The Depression on My Shoulder

Depression has been a pressing issue on the news these days, with newscasters talking about mental illness like outside observers, despite the fact that 1 out of 4 people experience some form of it in their lifetimes. I won’t claim to have insight on the individuals they’re discussing, I can’t tell you what Robin Williams was thinking, but I can offer a metaphor to explain why some of us don’t come forward.

Allow me to borrow a plot line from an episode of The Twilight Zone.

There's a gremlin on my wing.
There’s a gremlin on my wing.

There’s a gremlin on my wing, pulling out the systems I need to function. He’s dug beneath my skin, undermining my self-esteem. He’s ripping out memories I have no need to see, bringing things to the surface I’d prefer to leave buried.

Whenever I venture outside of my comfort zone, he tampers with my fuel gage, convincing me I don’t have what it takes to go the distance. Whenever I get off to a flying start, he tinkers with my propeller, convincing me I’ll crash and burn the longer I keep talking. Whenever I’m riding high on possibilities, he brings me down to sputter out, crashing on my pillowcase alone.

Between my neckline and my clavicle he’s dug his claws in, a hijacker issuing demands. He’s got me in a holding pattern and I can’t seem to shake him. He wants to go south with the conversation. He wants to go nowhere fast. He wants to go crazy. He’s my first class saboteur, my snark passenger, my very important burden. He’s a collar crawler, a nightmare at five-foot-four, the Depression on my shoulder.

He puts new acquaintances on standby, when I actually have the time for them. He leaves copilots out on the tarmac, when I could use some direction. He cuts off my support systems, when I could use help navigating the turbulence. His no fly list is ever expanding, banning ex-room mates, ex-coworkers, and ex-girl friends from getting anywhere near his captain.

Waving his security wand, Depression scrutinizes everyone. He finds contraband in the form of narcissistic tendencies, codependency, and disloyalty. He uses x-rays to detect second faces. He performs cavity searches of micro-expressions.

He says, “We’ve already got too much baggage. As it stands, this craft is only equip for fair weather. These people will just bring us down. We have to fly solo until it’s safe to start letting people in.”

I want to offer my friends a shoulder to cry on, but its occupied at the moment. I want to offer a sympathetic ear, but someone’s whispering into it. I want to offer stability, but my rudder is off balance.

Marking up the flight maps with negative associations, Depression says, “The girl who stood you up goes to that coffee shop, now it’s in a no fly zone, so is the club that wouldn’t take your card, and the bar that made you feel your age. Oh, and don’t bother going home for Christmas, that whole area is in hostile airspace.”

Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.
Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.

Bad News Flies First Class 

Bad news travels at supersonic speeds. It’s Depression’s fuel, it’s his inflight entertainment. It’s what he’s got up on all of my instruments. The displays play an in memoriam montage without end. There go beloved childhood icons, actors, and musicians in their prime. There go fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives. There go captains who took directions from their gremlins.

Depression stares at me from the aisle, with a microphone wrapped around his fingers, his face set aglow by a backseat screen.

“This is your Depression speaking, please turn on all cell phones and automatic devices. Then get on social media, because tragedy is trending. To your left you’ll see an ongoing story that will make you feel like you’re losing your faith in humanity, and to your right you’ll see comments that will help you lose it completely.”

The world is in chaos. There are so many headlines stacked up on the window, I can’t see the horizon. I’m internalizing the external, flying blind. It’s not that Depression lies, it’s that it isn’t very well informed. It senses patterns in limited information, then speculates with confidence. It finds scary stories to reinforce its suspicions, then emerges emboldened.

Depression booms over the speakers, “According to the radar it isn’t safe to land anywhere. The ice caps are melting. The runways are flooding, and people are rioting. They’re invading everywhere. They’re shooting planes right out of the sky. It’s open season on anyone with a pilot’s license.”

He walks down the cabin, pulling things out of the overhead compartments: unfinished screenplays, lyrics I never sang to girlfriends, and manuscripts I never had the courage to send. Depression performs a one man show for his captive audience, mixing and matching lines from what he’s found.

