Depression and Empathy

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I wrote a fictionalized account of life with mental illness. The spirit of the piece contained homegrown truths insofar as I have loved ones who navigate depression. (Doesn’t everyone know someone?) Depression taunts me from time to time, too.

In a world as broken as ours, is depression immunity even possible? 

When I started the short story, which I’m including here, I wanted to demystify mental illness for an audience who misunderstands, fears, or condemns depression, in particular. I wanted these readers to permit my colleagues with depression to share their hard-won battles in safer, more welcoming spaces than our American culture encourages.

Mental illnesses are like any other illnesses. They’re not set apart, and no one with a mental illness thrives on judgment. I don’t know anyone who thrives on judgment except maybe the folks dishing it out, and those friends aren’t thriving either. They’re drowning. They just don’t know it yet. 

Most importantly, when I began writing a story about mental illness, I wanted to tell a good story that would inspire acceptance. Eventually, aware that aspects of the tale were too preachy–even for this grace girl–I set the piece aside.

My fiction was doomed because I broke a cardinal rule of storytelling: I wrote to teach. The story became a backdrop for an empathy plea. My characters disappeared, and my agenda, however well-intentioned, remained. (Novice fiction writers, take note. Your characters are your story’s lifeblood. Let them dance.) My writer’s intuition demanded a break.

Some stories need to breathe before they can be told. 

Today I swim in a life story I wish was fictionalized. The good in my nonfiction narrative is a good that surfaces despite it. In the torrential downpour of my real-life custody battle, a shark, referred to in my blog as Shadow, circles. He uses depression as a weapon. Arthritic and depressed? I must be an inferior parent.

Shadow argues that I can’t tie my shoes, much less care for another human being, if I’m depressed. I probably go shoeless when I’m depressed. I run the street stark naked because really: isn’t that what we lunatics do when we’re not maintaining steady employment and caring and providing for our families without fail? I managed the latter, sans the streaking, for the ten-year span of our relationship.

Shadow’s assumptions are unoriginal, but his beliefs still hold power in our family courts. His bias reinforces a greater cultural concern. Too often the mentally ill are deemed inappropriate and dysfunctional. Society’s redheaded stepchildren. We’re disposable and intrinsically less than because our brains cast a wider array of hues than “normal” dictates. Antiquated assumptions about mental illness overshadow the beauty of complex hard-wiring that takes some figuring out.

Different and inferior aren’t synonymous. Isn’t this basic truth what we teach our children? 

I’m highly suspect of people who never feel blue in the sunlight. I would be suspicious of a mother who crawled out of parental alienation, a soul-bruising form of domestic violence for a mother and child, without feeling something heavy at the onset. In court, my heaviness wasn’t depression. I felt chained to an unholy war without an open window.

My dilemma was how to untangle my son from legal chains that bound us to darkness when what our family really needed was Light. We needed a window; we needed Grace.

I had to feel my chains before I could taste my freedom. 

Here are bare, admittedly unorganized descriptions of another survivor’s freedom plea. The narrator of the short story is not me; she is every person with a mental illness insofar as she’s a hope-seeker.

Maybe I’ll finish the short story when my empathy isn’t so pronounced. By God’s grace, I’m not depressed, even in the eye of a legal storm, but I am still learning how to shed the chains that bind. I’m learning to walk out of shadows into Light by living the faith that defines me.

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Working Draft of “Write Your Story” (Fiction):

I was only a girl when my uncle, skin like saddle leather, cured face cancer with Colgate. When he was not a groundbreaking scientist, he was a fortune-teller with a penchant for communicating with demons. He tried to cash in a handful of rocks, or “precious gems,” at his bank. My schizophrenic uncle, nearly seven feet tall and full of stories, intrigued and terrified me.

His younger sister, my bipolar mother, was institutionalized during my uncle’s episodes. Her hospitalizations echoed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Inhumane shock treatments rendered her unable to recall precious portions of her life. These treatments did nothing to undo my mother’s melancholy or her hallucinations or her blonde, unkempt hair.

Crazy runs in my family.

