My Friend is Depressed. What Do I Do?

It’s not uncommon for friends and family of mine to come to me with questions about mental health, support, and services. Recently, I’ve had a couple of people ask about how they can support someone with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. Specifically, what do you do when you have a friend or family member who is really struggling and doesn’t know what to do. I hope to put together some ideas for folks who themselves are in the spiraling downwards stage of depression and link that here, so that you can pass it along if you’re worried about a friend, but in the meantime, how do you encourage someone to get help and support them in making healthy decisions when they can barely get out of bed?

Before I begin, these are suggestions. They are based on my experience of depression and what I found helpful. Everyone who deals with mental illness is different. If possible, ask your friend what would be helpful for them, and always check in to see if what you’re doing works for them. This one’s going to be a long one because I want to throw out a bunch of options for people to work with. You don’t have to try all of these things, but maybe try one a week.

So here are a few things you can do to support someone who’s in a nastybad place.

  1. Be Honest

One of the things that was very frustrating to me about being incredibly sick was the way that people would dance around the topic. Very few people said to me straight to my face “You have an eating disorder. I’m worried about you. I want you to be healthy. What can I do?” It’s refreshing when someone says what they mean. It doesn’t have to sound like an after school special either. Use the language you normally would use, whether that’s “Hey I see that the jerkbrains have you down right now,” or “You seem really unhappy lately.” Whatever you do, don’t try to manipulate the person into health or sneak your support in without making sure they want it. Even if they are sick, they’re an adult, and they deserve the loudest voice in their treatment.

2. Be Proactive

It’s very common for supportive family and friends to ask “how can I help?” This comes from a very understandable place. You want to be helpful, you’re not sure what they want or what you can do, so you ask. Unfortunately, one of the things that is most overwhelming about being incredibly depressed/anxious is that you often have NO idea what will help. So instead of asking a really wide open question like that, I’d recommend making specific suggestions. Something like “Would you like me to make you food? I can make a sandwich or a salad.” “Does it feel better to talk about it or be distracted?” “I’d like to come over and see how you are today. Is that ok?” Depression is exhausting and makes every decision feel impossible. Keep the decisions as small as possible: yes or no, this or that. Don’t wait for them to give you an idea of how to help, come up with one yourself.

As a sidenote, this is a great way to help someone with things you think would be good for them. From the outside, it’s easy to look at someone who’s seriously depressed and think that they should eat better, go outside, move their body, leave the house…the list goes on and on. That can be incredibly difficult to do when you’re depressed. So instead of simply telling them that they should, help them. Offer to make them a meal, suggest you take a walk together, ask them to meet up for coffee (you could even say you’ll pick them up and carpool together to decrease the barriers they face). If you can think of something that is getting in their way that you could do for them, do it. This might sound infantilizing, but it’s just like any other acute illness. They’re spending all their energy fighting: you’re giving them a little bit of space to breathe.

3. Be Willing to Be a Normal Friend

Sometimes it’s important for you to jump in to “supporting and helping” mode. But someone who is in a crisis level of depression is still a person and still has the need for connection on a basic human level. Sometimes they want to talk about normal things or act like any other friend: they want to see a movie, they want to make a joke, they want to laugh or smile. So if they seem up for it, it can be nice to do a normal friend activity and not bring up depression for at least a little bit. If it’s possible to distract them from the overwhelming pain, that is a huge gift you can give.

4. Do the Minutiae

Most of helping someone with depression isn’t listening to them late into the night or giving them a great speech that convinces them not to hurt themselves. Most of it is actually really boring. It’s sitting with someone while they call their doctor because otherwise they won’t make an appointment. It’s checking in to see if they’ve taken their meds. It’s doing a load of laundry for them so that they don’t feel too disgusting to leave the house. If you really want to be the supportive friend, you have to truly accept that not only are you seeing them at their most vulnerable, you have to be vulnerable too. You have to be willing to get messy and be bored and do unpleasant things. It’s worth it though.

5. Accept the Awkwardness

One of the more vulnerable things in life is letting another person see you when you are really struggling with your mental health. Imagine someone seeing you when you can’t seem to dress yourself, feed yourself, wash yourself, or do other basic tasks. It’s an experience that can be embarrassing. It’s easy to feel like a child. You are witnessing someone in this situation and they are fully aware that they’re asking for help with things that seem like second nature to you. So recognize that someone is showing you an incredibly vulnerable side of themselves. You may even want to let them know that you’re aware, and that it’s OK, that they can take as much or as little time as they need to do things, and that they can ask you for anything.

