hello, sadness

Hello, I’m Fred, and I suffer from depression. This is not a cry for help, nor a plea for sympathy. I am fine, and not in danger. But I have something important to say, and I beg your attention. For you who may be depressed, I wish to show you hope. For you who are not, I hope to show you that we, the depressed, are not so very different from yourself.

Messr. Fry said it better than I ever could:

I can read back that last sentence and see that, bipolar or not, if I’m under treatment and not actually depressed, what […] right do I have to be lonely, unhappy or forlorn? I don’t have the right. But there again I don’t have the right not to have those feelings. Feelings are not something to which one does or does not have rights.

So how about me? By all measures I am well off in the world — I am tall and physically able. Relative to 99% of the world I am extremely well off. I am male. I am white. I live in the United States. I have a beautiful wife and three beautiful, healthy daughters. I work from home doing work that I enjoy. What right do I have to be unhappy?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I find the opposite question much more interesting: What right do I have not to have these feelings?

Feelings are part of the human experience. If a person has cancer, no one says, “what right has he to have cancer?” But when it comes to mental matters there’s a sense of, “well, you ought to control that, get ahold of yourself.” Really? Can you can control every thought that comes through your mind? Every feeling that arises?

The truth is that this control is impossible. Our thoughts and feeling are as much a part of human-ness as eating, drinking, and breathing. The idea that one can control one’s thoughts and feelings is wrong.

To some extent we can guide them, ignore them, even repress them, but in the end there is no choice about when and where we encounter our feelings. Nor do we have a choice over what we feel — “oh yes, I would like to feel happy for the next week. In fact, I would like never to be sad.” As strong as a person’s will may be, their feelings will sneak up and come up at the most inconvenient times.

Sadness is out of place.

It has no home in modern mass society — everything is colorful, delightful, designed to make life sunshine and butterflies. If you’re not feeling happy, then you must not have the right things, or be with the right person, or have the right job. Change jobs, change relationships, accumulate — these things bring happiness. Don’t they?

The truth is that they don’t, at least not in a meaningful and lasting way. Having a thing is often less satisfying than wanting it. Relationships look better from the outside. The fantasy of being with a person is nothing like actually being with them. I suppose that if everything were exactly as we expected, we would all be happy all the time.

In this world of always happy things, a frown is out of place. We permit occasional sadness — when friends and family die, or when hard times come. But the baseline is happy, happy, happy. And so the person whose baseline is not “happy happy happy” feels out of place.

So I promised two things at the start, and I promise I’m getting there — hope for the depressed, and understanding for others.

Let’s start with the understanding: you know what it is to be sad. Odds are that someone or something dear to you has died, or you’ve lost something you cared about. For a “normal” or “neurotypical” person this sadness takes a predictable course. They feel it, they move through it and, over time, it lessens.

For a personal with a depressive disorder, it is much the same — but the sadness, the physical sensation and mental shroud of sadness, never lessens. By the time they “ought to have moved on” they may feel even worse. A capable and intelligent person may put a happy face on around others despite this yawning pit in their stomach, this enduring physical and mental distress, but inside it remains.

It goes beyond ordinary sadness.

I knew that I could do good work, that I could write great software. I wanted to do so to please my clients and employer, but I couldn’t. My focus wandered. Every task seemed daunting. My thoughts moved through a sea of molasses. Every night I went to bed promising myself that I’d do more the next day, that I’d feel better after a night’s sleep. Every morning I’d wake, stiff, tired, and feeling much the same as the day before. And yet I slogged forward in a way that kept my boss and clients happy — barely so, but well enough. [1](#fn:1)^

Oh, I read all of the right productivity blogs and books — Getting Things Done, 43folders, Zen Habits. I tried my best to apply those things, but all I could ever achieve was a temporary boost. The sadness remained with me no matter what tricks I applied, no matter how I organized my crap, or tried to clarify my purpose in life. I wanted to get better, to do what I knew I was capable of, but I couldn’t. And every day, as I looked at my paltry accomplishments, I received reinforcement of my own negative self image. Day after day after day, until the days became one grey blur.

Wow, OK, that’s gotten very dark. So let me come forth with the hope I promised.

and yet,

Today I woke up early, feeling calm and relaxed. I felt positively joyful to greet the dawn, a deep and abiding happiness. I felt incredibly privileged to have a house, a car, enough to eat, my health, a healthy family, a job that I love.

A little over one year my life hit a point where it was unbearable and I knew that I couldn’t go on living as I had. I am ashamed to say that I behaved badly and hurt someone very dear to me. But it was this bad behavior that caused me to realize that I couldn’t “fix” this on my own. I gave up trying, and in giving up I found strength. I sought help in therapy. I was prescribed medication, and have worked to improve my mental health. Today, I feel better than I have in years, positive about my life, the present, and the future.

I think I can attribute it to one simple thing: I have made a home for sadness. I have stopped telling myself that I ought not feel this way. I have put positive habits into place — despite my sadness, there are things that need to be done. I write, and in writing expose the workings of my mind, express feelings and thoughts that have been bottled up for ages. I have tools that I apply that help me live a good and satisfying life.

But beyond that, I have learned to sit with sadness.

By “sit with” I mean the practice of meditation and mindfulness. Through this practice, the nature of sadness has changed. It’s no longer an all-consuming ever-present pit in my stomach. Sometimes it is exactly that, but usually it is not. Even at its worst, I have learned that I can bear it.

but…

Let’s take a moment and talk medication. Depression medication is not, contrary to popular belief, “happy pills.” The difference it makes for me is just this: when I take it, I have a hair’s breadth in which to step back from these intense feelings. They no longer dominate, and I have a small space into which I can breathe and pay attention. Sometimes that’s not enough, but often that small finger hold is enough to pull myself upright and move forward in my day.

Yay yay, good for me! But what about you? Have you been able to make a life that you love? Or does sadness stalk your heels like a shadow?

The good news is that there is hope. There are good tools for addressing your sadness, and there are compassionate people in the world who will help you. At the very least, if life’s not going as you hoped, I think you owe it to yourself to sit down with a therapist and discuss your life. Hear your own opinions and thoughts come out of your mouth and find out where you stand.

Through this blog I hope to share with you tools that have worked for me. I hope that you find things that help you, and hope and courage to do what needs to be done.

We live in a world where sadness has no home. And yet to move forward, we must get comfortable with it, even welcome it in. This isn’t easy work, but it’s important.

And so I say: "Hello, sadness."

  1. (I’ve heard this termed walking
    depression
    ,
    a very interesting and useful
    concept.)

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