Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Just a Disease

Hey, did you know depression is just a disease? Why don't we treat it like any other disease? Wouldn't that be great? Then we could really help folks could we not?

Except it's not. You know it's not. No matter how many times you claim depression is a disease like any other, and no matter how many times you link to really super articles about how depression is a disease like any other, and no matter how many times you applaud righteously for anyone who says depression is a disease like any other, you don't believe it.

I know. I don't believe it either. We know depression isn't just another disease, you and I: that's why we will never ever treat it like one.

Flu is a disease. We treat it like one. And I never met anyone, no matter how loudly they protested their caring credentials, who treated depression like flu. Because depression is nothing like flu.

You can't come down with the flu because one of your friends ditched you. You can't have a flu relapse because of a Facebook post mentioning that ex-friend. You don't suddenly develop flu symptoms due to something you read in the paper or saw on TV. You don't go through every day fearing that the next thing anyone says to you will bring your flu back with a vengeance.

Nobody ever tells you that you're brave for telling everyone you've got the flu, and then tells you to stop whining every time you sneeze. Nobody swears they understand what it's like having the flu before washing their hands of you once you get it.

When you've got the flu, you can call work and say you're sick. And when you show symptoms of the flu when you're at work, your workmates will show sympathy for your illness. Nobody makes complaints to the boss about your flu. Nobody says you're scary because you've got the flu. Nobody disciplines you for having the flu at work.

Nobody calls the police on you because you have the flu. Nobody has the law come into your house, threaten you with pepper spray, slap cuffs on you and throw you in the back of a van because it's easier to do that than try to talk to you about your flu.

When the flu kills you, nobody says you were a coward for letting it.

Depression isn't just another disease. You know it's not. I know it's not. If it were, we'd act like it. We don't because we know the truth.

And I don't want it to be just another disease. The whole fiction of "just another disease" is presented in a cloak of compassion and strips off to reveal the dismissal beneath. As long as you pretend it's just another disease, you will check that I've taken my meds, pat me on the head and be on your way.

As long as it's just another disease, it can't be anyone's fault that I'm depressed. The strangling mood that is sucking me below the earth can't be sheeted home to anyone, as long it's just another disease. As long it's purely a medical phenomenon that can be blamed on nothing more than chemical fortune, you're not responsible for my depression. The fact I'm depressed will have nothing to do with the people who've hurt me, the cruelty of those I trusted, the contempt of the human race or the foulness of the world around me. Nobody is to blame, because it's simply a disease.

More than anything, won't be to blame as long as it's a disease and nothing else. The fact I'm mentally useless three days out of every five can't possibly be down to any failures of my own. My conviction of my own worthlessness can't be connected to any reality, my self-loathing can't be down to any genuine loathsomeness. It just can't be, because everyone knows it's just a disease.

No I do not want this. I do not want this myth, asserted by all and believed by none, to stand in the way of any slivers of self-awareness that manage to penetrate my shell. I will not accept a promise that my depression is no fault of mine, from strangers and casual acquaintances. If my depression is fooling me about my own self-worth, so be it: it's no less than what everyone who hears about it does.

If those who assure me it's just a disease behaved to match their words, maybe I'd take their assurances more seriously. But they do not. And neither do I. And I don't think we ever will.

This is not because "we don't talk about depression enough". We talk about it too goddamn much. This post itself is just another little puddle of self-pitying vomit to join the ocean of regurgitation washing over us every day of people wearing their depression proudly on their sleeve, begging us to talk more, to understand more, to congratulate us all more on our illness. If there were any chance of public discussion assisting us all to treat it as just another disease, that would've happened long ago.

It hasn't and it won't, because we don't believe it. We'll claim it as a disease as long as it's convenient, and as soon as depression becomes awkward, it becomes a personality flaw, an insanity streak, self-indulgence, or the darkest of all, "mental illness".

Mental illness is not really illness, it's something we pity people for until they do something under its influence that upsets us, and then it becomes "no excuse". If we treated depression like any other medical problem, a person who acts irrationally when in its grip would be condemned no more than a man with a broken leg is condemned for his failure to walk; but that would never do. As long as the illness is mental, we are responsible for resisting it through sheer willpower - we are to use the very minds that the disease is in the process of ripping to pieces to overcome the process itself.