6. Validate

It’s easy to see someone who’s struggling and follow your first impulse to try to make them feel better, or tell them it will be ok. What often gets forgotten is that when you’re overwhelmed by depression and anxiety, it can seem like one half of your world isn’t real. There’s such a huge disconnect between your internal emotional experience and the behaviors you witness in the rest of the world. You can feel like you’re losing your grip on reality, or like you must be making things up. It helps a lot for someone to just say “those feelings are totally real. You are not making up how bad it is. You really are fighting a hard battle, and it seriously sucks, and I’m so sorry.”

No, it doesn’t fix anything, but it is incredibly validating to hear that other people believe you, see what you’re doing, and recognize your experience as real. It helps to bridge some of those gaps between internal experience and external reality. It can particularly help if there are negative things happening in someone’s life to point out “Hey, you are not making this up. You’ve been dealing with hard things and maybe your reaction is particularly strong, but it makes complete sense to struggle with this.”

7. Walk the walk

Take care of yourself. I know in many other places in this article I’ve recommended being willing to do anything. What I mean by that is not letting pride get in the way. However you have limits too. If possible, demonstrate healthy boundaries and good self care. Saying something like “I’d really like to help out, but I can’t do x night because it’s date night. Can I help you on y night instead?” If you’re having a chat with them, it’s good to mention things you’re doing to take care of yourself, e.g. “I saw my therapist the other day and we talked through x problem.” It helps to normalize the steps that you’re asking the other person to take, and it also helps them feel less lonely. They’re not especially broken and sick. Other people are working on the same things.

8. Be Willing to Be a Safe Place

This one might be a little bit controversial, but it’s something that I think we should talk openly about. I and many of my friends who have dealt with self harm and suicidality have an intense fear of someone calling 911 on us. Especially for people who are black, autistic, trans, or another vulnerable group, interacting with the police is something to be avoided at all costs because it is dangerous. If you have a friend who has told you that they do not want to go to the ER or interact with the police, please respect that. Work with them to find other ways to keep them safe. Drive them to the ER yourself to get them stitches. Forced hospitalization is not fun for anyone, and if we can avoid it that’s great.

As a side note, one of the things that was most stressful to me when I was self harming was managing other people’s emotions about my self harm. I know that seeing someone you love injuring themselves is AWFUL. It is terrifying and it is painful. Those feelings are real. However in the moment when the person has hurt themselves is not the appropriate time to have that conversation. That’s the time when you need to be calm, ask them if they need to be cleaned up, if they need stitches or a bandage, and hold them tight. I cannot express how big of a deal it was for me when I finally met someone who reacted to my self harm in a calm manner rather than with fear and anger. There is something so validating about a person who loves you accepting that you’ve done this and still communicating that they love you. Save the fear and anger for a less charged moment.

If you have any other suggestions, feel free to drop them in comments!

Chronic, Acute, and Situational Mental Illnesses: Hierarchy and Oppression

Despite the fact that I spend a lot of my life trying to improve awareness and acceptance for people with mental illness, I know that I still screw up. I know that I carry around internalized ableism, and that I make mistakes in how I view myself and the mental illnesses I live with. One of these has been swirling around in my head as I try to make sense of it and challenge it for quite some time now, and I think it’s time to start talking about a form of ableism that is most common in communities of people with mental illness.

It’s not unknown that we treat different kinds of mental illness as more or less important. Depression and anxiety are often considered “not really sick” whereas schizophrenia or personality disorders get lumped into “super crazy*, bad people”. But one of the ways that we distinguish different kinds of mental illness is something that I haven’t heard people talk about much. That’s the difference between acute, chronic, clinical, and situational mental illnesses. One of the times that I have heard this expressed is in the debates over deleting the grief exception for a depression diagnosis. Many people said that this was “medicalizing sadness” or making the normal into illness. The idea behind that is that if your emotions are in response to something, aren’t chronic, or are “normal” (emotions that make sense for the situation, even if they are extreme or debilitating), then you can’t be mentally ill.

