“Having depression is like, I do not know, being underwater.” my therapist told me with her thick Russian accent, seemingly afraid of contractions as most non-native English accents are, obscuring the weight that this analogy would hold. In recent months, I have been struggling to accurately describe how something as nebulous as depression affects me day to day, yet here it was. A perfect analogy; handed to me on a silver platter over a decade ago, I just never realized what it was. I had many issues with this therapist, largely due to her being my first and not someone who could cater to my specific needs as a patient (the thick Russian accent didn’t help either), but this analogy she fabricated as a passive thought is something I still remember to this day.
I never really enjoyed swimming. Early springtime was when my after-school program would take us to the local YMCA for swimming lessons that put pre-pubescent me through the ringer. While I got the gist of floating and swimming from end to end, going under the surface was something that I could never grasp. They had us do exercises where we’d dip our noses right under the crest of the water, holding on to the side of the pool as if it were our diving rope that we would pull if our oxygen was too low. Every time we would do this exercise water would rush up my nose, causing me to gag uncontrollably while the chlorinated water flushed its way down my sinuses. I never, to this day, learned how to keep the stuff out of my nose, which is to say I never really learned how to go under the water. So to say I was living underwater was, in essence, a death sentence. Just a painfully slow, and dull one. While I am sure she intended to convey the weight of the water slowing you down, making every action much more arduous, it had the added benefit of speaking to my inherent fear of being underwater.
Explaining to someone what depression is, or how it manifests itself is one of the most difficult things that someone who suffers has to endure, even to others who suffer from it. This is especially frustrating because everyone knows what depression is, in a clinical sense at least. There is a sort of lack of empathy from others, however, in that since there is nothing physically wrong, then you must be lazy or bored. Depression is invisible, insidious. In my family depression is commonplace, yet that doesn’t stop my mother, for example, from complaining that I don’t get out of bed some days. And in an ironic twist, befitting of the most rote M. Night Shyamalan script, she’ll do the same a few weeks later. Depression does not elicit very much sympathy from other people, I’ve found, especially as a guy.
Women are said to be twice as likely to have depression than men, a statistic I find hard to wrap my head around. It isn’t that there is a lack of circumstances surrounding women and depression; there are ample reasons unique to womanhood that would. But, this further muddies the issue by making it seem like more of a feminine issue, rather than something more universal. But the blame obviously isn’t with women. When I hear this statistic, I can’t help but think of HBO’s The Sopranos. Tony Soprano lives in a very masculine world, exemplified by his position as a mafioso and domineering family patriarch. There is a line in a season one episode, where his daughter remarks that it is 90’s and he retorts that in his household “You see out there it’s the 1990s but in this house, it’s 1954.” This is a salient point because, Tony, patriarch that he is, has depression, something completely unheard of in his world of 1954. It is a women’s issue; while the world outside his purview is continuing to evolve, he’s stuck in a time when men were men. That is why something as rote as seeing a therapist and taking Zoloft is a major throughline for Tony’s character development; it is stigmatized as a severe character flaw; a weakness that is punishable by a threat of death (spoiler warning I guess).
When I was a child, learning to swim at that YMCA, I was growing up in a community that, while outwardly supportive, still clung to that outdated notion that “boys don’t cry”, which I had wrongly assumed was destroyed by the 1999 Hilary Swank film of the same name (no not really). Most days I went to an after school program, where we would often take short trips to local parks with open fields. On one such occasion the boys were all brought to a park to play a game of “touch” football. The supervisors in charge were two guys, early 20’s, athletically built, with chips on their shoulders from what I can only assume was formed from not making the cut at College level sports. All this to say I don’t think either of them should have been supervising a group of children. Both of the men split the group of boys into two, at least a dozen of us in total. I was a pretty small kid, compared to others my age; lanky, kind of short, egg white pale skin with bright red chia pet hair; not the football playing type I quickly found out. This game of touch football, devoid of any actual adult supervision, became hyper-aggressive, with “touches” becoming outright tackles. When I, inevitably, became the subject of one of these tackles, my small size or obvious lack of experience did not garner any sympathy from the chunky kid who probably weighed twice as much as my twig-self, who proceeded to slam me into the ground and contort my nose into an unintentional allergic salute. It bled much more blood than I had ever seen. What’s the normal reaction here? Crying, right? That’s what I did, that’s what was natural to me, yet that didn’t stop one of my doltish caretakers from telling me to “suck it up”, as he gave me a pittance of tissues to try and clean the explosion of blood on my face. That was the first time in my life that I remember where I felt like I was a “less” of a man, whatever that is supposed to mean.
As it turned out, I spent most of my childhood depressed. One of the weird boons from going to therapy as an adult is the gift of hindsight; many of the seemingly innocuous events in our youth are actually integral to understanding how we’ve become our present selves. When I was diagnosed with depression at the age of 14, I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. It was given to me as an explanation of my behavior; frequent depressive episodes and an inability to cope with any degree of trauma. The football incident I had in my after-school program was not a case of me coping incorrectly since I think that it was a natural response to what happened, but it was an event where I was made to feel like I was being a baby. In effect, I kind of fucked myself up by caring what my dipshit counselor thought, and it colored my perception of what emotions were acceptable to show for the rest of my adolescence; i.e. none at all.
Until I was 14 those emotions writhed around in my mind, ready to burst out when they reached the boiling point. When it did, I nearly drowned in those emotions. As the flight or flight response kicked in, the panic overwhelmed me. Thrashing around under the surface I realized I couldn’t contain all these emotions to myself anymore. I asked for help and got oxygen tanks, some of varying quality. I’m no longer drowning, but I’m still living under the surface of the water, sluggish and slow, but living.