Still, afterwards we'll nobly assert that it's "just another disease", and we will go home happy with ourselves because we understand.

And every day a thousand voices will proclaim that understanding, and every day a thousand chins will nod wisely, and a thousand clever folk will find themselves satisfied in every way by the compassion they've shown.

And every day, ever so quietly, another few sorry souls will stumble and fall and cease to exist and all who knew them will take solace simultaneously from the fact that it's just a disease and there was nothing anyone can do, and that it was really all their own fault for failing to take responsibility. And not one of those poor souls will cause a pause in the thousand voices' clamour, or a halt to the thousand sage chins.

And we will all fight furiously against admitting to ourselves and each other that this thing devouring minds in our midst is not a disease like any other, that it's too strange and elusive and horrible to ever be.

Depression is the best disease in the world to have, because it's so easy to hide you can go about your day and never have anyone know the pain you're in. It's the worst disease in the world to have, because when you hide it, you make it worse, and when finally you break down and stop hiding, you think that'll make it better, and it doesn't.

I've never had any disease like that. I'm not going to pretend I have, or pretend that by pretending I can help myself.

You will tell me I'm wrong about myself, about my illness, about the way I'm seen. You might even tell yourself that.

And after hearing it from you, I'll probably tell myself that too, because wouldn't it be nice to believe that I'm wrong about the one crucial fact of my depression: that when I am huddling, shivering, sobbing, at the bottom of this endless well, feeling the black water rise against my skin and waiting for the moment when I stop caring, waiting for the moment when the dot of sunlight beaming weakly on my face winks out...that when I am down there feeling myself being torn apart by my own vindictive intellect, I am, in the final analysis, completely and irrevocably alone. That the further I fall, the easier it becomes for the illusion of companionship to melt into the smoke around my head.

You will tell me I'm wrong.

But when it kills me, some of you will still call me a coward.

When it kills me, some of you will still call me selfish.

When it kills me, some of you will still shrug and tell each other there was nothing that could have been done.

All of you will most likely be right.


Unknown said...

Great article Ben. Made me think about my illness differently. I suppose there's still a stigma attached to depression that hasn't gone away despite all the airtime depression gets, so to speak. Anyway I know that there a lot of people who love your writings and like you as a person. Those people would want to help you if you needed it.

Anonymous said...

This might be meaningless drivel, but if it is, it's at least honest meaningless drivel.

I say this as someone who cut myself; who has crouched weeping in the back of a dibby van; who stayed up refreshing Twitter, trembling, on nights you said you wanted to end your life and who found solace in your writing on nights I wanted to end my own and didn't tell anyone.

It's not really a disease. That's just a metaphor that's helpful sometimes.

But it's definitely not what it says it is. Just because it speaks in one's voice doesn't mean the things it says is true. Objectively examined, and that means without the pain, all the pernicious slurs and malevolent judgements are complete and utter bullshit. They're false and unhelpful cognitive beliefs that can be logically debunked. We all have them, the decibels just vary from person to person from moment to moment, and all of that is okay.

I can't know what you are experiencing, but for me, one of the most insidious lies is that there's some underlying truth beneath all of that self-abuse, because it seems impossible that so much suffering could not be somehow legitimate.

The pain is real, but it's not true.

Ben, you are not destined to die by your hand. The idea that you are is false. That door can and does close, I've seen people deeper in despair than I could ever comprehend resolutely lock it forever.

I deeply admire you and you have had a significant impact on my life. My thoughts and feelings are with you, and whatever depression may be, its vastly less than you are.

Jo H. said...

I hope it doesn't kill you.

Anonymous said...

Like the other Anon I've stayed up reading your posts on those nights. You know the ones. Not some shit circle jerk post like you get on some sites about embracing your dark times and learning to ~love yourself~. Yours about the times where it's like, I just need to find a way to make someone care. I've never read something that put things into such perfect, terribly simple truth. i love your blog and i wish you well. Would want to give you a hug too if, like, we'd ever met (bit conservative in that way, what can I say)

Anonymous said...

Love this post and your honesty Ben :)