There’s a lot to unpack in those distinctions. I think in many ways words like acute, chronic, and situational function in much the same way as functioning labels: they are used to dismiss the opinions and abilities of those who are really struggling and to withhold treatment from those who can appear “normal.”

Similarly, I see hierarchies existing within mental illness communities about what constitutes actual sickness, what is serious illness, and who deserves attention. Some people use those same words to demean others as crazy or out of touch with reality, or to focus on visible elements of mental illness over chronic ones.

Chronic mental illness is just what it sounds like: ongoing mental illness. It can stick around for years. Often people will use it to mean lower intensity, but it doesn’t have to be. Situational mental illnesses are those that arise in response to something. You might become depressed when you’re working a really awful job or after a nasty breakup, or anxious after living with an abusive partner.

Clinical or acute mental illness is typically what we call mental illness that has a large impact on an individual’s life. It’s mental illness that seriously impairs someone’s ability to go through their daily life. Sometimes it’s seen as synonymous with “serious”.

Sometimes we use it to refer to specific incidents that are more extreme. In this case, I’m going to use acute to refer to discrete incidents that are extreme, visible, and intense. This could include things like a PTSD flashback, self-harm, hallucination, or being triggered. This parallels the way that acute and chronic are used to refer to pain.

Unsurprisingly, these incidents tend to get the most attention of all mental illnesses, whether that attention is positive or negative. These are the types of incidents that are used to either prove how “crazy” and “other” mentally ill people are, or as evidence that the lives of mentally ill people are actually really, much more difficult than you think. these are the incidents that scare the pants off of family and friends and typically get some kind of immediate response. I personally have experienced these types of symptoms being prioritized over my chronic emotional problems that were leading to these symptoms. If I self harm, people view it as something that needs to be solved immediately. If I continue to feel all of the awful feelings that led me to self harm, other people don’t seem overly concerned. In my mind, that’s backwards since it’s treating the symptom instead of the problem.

Another example of this prioritization comes in discussions of trigger warnings and ways to help protect people who are susceptible to mental illness. We focus on trigger warnings or content notices because being triggered is immediate, visible, intense. Things like racism, or negative self-talk may not trigger an immediate reaction, but over time can build up into just as serious chronic conditions. For some reason we often ignore those. I have even noticed in myself that I tend to use “content notice” instead of trigger warning when I’m talking about racism or sexism, because in my mind they do not link immediately to a “triggered” reaction (questions of the utility and place of trigger warnings are not relevant here). But racism, sexism, transphobia, and other oppressions can lead to long term, chronic mental illnesses that are just as debilitating and often deadly.

It’s important to recognize that even low level, chronic conditions deserve compassion and treatment, not just the big, acute incidents that are scary and in your face. Interestingly, I’ve also seen chronic, acute, or clinical labels used to discount the competency of the people who get them. So while those people’s problems are taken seriously and considered important or deserving of treatment, they as people are often dismissed or discounted because they are “too sick” or “not thinking clearly” or just different.

People have actually said to my face that my brain is scarier or harder than theirs because they have only experienced situational depression, not clinical depression. Some people who have difficulties accepting mental illness will use the phrase “situational” to imply that they aren’t really mentally ill. It’s a way to acknowledge that you struggle without accepting the full label. To me, that belies internalized ableism. There is nothing wrong with being mentally ill. Why would you need to specify or qualify your depression or mental illness unless you felt uncomfortable accepting it? It’s easier to maintain that your opinions and experiences are normal or valid when you have a label that says you only get really down when it makes sense, when you’re reacting to life, when it’s situational. The problem is that when you say that you imply that people with clinical depression aren’t normal or valid. You’re implying that if an emotion is irrational, then there’s something wrong with it or the person who’s having it. Amazingly, I believe that even when I have irrational feelings I’m still capable of behaving with empathy and kindness, and that I am still a decent person.

While these labels are helpful in many ways when they’re used as simple descriptors, it’s easy to use them to imply that some types of mental illness are more important than others or that some people are more or less mentally ill than other people. Those kinds of divides are generally quite unhelpful. Comparing suffering generally does very little to help anyone and does a lot to invalidate people’s experiences. I worry that within mental illness communities we are dismissing people if they can’t prove their mental illness credentials, and that in the vast world where stigma still reigns, labels are used to keep mentally ill people othered.

