Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds. You mean like the blues?
Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long; you’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.
— From Breakfast at Tiffany’s, screenplay by George Axelrod, based on novella by Truman Capote.
There is a common perception that depression means feeling bleak and low, the opposite of happy. To me, depression was more a listlessness. And despite its entirely mental categorisation, it also had a pronounced physical component.
I could wake up after a night of either tossing and turning, or the deepest slumber (rarely anything in between) and be unable to get out of bed. I would lie awake for hours, telling myself: now I will get up. But it would feel like a weight on my solar plexus holding me down. The hours would pass, the phone would go unanswered, appointments missed, and I wouldn’t be able to sit myself up. I would feel the greasiness of my hair, the stale smell of the bedsheets, and know I would have to get up at least to shower and change. And yet I wouldn’t be able to move.
I could sit still on a chair, not fidgeting as I normally do, not doing anything, as darkness fell outside, and be unable to get up to turn on a lamp. I would see the shadows play on the wall next to me, but not find them beautiful or playful. I would feel nothing.
My earliest memory of feeling this way was when I was eight, and my family had moved from one home to another. I wasn’t at all attached to the old home, nor was it the first or a significant move, but I remember finding myself welling up, sobbing helplessly on my mother’s lap for days at a time, unable to understand why I felt so bereft, clueless as to why I couldn’t feel better.
In college I was hospitalised three times, the nurses removing all sharp objects from my bag, checking my pockets, walking gingerly around me. I owe a great deal to my psychiatrist at that time, who became the vessel for much of my anguish. I’m amazed that my college roommate is still best friends with me, considering what a joyless creature I must have been then.
Depression made me insular. I was detached, the perennial outsider. Never a part of anything. Nobody else made any sense to me. I could sit in a room full of my peers and not experience any sense of bonding, let alone belonging.
When I wasn’t feeling nothingness, there was a tornado inside of negativity and hopelessness. I sought solace in sombre films that showed the desolation and bleakness of life that I recognised but didn’t know how to articulate. I read long novels that expounded the fragility of the human condition. In college, I created artwork of death, destruction and decay.
What soothed me was a sort of single-minded attention to getting one thing just right. If I was drawing a picture I would draw it over and over again until it matched what I had imagined in my head. If I was writing an essay, I would spend countless hours and days honing and honing it, oblivious to all other matters needing my attention. Some of my professors thought I was the most dedicated student ever, while others found me infuriatingly absent.
I visited my parents at home one summer during college, going straight from the hospital to the airport. I sat them down to explain what had been happening with me. I felt both guilty for letting them down – they had done nothing but supported me – as well as braced for their inevitable confusion: I had everything, why would I be depressed?
I prepared my speech about serotonin. I laid out my anti-depressants to provide legitimacy. I remember that morning very well. We were sitting upstairs in our old house, on a long sofa in the middle of the sparsely dressed room, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows wrapped around two walls. The bright, peaceful day seemed an incongruous setting to talk about darkness and despair.
My parents were remarkable. They put their arms around me without hesitation and said they were there for me, for whatever I needed. There were no baffled queries, no “where did we go wrong” or “what’s wrong with you” drama. There was only love.
It’s easy to blame it on the pressures of college life. I knew several students who committed suicide. I knew plenty more who took time off, some indefinitely. It could have been the age we were – on the brink of adulthood and all that it entailed.
But then I was back in the hole again some years later. And again some years after that. And again.
Depression is one of the most isolating, and increasingly pervasive, conditions in our society. It is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed; it’s rarely accepted or treated seriously, least of all socially. To anyone who has not experienced it, it appears avoidable. Or at least an obstacle to overcome with a bit of hearty effort.
Depression’s lack of obvious physical evidence makes it easy to dismiss or even ridicule. With nothing obvious on display – a bandage, a cast, a crutch – we have no universal shorthand to communicate the brokenness inside. Something to explain why we can’t quite participate like other people in regular activities, in normal society, in life.
I believe that’s often the reason that depression is serially connected to substance abuse – anything to numb the disconnect.
The mental health aspect is its most shame-inducing element. We’re crazy, loony, mad, demented, nuts, mental. All disparaging words that haven’t been reclaimed like other negative terms, even the provocative, loaded ones. Silence renders the shame corrosive.
Almost from the beginning of writing this blog, I haven’t held back from referring to my history of depression. A number of people have asked me how I could write about it openly – wasn’t it difficult? Didn’t I worry what people would think?
Difficult – yes. But I’m done tiptoe-ing around the stigma attached to it. I’m done with the fear of being tainted, judged and labelled weak, self-indulgent, unbalanced or any other lazy tag. I’m done disowning it. And I’m done with the shame.
Here is what I have learnt about depression:
- While I believe that it’s primarily a chemical imbalance, there can be outside triggers, such as sustained grief from the death of a loved one or another major loss. Serious illness or even giving birth can also unsettle the body’s complex ecosystem. It is worth trying various types of treatments – psychotherapy, medication and holistic therapy like acupuncture. I’ve done all and had success with all at different times in my life.
- The most frustrating thing for a depressed person to hear is the “just” advice – if you just go for a walk, if you just come out with us, if you just get out of bed. It’s like telling a blind person they can read if they try hard enough.
- The best response is the one my parents gave: unconditional love. Thanks to this, I’ve learnt to stay close to people who love me. Even for an aggressively independent person like me, I know I cannot do this alone. More and more, when I feel the signs or recognise a trigger, I know to ask for support. The right support can literally mean the difference between life and death.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Plato
These illuminate the trauma of depression, though they are not what I would recommend to someone in the middle of a depressive episode.
“The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” Best known for his four paintings and pastels of The Scream – that artistic embodiment of man’s anxiety and alienation – Edvard Munch also obsessively repeated other compositions over and over again, including Girls on The Bridge and The Sick Child. His long history of “madness”, as it was known then, dogged him his whole life, resulting in isolation, shooting accidents and frequent drunken brawls. Edvard Munch: 1863-1944 captures the breadth of his talent.
Like many actors, including the recently deceased Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe suffered bouts of debilitating depression throughout her life. Having lost her mother to a mental asylum as a child, she constantly feared the same fate for herself. Also like many actors with depression, she turned to comedy. Her breathy voice, dazzling smile and delightful comedic timing gave us timeless gems like Some Like It Hot, Seven Year Itch and How to Marry a Millionaire. Her death at age 36, though officially ruled as “probably suicide”, continues nearly 50 years later to be shrouded in conspiracy theories, largely due to her affairs with President Kennedy and his brother, Robert. A sad but important reminder of how fame, beauty, glamour and success do not shield anyone from the demons of the mind. Read the detailed, compelling and definitive Monroe biography, Goddess by Anthony Summers.
Diane Arbus is widely remembered for photographing those on the margins of mainstream society. As she saw it: “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot…. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” Having battled with depression for much of her life, Arbus ended everything with an overdose and slit wrists at the age of 48. See Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph for her definitive collection.
“…[W]herever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” Read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for a sharp, profound, wry, eloquent, witty, tender and devastating story about a young woman battling depression. This semi-autobiographical novel by the poet was first published in 1963 under a pseudonym. Plath put her head in a gas oven a month later. She was 30.
Watch Andrew Solomon’s TEDx talk Depression, the secret we share, for a moving account and study of depression. “The people who deny their experience… ironically, those are the people who are most enslaved by what they had…. And the people who do better are the ones who are able to tolerate the fact that they have this condition.”