The Isolationism of Depression

I’m sitting in a brightly lit, crowded and noisy room. People bustle around me, eating, drinking, talking and laughing, and here I am in the middle of it, ignoring it all. I have noise-canceling headphones in, and the most I hear is a faint whisper of spoken word, the slightest hint of movement out of the corner of my eye, and the distraction of someone jostling me as they try to get by. Otherwise, I’m in a world of my own, oblivious to the people around me, focused on the music in my ears and the screen in my eyes.

In many ways, this is a perfect analogy for depression. I know there are things going on in the world around me, but I can’t connect to them. I know there are people who might be watching me, trying to talk to me, but I can’t pay attention. I don’t hear anything but my own focus, don’t see anything but myself. In the same way that the sounds around me are muted and distant, so are the feelings of people around me, and even the brightness of the day is somehow more subdued than it used to be.

Depression is very isolationist. It really doesn’t want me to interact with people, or do my job, or pay attention to my family. All depression really wants is to escape into a lost, solitary world, a place where no one sees me, and I don’t have to see them. Where no one hears me, and I can’t hear them.

This is a place I’m intimately familiar with. I’ve often felt huddled in a corner, looking out on the world from a place of dark loneliness; I frequently lapse into periods of nonexistence, where I’m not certain if I’m dreaming or not, if I’m in bed or at work. When depression steals over me, it mutes the whole world in both color and sound, and it’s all I can do to stay cognizant enough to make it from place to place, from moment to moment, until I finally get to retreat into the soft warm covers of my bed once more.

I’ve been told I get very self-centered when I get depressed. I think this is probably accurate; it’s difficult to assess others’ problems or empathize with their troubles when nothing seems to matter. When the darkness creeps over me, I just stop caring about anyone else. Perhaps it’s a survival instinct; perhaps I’m just trying to stay sane enough to live the day out. The same is true of duties and responsibilities; I’m having a really hard time focusing at work, convincing myself that any of it matters at all. I want nothing more than to go home, go to sleep.

Sometimes depression is a deep, overriding despair. These are the times when I can’t even get out of bed, never mind take a shower, or brush my teeth, or make it to work on time. This is when the world is black, I can’t see past my own feet, and everything is spiraling out of control to a point where there seems no way out.

Other times, however, depression is a kind of blank limbo, neither feeling nor unfeeling. I do things as though nothing were wrong, going through the motions of an otherwise normal day, but there’s no connection internally; no meaning to any of it. Do I speak up at that meeting or not? It really doesn’t matter. Do I go shopping after work? Who cares? Should I watch a movie or fall asleep? Same difference.

That’s kind of where I am right now. I haven’t written more of The Redemption of Erâth in a good few weeks. I haven’t written more music. I haven’t done … well, anything, really. I just keep plodding on, step after step, day after day, getting up and going back to bed with nothing in between. Leaving the house, going to work, having dinner with friends … all of it, nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.

I hate losing touch with reality like this. I don’t want to just go through the motions. In fact, I think I’d rather be utterly incapacitated with despair than well enough to do things, but ill enough for it to all mean nothing. I’d rather feel something than nothing, even if that something is misery.

Mostly, though, I’d rather just sleep the day away. Then I wouldn’t have to sit in this brightly lit, crowded and noisy room. Then I could just be on my own, in my little isolationist bubble, and feel nothing.

The night isn’t far away.

Passing the Torch of Depression

It’s incredible, to an extent, to consider that my son is fifteen.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth as bedtime stories for him, he was a wide-eyed seven-year-old, in love the wonder of fantasy and the magical places stories can take you. When I first published Consolation in 2014, he was ten – old enough to understand the importance of such a feat, yet young enough to whole-heartedly believe that it could be a success.

And now, five years later, he is very much an adult. Not wholly – he hasn’t entirely mastered social interactions or handling money (something he’s unlikely to learn from me) – but enough so that to hear him speak, or read his writing, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking he’s at least ten years older than he actually is. He’s socially aware, intelligent beyond books, and able to hold a political conversation with evidence to support his stance.

But there’s something else that’s happening as he gets older, and it’s as disconcerting as it might be inevitable. He’s starting to show symptoms of depression.

I might be reading too much into it – after all, teenagers frequently fall into dark moods and monosyllabic interactions – but there are many of the hallmarks of depression in his behavior and attitude, and I don’t mean from a clinical perspective.

I mean from a personal one.

At fifteen, he’s beginning to behave exactly the way I did the year depression took me away forever. He’s moody, miserable, frequently uncommunicative, and denies that anything is wrong more or less all the time. He won’t talk to me about his feelings, about his relationships or friends, and I worry that he might be falling into the great void that I did at his age.

It’s so hard to talk to him, because it isn’t ever clear if he’s really listening, or taking my words to heart. I don’t have advice; I don’t have any good suggestions. All I have is a lifetime of experience with misery and depression, and the only thing I ever wanted for him was to not descend into that same abyss.

