Those of us raised Christian, or even in a Christian-dominated culture, absorb the idea that suffering is meaningful. Suffering connects you to the Divine; it is what you share with the enfleshed God. When I was small, one of my religion instructors explained that Jesus became human in order to experience the same life we had and that he died in order to purify us of our sins. “But why?” I asked. “Why did he have to?”
“Because there was so much pain and sin in the world,” she said. “He wanted to know what it was like to be human. When he was God, he knew no pain—but he loved us, so he wanted to feel what we felt. And he loved us so much that he offered himself as a sacrifice so that we wouldn’t keep suffering in the afterlife. We still might feel pain now, but when we die, we won’t feel it anymore. For God so loved the world.”
And people complain that YA fiction is too intense for kids.
I left behind that particular interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth a while ago, but the story that suffering was purifying stayed with me. If suffering was a path to self-improvement, then my suffering and others’ suffering had meaning. Depression wasn’t just a choking grip that descended from nowhere. It was a teacher. And because teachers and prophets were entangled with my concept of the Divine, depression was God.
As a teenager and in my early twenties, I devoured books about people that suffered horribly and emerged on the other side and smarter, stronger, and full of empathy for the world. To me, their lives stood as a testimony to the benefit of pain—action. I also hunted down information about artists who lived and died with mental illness. The connection between creativity and depression was invoked frequently by their biographers and I wondered if depression was also a terrible muse that gave you inspiration in exchange for a lifetime of suffering.
However, as I continued to struggle through my twenties two facts emerged that contradicted this narrative. First, millions of people suffered without becoming or inspiring the sort of heroes I read about. Second, I was a shitty writer when depressed.
Well, maybe not measurably shittier, but certainly not measurably better either. For me, the experience of depression feels like being very gently, very quietly, strangled. And I find nothing inspirational about being suffocated. When my mind is cloudy and sluggish, trying to complete ordinary tasks feels like trying to perform surgery while wearing mittens. Writing is excruciating. When I’m depressed, I tend to think my writing is terrible but when I’m depressed I think everything I do is terrible, so I’m not a reliable editor. Since I don’t know when a depressive episode will end and I’ll be a reliable judge again, I have to follow the same worn out advice to all depressives: Just keep going.
And a lot of people who just keep going don’t make it, as a quick scan of the news or a history book will show. Suffering isn’t loud or earth-shattering; it is commonplace and sometimes heartbreakingly discreet. And while some people do manage to use their pain as fuel, that phenomenon doesn’t correspond to their degree of suffering in any satisfying way. There is no indication that there is something intrinsic about suffering that inspires goodness. Sometimes people in pain are saints and sometimes they are assholes.
There was, I concluded, nothing remarkable or unique about my depression. It was not a teacher, it was not a muse. It was not divine or profane. It simply was.
I focused less on trying to understand it, and focused instead on just learning to endure it. When it descended I tried to observe the suffocation. When I could write, I tried to document it without looking for meaning. I am feeling choked. I am having trouble sleeping. Living is hard. This is how it is now. This is how it will be until it stops. I began to view learning to live with depression as similar to learning to tie my shoes or brush my teeth. It was not going to make me more moral or talented; it was just what I needed to do to live. And bit by bit, I exchanged my myth for fieldwork. Depression was not the story of my salvation or downfall; it was a blank page with no more meaning that I gave to it. Its grip did not become less painful, but I am a writer and even when I am a bad one, I know what to do with a blank page.
Just keep going.
Amelia Aldred was raised in southern Indiana by a folksinger and a lawyer, leaving her with incurable sincerity and the need to check facts. She works as a researcher in Chicago, runs two rag-tag writing groups, and is a foot soldier in the War of the Oxford comma. Her work has been featured in Neutrons/Protons, Offbeat Home, and Travel and Transitions.