I think it makes the most sense to think of mental health as a spectrum, from people who are really struggling to those who are living a life that they find satisfying. We can all move up and down the spectrum at different times and in different situations, and everyone deserves help and support to reach a life that feels good to them. Sometimes people have emotions that are overwhelming and debilitating to them in situations where those emotions make sense. They still deserve help. Sometimes people have emotions that don’t make sense. They still deserve respect. I think it’s important to recognize that even among people who have mental illnesses or are working hard to eradicate ableism, there are sneaky ways it can enter into our thinking. I for one am going to make an effort to validate and support everyone, even when it’s easy to assume that my mental illness is more important. I see no benefit in creating an hierarchy in my activism.

 

 

*I don’t much like calling people crazy, but these are the folks that commonly get called crazy as a way of othering. I use it here to illustrate the ways people talk about about mental illness.

Note: My friend Will over at Skepchick was the first person who pointed this out to me, so huge thanks to him for getting this started.

Image from Antidepressant Skills Workbook.

I’m Tired Of Curating

I don’t want to be an advocate today.

Today I told my dietician in a session that I thought I was a little over my ideal body weight. She agreed with me.

I feel disgusting even typing that sentence.

Here are some things that are happening in my mind right now:

1. I miss the thin privilege I had when I was truly sick, the privilege to be taken seriously when I said I had eating problems.

2. Eating healthy doesn’t work. The only way I can lose weight is by serious restriction. When I eat normally, I gain weight. I’m not capable of eating normally. I don’t understand.

3. I hope I’m sick or something is wrong with me that means this weight gain is a fluke.

4. Having an eating disorder is easier than the “healthy” way of losing weight.

5. I’m not allowed to share these thoughts because they glorify an eating disorder, because I’m not actively telling people how awful it is to be sick, because I’m remembering how intertwined I am with the disease, the way it really is part of the way my mind works rather than something that needs to be kicked out of my life.

6. I’m hungry and I don’t want to eat. I’m tired and I will make myself exercise today.

7. I’m sick of trying to spin these thoughts into something useful or meaningful. Since I’ve started to write openly about treatment and recovery and mental illness, I feel as if I need to be a role model or someone that others can look to to see that mental illness does not destroy your life. And yet it’s consumed all of mine and I feel as if I’ve gained nothing except 50 pounds.

8. I don’t want to curate my words today. I don’t want to be careful not to trigger anyone or to mistakenly portray the ways I behave in a positive light. I want to be allowed the space to honestly portray my mental illness, including the way that it looks seductive when I’m anxious and overwhelmed. Right now restriction is the only thing that makes sense to me. I hate having to hedge that with the caveat that I know it’s not healthy and no other people shouldn’t do it and yes it will fuck up my life.

9. I’m so tired. I’m so, so tired.

10. As someone who has a mental illness and advocates for people with mental illnesses, sometimes I feel like I’m not actually allowed to have my mental illness. Sure, I get to talk about the experience and share inspiring stories or even stories about how nastybad it is and tips and tricks that I’ve picked up, but I don’t get to publicly have the thoughts and feelings that come with a jerkbrain. I don’t get to type “I think I’m a shitstain on the world” without people disregarding everything else I say. I don’t get to type “I truly would like to skip all upcoming meals indefinitely” without being accused of promoting unhealthy behaviors. Newsflash world: I have depression and an eating disorder. These are things that I think on the regular. If it’s too ugly to see it and you have to look away when I can’t be polished, then I don’t understand the point of my activism and advocacy. I don’t understand why I write anymore.

11. Sometimes I want to be sick. Lately the world has been making me want to be sick. Welcome to intersectionality.

12. I hope that part of activism can be honesty about the ways that mental illness is tempting and insatiable. I hope that it doesn’t look like I’m saying everyone should totally stop eating and get super depressed. What I am saying is that it’s so easy to want it when things are hard. “Fighting” seems like a foreign concept when something looks so calming and perfect and right. It’s less like a fight and more like a spell and some days the spell looks real nice.

13. I am reminded again and again and again that weight is a ridiculous criterion for an eating disorder. I am frustrated that the anxiety and stress and sadness and self hatred that just struggling with food causes aren’t seen as important enough for treatment, but that being over or underweight is. Of course physical health is important, but why bother if every day is a living hell?