Schizophrenia, bipolar depression, and anxiety disorders clutch us all: from the artists to the musicians to the farmers with hands deep in rocky soil. My father’s side is also susceptible to mental illness and the lies it insists upon until the afflicted become the lies: Not good. Not worthy. Not enough. A nervous child, my emotions as tangled as my crop of strawberry curls, I believed we were cursed.

I prayed a lot. If one member of your family chatted up demons, and another saw three-headed dogs, and worse, didn’t seem particularly bothered by it, you might fall onto your knees, too.

Today we’re still “cursed,” but for surprising reasons. After early years of black-hole survival, well-meaning doctors, and trial and error, I manage my depression as seamlessly as I do my arthritis. I’m not innately cursed, and my family’s sorrowful song isn’t damning; God didn’t inflict it upon us because we lacked. Our “crazy,” symptomatic of legitimate, treatable diseases, just is.

Mental illness isn’t anyone’s fault.

The problem lies in telling people about my mental illness. I teach Kindergarten. I’m too wholesome, too mature, and too normal be this brand of sick. I don pink cardigans, and I smile at strangers. Even the dodgy ones with missing teeth. I volunteer at church, and I tell Pastor I’m “blessed” when I feel anything but.

If I describe the weeks I spent under a plaid comforter before a combination of intense therapy and tweaked medication pulled me out of my black hole, I risk being judged or feared. You might distance yourself from me so you don’t catch the zombie bug that caused me to stray from my white-picket, suburban life into a detached hopelessness.

And what if you’re one of the people who doesn’t “believe” in treating mental illness with medications? You may discourage me from continuing the treatment that I need as much as a diabetic needs insulin. Medication will only make you sicker, you might advise.

Would anyone say such a thing to a Parkinson’s patient?

Then there’s the possibility that you’re a critic who refuses to acknowledge mental illness. Even if I tell you that in my twenties I laid down on a red-dirt road and waited for a car, any car, to run me over. Even if I told you that “snapping out of it” didn’t work then, and it won’t work now that I’m fifty. But it’s all in your head, you might say. Clearly. My appendix didn’t cause my depression. Don’t even think about telling me to pray more.

If I tell you about my mental illness, and you can’t relate, you may dismiss me outright. I’m happy for you if your family’s narrative doesn’t include any form of crazy. If you possess a shiny story of absolute sanity, your family’s truth is likely the exception and not the rule. Still, it’s your story to tell, and I respect that.

My story screams.

There’s no getting around the pain and soul confusion that mental illness causes. Before he died of a heart attack on my grandmother’s cracked linoleum, my towering, “able-bodied” uncle, debilitated by paranoia, rushed into an attorney’s office in town. My big, big uncle, his face covered in toothpaste, clutched his little-boy heart. He was convinced that his psychiatrist had stabbed him.

Mental illness scars.

But my story is also one of redemption: of wounds closed and kissed by angels over time. Thanks to treatments that were unavailable when my mother—all ache and longing and tender spirit—was suicidal and too sick to care for me and my siblings, my family is blessed. No longer the walking wounded, we walk with heads raised and hearts open.

Walk with us. On behalf of the mental-illness community and too many silenced, unsung songs, please don’t judge, reprimand, instruct, or fix us. Mental illness exists, and one-size-fits-all antidotes don’t. Our genetic predispositions and environments differ from yours. We didn’t grow up in the same house; we were all dealt different stacks of life cards.

The mentally ill are not uniquely broken, and our sacred stories are our own. If you strip us of our stories—of our abilities to share our narratives in safe, accepting spaces—you rob us of our truths. You steal what every human being craves: hope.

A glimmer of acceptance can spark hope. A touch of well-timed understanding can save a life. Tread lightly and with empathy before judging another’s person’s crazy. Your acceptance may save the life of someone you love. You may even save yourself.

Please write your story. I’ll write mine.

end of sample fiction 

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Blog friends, I do not teach Kindergarten, nor am I fifty years of age. I don’t own a plaid comforter, and I haven’t frequented red-dirt roads with any regularity since my early childhood in Oklahoma. Certainly I haven’t waited for an automobile to flatten me.

I want to live and live well: for my God who sustains me, for a four-year-old looking to his Momma to stand strong and lead in crisis, and for my neighbors in need. Like my short story’s narrator, I chase community.

