Good morning, good morning — I’m sitting in the dark workshop circle, listening to the train hollering its way through Jack London Square. Something about the train whistle feels like home.
I feel quiet, almost peaceful, which is so odd I can’t quite get a handle on it yet. I have the green-peppermint tea and a stiff and creaky body holding up this rocking chair. The birds are quiet still. No owls, no seagulls even.
I’m in this space that I have crafted just for my creative self: workshop room, writing room, dreaming room. What a profound privilege to be able to say this. When I was living outside of Portland, ME, in the log-sided cabin that my ex and I found way out in the middle of nowhere, I used to dream of having a studio in the city, a place where I could listen to the people, watch the night come and the morning rise, where I could put on the local jazz station and sit down at the kitchen table, opening a notebook (did I even sometimes imagine a typewriter?) and pouring out all of my words. Sometimes it’s hard for me to comprehend that this is now my reality. There are visionings that do come true.
I used to envision this place with despair — or maybe out of despair — feeling locked into a country place that I had asked for and that ended up not being at all right for me. I imagined a tiny studio, something you’d find in a walk-up in New York’s lower east side, with white painted walls and a linoleum floor and a single window in the kitchen that looked out over the lights and buildings of the city. There’d be a bare bulb in the small kitchen, and the table there would constitute my office. I would have a little black radio set up on top of the fridge, manually tuned to the jazz station, and to the sounds of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis (even so he was a woman beater) and the great John Coltrane — as well as to the howls and moans of people living real lives all around me — I would find the words for my stories. I would pound out my writing late into the night.
It was a selfish dream at the time, and one that wouldn’t go away. It seemed hopeless. How would I get from an ostensibly settled and quiet home out in the middle of the country to that live wire hotbed of art and generative energy? It seemed impossible, especially given how depressed I was most of the time. I thought, if only I could have that, then everything would be better.
Teddy Roosevelt is said to have said that comparison is the thief of joy. I’ve got that quote now in the rotation of images that will show up as the backdrop ton my laptop, just as a reminder. I am forever comparing myself to others and coming up lacking. I compare my little business with others’ achievements and am reminded of all the ways I have failed. I compare my small and brightly-painted apartment to a friend’s even real house, complete with all the trappings of material success, and my little space comes up short. Nothing here looks like success: no big screen tv, no fancy furniture, no location up in the hills or a prestigious san francisco zip code. Outside I hear the woman picking through the cans in the recycling bin. I think, comparing myself to these others in my life, I should have more. If I had what they had, I’d be all right. Wouldn’t I?
Coming out from under my stepfather’s control at age 21, all I knew how to do was compare myself to others every minute — am I acting right? Do I look normal? Do you think people believe that I’m a regular person? I looked to the people around me – my girlfriend, my friends, the other (mostly richer) students at my little ivy league school — how do they talk to each other? How do regular people talk to each other? I didn’t know how to be human. I only knew how to be his marionette, and so I felt myself suddenly confronted with a sharp learning curve. I had freed myself from his strings, and fell immediately into a pile in the middle of my living room floor. What do I do now?
While I was comparing, I made assumptions. I assumed that all those normal kids, the ones who got to pick their own boyfriends and who broke up when they wanted to, not when their dad told them to, who went to parties and saw friends outside of school — I assumed those normal kids were happy. I compared myself to them and usually came up lacking. If only I could be more like them, maybe I would be more safe. Maybe I would be ok. I figured their lives were perfect.
Of course I was wrong. A lot of those kids, the ones I looked to for guidance on how to be normal, were battling their own struggled and demons. Plenty of those kids had awfulness at home — some that looked like mine , and some that didn’t. It is so easy to believe, caught behind the lens of my own pain, that everyone else has it better.