14. I don’t know why this needs to be public except that I feel dishonest if I don’t admit that restriction still looks pretty good most days.

 

Yes Trigger Warnings Do Help Me: Here’s How

I’ve talked before about trigger warnings, what they are, why they’re useful. It might seem like I’ve covered every element of the discussion possible. But there’s something odd that I’ve seen in discussions of triggers: no one is willing to say that they are the ones helped by trigger warnings.

I have many friends with a wide variety of mental illnesses, and many of them talk often and openly about their support for trigger warnings, but more often than not I see people say “I personally don’t find them helpful but I support them anyway.” Despite reading nearly every article about trigger warnings that comes across my radar, I can’t recall a single article that said “trigger warnings make my life easier.”

So I’d like to offer the perspective of someone who does find trigger warnings exceedingly helpful.

When I see a trigger warning, it’s very rare that I actually avoid the content it labels. I do not find TWs helpful as a way to curate my life into a happy little bubble that doesn’t include anything difficult or upsetting. First, that’s impossible and I spend much of my life dealing with things that are triggering anyway. Second, the point of the TW is ideally to allow people with mental illnesses to participate more fully in difficult discussions.

What IS helpful about TWs is that they let me know what’s coming. When someone talks about weight loss or self harm out of the blue it feels like I’m being smacked. Worse than that, because of the edges of paranoia that come with my depression and anxiety, it feels personal. It always, always, always feels like they’re talking about me or attacking me in some fashion, intentionally bringing up the things that make me feel the worst.

Now I realize that this isn’t rational and it’s something that I am working on fighting on my own terms, but the presence of the TW is enough to give me the space to realize that they want to have a discussion and also that they care about my well being. The TW is what lets me take a second to engage the more rational parts of my mind and lets me be gentle with myself.

In DBT there’s something called Wise Mind. It’s the balance between emotions and reason. When you’re in Wise Mind, you’re aware of your values and goals, and also capable of paying close attention to the facts at hand. TWs give me the space to try to be in Wise Mind. It’s that moment of mindfulness that makes me pull away from the strong emotional reactions I would have otherwise.

Sometimes when I see a trigger warning I choose to continue reading but I’m highly aware that if I need to close the window or go away for a while. that’s ok. It puts me in the mindset of self care rather than my typical mindset that sees disengaging as a failure.

Trigger warnings very rarely tell me that I should opt out of a conversation. Instead, they tell me that I’ll be safe if I try to engage. To some extent they’re a signaling mechanism that lets me know people care about my mental well being. But more than that they’re a reminder to me that I should be considering my mental health and engaging the skills that I have. And it gives me a heads up of what skills I’ll need to use based on what kinds of content will be there. If it’s weight related, I just skip all numbers. If it’s self harm related, I usually engage some kind of anxiety relief or self soothing (with a fidget or game).

When I don’t have the warning it hits suddenly and I don’t have coping skills at hand. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s easy to let myself slip quickly into an anxiety attack, or even to use symptoms. TWs help me protect myself.

So when I see a TW, I feel safer. I know that I am safer because I take a minute to check in with myself and prepare for what might be coming. And I’ve found that I am almost never full on triggered by something that I’ve had warning for. It makes my life much easier and more than that it saves me from a lot of pain. Serious, real pain. That’s why trigger warnings are helpful to me.

Taking Anti Depressants Is Actually Really Hard

Last night I got drunk. Really, surprisingly drunk.

That in and of itself isn’t news, nor is it something much of anyone needs to know. It’s the why of it that’s important. You see I am not a heavy drinker and I don’t usually get drunk, definitely not on Wednesday nights. I just went out and had a couple ciders with a work contact. Normal.

Except that less than a week ago I doubled my dosage of my anti depressants. And so halfway through my second cider everything went swimmy and it was hard to focus on words and faces, and it was taking all my concentration just to nod at the right times in the conversation.It was completely unexpected, and entirely disorienting.

But more than that it meant I had to call my boyfriend for a ride home because I couldn’t drive, and cancel plans to see a family friend one last time before she flew home to Germany, and couldn’t do the last hour of work that I had intended to do that night. It interfered with my life to become suddenly, unexpectedly drunk.

