and makes comforting noises and for a few minutes you think they get it. Then they say, "Are you gonna mow the lawn soon? That grass is out of control." You realize they don't get it. Now you feel sad, guilty, embarrassed, scared, and alone. And that's perfectly rational because you're the one who can't get your shit together. You are alone in your own depression.

One morning you wake up and can't get out of bed because you can't imagine going through another day with all those feelings slamming into each other in your head. You call your boss and say you have a summer flu. You tell your partner that, too. And then you stay in bed and feel relieved that you don't have to fake it. You tell yourself you just need sleep, a lot of sleep, and then you'll be okay again.

But you don't magically become okay again. The longer you stay in bed, the more you want to stay in bed. Bed is a safe place because you've surrendered, you've given up faking it and you no longer have to deal with anyone. Between dozing and staring at your arm hair (because you're too fucked up to watch TV or read a book), all that sadness, guilt, embarrassment, fear, and aloneness start to seem less defined.

Those feeling don't go away, though. Instead, they start morphing into one big feeling: despair. You realize that something is really, really wrong with you. You wonder if you'll ever be okay again. You wonder if you even want to be okay again. Life seems like so much work, more work than you can imagine doing, ever.

Finally, after a time, the feeling of despair goes away and you feel nothing. You look back with morbid nostalgia on the sadness, guilt, embarrassment, fear, aloneness, and even despair. You crave sleep because in dreams you feel something.

This is the heart of depression: a shitload of nothing.

You can't sleep, so you root around in the medicine cabinet and find some old Ambien. You take one and you finally sleep, for a while. When you wake up you take another, and another. You start counting the pills left in the bottle and wondering if you should just take them all and sleep forever. You tell yourself your partner, your kids, your friends, and your coworkers would be better off without you.

If you're lucky, you see the insanity in this line of thinking. You ask for help, which feels like the hardest thing you've ever done. Talking to your partner (if they're still around), finding a doctor, even picking up the phone and dialing a number, seem like impossible obstacles. Everything is an impossible obstacle. But you do it anyway because the alternative is either more nothing, or real and final nothing.

And then you begin doing all the work, the hard-as-fuck work, that will allow you to feel something, anything, that makes you want to live. You have some good days but mostly bad. If you keep working, the good days come more frequently.

And then you know what happens once you feel like yourself again? You live the rest of your life with the knowledge that depression is a disease, and while you might be in remission, it could sneak up on you again. And if it does, you'll go through the whole fucking spiral again, but this time maybe you'll recognize the signs and get help before you end up with nothing.

That's what depression is for many people. It is not a narcissistic behavior. It's not a behavior at all.

You can't choose how to behave when you feel nothing inside.

7 comments:

v.v.n. said...

The insidious part of depression for me has been the unwillingness to admit that I am not in control of it. I spend a lot of time beating myself up over not just "snapping out of it." I think this is a coping mechanism, though. Ironically, feeling like shit about feeling like shit (I call it metashitty) at least gives me the illusion that I could control it if I really tried. The truth is I can't control it, and that is truly frightening.

Laurel said...

Thanks for your comment, V.V.N. I love "metashitty."

Maia The Siamese said...

I have struggled with this spiral, it seems, forever. I dislike, hate, can't stand, thinking about depression as disease. I don't have an answer for it then, and I now know, after years of heavy research, no one else does either. At this point in my life, I know there is no answer, and I know I just have to hang tough, (yet again), as the spirals envelope my entire life.It is still a disease with no cure, as much as many would like to disbelieve.

CharlieB said...

Yes. Just, yes.

Xeb said...

This post resonates. Thank you for it :)

Molly said...

Thank you for putting this into words. There are a lot of smart people who are unable to understand depression, and I think this could help. I have been told (in person) that I am selfish and narcissistic and I wish I could have responded as eloquently as you have here. Unfortunately all I could do was feel crushed and walk away from the relationship. I think this will help me in these all too frequent situations with ignorant but we'll meaning(?) people. So, again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I cried when I read this. You eloquently describe that which I have never been able to. Thank you for having the courage to share in the ways you do