When I’m depressed, I compare myself to others even more religiously. I look around me and only see people who are well-adjusted, real adults, people who know how to handle perfectly well the pressures of living in this world as a functioning human. They don’t expect a ticker tape parade just because they paid their car bill or insurance premium before it’s so late it’s about to go into collections, or just because they went shopping before the fridge was entirely bare, or because they did laundry and now no longer have to wear bathing suits as underwear. They take care of business, make time for friends, have good relationships with their families, take their pets to the vet before the vet has to send out an endless number of silly reminder cards with pictures of frogs hanging off a tree and sayings like Hang In there or Time flies when you’re having fun! They go to their already scheduled dentist appointments every six months on the dot or they manage to buy new clothes before their last pair of jeans tears at the thighs or — all of these other people around me area healthy and together and functional and fine. They do not step into their apartments and begin weeping. They do not spend 7 hours a day watch streaming bad television on netflix. They do not wait until the last minute to do all of their job tasks. They know how to budget, they complete their taxes early, they return phone calls before such an embarrassingly long time has passed that they have to begin thinking up lies about where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing — oh, I was watching my friend’s llama for awhile out in Calistoga and they didn’t have an internet connection! — until they remember that lying like that is only the first step back fully into their sickness and so they come clean or else just don’t call at all and risk estranging one more friend…
In other words, of course, everyone else is fine. I’m the only one with problems. It’s bullshit, and it’s what depression tells me. And because, when I’m depressed, I isolate, I get no real input to contract depression’s whisper in my ear that I am the only one struggling. I check facebook, read through my newsfeed, and find that everyone else is doing marvelously — here’s a new book contract, here’s a new house, here’s a new marriage, here’s this joy, that joy, this celebration, that achievement — I manage to skip or ignore the posts from friends who are also struggling, though, more often than not, those folks are like me, not posting about their real lives, lest anyone find out how pathetic we are (again, the voice of depression talking).
When I spend real time with others, though, I begin to hear a different message from what depression has told me — at 12-step meetings or writing groups or even a miraculous coffee date with a friend, I hear that people I assume have it all together are struggling with issues that sound an awful lot like mine. Oh. We’re all of us muddling through here. The self-help and personal coaching industries wouldn’t be raking in millions of dollars if everyone but me had it together, I guess.
Just like so many other people, I can’t stop listening to news about Robin Williams. I find myself wanting to know what he was struggling with at the end, which, of course, is entirely none of my business. I make some assumptions about what depression was saying to him. Certainly , in my own experience, depression’s voice gets louder when its fueled by alcohol. I hear folks saying things like “what hope do I have if someone like him who had it all can’t even get through?” We have this idea that “having it all” makes everything better. But of course he didn’t have it all: depression reminds-you that you don’t have anything.
Depression doesn’t care about your previous achievements or your positive steps forward or the people around you who love you. Depression filters out joy or any sense of possibility of joy in the future. Depression only wants to remind you of your failures, and saps your energy so that it feels impossible to even move, to say nothing of hauling yourself up by your goddamn bootstraps, which is what we’re told we’re supposed to do.
I am thinking as well about a beloved young man who was my nephew once. I wonder what the voice of depression was saying to him before he took his own life, what comparisons he was making between his life and the lives of those around him, what equations he was figuring that left himself on the lesser end. This was a child of means, from a family with access to resources, and still —
I’m thinking about all the people who kill themselves who don’t get international news coverage, whose lives were just as brilliant and generous as Williams’ — the people who see no way out of the tunnel that depression shoves you into.
Money and privilege can do a lot when you’re living under american capitalism, but they don’t undo depression. In my experience, depression is one of the great levelers, clearing everything else out of the way and leaving everyone who suffers with it in a similar place: you are less than everyone else.
Today, it’s part of my self-care practice to check the comparisons I’m tangling myself up into. Practice doesn’t mean I get to any place of perfection around this issue — it means I learn to catch myself before I slide all the way deep into the sort of shame spiral that would have once tucked me back into depression’s familiar arms, gently reminding myself that even though I don’t have everything this person or that person has, I’m still doing ok, and they are probably not perfect (thank goodness for them) in spite of appearing to have more than I do. Walking with depression takes a lot of tools. The more I connect in a real way with others (rather than just compare myself to them and try to make my facade look like theirs), the more tools we can share with each other.
I’m sending big gratitude your way today, and also a ticker tape parade for that one big achievement (you got to the bank! you went for a walk! you wrote! you fed yourself kindly and well!) I’m not kidding — we deserve big celebration when we take these good steps. Thanks for your words today.
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