I’ve been called both a hopeless romantic and a hopeless optimist.
Neither is true. I’m ever hopeful, not hopeless.
Which is not to say that I’ve never been dejected or depressed, never felt defeated, never feared that I was doomed to failure. I have felt all of those things. Throughout my teens and well into my twenties I periodically had depressive periods.
I’m not saying that I merely felt sad. I had more than a slight understanding of the clinical definition of depression…
One immediate family member was diagnosed at a fairy early age with what is now usually called bipolar disorder. In addition, more than one other relative had been hospitalized with “nervous breakdowns” which back in the day was the term usually used to describe an acute depressive episode. At least one of those we now believe was suffering from PTSD due to his experiences as a Marine in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, but at the time we didn’t know that. The upshot was that I had good reason to believe that to the extent such things have genetic components, it was probably a good bet that I had leanings in that direction.
Depression isn’t the same as sadness. Sometimes you aren’t sad at all. It’s more often an unyielding feeling of apathy, emptiness, worthlessness, and anxiety. Yes, a person suffering clinical depression can feel sad, but they can also be angry, frustrated, or restless.
At one point as a teen, at the suggestion of a doctor (for a while I was seeing a neurologist for my migraines, and he was interested in everything going on in my head) I starting keeping a log of my moods, and it became apparent that I had a very definite cycle. The depressive periods happened at fairly regular six-week intervals, and occasionally included suicidal thoughts. And there was another pattern, as well. Just before the depressive stage I would become somewhat hyper, not wanting or seeming to need to sleep as much, not just cheerful but extra enthusiastic, and as I described it at the time (being a good Baptist boy involved in an evangelical teen choir) more prone to “impure thoughts.”
This pattern is one of the reasons that the doctors checked my hormone levels several times (they were also trying to eliminate it as a possible explanation of the migraines). And it was during these doctor consultations that I learned that men have a cyclic rise and fall of hormones not entirely dissimilar from women’s.
It was eventually concluded that my hormones were normal, my migraines were vascular in nature and probably unrelated to the mood issues, and that the mood issues weren’t really out of line for a “high strung adolescent who doesn’t conform to his peer group.” (I was told years later by a friend who is a therapist that that description was usually code for “probably latent homosexual” although it would have been more so if they’d squeezed in “artistic.”)
It was certainly the case that when I finally came out years later, my (usually mild) depressive episodes turned into even milder pensive moods. The six-week cycle is still there, decades later, but not the depression (and all thoughts of suicide had ended years before).
As it would happen, the incident that prompted me to finally fully come out of the closet was falling in love with a man—my late husband, Ray. And Ray happened to have chronic, major depression. So, I became even more familiar with the symptoms, treatments, and challenges of depression.
Ray responded fairly well to at least one anti-depressant, though it was one that his doctors periodically took him off to avoid certain side effects. Ray wasn’t an unhappy person, he had a goofy childlike sense of wonder and laughed a lot. As he described it, it wasn’t that he was sad all the time, but rather that he was constantly certain that everything good was going to be taken away any moment now. He lived in a state of perpetual dread and anxiety.
As maddening as it was for those of us who loved him that we couldn’t alleviate his anxiety, it was even more frustrating for him. And he had no patience for perpetually gloomy people.
When he was diagnosed with histocytosis, he didn’t become despondent, but more angrily determined. Even when he had to start chemotherapy, he seemed to become more determined. But it was a decidedly grim determination most of the time.
When he died I went into more than a bit of a spiral, though grieving again isn’t the same thing as depression. Who knows how long it would have taken me to recover if I had not met and fell in love with Michael (who 17 years later is still willing to put up with me)?
The point of this ramble is that I have more than a bit of experience with depression, even though most of it was not my own. While I intellectually understand the symptoms and the challenges of treatment, it is true that I don’t suffer from chronic depression, myself. Given that I usually rebut those “hopeless optimist” charges by asserting that I’m actually a hopeful arrogant, it could be argued that I don’t have a right to have any sort of opinion on depression.
But I’ve always believed that with enough research, thought, and empathy, you can understand anything. Depression is a complicated and difficult struggle. And while no treatment works for everyone, and no known treatment cures anyone, that doesn’t mean that every person with depression is doomed to kill themselves. Statistics prove that having a support group of people who support you and provide a shoulder to lean or cry or laugh on decreases the chances that a person will attempt suicide. Statistics also show that people receiving regular treatment of any kind are somewhat less likely to attempt suicide or suffer serious stress- and anxiety-related medical issues that often accompany depression.
It’s not a sure thing, but nothing in this world is. And no one should ever turn down sincerely and selflessly offered compassion.