He’s got me facing the wrong direction.

I make my way for the dining trays, chowing down on whatever’s around. Whether it’s  cheese slices straight from the wrapper, pepperonis from the bag, or Ben & Jerry’s, the in-flight meal is always my feelings.

3. Flicking the little bastard off

Depression at 20,000 Feet

Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.

He says, “If you were any kind of pilot, we’d be there already. Instead we’re lost in the storm.”

I grip the controls a little tighter. “Sometimes the only way out is through.”

Depression grunts. “Or in circles, apparently. How’s that tailspin working out for you?”

He’s the peanut gallery I carry with me. My own private Friars Club. My personal heckler. He’s a passive aggressive parasite, a bullying barnacle, a foot on the coattails of my ego. He’s the alpha male dominating the conversation, the monkey stabbing me in the back, the jockey that’s riding me.

His stigma allows him to get away with his destruction. No one else sees him, because no one is looking.

I’m afraid to yell, “There’s something on the wing!” because sometimes there’s no sign of him. Sometimes I forget, there was ever turbulence. I keep the truth buried in my black box.

My friends might not see him, but whenever I examine myself his big ugly mug is staring right at me. I’m afraid to call attention to the damage he’s done, for fear I’ll run out of places to land.

I’m afraid to yell, “There’s something on the wing!” because whoever’s listening might bind my hands, giving Depression free rein to pull me apart in silence.

I want to shine a light on him, to hit him with the flare gun, I just don’t want to lose cabin pressure in the process.

I’ve learned to live with him, to adjust for the added weight, to divert energy into other systems, to compensate. The things that come easily for others, take more fuel than you might expect for me. The things others do to stave off boredom, I do just to keep myself functioning. The things others think are routine, I do with all of my engines firing.

He’s the reason it’s not so easy to straighten up and fly right, to man up and snap myself out of it. My Depression, my gremlin, my stigmatized stowaway.

There’s something on my wing. You might not see it, but I assure you, it’s out there.

21 thoughts on “The Depression on My Shoulder”

    1. It is serious and no one person’s depression is exactly like another’s. I’ve shied away from writing about my own because I knew I couldn’t hide behind the 2nd & 3rd person, but in the wake of recent events (suicides and a wave of terrible news) I felt like I had something worth saying.

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  1. Wow…what emotion packed into each word, each sentence, each genius analogy, I feel as if this post just punched Depression in the face and called it out for the bastard that it is. Jesus Christ. You have such a unique style with all your writing, not just this post. And that’s so it…a constant battle, taking a step forward then falling back hard, a constant companion you know is there, a weight no one else can see holding you down. I think that is what makes many depressed people do great things, the perseverance often multiplies.

    I admit (and I never admit when I’m down) I recently fell into the well…fell hard on my ass and the roots under the well came up from the ground and pulled me down. I really didn’t think I could climb back out, but as discouraging as those times are, I remind myself it will pass. Even though we often walk in darkness and stand within the rain, that makes the times we are not so much better, more special, we savor moments that others take for granted. I usually hide, but I’ve realized what really helps is to have people that understand, who can pull you out when you fall into the well and when they fall into the well, you do the same for them, because it is a vicious never-ending cycle and it is easier to handle if you aren’t alone.

    I really enjoyed this. Well done.

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    1. Thank you for all your kind words.

      Every fall, I fall into a funk myself. It usually peaks around the holiday season, which I was stockpile entertainment options, pile on the workload and other distractions.

      I love your take on this, “I think that is what makes many depressed people do great things, the perseverance often multiplies.”

      I wish I’d ended with more of an upbeat observation like this. Depressed people are always to do extraordinary thing as counterweight to the monster on their shoulder.

      It reminds me of a line from a song, “I’ve got a negative edge, that’s why I sharpen all the others a lot.”

