For me, depression comes and goes. The specific criteria in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) for Major Depression Disorder doesn’t fit my lived experience, at least at this point in my life. I don’t feel depressed most of the time or in a way that significantly influences my ability to function from day to day. So the persistent and more consistent symptoms of on-going major depression don’t fit me. Thankfully!
And yet. None-the-less. Also of note.
I despair fairly often. If you happened to catch me in one of these moments, or perhaps hours, or even days, you’d notice a shift. You’d notice a shift if you know me well, at least.
Instead of my usual level of energy and even — dare I say it — cheer, you’d notice a slump. The slump would be caused by something — or, more likely, many things — and I’d be trying to figure out why I was feeling and thinking so negatively. Depending on how raw I felt, you’d hear me saying anything from “What’s the point of living?” to “I feel like killing myself!”
Of note, I’m not actively suicidal these days, so please don’t worry. If you’re feeling like you could act on suicidal thoughts, please reach out to a kind friend or call an appropriate hotline.
For me, though, my body is not in danger. But what if my soul is?
You see, for every person who harms their body or takes their life, there are so many more of us who keep on living. Living past the pain, through the pain, sometimes stuck in the pain. I’m curious how people do it. Hence, my blog series, “Why I’m Still Alive” (see here, for example).
When harming our physical selves is off the table, the battle is often far from over! How do we deal with the parts of our souls that stay in the dark, that still feel dead? How do we deal with our existential questions and angst? How do we answer the question, “What’s the point of life?” How do the dark parts of our souls receive light and come (back) to life?
How do we stop the suffering?
I’d like to offer a few thoughts, for you and for me. But as 12-step groups say, “Take what you like and leave the rest!” Or, if you prefer, “Chew the meat and spit out the bones.”
- Honor the questions, the pain, and the confusion. Alright, bear with me if that sounds too therapy-like or cheesy! What I mean by “honoring” the pain and questions simply means giving them your time of day and doing so compassionately. Here’s what I am arguing against.
- Making fun of or teasing yourself for feeling pain or for asking the so-called “big questions” about life’s meaning and purpose. If you do, it means you’ve decided that you and your concerns are inherently worth less than others’ pain. And who gives you the right to make this call? In other words, don’t emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually abuse yourself if you wouldn’t abuse your good friend in that way. Be consistent!
- This kind of self-abuse is so common we don’t think twice about committing it. Here are a few examples, which must be read in a sarcastic or mean-spirited voice to make sense. 😉
- “Oh, poor me, I’m having an existential crisis in my twenties!”
- “This is so stupid! I have nothing to complain about and too much time on my hands!”
- “Why can’t I just get it together like everyone else?! I’m such a sad case.”
- Once you’ve chosen not to ignore or make fun of yourself for despairing, do something with your despair. Doing something can look like just about anything, depending on who you are and where you find yourself. Here are a couple ideas to get you started:
- Think of someone you look up to who is a deep sort of person who has probably asked similar questions and perhaps is further along in finding answers. Ask this person to coffee and respectfully pummel him/her with your angsty questions! (Is it possible to pummel someone respectfully? Hmmmm…there’s a question to start with if you get nervous and forget your own questions.)
- Purposefully choose to put your angst and pain aside for a certain period of time. “Purposefully” is the key word here because we often distract ourselves from dealing with pain by default and sometimes without realizing what we’re doing. But sometimes choosing to distract ourselves or focus on something/someone else for a while is terribly freeing! It helps us take charge of our own anxiety, rather than the other way around. So choose to go snuggle with your cat and listen to your favorite music, or choose to tell yourself, “Not now! I’m stressed out with end-of-semester deadlines and I’m exhausted from lack of sleep. Ain’t nothin’ good gonna come of this right now!”
- Learn — as slowly as it takes — to let humor and joy meld and mix in with the deep pain and questions. I’m a slow learner on this one, but it turns out that pain and joy and a good joke can all go together! And — this is important — humor and deciding to take things less seriously will help you figure your life out more effectively than any strictly serious or intellectual approach to life. When you find yourself laughing hysterically over a ridiculous joke that shouldn’t be funny while also facing what’s causing you the pain, you’ll know you’re becoming an expert in combatting despair.
In closing, know that you’re not alone in the struggle. And what good is this? (I was asked this by a friend the other day, and man, what a good challenge!) It means simply that you can ask your questions and express your pain in the company of others, if you so choose.
You may be alone, but you don’t have to be.