I wrote this two weeks ago. I sat on it for a bit but have decided to go ahead and put it into the world now.
behold the gates of mercy/an arbitrary space
and none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace…
(sincerely, l. cohen.)
Like so many others I am surprised by the weight of my reaction to Robin Williams’s suicide; he seemed a fixture in the universe, a font of comedic energy that could never quite be tapped, a potent reminder of the power of laughter and storytelling to touch millions of lives. His death is tragic self-destruction and now conversations are being struck up — again, another time — about how to approach mental illness, how to reach out to friends with depression, how to handle one’s own sadness. Some essays are insightful. Some prescriptions are quite useful. What I am chiming in with, based on my own lifetime struggle with depression which reached its nadir in suicidal ideation nearly one year ago, is simply blunt.
Just show the fuck up.
This seems like an obvious cliche, too simplistic to be of any use, but the truth is that most of us are busy. Relentlessly, dumbly, riotously, numbingly busy, and more often than not with shit that we don’t even care about. We’re busy for the sake of busy-ness, because it seems better than solitude; or we’re busy for the self-importance, for the performance of being in demand; or we’re busy because everyone else is busy and if we’re not busy then are we just wasting our lives? We’re busy out of the sheer multi-dimensional terror of modernity, and while the complaints of busy-ness have existed since the dawn of urbanity technology only enables us to add more obligations to our schedule — we cannot now do something so seemingly straightforward as, say, watch a sitcom without tweeting our reactions to it, or composing tweets in our head while watching, or texting friends about it or checking IMDB to see what that one actor’s name is and where we’ve seen him before, and that’s only if we’re not working on a whole ‘nother project on a different screen; perhaps it’s fun-work or personal-work or work-work (the office is never off, not anymore) but it’s a diversion from our diversion nonetheless.
We can barely even show up and be fully present to a twenty-two minute television show anymore. We’re not expected to do so, and we’re even encouraged not to (#bottomofyourTVscreen). How the fuck are we maintaining relationships? How can we ever show up and be fully present to another full human being in need if our busy-ness is so all-consuming that an episode of “New Girl” feels like a commitment?
The answer is that we can’t. The answer is that we must make choices about what is truly important, and give our attention to that. Having a safe, warm, dry home is important; having a large or spotless or Pinterest-ready home is not. Having some real, close friends with whom you can discuss life is important; having Twitter followers is not.
Laughter — laughter is important.
Distraction is not.
We are creatures of finite psychological resources. Let’s not waste them on commutes and Kardashians but lavish them on one another; not merely on our spouses or significant others (because society approves of monogamous sexual/romantic relationships between adults but is skeptical about the merit of grown-up friendships, even as the rise of the bromance and the success of the likes of “Friends” makes it all too clear that we seek community, not merely partnership), but on everyone we encounter — with strangers perhaps a smile or a door held open, a high-five and a chat with an acquaintance and hugs and penetrating conversation with our friends — we don’t need to hear everyone’s life story to be kind to them, and contrary to the beliefs of both cynics and saviors kindness is not a martyrdom.
It is, I have found, the most effective antidepressant around, but proper administration requires both its giving and its receipt.
Technology is not useless in this; for friends far from home email can be a wonderdrug and even moderate Facebooking has its place (see above re: laughter), but a voice on the phone or a handwritten card or letter has even more impact. The older the media, the greater the effect: in the depths of my own misery “Ugly Betty” carried me, the Suarezes and the Meades and Marc and Amanda and Wilhelmina offering a kind of emotional surrogacy when I could summon nothing besides self-loathing, but once they empowered me enough to leave the house and visit the library I found vastly more potent solace in paper and ink and the tactile, psychological intimacy of a novel (“BUtterfield 8,” and holy shit) — not the abstraction and argument of essay or article but the pure power of story. Printed, bound passport to imaginative space, to something beyond myself.
Everyone is different. That’s what worked for me.
The other thing that worked for me was having friends. I only reached out because I had to — not “had to” in the sense of “being so moved by my sadness” but “had to” in the sense of “I was supposed to complete a large data entry project for the small law firm where I used to work but I couldn’t get out of bed for my depression, which only prompted a further cycle of reprobate and shame because what the fuck was wrong with me that I couldn’t get out of bed to do this damn work when I needed the money and I was going to let everyone down and I was so fucking worthless, could I ever be anything more than worthless (no) and I should just hide under this blanket and maybe I would never have to wake up and, god, that would be so easy, could I make that happen somehow? — and then the day came when I had to turn it in and I had no work product and I had fucked up royally and screwed over people I respect and care about, and whose work has real value to the community, and I couldn’t bring myself to lie to them and I had to say something and so the only thing left was the truth, which meant admitting that I didn’t finish the job because I was too busy wanting to be dead.”
I sent an email to one of the associates on the team I was working for — a friend. It was the first time I came clean to anyone about what I felt. I was succinct but honest. And after I sent that email I took a shower (which at that time was an achievement for me) and in the shower I cried, which is a thing I’ve never been able to do very easily — once a year, maybe twice; my grandmother died at the end of April and I haven’t cried for her yet. It’s August, and I loved her very much. As a teenager, I took pride in my stoicism. Now I am less confident of its value.
That single email built within me, over a month, into a blog post. I couldn’t bear to talk face-to-face and one-on-one, to intimately confess to all those I loved how bad things had gotten, so I put it in writing and let it into the world, all at once. It was, frankly, terrifying, and the next few days were surreal: many people called it brave, which I had not expected and still do not fully understand, because here I was admitting a weakness and weakness is cowardice and cowardice is not brave. Intellectually I understand their point (I think), but on a deeper level I have absorbed the culture in which we all swim, and that culture does not make room for anyone’s vulnerability or impenetrable malaise. The cure always lies in doing: if we are sad, we should just be busy.
But that post was like a lamp in darkness, and friends swarmed to it. We are habituated to our busy lives and habits, any habits, are hard to break — but what I found is that, once cracked open, those habits can be re-formed into newer, better ones. Showing up and being present does not mean holding a friend’s hand day in and day out, forever. It means being there when they need you, which in a crisis might be more acute and involved (and they were) and in the long-term just means reminding them that you’re there and you’re thinking of them and you care (and they are, and they do). Emails, cards, phone calls, coffee dates — these don’t need an invitation. An in-joke on a Facebook wall. An unexpected text: “I saw this and thought of you…”
A loving touch can be a light one.
It’s not hard. And it’s reciprocal, because for a depressed person, one of the most joyful (re)discoveries is of one’s capacity to share love and affection, to reflect it back to those who love us and maybe even to offer it freely to some who may not, which includes — starts with? ends with? — ourselves. It may take a while to reach your depressed friend; the effort may drain you, and self-care and boundaries matter. There might be some negotiating around what you can offer, and it might be uncomfortable, for you or for your friend (or spouse, or family member, or other loved one).
But is it important to you?
Then do it.
Show the fuck up.