The Circumference of Despair: On Depression and Language -The Toast

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The first thing I ever did in my life was crash a party. It was two days shy of my sister’s third birthday in 1985 and she was celebrating early with a party at McDonald’s when I expressed what I am now convinced is the earliest recorded symptom of histrionic personality disorder by insisting on entry into the world before she got to blow out her candles. I was born two days later on June 12th with a black eye and a broken heart. The doctor was confused but told my mother that in the trauma of a complicated birth, I had probably punched myself in the face. I am now convinced that the episode is the earliest recorded symptom of self-injury.  The doctor did not tell my mother that her baby was born with a broken heart. They can’t see broken hearts the way they can see black eyes. And they couldn’t give explanations for why babies are born with broken hearts even if they could see them.

Because I am a bottomless pit of strained symbolism, I imbue the incidents surrounding my birth with perhaps more meaning than they merit. I see them as the earliest manifestation of my desire to be part of the party but always accidentally ruining it. I see the days-long labor to which I subjected my mother as my trepidation at confronting the inevitability of having to live in the world. I see punching myself in the face as my predisposition to self-harm instead of facing despair. And I see the undetected broken heart as the first instance of me dying in plain sight without anyone being the wiser.

Those that did not see the broken heart are blameless, of course. Even I didn’t fully recognize it until reaching adulthood. When I was depressed as a young child, I attributed my feelings of powerlessness to smallness rather than sickness. When I was depressed as an adolescent, I attributed my feelings of inadequacy to the grim nature of adolescence itself. When I was depressed as a young adult, I attributed my feelings of dread to the very real difficulty of facing proper adulthood. Even as a proper and properly diagnosed adult, I oscillate between attributing my frequent desire to cease living with professional boredom and an immature moral imagination. But when I reflect on the ever-present inclination to literally self-destruct from childhood on, I can acknowledge that this lifelong sadness truly can be attributed to lifelong sickness.

The English language has a great deficit in words to describe the impenetrable hopelessness that mental illness visits upon those afflicted with it. I’ve spent embarrassing amounts of time seeking out words in other languages that give form and substance to this lifetime of experiences. Germans have Verzweiflung, it is the direct translation of despair but it is aslo accompanied by fear and pain. The Czech litost is the torment of suddenly seeing the extent of one’s own misery. Toska is what Nabakov said could never be fully expressed in English words and described as “a sensation of spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause.”

But my personal favorite has much less to do with misery. It is the Portuguese saudade, a melancholic longing for someone or something that is lost or gone, likely forever.  It is often felt for lovers and for the utopian landscapes of youth, for things that might have never even been but can be longed for nonetheless. My affection for the feeling is not because of its familiarity but because of its absence. I have no such longings. I have no memories of utopias or of perfect lovers or of anything that took might take the shape of bliss. I don’t have any reference points to long into goldennes and then ache for.  It is heartening to realize that I don’t suffer from every kind of heartbreak available, just the particular kind that I do.

Despite collecting these words, I do not use them when I discuss the symptoms of deeply depressed states. Mostly because teaching people foreign words without direct translations is an intolerably pompous habit employed by people like the ponytailed Harvard guy in Good Will Hunting that gets his ass handed to him by Matt Damon at the bar where he meets Minnie Driver. But also because describing a word that cannot be translated does an inherent injustice to the word itself and to the feelings it describes. These words have homes and histories and stretching them out of shape in my own clumsy tongue does nothing to capture the true scope of their meaning.

The frustration with the absence of sufficient language to describe the relentless onslaught of self-destructive whispers is exacerbated by the ease with which suffering from other kinds of sickness can be quantified and reported. I saw a mediocre comedy bit once about the insistence of medical professionals to describe physical illnesses in relation to fruit. A cancerous tumor with the diameter of a navel orange. An enlarged heart the size of a grapefruit. Several kiwi-shaped lesions. But suicidal ideation does not come as a banana. Impossible indifference cannot be finagled into a berry metaphor. Sorrow does not have a circumference. It has a weight that slumps the posture and disfigures one’s good sense but it is a weight like heavy particles in the air more than weight like a watermelon on the shoulders.

And even in possession of a reasonably sophisticated grasp of the English language, it is exceedingly rare that I speak of the ever-present sense of dread at having to go about a day, day after day, in more than a few words. Clever metaphors and well-crafted sentences have many merits but few palliative functions. Literary history is littered with the corpses of suicidal writers whose extensive catalogs dedicated primarily to pain demonstrate that to articulate suffering is not to be relieved of it. And so instead of giving a name or a shape to it with words, I have communicated suffering with personal absences and incomplete gestures and tasks since I was very small.

