There are two concepts that still pervade our culture today that Max Weber discussed over a century ago. One is the idea that we are constant beings, with a one true self. The other is the belief that one must work very hard to be a worthy person. The ultimate ideal is to fit the work to the person – to match the job to the personality and pursue your passion, thus fulfilling one’s God given drive in life.
Depression is the complete antithesis of this ideology, neatly combining inability to achieve with a complicated, unhealthy, untrue self.
I started thinking about this while reading Alison Pick’s recent article in the Globe and Mail. She focuses on the way that antidepressant medication is viewed as a mind-warping evil in which even the depressed do not wish to partake. Having been there, I know exactly what she means. Pick quotes Dr. David Goldbloom of CAMH as saying that people fear antidepressants will change them to something that is not themselves, something they do not wish to be. But he’s missing the point. Beyond the worries of ‘will it change me?’ or ‘does this affect my personality?’ is a much deeper concern: Is my depression part of who I am?
With that question comes a rollercoaster of existential emotions, wondering if the depression is a punishment, if it is who I really am, if it is an excuse or, as Pick puts it, “I wonder if I am making the whole thing up.” What are you, Depression? How did you appear and latch on to me? You snuck up on me in such a way that I can’t help but think you were always there, waiting, embedded in my personality, brought into the light as part of the life-long process of self-discovery that is the ultimate journey to True Selfdom that is the imagined pathway that every person in our culture values and believes in. Am I really like This? Is this me?
Mental illnesses are inevitably caught up in questions of the self. Invisible, internal, and primarily affecting what we previously understood to be consistent in our self concept, mental illnesses hold up a mirror two inches from our own noses, stopping us in our tracks. The question remains: is it a funhouse mirror, or is it the mirror of Galadriel?
That puts a big splinter into our Journey to the Self machine, though. It isn’t only that it is new and as hard to fit into our self-concepts as the square cylinder into the round hole of a children’s toy – it’s that we believe it belongs there.
Among all my doubts lurks the thought that the depressed me is the real me – lazy, incompetent, full of excuses, sleeping all the time – notice how it’s all about being unproductive? Depression not only flips my Weberian desire to follow my true self by confusing me, it tips me upside down and backwards trying to show off how much of a burden I am to modern capitalism.
And now that I am separated by years of medicine from the intensity of black thoughts that was my depression back then, I have trouble recalling details. The cloud drifted in so stealthily that I have no idea where to begin looking for the lost threads of who I Maybe Once Was Before Depression. I can only look at pictures and feel that a different person existed on that far side of the gate – a person that I nevertheless have to reconcile as me.
So much clearer in my mind are the weeks during which the medicine was oozed from my body. The incredible mind zaps, bizarre, disconcerting, uncomfortable at the best of times and practically painful at the worst. But as the zaps faded, feelings and senses blossomed: the feeling of being turned on again. The feeling of elation. The feeling of tears. A incomprehensible, intangible something that had changed me from a zombie to a Renaissance human, as full of subtly as the Mona Lisa and as full of colour as a stall of silk in 16th century Florence. Placebo? Reality? Who can say?
But the most cryptic part of these emotional buzzes and tinglings was that I feel alive, but not reborn. I do not feel any closer to that stranger from 2008. Being ill, or being on medicine, who will know, irreparably ripped me from my former self. Now I am (usually) healed, now I am Without meds. I am partly defined not by the presence, but by the lack (and thus by the former presence) of depression and citalopram and buproprion.
Perhaps I am alone in this – only you can tell me, one way or another. But I do not think we will truly be rid of stigma while depression and other mental illnesses challenge our deeply entrenched notions of what it is to lead a good life: to be productive, and to be true to ourselves. When a disease takes these things from you, it is impossible not to feel guilt and shame, and it is impossible for others not to wonder, ridicule, and pity. I repeat, the question remains: is depression a deviation from your true self, or is it part of a changing pathway in a self that was never constant anyway? My experiences lead to me say the latter.