My wife and I have a 2001 Honda Civic we’ve driven since she graduated from high school. It’s black, with a spoiler, and a cigarette burn on the seat from a previous owner.
It took us to Los Angeles from Knoxville and back to Knoxville from Los Angeles 3 years later.
It has seen the Grand Canyon, and the Sierra Nevadas at night, and the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains 45 minutes from where we grew up.
It kept me safe in a wreck where I spun out of control on a rain soaked interchange on the way to my job as a grocer at Trader Joe’s. It even limped to the median where it could be towed more cheaply, and has managed to soar past 200,000 miles some three years later.
Of course, she does have some light hail damage, which, as my own mother reminded me when commenting on my acne, builds character.
A couple of weeks ago I noticed some steam and a faintly sweet-smelling liquid on the ground around her hood after driving to work one Sunday morning, but after monitoring her behavior closely for a week, soon forgot about it. That is, until, last weekend when I pulled up to a busy intersection only to have my view quickly occluded by billowing steam and the sudden realization that a red gauge arm was touching the “H” on an engine temperature dial I had never really given much thought to before that day.
The ole girl limped to a nearby parking lot where I attempted to revive her (after googling for roughly 45 minutes) with a bucket of coolant. Thinking she was healed, I pointed her back toward home only to quickly discover that things were worse than I thought: enter tow truck and two oversized (I want to say) “tow-ers” with whom I uncomfortably shared the interior of a small truck cab on the way to the nearest Honda dealership.
Turns out the radiator was cracked and had been leaking coolant for a while now (as most “car people” would’ve realized a week ago). I should’ve noticed the puddles and the light steam, and the helpful dial on the dash telling me things were heating up well past what’s normal.
In recent days I’ve discovered that more than just my radiator has been leaking.
In the wake of several notable suicides, there can be this kind of a relief that washes over the rest of us whenever talk of their untimely deaths bubbles up:
“Well, he had depression.”
“You know, she had been struggling with anxiety and depression for years now.”
I must admit I’ve never been terribly interested in diagnoses. Mainly because I've found that diagnostic criteria, rather than liberating sufferers from the terror of the unknown, typically becomes crippling and all encompassing when it's rooted in a rigidly unhelpful sickness model of treating psychological distress as a disease rather than a confluence of behavioral, environmental, spiritual, and physical factors all working collectively to produce what people are currently feeling and living through.
Meaning, I’ve seen folks told (or sheepishly utter to me themselves) that they’ve been grieving the loss of someone significant for “too long,” because their sleep is interrupted by visions of their lost loves, or their work life with reveries of what she liked to do at the park, or he at the dollar spot at Target.
If we hold on to the deceased — someone who gave our lives their gravitational pull — and refuse to let go, eventually we will be told that we are “depressed” or experiencing “complicated grief.” As if there were a normal way or rhythm or length of time to grieve the loss of someone that oriented how you keep time, or get dressed, or look in the mirror, or park the car.
Jerome Miller, in his masterwork, The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis notes this emphasis brilliantly:
“The therapeutic effort to bring grief into the open, to talk about death without our old hesitancies and reluctances, is often motivated by a desire so to transform the experience of death that we can undergo it without being ultimately upset by it. But the sufferer may be close to discovering a truth that the therapeutic way of thinking never leads us to suspect — that our whole ordinary way of life, with all its evasions and avoidances, is in some profound sense unreal. Suffering has a way of turning everything upside down. And from that overturned perspective, it makes no sense to resume one’s ordinary life — because one knows now the truths it was designed to keep hidden.”
When used in popular culture most diagnoses bestow this sense of relief for other people, letting them know that something like this probably won’t happen to them.
All this isn’t to say that when mental health diagnoses are delivered by humble, competent, and empathic clinicians they don’t provide helpful insight, meaning, hope, medication, and direction to those of us stumbling our way through life: they can and sometimes do. Our brains (like the pancreas of a diabetic or the lungs of an asthmatic) might need a bit of help, and there’s nothing inherently shameful or even unexpected about that.
It’s just that something like depression, rather than being the psychological equivalent of a weird mole on our back awaiting biopsy, is our body’s existential search for a way to tell us that how we’re currently living, and thinking, and coping, and eating, and sleeping is destructive. Depression is the light on our dashboard warning us that our soul is leaking coolant, and that if we don’t pull over and call for help things will only get worse from here on out. Maybe to a point where we can’t fix what’s wrong.
Or, as my friend and sacred guide into this work, Bruce Rogers-Vaughn reminds us so poignantly:
"Depression embodies the final dissent of soul. It constitutes, as it were, the last outpost of the autoimmune system of soul. It is the visceral, organismic response of soul to a world no longer fit for human habitation. It is, in effect, the final cry of soul just this side of extinction."
