Empathy

Apparently if you want to get a big response to something on social media, write about depression.

I’m not entirely sure why I decided to “go public” about my condition and the cascading failures it has led to, but the response I’ve received has been incredibly touching.  In addition to the public support I’ve received—for which I feel totally unworthy, and utterly grateful anyway—I’ve also gotten quite a few messages, in private, sharing personal experiences with mental illness.  Each one—from the one telling me to join the military to the one discussing a grandmother’s suicide—is sad and beautiful and unique all at once.

Some messages relate experiences that, the authors admit, seem relatively mild next to my own; others leave me reflecting on my good biochemical fortune.  And it’s not just the internal machinations that seem incomparable.  I’ve faced depression without having to simultaneously confront the possibility of indigence, abandonment, or institutionalization.  I have parents who have welcomed me back into their home without a second thought; I have access to medical care with cost as no object; I have enough savings that I can focus on recovery for months.  If there was a single best point in human time and space to go through major depression, I’m standing on it.

Ten years ago when I first discovered that not everyone felt as shitty as I did all the time, I thought I had a pretty good sense of what depression was all about.  I associated being depressed with the non-stop urge to hurt myself and with being able to put on a happy face and go about my daily business anyway.  If you weren’t considering offing yourself, you probably weren’t depressed; if you were stuck in bed, you probably weren’t trying hard enough.

Now, my sense that “depression” is a single identifiable thing has gone out the window.  On one hand, I’ve been far more incapacitated than I’ve ever been, but also far too incapacitated to even contemplate suicide.  If there’s one early take-away from all this, it’s the realization of the fruitlessness of comparing my experience to others, because my own experiences with depression are themselves incomparable.

The beauty in all this is that virtually everyone who has written me seems to have already figured this out.  Friends and acquaintances have shared their stories without attempting to put them on the same unilinear continuum between “sane” and “batshit crazy” as my own.  Many people have told me that posting about my difficulties was “brave”, and some have said that they “wish they could do the same”.  Yet for me, “going public” felt like a necessity; for others, it would be a great burden.  But to say that what I did was “courageous” is to suggest that I’m dealing with this better than others—and I’m pretty sure everyone is just surviving as best they can.

I used to think empathy was about understanding what someone else is going through.  Now I think it’s about not having a fucking clue what anyone is going through, and supporting them anyway.

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