Ok, so I’ll take full responsibility for the fact that I drank. I made that choice and I didn’t have to. But what’s difficult about meds that many people don’t always get unless they experience it is that your body will react to all kinds of things in unexpected ways. You can’t always predict how your body will react. There are side effects galore, and even if you find a med that works for you and whose side effects you can handle, it’s incredibly likely that after some amount of time you’ll need to adjust dose or type because brains adapt and change.

So that means that I will periodically not know what I can reasonably expect from my body most likely for the rest of my life. Sure, I can take precautions. But even as my medications make it possible for me to live my life with minimal intrusion from my mental illnesses, they leave me with different kinds of uncertainties. Will my sex drive dry up if I change meds? Will I start gaining weight? What happens if this one gives me side effects like Effexor, and leaves me shaky and weak for days if I miss a single pill?

One of the things that grates on my nerves in discussions of whether medications are the devil beast that’s ruining everyone or the godsend that’s curing all of mental illness is a serious lack of focus on the actual experiences of people who actually take psychiatric medications. Like most of life, it’s a mixed bag. It’s often confusing. And it often seems as if every time you find something that helps there’s some other effect hiding behind it. For me, meds have stabilized me enough that therapy works. But the downside is that they leave me even more out of touch with my body, and even less capable of predicting how basic things like sleep, food, and alcohol will affect me.

I would really love more discussions of what the actual experience of taking anti depressants is like. So here’s what it’s like for me: it’s incredibly helpful because it gives me some breathing room from overwhelming emotions. I don’t feel completely flooded on a regular basis when my meds are working. But it’s confusing and frustrating too. I’ve had meds with awful side effects, and even the meds with reasonable side effects are annoying. They make me sleepy and hungry, they mean I can only have a half a glass of wine before getting unreasonably buzzed, sometimes I can’t tell if my brain is fuzzy and hard to focus because of depression or because of the medication I take for my depression. It’s a confusing experience. You can never suss out exactly what things (good or bad) come from meds or just from life. But so far they’ve helped. And I’ll accept that.

Flavors of Depression

There are many, many things that make coping with depression difficult, and I’ve talked about many of them over the course of this blog. But one that I’m not sure if I’ve touched on yet is what I can only call the different flavors of depression. A friend of mine recently brought it to my attention by pointing out that different difficult times come from different needs: sometimes you may need to unwind and feel distracted, other times you may need connection, still other times you may need to feel accomplished and useful.

For me, it can be incredibly difficult to feel out what I need when I’m in a depressive episode, especially because what I need can change drastically from day to day (and sometimes hour to hour). So the best I can do is try to suss out what kind of depression I’m feeling. I don’t have a clear sense of what I want most of the time, so I try to pay attention to what I’m feeling. Of course I’m feeling depressed, but what KIND of depressed.

For people who don’t experience depression, it might not be clear that depression refers to a wide variety of different feelings and states. Sometimes depression is an incredibly strong and passionate kind of a feeling. It can feel as if everything is going wrong and everything hurts. That flavor of depression is often the self-hating variety for me. It’s an incredibly immediate feeling that often comes with crying fits. But sometimes it’s not an emotional experience at all to be depressed.

Sometimes depression is feelings of complete and utter numbness and emptiness. Sometimes my mind will pull out and out and out in perspective until my entire life feels tiny and pointless. Those are the days that I’m not sure I can even get out of bed because I don’t know why. Everything feels far away and my body does not feel like my own. It comes with dissociation and suicidal thoughts. This is the flavor of depression that scares me more than anything because I feel dead inside.

Of course the overwhelming feeling in almost every depressive episode is something like “bad no good can’t do not like” which is incredibly unhelpful. Instead of getting overwhelmed at that point, a good strategy for me is often to try to listen to what I want.

Now to be clear, what I want is definitely not always what I need when I’m depressed. But I can typically get a better feel for what needs I am not fulfilling when I think about what sounds appealing in a given moment. That can help me suss out if I’m the kind of depressed where I should hang out with people or the kind of depressed where I need to take a break from life for a little bit or the kind of depressed where I need to go work out.

For example if all I want is to lie in bed and do nothing (as has been the case recently), I know that anhedonia is one of the problems, and that what I’m really craving is something that makes me feel accomplished. It also tells me that I need to spend as much energy as possible finding something that will feel enjoyable in this moment, because anhedonia saps my ability to feel pleasure in anything.