If I could let him know anything, it would be that most important of knowledges, the one thing I never knew or felt in my own youth: he’s not alone. I wish I could help him understand that he has a companion, he has support – he has someone who intimately understands what it feels like to hate yourself, to worry compulsively over someone you love, and to wish with all your heart that things could be somehow different; that you could return to the past of youthful abandon, or fast-forward to the future where all the heartache of youth is long-spent.

He has me.

If you’re out there; if you read this; please understand that I want you to know it’s okay to feel the way you do. It’s okay to feel sad, depressed and miserable. It’s okay to despise your life and wish it was different. It’s okay to dream about escape, to hope for love and to want to avoid talking to anyone because it’s embarrassing, painful and frustrating.

It’s totally okay to be you.

And furthermore, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been as supportive as I could have been. I’m sorry I lie in bed while you do the dishes and clean the house. I’m sorry I’m a pathetic excuse for a parent who probably seems like a cruel taskmaster, pushing my own responsibilities on you because I can’t bear them myself.

And most of all, I’m sorry to have passed you this torch of depression. I hope dearly that I’m wrong; I hope that you can find a way to grow out of it, to find happiness and joy in life. Maybe you do, and you just hate me. Hell, I don’t even care if that’s the case.

But if you are suffering in the throes of despair, please, please understand that you can talk to me. I won’t judge; I won’t discipline. I won’t even speak, if you don’t want me to. I’ll just listen, and I promise at the end of it I won’t tell you to suck it up, or that ‘that’s life’; all I can say is I’m sorry, and I know what it’s like.

Truly – I know what it’s like.

Fifteen Years Young

My son turned fifteen this weekend. Fifteen. That’s five-and-half thousand days he’s walked this earth (well, walked and crawled), and with a few small exceptions I’ve been there with him for every single one of them. This doesn’t by necessity make us close, but it makes us … well, something.

There’s no connection in my mind between the helpless, crying, infantile baby that came into the world fifteen years ago and the moody, sarcastic, increasingly self-aware teenager that thinks swearing is cool but doesn’t quite know when it’s appropriate. These are two different entities, and frankly I’m not sure I really know either.

My memory of his life is sporadic – fleeting moments in time, stuck in my mind like a photograph without context. I know he was once six – and twelve, and many other ages – but I don’t seem to be able to draw a line connecting these moments to each other. Like each memory is of a different person, one who no longer quite exists.

At the risk of being a cliché, it makes me wonder what I was like when I was fifteen. Where was I? What was I doing? What did I think? Fifteen was my sophomore year of high school; it was a summer of forgetful abandon. It was a year of adventure, of climbing and mountaineering, of school and exams and friends and excitement.

It was also my last year of happiness.

The following year, my junior year of high school, was the first year I learned depression, and I’ve never forgotten it since. By the summer of sixteen, I was catatonic in my room, drinking with my goth friends, staying up all night with candles, and cutting my arms. And it only got worse from there.

To some extent, I wonder what fate awaits my son. Will this be his last year of happiness? Will he succumb to the deep, numb despair of depression? I really can’t say, of course – the future is the future, and I’ve never really been good at predicting it. But I can see that he is, in many ways, a stronger person than I was at his age. He cooks, he cleans, he reminds me to take my meds, and he can’t stand how dirty I let my car get. He’s responsible, has a girlfriend, and frankly doesn’t get into much trouble at all. These are all things that were not true of me.

In fact, reflecting on that past fifteen years of my own life, he’s more of an adult now than I ever was – and more so than I am today. While I mope in bed and struggle to get through each and every day, leaving dishes and laundry to pile up, he actually takes care of things around the house. He doesn’t enjoy it, but it does it nonetheless.

Fifteen years ago, I was a scared, naive, miserably depressed kid who didn’t see a path forward in the world. Not that many young adults do, but for me, the end was visibly near. I was on a speeding train of mental turmoil, rushing headlong toward the abyss with no bridge and no brakes. What I’m trying to say is that without my son, I may well have tried to kill myself.

But I didn’t. And whilst I’m certainly not ‘better’, I survived. I mean, that’s probably as much as I can say for myself, really – I survived. It’s up for debate if that was worth it or not, but the point is, I’m likely alive because of my son. So there’s something.

We share interests – a love of movies, Lord of the Rings and heavy metal music, for starters – and we talk. I’ve never been secretive about my mental health with him, and I hope he doesn’t resent me for it; he talks to me (on occasion) about the things that trouble him, and I hope he continues to.

What I see when I look at him is no longer my child. He is no longer helpless. I mean, I may never have really come to terms with a person in the world being my descendant, but the point is that he is a young man, whole and independent, with thoughts and opinions that are not mine. He is a good person, and whether through my actions – or lack thereof – or not, I believe he will become a good adult. I have faith he will become a hard-working, functional member of society. And I guess I really couldn’t ask for more.

What I see is simple: my son is a better person than I am.

I couldn’t be more proud.