You are 25 and already running your own business. Do you know how many people twice your age wish they could say that?”
My friend, a producer at the BBC, is baffled. I’ve just told her about my depression and how it’s been only getting worse since I co-founded a startup company two years earlier. She’s having none of it. In her mind I’m living the life and she’s stuck working for the man. I want to tell her that I’m drowning and losing it, fast. But she has that look on her face — one of genuine bewilderment on the cusp of spilling into mild reproach — and I know what’s coming. I’ve heard a version of it one too many times over the past months: You’ll snap out of it, hon. Just think positive! Look on the bright side! Be grateful: people in Africa are dying of hunger!!!
But I don’t snap out of it. Depression and I go a long way back: I’ve denied, ignored and stuffed it down for years; I’ve fought it and fled it, and when nothing worked, I walked for 500 miles across Spain, twice, in a desperate attempt to exorcise it. All in vain.
This time I decided to leave my company and spend the rest of the year talking to artists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, clinicians, teens, video game players — anyone I can track down who’s been touched by depression and willing to open up about it. I wanted to find out: why do people break down and how do they mend?
I was blown away by the response to my impromptu research. People opened up to me — a perfect stranger — sharing stories of loss and suffering but also of mettle and joy and overcoming. One thing I learned was that even at our most fragile, we are more resilient than we imagine ourselves to be. We hold on, we change, we heal.
Another, unexpected thing that emerged from all of those eclectic conversations led me to rethink my own relationship with depression. Some of the most complex, interesting, intelligent, creative, wonderfully twisted and utterly original people I met had been (or still were) depressed. It was almost as if the very extremity of their suffering allowed them to tap into the deepest depths of their being, making them more indomitably alive.
A few months into my research, I went to a reading of Reasons to Stay Alive, a very personal account of battling depression by British author Matt Haig. Matt is soft-spoken and somewhat shy — or rather, I suspect, watchful of his words as a conduit of the universal and a mirror to the granular, the deeply personal. In lieu of answers to depression, Matt offered up new vantage points, but it was something he said in passing that had me freeze in my seat. He said that of all the fan letters he received after his book came out most were from 13-year-olds.
13-year-olds. I didn’t even know 13-year-olds still read fiction, still read anything beyond sultry, vampire filled sagas. And even then, Reasons to Stay Alive? At 13? As people milled about the auditorium scrambling to get their paperback copies signed, I sat stuck, stricken, an uncomfortable awareness taking shape inside me.
I could have brushed it off. Adolescents are not depressed; they are difficult. They are impulsive, immature, moody, overly sensitive, horridly unfathomable. Ballistic, then mute. Suffering romantics, rebellious savages. It’s terrible, sure, but it’s the teens. The hormones would eventually settle, the madness would mellow into maturity.
I also knew — from the research volumes I’d ingested over the past months, from the experts I’d interviewed on mental health — that teens didn’t quite fit the most at-risk demographic. I knew it was the 20s and 30s that carried the brunt of depression and — save for the occasional school shooting that drew attention to them — the inner lives of 13-year-olds didn’t make the cut as something to be probed into.
But I did not brush off Matt’s words as a false positive. My own research was leading me to a similarly disturbing pattern. Ever since I started collecting stories of depression and its overcoming, I’ve dived into therapy, science and personal accounts. I’ve talked to people from all walks of life and what struck me about their stories was that despite their individual differences, a common thread often ran under the surface.
When I asked them about the moment that things began to crack, many interviewees pointed to their teen years — the pre-, early, mid-teens. Back then they didn’t recognize depression as such — not in the clinical sense at least. This awareness came later. Squinting into the past, they struggled to find the words, to capture into an intelligible way the what, the how, the why of their unravelling. It wasn’t easy to reach into the raw emotion and try to make sense of thoughts and feelings, of stuff filed away in memory and often concealed from conscious awareness.
Still, I kept probing into these memories — partly out of the mulish curiosity I’m known for but also because I could see something taking shape, a seedling of a clue. As people verbalized their experiences, reaching for metaphor where words alone fell short, a phrase began to emerge that seemed to tie together their reflections: Down the bone, depression sounded like a loss of innocence.
