Recently I was talking with someone who asked if I’d ever struggled with depression. I chuckled ironically and replied, “Eeyore is my patron saint.” Gloomy, broody, shades-of-grey melancholia has been my gift/curse for as long as I can remember. For my sixth birthday, my father bought me a stuffed Eeyore because it reminded him so much of me. I treasured that little donkey for years because he understood me. Though I lost his pinned-on tail more often than I repinned it. And, eventually, to my continued regret, I lost the animal himself.
When my friend asked if I’d ever been diagnosed with clinical depression and I said, “no, but only because I never went into a clinic for a diagnosis.” Growing up fundy Christian, we had a horror of both depression and psychology. “Just give it to God,” I heard, “depression is only the prideful ego holding onto willful selfishness.” And the only cure preached was a deeper commitment to “submitting to God’s Will” because the Bible says that True Christians will always have joy, which was interpreted to mean being “cheerful and joyous at all times.”
I faked it as best I could, but still found myself in pastoral counseling with my father as the pastoral counselor (who thought that was a good idea?) and when he gave up in frustration, I was sent with my despair to the senior pastor. His answer to my 12-year-old inquiry, “how can I ‘love my neighbor as myself’ if I don’t love myself?” was to turn Jesus’s lesson on its head with an explanation of how hating myself was actually a good thing and loving others more than I loved myself was really what the Bible meant to say.
About the same time, my school started a series of suicide-prevention public service announcements and I began to wonder why Christians didn’t just engage in mass suicide and be done with it. If physical life was just something to be endured until the “race was won” and we achieved our “eternal reward,” then why go through the rigmarole of petty humanity at all? I determined then never to marry or have children and thereby tie myself to mortal life since spiritual eternity was all that mattered.
Existential angst has been the descant my soul sings against the dueling melodies of fundamentalism and secular materialism. Both church and culture insist that melancholia and pessimism are wrong, real downers, and avoidable character flaws if only we Grumpy Gus’s tried harder to be happy (or, more recently, would take our pills to change our obviously pathological brain chemistry). When I first heard of existential philosophy, a rush of gratitude flowed through me—I wasn’t flawed, deficient or sinful! Many brilliant mental giants asked these same questions I labored with. My euphoria was short-lived when I recognized that both religion and psychology still saw them as something to be fixed, saved, analyzed.
Years later, when I went on to college and studied psychology despite the tut-tutting of my family and church, I came across a little statistic that made me chuckle: depressed people have a more accurate perception of reality than non-depressed people. So, I realized, happy people were just lying to themselves in order to feel good. That made so much sense! If my experience of the world were normal, I couldn’t understand how anyone kept getting up in the morning. I began to understand that what I’d thought for so long really was true—they were all faking it, but the primary people they were lying to were themselves!
I felt vindicated but no more able to jump out of bed and be a good little cog in the economic wheel than ever. I continued faking it, only with the self-knowledge that I was faking it.