The Hilarious World of Depression is a podcast in which public radio host John Moe interviews other comedians and humorists about their depression. Maybe not the most obvious correlation, but the more you pay attention to comedy, the more you’ll see mental health as a major theme. Comedian Maria Bamford has made her bi-polar and OCD disorders cornerstones of her comedy and new Netflix show Lady Dynamite. Watching her audience’s reactions to jokes about suicide and psychiatric wards, you get the feeling that there’s a release in there for everyone, and I get the same listening to the Hilarious World of Depression. As John Moe says it, laughter undermines the disease’s power a little.
And the more you pay attention to mental illness, the more you’ll see it. Everywhere, in everyone.
In a particular episode, John Moe starts sharing some of the commonalities he’s found in interviewing people about their depression, and one (actually a lot more) of them is mine.
No one really understands depression. Even depressed people don’t. As you wade through mental illness, you start to realize the litany of misconceptions you’ve inherited about it. Depression is for sad people. Or anxiety is for worriers. So on. It follows that depression is inspired by sad things and absent in times of fortune.
Not true. For comedians or me. For celebrities or the unemployed. In a way, mental illness is a rare unifier, unassociated as it is with status or image. Only a few can be rich, but anyone can be depressed.
A favorite comedian of mine Ian Black shared on the podcast that a particularly difficult wave of depression came as his comedy group signed on with MTV and started a show, which launched into more success and opportunity, which, paradoxically, triggered Ian’s depression. His dreams had come true, and they turned into nightmares. He thought, and anyone would think, that it’s illogical. When good things happen to you, you should be happy. And in that thought you approach mental illness’ irrational, procedural heart.
My first anxiety attack came a few months after I became the director for a non-profit, before which I was a smoothie bar manager at a health club. Big upgrade. Taking the job, I had the thought that I’d finally broken through, that I could tell people what I did and see it shine back at me.
Instead, I had a panic attack. Then another, then another, and 7 months in to the job, the chairman of the board asked me if my plate was overfull and hired someone to take some of my responsibilities away. Which was, for someone afraid of loss, painful.
At the same time, I was writing for a local culture and lifestyle journal and performing stories for a radio program. Writing, non-profit work, in a relationship with my now-wife, living in my favorite Little Rock neighborhood with two of my closest friends. All of it proved fertile ground for a downward spiral into mental illness.
Irrelevant ground, really, because anxiety gives two shits about your outside world. It doesn’t need it to hold power over you. It knows that its influence trumps the positive input of any promotion or relationship. The world told you that you have value? Well, I think you’re dying of cardiac disease, and no one’s going to save you.
As my little star began its shallow rise, I sunk lower and lower. I was numb to the good things coming my way. The night after I performed my first story on radio, I lay in bed, unable to sleep, sweating through my sheets, feeling misery in physical ounces. I was featured on Little Rock’s Sync magazine’s list for People to Watch 2013, and you’re thinking, “That sounds successful, what a braggart,” but, truly, the only care I could muster for it was weak and detached. People smiled and said, “Hey, that’s nice, you must be excited,” and I smiled back and thought, “Actually, I’m suffocating in terror please help me.”
Not now, I told myself. Why would this happen now?
None of this is to say that success triggers mental illness anymore than loss does. The heart of mental imbalance is a procedure not dependent on anything but itself. It is its own spark. Anyone who’s had a true panic attack can tell you that they can come from nowhere. On one occasion, I was sitting in a theater, and suddenly my heart rate jumped way, way up. I ran out of the theater, hyperventilating, and called my wife to tell her goodbye. All within in two minutes, on a perfectly fine evening watching a good movie with friends.
The misconceptions share the pain with the problem. My failure to understand the disease has caused me grief equal to the disease itself. I didn’t believe anyone, because I didn’t see any reason to be anxious. So I began to fight it, feeding my desperation and exhaustion and depleting myself of the energy I needed to address it. I began to undermine my own reality, questioning its validity, mistaking an illness for a personal failure.
I shouldn’t be, when I should have been saying, I am. Anxiety doesn’t need a trigger, nor does it require a value judgement. It’s not wrong. It just is. And as it doesn’t reflect your external reality, your external reality doesn’t need to reflect it. Failure doesn’t equal depression. Depression doesn’t have to equal failure.