By NANCY PATRICK
Tragic, unexpected suicides bring the issue of depression to the forefront of many minds. Although always traumatic, some suicides are more understandable than others. Sometimes victims have suffered unimaginable horrors in wars or experienced excruciating pain related to an illness.
However, sometimes people who seem to have no reason to be suicidal do take their own lives. More than a few authors (Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath) have ended their lives after dealing with lifelong depression. Even some hilarious people like Robin Williams have hidden, deep depression. The time is now to face the topic of depression honestly, no matter how uncomfortable the subject is.
My understanding of depression is experiential, not clinical. For many years, I did not openly talk about my depression because I feared embarrassing my family or distressing my friends. My type of depression is the mundane type which makes a person feel down, “blue,” pessimistic, or just plain hopeless. The term for this condition is “dysthymia,” and it relates to a person’s general outlook on life. Dysthymia’s opposite—hyperthymia—describes a generally optimistic, outgoing, and happy disposition. Happy people find it difficult to understand depression that has no obvious cause.
Modern medicine supports several theories about dysthymia (depression). For example, the fact that depression has run through my mother’s family for at least three generations supports the premise that heredity contributes to depression. Another idea, which seems logical, relates to the brain’s chemistry. After researchers identified low serotonin levels as a cause for depression, my doctor prescribed me an antidepressant, which has helped tremendously, enabling me to react to unfortunate events in a calmer, less emotional way than I did without them.
In spite of positive results from antidepressants, people must understand that an antidepressant will not transform a dysthymic person into a hyperthymic person. Neither will good circumstances or situations recreate someone’s personality from one type to another. My own goal is not to become sanguine but to retain stability in my emotional life, avoiding the extreme lows that come without my antidepressant.
Some people do not understand my depression at all because my life is good—really good. I have had no extraordinary difficulties or tragedies in my life; indeed, many people might envy my circumstances. I often find expression for my feelings through my poems, one of which follows:
I sat and stared at the expanse of sky
And tried to fathom the whys of life.
Why was the baby born too soon?
Or the kitten on the street run down?
Why did the bird fall from its nest,
Or why do children get cancer and die?
And why do evil men prosper and lie
While the honest ones pray and sweat and die?
Why when I’ve done all the right things,
Do I feel forlorn and cannot sing?
Job asked why and so do I.
But he never found out and neither will I.
As one who suffers from depression, I feel the “oppressive slant of light” that another poet, Emily Dickinson, described in one of her poems. This oppression comes over me, bringing a sense of despair. I feel not only sad events or situations in my family, city, state, or country, but also I agonize over starving or brutalized children across the world. I grieve for victims of human trafficking by evil people over whom I have no control. I also mourn over disappointments and lost dreams. A dysthymic person cannot “snap out of it” or put on a happy face to please those who try to force it.
I do not speak for all those who suffer from depression, but I do hope that readers will have a better understanding of the complexity of depression. Just as diabetics must learn how to manage their disease, the dysthymic person must explore ways to deal with depression—counseling, medication, lifestyle changes, or even relationship adjustments. Perhaps the ultimate hope of the dysthymic resides in Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (NIV)
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.