If hope is the thing with feathers, then depression is the thing with barbed wire. Depression is the thing with barbed wire that wraps around the soul and binds and tightens and tears apart and never stops at all. If a person were stumbling down Main Street literally wrapped in barbed wire, people would shriek (and probably whip out their camera phones), emergency personnel would respond, and that person would receive effective medical attention and sympathy. It would make the news. There would probably be one of those online fundraising campaigns for medical bills that would reach its goal in half an hour. Yet there are millions of people walking around with metaphorical barbed wire wrapped around their souls, and somehow that’s not only not a crisis, it’s a complete non-event. When did this become acceptable?
Of course, it isn’t acceptable, but that doesn’t keep us as a society from accepting it. I think a large part of that comes from the inability of those who have never experienced depression, no matter how well-meaning they may be, to understand fully what it’s like. The most hideous part of depression isn’t the pain, or the despair. It’s not the exhaustion, the isolation, or the sheer tedium. It’s the helplessness. Depression targets your will, weakening it until you may know what can be done and you may want to do something, but you’re incapable of making the choice to do anything. Free will, or the ability to choose, is what makes us human, makes us people instead of animals, and that’s what depression hits hardest. If it keeps hold of you long enough, you’ll no longer have enough of yourself left even to want to do anything. Depression destroys what makes us who we are, and if you’ve never had something that fundamental taken from you, you can have the best intentions in the world and still have no way to comprehend what the experience is like.
The hell of it is, for those of us under siege from that horror, we’re still in there somewhere. Behind all the pain, despair, exhaustion, isolation, tedium, and helplessness, we’re there. We’re screaming for someone to help us, raging at our own inaction, and begging for the pain to stop. We’re also, frankly, really bored. You have no idea how boring it is to be trapped in your own head, listening to the same malicious thoughts over and over. I mean, how many times can you hear that you’re not good enough before you start to think, enough already! At least pick a new fault.
I’ve actually had that thought, and that’s really what led me to find my most effective weapon against the depression I’ve fought against for twenty years: humor. That’s why this screed belongs on a humor blog. Laughter isn’t just medicine. It’s also a tool that can cut through the barbed wire and a key that can unlock your will to choose. Ironically, or perhaps just symmetrically, laughing at someone is also the tool that will secure the wire in place and the key that will close the lock. It’s kindhearted laughter, generous humor, that works against depression. I, for instance, laugh about how terrible I am at yoga and write sonnets to Johnny Depp. You may choose to turn on the television, mute the sound, and make up your own dialogue (this is a favorite with my circle of friends; we’ve found it works best with soap operas, the news, and any kind of talk show). As long as you keep kindness in your heart, laughter will help.
Laughter from a kind heart makes room. It eases the pressure of sorrow against your soul. It creates the space you need to pick yourself back up when you fall down. It acknowledges that we’re all human and we’re all, at various points in our lives, ridiculous. It gives leeway for screw-ups and fallibility because they happen to everyone and the world will keep spinning. It makes room because we’ve all been there and we will be again, and we want there to be a way out. With depression, laughter makes room for one of the first things that gets forced out: hope. Hope is the ball of twine that led Theseus through the labyrinth, and it hasn’t lost any of its power with time. So for the past twenty years I’ve taught myself to laugh as much as I can and to hold on to hope so that, with luck and the world’s dippiest sense of humor, I’ll find my way through. The Minotaur won’t get to eat me this time.
For those of you who know someone suffering from depression, please understand that he or she is facing the inexpressible anguish of becoming less of a person each day. Help them however you can, and thank fate, chance, or whatever gods you believe in that it’s not happening to you. Depression should shock the world, but it doesn’t, and it should never have become a source of stigma, but it has. I worry about what that says about us as people, and I worry about those who don’t feel free to ask for the help they need. I worry about what another twenty years of suffering is going to do to me.
But as long as I can laugh, I have hope.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
– Emily Dickenson