With less than a week before my family moves house — leaving the town we’ve lived in for eight years, longer than I’ve lived anywhere, ever in my entire life – I’m feeling kind of depressed. I love this place. I love my friends here. I love my kids’ friends. I love the atom football team. I love the trees we raised from saplings. It makes sense to be sad about a departure from a happy hometown. As one of the characters in my novel says, “I’d be more worried about my state of mind if something like this failed to upset me.”
So this is not a confession of an artist speaking frankly about her troubled mental health. That artist is real but I am not her. While I’m definitely feeling depressed today, it’s not the same thing as having the disease of depression.
When it comes to mental health, I’ve got nothing to complain about. It’s not because I’m smarter or better than people who do have valid complaints. I think it might be little more than an endowment from my mother –an ability to shout or cry away bad feelings before they settle in for torturous long-term engagements.
Even so, I do get sad. Over my lifespan, I’ve probably lost months-worth of sleep to grief and worry. My personal best record for uninterrupted crying exceeds three hours. One summer, my daily routine included standing alone in my garage painting boards for the epic fence we were building, quietly weeping over them.
None of this was depression. It wasn’t an illness. It was a reaction to well-defined, acute stress and tragedy. It’s like the difference between bruising for a few days after bashing a knee on something and bruising maybe until death because there’s something fundamental missing from the blood that keeps it from clotting.
With the recent death of a famous entertainer, a lot has been said about depression as a dangerous disease. All of that needs to be said. Depression is still far too stigmatizing. I have a close friend who suffered depression after each of her kids was born. She still worries someone will find the medical records of her diagnosis and medication and use the information as prejudice. “All your history of depression really shows,” another friend explained to her, “is that you were smart enough to go get treated for it.” She’s got nothing to be ashamed of and much to be commended for.
While not everyone suffers from depression as a chronic debilitating illness, everyone (except maybe, I don’t know, people with anti-social personality disorders) feels sad sometimes. Sadness is part of the human condition. It’s inevitable and normal. There is nothing strange or sickly about the sadness most of us encounter.
Here, in the middle of my move, I was talking with another friend who suffers from depression. She saw my mood was low and jumped to recommend treatments she uses when she feels herself falling – when her disease flares up. But I don’t have her disease. I don’t need to fight sadness as quickly or as fiercely as she does. I thanked her anyway. And above my pangs of healthy-person-guilt I was surprised to hear myself telling her I don’t mind letting myself experience a bit of my own sadness. It hurts but it doesn’t damage me. There’s value in it. I can trust I’ll survive it. My preferred treatments are patience and time, love and companionship, faith, music, food someone else has cooked, fresh air, and new things I discover every time circumstances demand my character adapt and change.
For people with severe depression, sadness can be, very literally, the end of the world. They need to fight it with heavy medical and social artillery and no one should fault them for it.
For the rest of us, sadness, deep at its core, is a horrible, putrid, unwanted gift. It’s okay to unwrap it and handle it. And no one should fault us for that – trying to convince us we’re deluded or unhealthy or callous when we take our sadness into our own hands to see what we can learn from it.
Sadness is part of our life stories. Its gift to us is our stories.