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From out of the darkness

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When the light fell into my bedroom on Sunday morning, I opened my eyes and didn't immediately regret it, the first such morning in weeks, at least.

Maybe this was the last time, I thought, but I know that isn't true. Because I get depressed, sometimes, and this is a part of me as relentless as the cycles of tides, or the slow rotation of the seasons. In my younger years, doctors filled me up with medications that sounded like alien overlords from some B-grade science fiction. I never could suspend my disbelief enough to feel them work.

What I learned then, in desperation: In full reviews of evidence, meds show little more benefit than placebos, except for the most severely ill.

What I decided next: Depression I could share territory with. It is a part of me and so not an enemy, but drug side-effects were hostile invaders.

That has remained my decision, and in the intervening years it has been questioned by counsellors and friends who believe pills could fill the holes my mind plunges into, sometimes. But in the musty darkness of those mental well-shafts, refusing medication that makes me sick is the one thing I can control. That isn't the right choice for everyone, I know, every rescue rope is thrown down a different way. As long as we climb out the same.

But until that rope reaches down into depression, you're alone, alone, oh so very alone. A lover's worried eyes may loom out of the fog, but you're too exhausted to meet them with your own. Because you know (you fear) the people around you think you're pathetic, or lazy. Because you know (you fear) that you can't handle this, where "this" means everything and everyone else that is, in some vague and ever-shifting way, Better Than You.

Mental illness, of which the sticky miasma of depression commands the most mainstream attention, is where the brain twists its most remarkable contortions.

There is more understanding of this, lately. And yet, when I'm climbing up over the edge of my own dark well-shaft, when I'm flopped out on the grass and in the light and watching public attitudes to mental illness march by, I wonder that we're not approaching this right. The well-meaning but constant pushes to medication, the awareness campaigns that mostly exist to publicize helplines, or earnest websites.

Don't get me wrong, medication and help lines can save lives. But the safety net should be thicker than a pill or a tendril of telephone wire. What did we do as a species before we could pick up the phone and call confidential? Probably, we carried each other.

Here's a thought: Maybe depression isn't a thing to be fought. Maybe it is the canary in the coal mine, and it can't stop crying long enough to sing. But if we listen to it for a minute, maybe we'll learn a few things. Such as...

Oh, this is hard to write about.

Such as this: The Canadian Mental Health Association says one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness at least once in their lives. Major depression is among the most common, but the mechanisms of it are not completely understood. There is no question some people are more predisposed. It's likely that genetics, lifestyle factors and a person's social and physical environment play a role.

Meanwhile, antidepressant use has skyrocketed, up 353 per cent in Canada between 1981 and 2000. In the United States, a full 11 per cent of Americans over age 12 were on some kind of antidepressant in surveys between 2005 and 2008. They were the most common drug used by people aged 18 to 44. But why? It seems doubtful that we, as a species, would have made it this far if so many of us needed medication just to get by.

So what is it about this society, then, that is making us sick and in ever-greater numbers? Whispers of answers in how the depression fog unfurls its shroud: It's the loneliness, right? The sense of shrinking invisible into some musty subterranean night. Feeling useless. Feeling, for all the world and all the friends on the other end of the text, or phone -- feeling so incredibly alone.

Once we lived all together in small groups bonded by families and by survival. This is how our brains were shaped to live. Once, every person knew their place, and saw in some concrete way where they belonged. Once, we didn't work so much. We had more time to tend to our connections with each other, to play, to rest, to sing our songs...

Music can be an effective treatment for depression. So can helping a depressed person gain a stronger foothold in their community.

So here is my awareness campaign. Living with depression means being perpetually afraid of being even more alone. And yet, we have structured our society around aloneness. Consider the public face we construct for co-workers; the long solo drive home; drive-thru windows; the hurts most people feel but yet cannot say out loud, for fear of being rejected. For fear that a person, once judged to be broken, will be swept into the bin.

So I say let's tear down those barriers. Talk to each other. Carry each other and let true community reign again.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 D2

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