Fortunately, I’ve suffered through several prolonged bouts of depression — darkness so deep I could barely stir for weeks. Why do I say that was fortunate?
Because those weeks and months of despair prepared me for the long trudge through loneliness draped upon millions of us today, after a year of quarantine and isolation.
More people die by suicide in the United States than in auto accidents: more than 38,000 a year — 100 people a day. It’s the 10th leading cause of death, and the second-most frequent way to die for people from 15 to 34.
Someone in the United States dies by suicide every 14 minutes.
Most suicides are linked to depression, which is treatable.
I damn near killed myself four years ago, but was saved by Beethoven. And Beethoven damn near killed himself when he was 32, and realized he was going deaf — before he had written most of the works for which we remember him today.
Here is the most important thing I can tell you about depression, and one of the worst things about it: When you’re in a deep depression, you feel that it will never end — that the rest of your life will be like this.
But take it from me, please: It won’t.
It will get better. It will go away. Lift of its own accord.
I’m not going to lie to you: It will probably come back. But each time it does, you will know a bit more about it. You’ll be familiar with it, anyway. You’ll learn its moves.
And if you suffer enough (whatever that means) you will eventually come to understand that when it descends again, it’s only temporary — no matter what your brain tells you. You just have to wait it out and try to do no harm — to others, but most of all to yourself.
Let me show you how bad it can be, and why I’m grateful that I’ve been through it before.
The other day as I lay on the couch reading, two big dogs by my side, I looked at them and thought, sadness in my heart: “I’m boring my dogs. My dogs don’t like me.”
Then I laughed at myself, for “thinking” that. I saw how ridiculous it was — and that it was not thinking at all. It was my brain playing tricks on me again.
During my first bouts, more than 25 years ago, I could not have done that. I would have taken my malfunctioning brain seriously. I would not have known how to look at my selves and know what was going on.
You can’t think straight when you’re depressed. It’s best to put off any major decisions until it lifts. And unless you are far more unlucky than I, it will lift — on its own schedule.
I know: That doesn’t help when you’re in the middle of it. Nothing seems to help when you’re in the middle of it, the first few times.
I missed more than a month of work in one of my early bouts. Couldn’t get off the couch. One terribly hot day I dragged myself into the kitchen for a glass of water, and when I set it down on the counter it fell over. The glass didn’t break; it was plastic.
“There it is, Kahn,” my brain told me. “You can’t even get a drink of water. You don’t deserve water.”
And I dragged my sorry, thirsty ass back to the couch without a drink — because I didn’t deserve water.
How did I live? Sympathetic bosses, who did not fire me, and a good doctor, who put me on an antidepressant when I finally got the energy to go see him. It’s supposed to take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors a couple of weeks to kick in, but mine kicked in in three days. I will always remember it.
Still on disability leave, I got up the gumption to take a bike ride in the mountains, but one of my toe straps had broken. I pulled it off and tried to put in a new one, but forgot the little twist between the slots, to hold it in place. After an immensely long minute or two I gave up, tears in my heart and brain. Then I heard a voice say softly: “Bob, just because you can’t put on the toe strap doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
I really did hear it. That was the moment I started feeling better.
Why am I telling you this — broadcasting my misery, and recovery, to millions of strangers? Because from what I read in the legitimate press, a lot of people are feeling depressed in these days of pandemic — alienated, alone, longing for a human touch, knowing they can’t get it yet.
Well, my friends, all I can tell you is that it goes away. As will this pandemic. And both depression and another pandemic will come back — sometime, somewhere.
Until then, be grateful for small favors. Trust in science and turn down the volume of your own brain.
Your brain can lie to you, and it does. You have to Rope-a-Dope that sucker.
Don’t believe everything you think. Hold on. The light will shine again, even into your lonely brain.
It wouldn’t hurt to get a dog, or two cats. When you’re in it, though, you might want to stay away from Beethoven. He overcame it, but he was stronger than most. Try Vivaldi.
(Suggested reading: William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” (1989) describes the illness, which descended upon him at what should have been a happy time in his life. I prefer Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon,” (2001) a history of depression and its analyses and treatments. Peter D. Kramer’s “Listening to Prozac” (1993) is still good. Watching comedians on YouTube will do you no harm.)
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.