We lose parts of ourselves when we get depressed. Things that we enjoy when healthy become bland, insipid, slightly nauseating counterfeits that no longer light us up the way they did in the past. The late fall arrival of the Oscar contenders in the theaters. Talking about fascinating books with friends over filet mignon at our favorite restaurant. A bike ride through the Bois de Vincennes. Auburn wins the national title we’ve waited 25 years to see. C’est tout un. A resoundingly indifferent and drained “whatever” supplants the joyful responses you’d expect in these situations. The clinical term for this condition is “anhedonia.” On a neurological level, we lose our ability to feel pleasure, a condition that makes it considerably difficult to do anything about depression. It’s very hard to stay active (a key component of fighting depression) when the things that should cheer you up don’t.
When I crashed in the fall of 2010, I forgot how to teach. Before my infernal season, I had taken great pride in my work as a language teacher and my efforts to plan creative, engaging classes that prompted students to practice their language skills while also allowing them to express things that were important to them. I transformed very rapidly that fall from a proud, inspired, and aspiring educator, to a shelled out vacancy sloughing through everything half-asleep and gasping. I no longer felt I could motivate or connect with my students, and a disturbing fog of loss and inadequacy latched tight around me. Every step felt 30lbs too heavy, like I was carrying a log pressing down hard on my neck. Every breath felt like I was only getting half the oxygen I needed. (Recently, I heard a man on television say that this feeling is like wearing a lead trench coat all the time.) I sat for hours stiff and empty in front of a blank computer screen searching for the next day’s lesson and producing nothing. At times, my mind swung from that stifled, lifeless stare into accusing recriminations, asking what the fuck was wrong with me and why I couldn’t just get my work done.
Things got really ugly for me at work that semester. Several days while trying to work on planning in my office, I punched myself in the head over and over progressively harder towards a deranged frenzy thinking that the blows might somehow free me from the breathless stagnation I was wading through. I locked up completely several times unable to speak in front of my classes. Something like a panic attack. Not the heavy breathing and heart racing feeling exactly, but long physically painful silences where my brain jammed and struggled to find every word, where I had to fight hard against my mouth and throat and lungs that defiantly resisted making each sound. One day in the language lab, the state of the art West German cassette equipment bugged during a lesson—yes the machines were marked “Made in West Germany,” in 2010. I had a moment of panic; seized, immobile, pressure jam clogging of the brain, and then dreadful relief. Relief looking out the window over the dull grey mediocrity of the Paris suburbs and the once promising social housing cabbages telling myself the chaos of equipment malfunction didn’t matter because as soon as the course was over I was going to climb up to the top of the building and jump.
This is an example of the gruesomely ridiculous logic of suicidal thinking. Tiny insignificant things, things we have no control over and that aren’t even our fault, come to hurt so badly that our clogged and distorted reasoning, corrupted by pain, tells us that death is the only way to stop hurting. Gruesomely stupid indeed, but in the moment it makes absolute sense.
A year and a half later in January 2012, I was not fully healed but much better. I had limped most of the way back from my most terrible and desperate state. I had recently gotten involved volunteering at my local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the office director suggested I do the training to become a Family to Family instructor. This training session ended up being a most valuable gift of experience after my bout with depression had convinced me that I no longer knew how to teach well like I had loved doing before; like the day a group of French 18 year-olds got excited talking in English about whether poetry makes anything happen and decided that it can but must adapt to the times and ever changing audiences in order to do so. That old self (moi d’alors) that could run a discussion like that had slumbered invisible and homeless hidden deep inside me for over a year.
Our trainers Sue and Linda were complete strangers at the beginning of the weekend and good friends three days later. Thinking about our interaction over those three days has lead me to an unexpected meditation on generosity and empathy, one of those suprise tangents of an idea that isn’t planned when you begin writing and that wells up along the way. Montaigne taught me it is worthwhile to veer and find out where these paths lead. Sue and Linda did not know specifically what a pleasure teaching had been for me in the past. But even without knowing me they gave me something very specific that I had been missing and needed for a long time. They were there sacrificing an entire weekend away from home and family, giving away their time and energy running through 30 exhausting hours of emotionally exacting course material. They were passing along information and technique that we trainees took back to our homes across the state and used to help hundreds of people hurting and looking for solace to calm their pain. Sue and Linda shared their own sadness and vulnerability telling of tremendous loss in the face of mental illness, but their sense of loss was tempered throughout by the example of hope they showed in their actions, their patient and loving strength in confronting hardship, and an implicit assurance that life was not over and that joy was still possible, a joy they exemplified in the abundant flow of humor in their absolutely hilarious banter all weekend.
There is a fascinating relationship here between general and more specific forms of generosity. Sue and Linda made their general disposition towards the world one of giving, and in doing so, they hit upon a very specific need that was crucial to my recovery. I tend to think that understanding what a person is going through needs to proceed acts of kindness, that we have to know someone’s situation before can do unto them, that empathy makes generosity possible. I wonder presently about the value of reversing these terms and exploring the idea that generosity makes empathy possible. We may not understand precisely what people are needing, but by adopting a general disposition of kindness and giving away our time, our resources, our energy, we might hit the mark anyway. Empathy is a wonderful thing. Maybe though it isn’t always a necessary part of helping others. An act of kindness might be the exact response someone else longs for even if we don’t know the details of that longing before we make the gesture. Or it might be a bridge into a more intimate and detailed understanding where empathy can take root. You may invite me for dinner, and while talking during our meal, we may stumble together onto the solution for a problem that’s been plaguing me for months.
Sue and Linda gave me the opportunity to present part of a practice lecture on our first day of training. When I stood up, a little nervous, and began to read, I discovered, with delight, that I could still project my voice like I had in front of a classroom. The old aspiring educator roused and steered up slowly to dock in the forefront of my mind. A refreshing light penetrated the hall dimmed by dreary silence for so long. The subtle possibility for banquet renewed and stirred up into my words. And as I came to the end of my section and reminded my fellow trainees that they had not caused the battles raging in the minds of their family members, an older, better version of me, that I’d once abandoned and left for dead, sat again welcomed and laughing at the head of the table. With their dedication to a cause and general disposition towards kindness, Sue and Linda had helped me recover the teacher I wanted to be.