At other times all I want is to talk. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter who, I just feel as if I’m drowning in my own mind. This one is pretty easy to figure out: it means I’m missing connection and community. I feel lost and I’m starting to lose the ability to differentiate between rational, reasonable thought and the thoughts that my depression and anxiety mix in.

When I first became depressed, I didn’t quite get the ways that depression has moods. No person’s emotions remain completely static for days and months at a time. Even when you’re depressed, the subjective experience, the focus, and the strength of that depression shifts and changes just as it would for anyone else.

This is one of the things that makes it difficult not only to determine what coping skills are best for you at a given moment, but also how to ask for help. Many times a friend or partner will ask me what I want to do or what sounds helpful and I cannot answer. That’s because depression changes regularly, and in order to figure out what would be helpful I have to do the emotional work of sifting through all the feelings to determine which flavor I have today. In the midst of an episode, that can seem overwhelming and impossible.

If I could ask anything of support people, it’s helping me through this sorting process. Asking me easy questions like “what is your first impulse of what to do right now?” or “tell me what it feels like.” Those questions can help guide me to understanding what I need.

If I could ask anything of myself it would be patience. I always want to fix things. With depression, I need to understand them first.

Whiplash, Monuments Men, Great Art, and Happiness

A few nights ago I saw the movie Whiplash. As many people have said, the acting was superb and overall it was a quality made movie. But what pulled me in was not the plotline, but rather the assumptions of the characters and the varied interpretations of the people with whom I saw the movie regarding what makes a life worth living.

Andrew, the main character of Whiplash, wants to be the best. In one conversation with his family, when they ask him why he doesn’t have any friends, he says that they would just get in the way. He wants to be remembered, like Charlie Parker was remembered. He wants to be great. His dad looks at him and says that Charlie Parker died at 35, that’s not success.

But Andrew is unswayed, and continues to engage with his abusive band teacher in order to force himself to be better, to win, to prove that he is the great person he could be. He refuses to be broken by the abuse that the teacher doles out, even if that means trying to play while his hand is broken and he’s bleeding.

The end of the movie is ambiguous. Andrew plays an amazing solo. He plays to his own tempo instead of listening to the conductor. But he does it all because he was abused. He becomes great through the horrific methods that left another student dead from suicide.

Underneath the success, the amazing performance, the smile that Andrew finally gets from Mr. Fletcher, there’s the dark knowledge that if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he as well will probably end up dead. If nothing else, he will be alone, anxious, depressed, and constantly feeling that he isn’t living up to his own potential. He requires greatness of himself, because he sees how much the greatness of one person can affect others.

As Mr. Fletcher says, it’s unacceptable to deprive the world of the next Charlie Parker.

But is it really? Is great art more important than actual human lives? Or even one single human life that gets extinguished after short years that are filled with unhappiness?

Let’s talk about another movie for a moment. Monuments Men is for the most part a rompy kind of action movie, but somewhere in it is a question. The Monuments Men take resources that the army could have been using to save human lives and direct those resources towards saving art instead. Great, amazing art, but art nonetheless. Is it ethical for the army to do that?

I tend to think no. Art is beautiful and enriching, but there is always new art being made. People continue to create meaning, beauty, connection, and discussion through art in almost every circumstance they are placed in. Art is not a finite resource that we will run out of. There is no perfect painting or drum solo or play that is out there waiting to be created. We create what we need, what is meaningful to us, and we get the meaning that we need out of the art available to us.

I’m not one to value an empty or unhappy life simply for the sake of life, but I’m also not one to value art without any end. Art is valuable insofar as it enriches human lives, and when it takes away from the human ability to be fulfilled and content, or when it takes away resources from keeping people alive, art starts to lose value. I think that’s true of any human endeavor. No goal is more important than its consequences.

So back to Andrew and Charlie Parker. Why does Andrew think that being great is a better goal than any immediate happiness? Clearly he wants to be remembered, but he also seems to think that he’s doing something good and enriching for the world (just as Mr. Fletcher does) by creating something great.

I am so afraid of that rhetoric.

