Thursday, August 22, 2013

Drowning on the Beach

You'd think that the safest place to be was on the sand. That if you were going to drown, it would be out there, in the ocean, out amidst the waves; out in the depths of the salty blue expanse that stretches as far as the eye can see; out where there is nothing under your feet except water. Out where you fight to stay afloat. Not on the beach, as your toes dig into the soft sand. But as you watch others frolic in the water, you feel that empty pit in your stomach swell, swell until it compresses your chest and it's all can do to breathe. You sit with your knees pulled up to your concrete chest. Those around you watch but don't understand. They ask if you're all right, but all you can do is nod slightly. No one's first thought is to throw you a life preserver or to jump in to save you because, after all, you're safe on the sand. They  don't understand it, but you're drowning.  

According to the World Health Organization, as of 2012, nearly 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression. It isn't something that is necessarily easily to discuss for those who are battling it. The effects are numerous, the most serious of them being suicide. Again according to the WHO, nearly 1 million people end their lives each year by suicide.  Depression affects the way we think, perform various tasks, and struggle through each day. 

Many variables can exacerbate depression: stressful relationships, a dissatisfying workplace, rejection, that moment when you realize your passions are far greater than your talent. Recognizing these variables doesn't necessarily lead to controlling them. Those afflicted may avoid the term depression, talking about it through code: stress, anxiety, "I have a lot on my mind." I know, because I've been there. When I was 17 or 18, I referred to it as stress. And sure, I felt stressed. But it went beyond that: it was a debilitating weight that would drag me through my day-to-day routine. That overwhelming empty weight trapped in the pit of my stomach, refusing to let go. It nearly ever-present, but it wasn't constant; instead, it would strike at times that I least expected it: when I was out with friends, when my girlfriend and I were watching a movie, when I was reading. I mentioned it in my coded term of stress to someone, refusing to identify it for what it was, and the basic response I got was damning: "You gotta learn to get over it." I don't know what response I was expecting, but it wasn't that. It seems that far too often that is the response that is issued: get over it. As though we hadn't already thought of that ourselves. If it were that easy, if we could magically waive a wand and be over it, we'd need not discuss it. But getting over it is so much easier said than done. 

I had a friend in high school who cut herself. I don't know the extent to which she did this, as it seemed to have occurred prior to our meeting, but I've heard the stories, the accounts of self-loathing and contempt. Another friend of mine, someone in whom I see a true kindred spirit, confessed to me over coffee one evening that he had once sat with a gun in his mouth. He had gone through a hard time the previous couple years, situations that would likely have crushed me had I been in his shoes, and as a result, he found himself sitting with a gun in his mouth, debating whether to pull the trigger. Numerous other stories come to mind, too countless to tell. Stories I've heard over the years while talking to students and friends, family members and strangers. 

My ex-wife never really understood my depression, at least not fully. I've always been an anxious person and prone to bouts of depression. And since high school,  in the back of my mind, I have always wondered what my life would be like had I taken a different path. What life would be like had I moved to California when I thought about it. Don't get me wrong-- I wouldn't change my life, divorce and other experiences included; for ultimately, I am happy with my life. But there have been times when the Kerouac-esque spirit will tug at me and I long for the life of a true raconteur. A life in New York City or Los Angeles, a life a million miles away. She knew I wasn't happy, and once she asked me, "Why aren't we enough?" referring also to Holden. I couldn't fully articulate a response. There was just a burning desire for something different, something adventurous and exciting. Exciting on a different level from the excitement of parenthood. There were those times when my circumstances would exacerbate my underlying depression, and the crippling weight would settle on my shoulders. 

I think often of my friends who've tried suicide or who've thought about it. About those who walk to the gun rack and stand there, staring, but for one reason or another don't go through with it. An older friend of mine tells the story, though only rarely, of the night he almost took his life. He lay in bed, gun in his hand, alone in his house. He swears that before he could do it, he felt a hand pat his shoulder, tenderly offering the reassurance that it would be okay. To this day, he's convinced that it was the ghost of the elderly wan who'd died in that room before he bought the house. Whether it was a paranormal action, Divine intervention, or something else entirely, he didn't go through with it. 

When I was working at the grocery store where I worked through high school, college, and my first years of teaching, I was at times rather friendly to customers, especially to those regulars I got to know, even if just casually, over the years. Other times, I let my stress and dissatisfaction with having worked there for so long get the better of me, and I was rather contemptuous. But I remember one day a lady whom I did not recognize came through my line. And she thanked me. She thanked me for smiling and being nice, and told me, quietly and modestly, that I'd never know how much it meant to see a smiling face. Being young, I didn't think too much of it, but in the intervening years, it has stuck in my mind. Is a smile at a stranger, a kind hello, enough to totally relieve someone's depression? Likely not. But it's a start, a step in the right direction. A sign that someone cares, even if it's just part of the job. Because let's face it, most of the time when I was nice and polite at the store, unless I had come to know you, it was because my job demanded that I be so. But on the day that I smiled at that lady, the fact that I was just doing my job didn't matter to her in the least. It was a brief moment of hope and help when she needed it. 

Don't think the brevity associated with this following issue is in any way indicative of my thinking it is a lesser issue, for I've seen too many people battling depression over coming to terms with who they are as gay men and women in a society that is not wholly accepting of them.  I've worked with students who are depressed and suicidal as they struggle with coming to terms with who they are and seeking acceptance from their peers and family, and I have friends who've battled the same struggles. Their struggle is great, and the last thing they need is other's condemnation. 

It gets better. And maybe that getting better starts one smile at a time. 

I leave you with these:

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