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve been down, recently. Sounds like they’re been a lot of transitions in your life. I’m working through some major changes myself. I might take a short leave from social media to work some things out.

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  2. Brilliant. You’ve captured it perfectly. So many people have no idea of the daily struggle that little bastard depression creates. How it affects every aspect of your life. How even on your good days, it’s still there, whispering in your ear, delighting in your misery. If only there was a way to kick it out of the plane without a parachute! Great post 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much.

      For me, it helps to know all of Depression’s little tricks so you can call him out on them. The little bugger gets crafty, which is why a little self examination helps me stay one step ahead. It doesn’t hurt to have other people in your life, to help drown out Depression’s opinions.

      We could all you use a good friend to say, “I know you two are close, but I think your Depression is full of shit.”

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      1. definitely! One of the reasons we’re always writing is because that tends to shut it up. Everyone needs someone to help them fight it when they can’t fight it alone.

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  3. Excellent piece, Drew. You manage to take a serious topic and add some levity to it, all while respecting just how powerful and awful Depression can be. And what living with it is like. Well done sir.

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    1. Thanks man.

      I’ve been meaning to write something about this for a while. It helped that I had a central metaphor that I could keep coming back to. Whenever I attempt to talk about emotional experiences, I get abstract. Fortunately there was a Twilight Zone to keep me on track.

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  4. This is never an easy topic to write about, or discuss. Depression is as you said, a parasite and you seem to do really well pushing through and fighting back. I end up curled up at the bottom of a big black hole, which then turns into a spiral and a vicious cycle until finally someone, or something, drags me out of it.

    I’ve taken the approach recently of just being entirely open and honest about my issues, I hope that by doing so, it might help others in similar positions. It looks as though you’re helping a lot of people with your insight and unique style. 🙂

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    1. It helps to be open. It’s a fine balance between asking for assurance of overbearing friends and family too. I still haven’t got that balance right. It’s funny how some people just have selective hearing when you bring it up. They sort of skim onto a lighter topic of conversation.

      I found it helps to be open about my personality traits when I’m doing well, when it’s an easier topic of conversation. I’ll tell people I meet in public that I’m an introvert and they’ll veto it. I’ll have to echo myself, “No, really I am.”

      I know that’s not ideal, but it’s one way of getting folks to hear it. It’s hard for me to remind myself to ask for help in the moments when I don’t need, when isn’t dire, when it’s still off somewhere on the horizon.

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      1. My family know nothing. Hell, most of my friends don’t even know. If I were to tell them that I have depression and a learning disability they’d scoff and tell me I was being stupid. If I were to bring up the abuse etc, they’d change the topic entirely and act as though I were imagining it, or better yet, inventing things to hurt them.

        So recently, I turned to my blog and I put it there. I figure I’m not forcing it on anyone but I’m still getting it out and people can find it if they want.

        The asking for help bit is really hard. I expect everyone to turn away, to drive me out, so asking wasn’t an option. That’s why the blog is a godsend, I can just let it all out without concerns or worries.

        You know where I am (I hope anyway!) if you do need to talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be about the darkness, it can be just movies or ‘what the hell have they done to this comic character now!?” 😛

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      1. No problem! Sometimes I hesitate to post something really personal, but then I realize that it’s my story and I want to share it with others. Most likely you will find others who can relate, and I love that =)

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  5. Thanks for joining the conversation (I think that’s better than saying “speaking up”). With stats like “1 out of 4” we ought to be chatting it up. Especially creative sorts. We live so much in our mind space and that’s very close to the clavicle danger zone. We don’t need labels or stigmas, just being able to talk about it openly and we see we are not alone in feeling like we have a depression gremlin on our wing. You made it into a brilliant analogy that others can relate to.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading.

      I think one of the biggest problems surrounding depression is the language we use to describe it. Either it’s too simple or it’s euphemistic. Worst still is I only hear the words “Mental illness” in the news after someone has done something terrible.

      Depression is something we all need to get better at articulating. One form might not manifest like another, but they’re all equally real.

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