There is a long list of unfulfilled “Yes” RSVPs for parties I could not be dragged from bed to attend. There would be sinks full of dirty dishes if I had ever bothered to use dishes. There are empty chairs at the dinner table when I couldn’t bear to see my family at Christmas, knowing that the warmth of that kind of love actually feels like blinding sunlight when you’ve spent the year prior in mostly darkness. It is untaken showers and my refusal to ever say, “I love you” to people that deserved to hear it and about whom it was true. It is a chronicle of paralysis masquerading as obdurateness. It looked callous and lazy more than it looked desperate and broken.  And so it is fitting that when I finally asked for the help from the mother I subjected to that interrupted party and an excruciating labor and 29 years of strained silence that I came off remarkably callous and lazy.

Following a series of miniature breakdowns throughout the late summer, I found myself far too acquainted with local gun purchasing laws and the height of the fence that separates the Manhattan Bridge footpath from free fall during a particularly harrowing episode on August 13. I stood in my bathroom sobbing, leaning my full weight into the counter as the particles in the air made the prospect of uprightness unbearable. I looked in the mirror at inflamed eyes and sunken cheeks and the full-bodied tremble of hunger and panic. I said, “You can’t see what this feels like,” to no one in particular and didn’t know what it meant really, but it seemed very important for me to say it out loud. Nevertheless, I am not a person in the habit of delivering pep talk-riddle hybrids to the mirror and decided that if I was going to speak, I was going to find a better conversationalist.

I rely almost exclusively on three exceedingly patient friends for such occasions and in the certainty that I’d already used my free calls on them in the weeks prior, I dialed my mother. When she answered, I choked out a, “Hi” and proceeded to cry into the phone. My mother proceeded to ask a series of questions. Did something happen? Are you okay? Alana? Alana? In a fit of eloquence I said, “I’m really, really sad.” She asked if I needed to come home to San Diego, to which I barked that I could barely leave my bed, how the fuck was I supposed to get to the airport, managing to be lazy and callous in a single sentence. She apologized as she often does when I am at fault and asked if there was something she could do. And because I could not reasonably demand that she devote herself to rigorous scientific research into how we might measure the extent of depressive illness or court the Linguist Lobby to add words about despair to English, I said, “I need you to come here and help me clean my kitchen.” She was in New York in less than eight hours.

She walked into my apartment and expressed her happiness at seeing me. I did not tell her how I felt because she did not ask how I felt, she asked what I needed help with in the kitchen. We spent the next three days talking not of feelings but of actions, concrete steps to make my life look less callous and lazy and make my heart less broken, though we didn’t describe them as such. I cried often under the weight of what should have been simple tasks and her face betrayed a grief that is specific to mothers witnessing the suffering of their own children. I considered telling her about Roska but recalled Good Will Hunting just in the nick of time. I tell her about Scandal and the strange fine print of Obamacare instead.

Part of the ambitious regimen for getting well is a renewed effort to be social so I fire up Tinder and go on a date the week after my mother leaves leaves. When asked what I did that day, I tell my date that I got some work done and went to the gym because it would be inappropriate to say, “I thought about the likelihood that my whole family will die soon so that I kill myself.” Wellness is not rebuilt in a day, after all.  The likelihood is remote, even family members in poor health manage to live for a very long time on both sides of my family. Remembering this fact is usually followed by the thought, “When would they realistically take to get over it?” And the answer is the day that they remove June 12th from the calendar and from the collective memory.

When I was born on my sister’s birthday, I inextricably tied my existence to her understanding of hers as it is the first birthday in her memory. I am sure much of that memory is owed to the family mythology of the Gemini daughters born on the same day three years apart but it is no less important by being partly fictionalized. Since it is just the two of us, my birth on that day made June 12th The Day That All of the Children Are Born for my parents. And though I still feel some twinge of guilt at my infant party-crashing ways, I realize that I would do more damage now by being absent from her birthday party than by making an appearance. And I realize that while it is fun exercise to imbue sinister intentions into babies, it was no more intentional or meaningful than the random assortment of genes and circumstances that made me a despairing sort.

But I can be intentional about making it another year to participate in our birthday. I can open my gifts from my family as they listen by phone and my sister opens hers from me. We can exchange excitement and gratitude. In those moments where we are completing the tasks of love, I can appreciate the peculiar and life-giving privilege of feeling that I belong to other people more than to myself. And in this little long-distance party to which I am always invited, I can long for nothing.

Alana Massey is a Brooklyn-based writer and the co-founder of The Malevolent Siren Girl Gang. She works for The Internet and is a graduate of NYU and Yale Divinity School, where she received degrees in Misandry and Arson.

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