What’s important to consider is that the narrator’s inclinations and behaviors, while not mine, are within the realm of possibility for our brothers and sisters with untreated or mismanaged mental illnesses.

I’m lucky. My depression is infinitely milder than what I’ve witnessed. As I distance myself from Shadow, my illness is also less frequent and less intrusive than it was before our parting–like a fire steadily flickering out until (God willing) it’s extinguished. I’m prepared; I recognize depression’s touch, and I know what to do if it flares again: 1) Identify the event that sparked the depression (my depression is usually trauma-induced). 2) Gather my support people, and go about the business of healing what hurts.

My experience with depression affords me a gift I might otherwise have missed: a deepened understanding of empathy. I teach this empathy to my son because of my experience. Not in spite of it. If depression knocks on my son’s door one day, I hope he’ll extend to himself the empathy I’m teaching him to show his neighbors now.

Because I know the shape of depression, I grasp empathy in ways others may not. I ask God to protect me and my sensitive son, already prone to anxiety; our mentally ill neighbors; and our neighbor most in need: Shadow. I’m big on God’s protection because his protection doesn’t depend upon me—upon how “healthy” or superior or together I am—to work its magic. God’s protection is grace grown wild. Free for all of us and a much sweeter deal than judgment.

Before we judge our ill neighbors–our spouse, our friend, the stranger in the checkout line–let’s acknowledge our Judge and the Courtroom that matters eternally. Regardless of how “different” our mentally ill neighbors may seem to us, mental illness is, in many ways, the norm. At the very least, a commonplace struggle like depression is compassion-worthy.

Shadow judged that my God-breathed mind was unfit, unable, and undesirable. Too other to work well and too other to think joy into a whole life lived well. Biases and bullying surrounding mental illness need to stop; there’s no place for either in our family law courtrooms or in the minds and hearts of the compassionate.

To judge without mercy is the definition of madness.

I prefer depression and the grace and empathy it affords to soul-damning mind madness. An unmerciful mind is mad because it begets an unmerciful heart and a life lived unaware.

To live gracefully is to welcome the purposed holes in our humanity that exist to harbor grace. Depression, like any other mental illness, can be an unexpected gift to the survivor filled with and made whole by Grace.

Love and light,
Harper

photo credits: Harper Green

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Author: Harper Green

Mom, sister, professor, writer, blogger, child and disability advocate. Prodigal daughter. Friend.

2 thoughts on “Depression and Empathy”

  1. often unrecognized by the neurotypical (should such an entity actually exist outside the facade the “normal” constantly wear) is the profundity of the effort required by those not neurotypical to “pass for normal”. the constant self-assessments and reassessments based on non-verbals never well-read but observed often with sinking heart – these mental maneuvers are exhausting both physically and psychically.

    the longing to tell even a part of the story, as NTs do, eliciting empathy & bonding, is darkly mirrored by the enormous risk of being misinterpreted and therefore misrepresented, by the excruciating pain of reliving and yet again being dismissed or demoted to “subhuman”. only so much soul-scarring can be borne; eventually almost every misunderstood aneurotypical shuts down.

    hopefully, this defensive withdrawal does not occur during traffic….

    some flip to a different dark side that, while entertaining to NTs, is just way too “eccentric” in the long run. NTs call this withdrawal “manic”, and in their adrenaline-junkey lives where they believe “multitasking” is not only possible but desirable, a secret part of each NT wishes they could be just as uninhibitedly energetic as – Jimi Hendrix.
    [actually had someone tell me this once. floored me.]
    until they see the aftermath.

    but spirit forbid that NTs take omen and change their lifestyles; their stress disorders will manifest as CVD, obesity, and other illnesses rooted in personal choices, NOT genetics. that those not neurotypical are more sensitive to stress, like the canary in the coalmine, ought to be a harbinger not only for compassion, but also for survival in the increasingly stressful society we’ve co-created.

    when i am troubled, i forget to breathe. when possible, i immerse myself in nature, even if that is my front yard…actually my front yard is a garden, not a lawn, and while i pull weeds i ground myself, literally and figuratively. my little ecosystem heals – sometimes i call it ‘garden church’. when i am in my garden, i remember to breathe.

    Like

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