While talking with friends after the movie, I found that I was the only one who really resonated with that intense drive and need to always be better, the all-consuming, obsessive perfectionism. I can vouch that in my life it has been an extremely damaging influence. But those around me didn’t feel like the movie was in danger of portraying that obsession in a positive light because they had never felt it, never been in a place where they thought that it was the best way to be.

Of course in the movie, Andrew is supposed to be sort of screwed up but only develop clear mental illness symptoms after Mr. Fletcher starts pushing him. But I don’t think that obsession of this level is something that one can just learn. It’s something that you have to spend your whole life fighting if it’s in you to begin with. And while the movie clearly criticizes Fletcher’s methods, it does not clearly criticize the art that comes out of it. It does seem to imply that the art that comes from the abusive, obsessive methods is better than what would have come about if Andrew had a sane teacher, made some friends, stayed with his girlfriend, and tried to temper his obsession with drums by being a healthy person mentally.

So the movie seems to imply that there is some sort of trade off here, that we could get some amazing art, something important or meaningful out of this kind of drive, and that while it’s unhealthy, it is amazing.

And sure there are real life examples of these types. Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain, people who used their mental illness to fuel their art and whose dark art touched and was important to thousands upon thousands of people.

And there is never any guarantee that the depression makes your art better. More often than not it makes it worse because you can’t think clearly, your mind is trailing in circles, you have no energy. More often than not you create work that is indulgent rather than transcendent. Of course some people who recover choose never to truly engage with the dark emotions again, and that hardly creates good art, but it is possible to continue to think deeply while in a healthy place. Some of the best art is art that comes from a place of self-respect rather than depression, fear, and uncertainty.

And there’s more than one life that gets hurt when someone wallows in their mental illness. Everyone they interact with gets hurt. Despite the fact that they aren’t trying, most people who are incredibly depressed, anxious, obsessive, and perfectionistic, are not very nice and are certainly not able to have healthy relationships because they themselves aren’t healthy.

But of course the people that I was watching Whiplash with didn’t see it as glorifying this kind of obsession. I’m not sure what it is that made me think it was condoning at least part of the obsession, but perhaps it’s that I expect discussions of (what clearly seems to me to be) mental illness to not simply portray the behaviors because just showing the behaviors can feel like condoning when you’re in a bad place. If I had watched this movie 5 years ago I would have seen it as validation of my choices. I would have watched it and seen a young person overcome everything to pursue perfection and then achieve perfection. I would have seen that it was possible.

And so I wouldn’t have stopped.

I do wonder about our portrayals of obsession and whether we treat those behaviors in a way that says “this is not healthy” or whether we do some glossing over of the truth. How did the film actually treat questions of obsession? Did it say that there were benefits? Of course no one would see it as condoning the behavior of Andrew, but it did seem to make him into a hero, or possibly an anti-hero, something even more attractive to many (especially young) people.

I can’t predict how other people might react to this film, and the people that I watched it with didn’t seem to see it as any kind of validation, but it did focus on a young person overcoming obstacles to reach his goal, even if there were huge sacrifices along the way. Many people would see that as a positive. Continuing the stereotype of disturbed genius isn’t really helpful to anyone, and while the movie criticized the choice to embrace that life, it didn’t do anything to dismantle the stereotype that exists in the first place, leading to many people seeing artistry and greatness as something that necessarily comes with insanity.

This might lead many people to frame questions of dedication to art as whether they want to be happy or whether they want to be great, when in fact they can be both.

So let’s hop back to Monuments Men. Is any piece of art worth ruining your life over? Probably not, especially when we can create art without the intense depression that the movie portrays. Of course every individual has the right to make the choice in their own life, but it’s important to create messages that say it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be amazing without being pushed in cruel and awful ways. Oftentimes greatness comes with support, love, and self-empathy. Especially in today’s world where the cruel actions of famous people get broadcast to the world immediately over the internet, people are becoming less and less tolerant of brilliant assholes, and instead expect their geniuses to give back in some way.

There are many other facets to the reactions to this movie. I see more women feeling driven to prove that they deserve to be on this earth by being great, leading me to worry about the effects of portrayals of greatness on young women. How do we portray negative things in a responsible fashion is a concern that has never been properly answered (no Plato, we don’t just not portray them). And how healthy can obsession ever be?

But I do think it’s important to pull apart the association between greatness and depression. It’s not necessary.