Innocence in the sense of that unselfconscious being kids have about them, the way they inhabit their skins so effortlessly, how they just seem to belong and to trust, innately, that all is well just as it is. The loss of that innocence, I think, is not so much about growing up as about losing our sense of innate worthiness. It’s about experiencing what researcher Brené Brown identifies as shame — “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. “
Indeed this sense of unworthiness — this loss of innocence — permeated my encounters. I found that once you peel back the symptomatic layers of mental illness — the lack of energy, the inability to feel pleasure, the loss of purpose, the gnawing anxiety, the crippling isolation — you strike shame. Not in the Freudian sense of perverted desires, base impulses, Oedipus complexes and such, no. It’s shame as self-loathing; shame as the voice of the inner critic who whispers: you don’t measure up, you don’t deserve, you don’t belong, you don’t matter. With shame, we are at fault by default because of who we are deep down when no one’s looking. It’s what fuels depression even when we are not supposed to be depressed, even when ours is the proverbial white picket fence life.
Shame grows in the teen years, sometimes earlier. Therapy rooms are filled with people who have, on the surface, made it yet still feel like the weird kid inside, the black sheep, the son or the daughter who always fell short and always will. We all know that inner critic, but some of us — artists, entrepreneurs, depressives — know him more intimately than others. We walk around with his voice on loudspeaker. Brené Brown calls him the gremlins, Arianna Huffington — the obnoxious roommate. Mine is The Editor. I can always hear him in the back of my mind, muttering, making corrections to things I say, scratching out whole scenes of my life and re-writing them the way they could’ve, should’ve, would’ve gone if only I weren’t the dismal failure that I am.
The inner critic sounds like the truth or else feels inevitable, immutable, ingrained in our personality. But it’s neither. Instead it often is the judgement of others, real or imagined, that at one point when our identity was still fragile and taking shape we internalized. And then we fell from grace. This judgement doesn’t need to be anything objectively traumatic: a passing comment, a certain stare, a mere hint of a criticism is often enough for shame to tack itself onto our sense of worth and, like a parasite, slowly starve it off.
We lose our innocence, too, when certain grounding beliefs we hold about life and ourselves are called into question. A parent leaves and the sanctity of family is shattered. We lose our orienting principle, our anchor and safe harbor. If home is no longer that safe, sacred place we could always go back to, then what is? Were we ever loved at all? Can we trust again? Our utter vulnerability often hardens us to the world.
And if life alone isn’t enough, there’s school. Zipped into uniforms, praised for knowing and punished for messing around, we armor up against play, curiosity, imagination. Whatever wide-eyed wonder we had at the world is drummed out of us so we can be molded into an ideal social unit.
Incidentally, many of my interviewees who battled depression were bad students. They were bored and someone — a teacher, a counsellor? — told them they had motivation issues or learning difficulties or ADD. Or — to take the political correctness out of it — that they were stupid, lazy and undisciplined. They skipped classes and spent their days playing video games. Why? “To be any place other than here”, one person told me.
What I’m saying might not seem, particularly, like a revelation. Surely childhood and adolescence play a key role in getting depressed. Therapy is predicated on all the various neuroses our parents conferred upon us and the ways these creep up through the subconscious to haunt us later in life. But the spotlight is on the obvious suspects — the family secrets, the disgraces swept under the rug, the shouting matches, the abusive uncle, the drinking mother — and then we lump these up with genetics, brain dysfunction and what not to construct an elaborate theory of mental illness.
Without trying to trivialize depression, I believe that we are too quick to pathologize something that is, at its core, deeply human. I believe that we won’t find depression in the brain so much as in the fuzzy ground of being alive, in the relationship between ourselves and others and the big wide world. And perhaps, instead of medicating misery with more and better drugs, we could listen to the shame tapes that as a society, as parents and as teachers, we put on for kids; perhaps we could help them reclaim their innocence.
If I’ve learned anything from the people who have come out the other end of depression, it’s that there’s no magic pill, mindful pose or therapy practice. These might help but the real key is simple and unsexy, yet hard to obtain and to own: the realization that we are enough already. That we are not different, weird, broken, damaged, fucked up, faulty, guilty, unloved and unlovable, but worthy in our imperfection, strong in our vulnerability, brave in our fear, good, capable, unique, wonderful, fumbling around to find who we really are. Just like everyone else.