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The Selfishness of Depression

9.20.14

his week’s column is taking a more serious stance. I’ll try to summon my smartassery again next week, but for this entry, I want to talk about depression. For a number of reasons.

First, it’s a subject that I’ve become familiar with first-hand, from my own experience with it, an ex-wife’s experience, and a few friends who suffered from depression, two of whom committed suicide.

Second, depression – and misunderstandings about it – were all over the web last month after Robin Williams died by suicide.

Third, depression plays a part in my upcoming novel, Private Messages.

Two characters, in fact, suffer from depression, to varying degrees.

Hunter Sage watched impassively as the forest blurred past on both sides as he drove west on Durham Road, Highway 98 out of Raleigh, North Carolina. For a moment, he imagined the dramatic and fiery scene that might result if he quickly turned his wheel and plowed his Chevy Impala into the trees.

Hunter’s steely-grey eyes surveyed the passing forest, taking note that several of the tree trunks were plenty big enough to do the job. His gas tank was almost full. With enough speed, if he made it count, . . . .

With a sigh and a force of will, Hunter focused his attention back on the road in front of him and absently rubbed his left wrist. The raised scars often itched when he was disturbed or irritated, as he was now. He scratched the scar on his left wrist and switched to the right one as he passed a slow-moving pickup.

While this introductory scene indicates that Hunter attempted suicide in the past, and while it’s still an issue, one that presents itself from time to time, he’s managing it.

On the other hand . . .

Even though it was late afternoon, little light penetrated the blinds and curtains. Lily preferred it dark. She knew that Parker would have a problem with it, so she planned to open them before he got home. But she also knew that he was going to the bar with his crew after work, so she still had some time.

The light just felt so harsh, so unforgiving. The dark, on the other hand, was relaxing and welcoming. Lily felt as if she could breathe more easily in the dim light.

It was all in her head. She knew that. Many sessions with Jane, her therapist, had convinced her of that. But that didn’t make it feel any less real. If she went outside, which she didn’t if she could avoid it, the severe, burning sunlight pressed down on her with a physical weight. She could feel that weight lifted off of her when she came back inside.

While Lily hadn’t attempted suicide, and despite all the medications she was on, she was managing her depression a little less effectively.

Both Lily and Hunter were experiencing depression which could be traced primarily to an external stimulus. Many people, though, experience depression of a deeper, darker source. Inside themselves.

Often depression can be traced to a chemical imbalance in the brain, or other internal mechanisms which can make it more difficult for the untrained to recognize. Look at Robin Williams, for instance. One of the nicest, most kind-hearted and funniest people suffered from severe depression. But he covered it with humor, internalizing it to the extent possible, finally hanging himself.

And a few remarks about it in the following days indicated the misunderstanding that many people still have about this affliction. That he was selfish, that he took the easy way out, or the coward’s way.

The thing is, selfishness does often play into depression, but not the way these people meant it. Depression can make a person feel so sad, so pained, that those feelings are the only thing the sufferer can feel or focus on. Their self-centeredness is not something they can help.

With some, the pain or sadness is so intense that death seems like the only way to stop it. I’m certainly not condoning or promoting suicide as a viable way to end your pain. I’m simply saying that I can understand it.

I’ve suffered from depression myself, and while I’ve never been suicidal, I have been to the point of welcoming anything that would end the pain, even death. Though I have a slight tendency toward depression, my worst bouts were primarily a result of external stimuli, one of the worst being the death of my son twelve years ago.

Having been there myself, I think I have a deeper understanding of and sympathy for others who suffer from depression. Those who have never felt the interminable weight of a sadness that goes far beyond being ‘blue’ can never really understand what it’s like.

That’s why it’s still so common to hear suggestions like, “Snap out of it,” “If you don’t like feeling that way, then change it,” “Life isn’t meant to be fair,” or “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” These remarks, and others like them, don’t help. In fact, they make the depressed person feel even worse, because they feel powerless to make the suggested changes. Professional counseling, and possibly medical treatment, are often needed to improve the situation.

If you or someone you love suffers from depression, don’t wait until it’s too late to acknowledge it. Get help. Contact your doctor, or connect with one of any number of groups and organizations in your area that can help you deal with it. Or start with some of these links.

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

National Institute of Mental Health

National Mental Health Association

American Psychiatric Association