Western society does a terrible job of dealing with mental illness (I’m not saying that Eastern society does it better—I only know we do it badly). To be fair, mental illness is incredibly difficult to identify, to quantify, and to resolve. It’s much easier to pretend it isn’t there, and to assume that those committing crimes are all merely criminal opportunists, when some of them are so clearly sick people in need of assistance.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I don’t want to talk about how society needs to address those showing clear signs of mental illness in the public eye; I want to talk about those of us that suffer silently, quietly, and (to differing degrees) with shame. I want to talk about those of us living on the borderline.
I realized in my early 20s that I’m a cyclical being; my life could be drawn as waves, some larger, overarching waves that span years, and other short, choppy waves that span minutes, hours, and days. The larger waves are cycles, variances between my introverted side and my extroverted side; there are times of my life where I enjoy being out in the public eye, getting attention, and being part of the action. Inevitably, however, these parts of my life come to an end as I move back into a more solitary existence, “hibernating,” if you will.
These ebbs and flows aren’t really a bad thing, for the most part, and I’ve learned to accept them as part of who I am. They even mesh well with my personal beliefs, which include the concept of power animals. My animal is, and has been for as long as I can remember, the bear. During my up-cycles, I’m energetic, creative, excited about life, and involved in a variety of activities. When my introversion takes over, that outgoing part of me rests and recharges, leaving a somewhat more subdued and quiet character in its wake.
The shorter cycles are much more influenced by day-to-day life. Low sleep, poor financial outlook, family issues, body image issues (which I tackled somewhat more deeply in Body Image Issues for a Middle-Aged Man) even a low view count on my website after hosting an article can trigger a short down-cycle for me. The results aren’t always obvious, even to those that know me best; I don’t cut myself, I don’t have thoughts of suicide, and I continue to interact with others, as needed. The difference is inside me, where everything feels empty and distant—like a mild sadness mixed with ambivalence. Sometimes fear or anxiousness creeps in, as well, particularly with financial worries, but most of it is like a cold, dead, wasteland in the pit of my stomach. Though many of the issues are trivial, there seems to be no defense against them and their effect on me; too many down cycles lead to a pattern, and a gradual deepening of the down-cycle from “rest and recharge” to immobility and depression.
I am clearly not the only one suffering from the up and down cycles of depression in my extended family, and coping strategies vary. For some, the temporary solution is alcohol; for others: pot. The third group, and the one in which I have found myself, is tied inexorably to compulsive, depressive eating.
Obesity and being overweight has pushed into the media spotlight, sparking attacks and defenses on all sides. Some groups fight for obesity to be recognized as a disease, other think the solution is simply to put down the fork. Some endeavor to expand the current limited social ideal of beauty (particularly feminine beauty) to include waist sizes larger than your average ice cream bucket; other rail against this expansion to include those who are heavy enough to negatively affect their health.
What we don’t hear about nearly often enough is the root cause.
Sure, some of the cause of obesity is almost certainly to do with a gradual shift toward concentrated sources of carbohydrates and fats, pre-packaged and lacking in nutrients. There is also something to be said about the societal trend toward sedentary working and living as a cause of our present epidemic. Far too often, however, there is a connection between mental health and overeating, and it’s one I know intimately.
For me, food represents a guaranteed, immediate boost, and the more sugary and fat-filled the dish, the better the boost. Often, I find a part of myself struggling to rationalize or question my decision to reach for that food, but it has no defense against the cold, ambivalent disregard within; it’s not that I don’t understand that I don’t need the food, or that I shouldn’t have it; it’s that in that moment, I couldn’t care less. Even knowing that the momentary pleasure will almost certainly be followed by hours or days of kicking myself for giving in, and the further spiral of depression and nihilism that that will provoke can’t stop me in the moment: I just don’t care.
While I can’t claim to really understand what it’s like to be an alcoholic (though I’ve had my moments of temptation in that direction), nor a heroin addict, I suspect there are some similarities in that moment of wanting, and the inability to overcome that cold indifference to consequence–reaching for the bottle/the needle/the cheesecake because “just a taste” will make you feel better…and down the spiral we go.
There are certainly things in my life that actively combat depression; I have a wonderful, caring wife, and two incredible sons that lift me up every day—though the last few years have also brought with them sufficient sleeplessness and the down cycle that often comes with it. Going to the gym buoys me up, as well, though I’m often embarrassed to even go and work out now, knowing how out of shape I am. Hanging out with friends also helps, but the ugly truth of downcycles is that it is incredibly difficult to keep up my side of a healthy friendship when I want nothing more than to climb into a cave and hibernate, away from the world; sometimes the ugly truth is that I simply don’t have the energy and mental resources to handle relationships outside of my own little family sphere; other times, I feel anxious about even picking up the phone, and I spend my time trying to predict the telephone conversation that could be, just to feel more secure. I fear that this has lost me far too many friends, even in what I consider to be my reasonably short time on this earth. Worse, the ones I lose are damned hard to replace, for the same reason the others were difficult to hold on to.
That, really, is the worst part of the larger down and up cycles: they’re easy to maintain, but damned hard to change; once I’m up, it’s easy to stay up because I’m in good patterns, and have good influences around me. Unfortunately, that same inertia makes it difficult to claw my way back from a down cycle. It’s like being buried alive: you may know which direction you need to dig, but that doesn’t change the weight of the dirt suffocating you. On those days, I often feel that cold, grey, lack of feeling spread to other parts of my life, no longer placated by eating. Even communicating it—hell, even posting a comment on Twitter—seems to be much more effort than it’s worth, like talking to an empty room.
So why am I writing this? Why am I sharing it with you? There are a few reasons. First, because I know there are those of you that go through what I do, and much worse; know that there are others like you everywhere, struggling to live on the borderline of depression—you are not alone in this. Second, I hope to provide some illumination for those that don’t understand why some people in their lives act as they do; for you, I hope this is the beginning of an education and an understanding. It’s easy to say things like “put down the fork” or “man up” or “suck it up, princess.” I’ve said the same things, at times, to myself and to/of others, but it’s rarely constructive or useful in the long run, and may be just another small push toward a larger downcycle.
Understand too, that small things can make all the difference—just as the smallest setback or anxiety can push someone into a downcycle, so too can a smile, a friendly greeting, or a phone call pull someone back from that precipice.
I’d like to leave you with an old tale that I’ve heard many versions of, but the one I remember off the top of my head is attributed to a Cherokee elder:
One evening, the elder tells his grandson of the two wolves that battle within all people. One is evil, encompassing hatred, arrogance, greed, anger, superiority, envy, and pride. The other wolf embodies goodness: love, kindness, humility, empathy, peace, and generosity.
The grandson mulled the story over for a minute, imagining the two wolves fighting for control, before asking “which wolf wins?”
The grandfather smiled, and put his hand on his grandson’s shoulder. “The one that you feed.”