Which is why I’ve found it helpful to say, as someone who has been “depressed” off and on for about 25 years now, that I don’t have depression (for the record, I don’t know that any of us want to keep holding on to it), depression has me. In my personal experience, depression quite often won’t let go of me until I pull over and finally acknowledge the steam billowing from my eyes, and ears, and heart, and soul. I can down some coolant and attempt to force myself back on the road, but when I do that repeatedly I numb myself to the moments demanding I stop smiling, producing, and consuming long enough to take stock of what this world is doing to all of us.
In the wake of these unexpected losses felt by so many across our world, I wonder if this is one of those times where our civilization needs to call a tow truck, because the coolant we keep absentmindedly dumping in as a way of getting ourselves back to work is beginning to have diminishing returns on the life of our engine, no matter how many “mental health” weeks we spend on island time at the beach.
In times like these, maybe bad news is the only good news we can hear.
Receiving only good news, as is the typical response to a depressed person’s disposition toward the universe, when your internal radiator is cracked only produces puddles of good intentions and kind words about how this is probably “just a rough patch,” or that “all of us have down days,” or that what we’re saying to ourselves or feeling about ourselves or unable to do in the face of those words and feelings is somehow “not true” (whatever that word means anymore).
Not to mention, most people have a vested interest in depressed people being wrong about what the world is like, because if we’re right, that means everyone has to live in the kind of world we do.
When depression has you, hearing (unexpectedly) from someone that you’re right, and that maybe we aren’t clinically crazy to notice that life in America and in our world is becoming increasingly uninhabitable, can be salvific. Sometimes good news for those in the grips of despair means finding out that getting back to "life as we know it" is actually the last thing we need, because “life as we know it” helped to produce what we’re currently experiencing now.
Maybe your punishing job really is the (or a significant) problem, or that a life spent struggling to provide for your family seems impossible to overcome with positive self-talk, or that your lack of affordable and reliable healthcare really does take an emotional toll on you to the point that you can’t quite think your way out of it anytime your child comes down with a strange cough.
Normal brain chemistry can’t overcome food insecurity and joblessness and the general sense that unfettered capitalism has helped to produce a nationwide mental health crisis.
Our world has gone crazy, and hearing (generally) that —
“Well, no, the only crazy thing is your chemical imbalance, and if you can talk yourself out of it like the rest of us productive citizens, you can get back to working hard, unflinchingly, for that one sunburned week at the beach like everyone else”
— comes up a bit short in the wake of seeing behind life’s curtain, no matter how many vacations you take.
I heard somewhere that admitting you have a problem is the first step to healing it, so when I encounter someone with depression outline a problem that sounds like something motivated by a bit more than a loose hose in their brains, I begin to wonder what exactly needs fixing.
For instance: when adolescents tell me they can’t sleep or keep their hands from shaking whenever they’re tested into oblivion, or whenever they have to practice for “active shooter drills,” or whenever they have to decide what they’re going to do with their lives at 12 years of age; I could give them some skills to calm their body’s fight-or-flight response, or, I could teach them to respectfully listen to what their bodies are trying to tell them (and all of us) about the kind of world we’ve created and foist upon them.
Or, when grown adults confess to me they can’t get out of bed even when they’ve made more money in a year than I’ve made my entire life, because once they had managed to claw and scrape to the top of the ladder we all use to determine our worth, the ladder ended up being a treadmill either propelling them upward into endless production, or shoving them off into a life of nothingness called “early retirement” we all simultaneously long for and fear.
Once again, Bruce Rogers-Vaughn brings us home:
“It becomes crucial, then, that depression not be anesthetized or extinguished. Rather, we should listen to it. If it has been silenced by those who declare it a “disorder,” we are compelled to assist it in reclaiming its voice. And what if even the cry has ceased, or the sigh is no longer discernible? Might there be a form of depression, especially in societies demanding cheerfulness and compliant productivity, that no longer exhibits the expected mood?”
“Oh, he had depression.”
“You know, she had been struggling with anxiety and depression for years now.”
Maybe you too.
Maybe most of us too.
However, the bad news that our world isn’t fine, that life is profoundly unfair, and wobbly, and misaligned, and broken, and unequal —
where parents’ babies are ripped from their arms at the border, and whole villages are vaporized in a pillar of smoke and ash because of “growing tensions,” and where our efforts at shopping and earning and retiring our way out of paying attention to any of it is producing the highest number of “overheating engines” in the history of human civilization
— should tell us all something important about depression.
Namely, that depression isn’t wrong to declare life on Earth uninhabitable, it’s just misguided about what solutions remedy our current situation. In the kind of world we're attempting to survive sometimes the only good news is that you aren’t alone, and you aren’t crazy to notice what’s wrong. The answer isn’t to ignore the things besieging your brain and soul with more drugs or consumption or repression, but to unearth them, to respect them, to listen to them, to utter them aloud for others, and to ask for help in bringing a new world into being both for yourself and for a civilization gone mad.
If we're going to fix anything around here we need all of you, even and maybe most especially, the depressed parts of your soul you typically hide from Instagram. Those parts of you have something important to tell us, so if you have to, start sending smoke signals.