“I didn’t want to do any of the things I had previously wanted to do and I didn’t know why.” — Andrew Solomon in a recent Ted Talk on depression
Cam Newton shredding the LSU’s defense to bloody scraps was a joyless spectacle when I watched it live on the internet in Paris. That game should have been doubly thrilling. A big Auburn win + handing the corndogging faux-tiger Acadians their own asses. Life for a Barner doesn’t get much sweeter. Today my healthy brain delights watching the youtube replay of Cam Newton running nearly fifty yards for a score against LSU.
These were the worst days, just before rock bottom and my irrational fugue run from Paris back to Alabama. The following Saturday, I watched Cam catch a touchdown pass on a trick play against Ole Miss at my parents in the States. Absolutely depleted from weeks of outrageous, illogical emotion, I was on a wretched brink I never want to see again. Sunday night with my parents’ and ex-wife’s vital support and guidance (THANK YOU!), I went to the ER where I was admitted for a week stay in the psychiatric unit.
Anhedonia is “the reduced ability to experience pleasure” (Gorwood 2008) or the “loss of interest or pleasure in all or almost all activities.” (Der-Avakian and Markou 2012). I won’t get into the brain science in detail, in part because I don’t fully understand. Even the doctors and researchers who study the neurology involved in pleasure can’t explain exactly why and how it happens (Support brain research!). But it’s important for everyone to know that depression and other psychological disorders cause physical changes in neurons and the neurotransmitters that flow around us to create what we feel.
You don’t fault a basketball player for coming out of the game when he shatters a tibia. The gruesome replay is so disturbing that CBS will only show it once. You understand immediately that something is terribly wrong. When someone struggles with depression or schizophrenia or Parkinson’s or substance abuse or eating disorders, there are invisible stress fractures throughout the mind that make dragging yourself back to the land of the living a thousand times harder than you feel like it should be. I snapped my thumb in half in the first quarter of a football game when I was 15 and didn’t come out of the game. I played three quarters with a broken hand. The next day, I listened to the nauseating crunch of the orthopedist re-breaking the bone to set it back in place. Nothing ever hurt nearly so awful as being sad everyday and not knowing why.
Just pull yourself up by the bootstraps. You simply have to snap out of it. If you don’t want to feel better, nothing will ever change. I think you just want the attention. Please, please, please, please nobody ever say these things to a depressed person. I thought about saying here that if you do someone should tear the veins slow and barehanded form your throat. But I am a rampaging advocate for two-way empathy between people who are depressed and their loved ones who want to help. I see the fraught desperation in your eyes, family members, you who are spooked by the zombie metamorphosis of your sons, daughters, spouses, parents, lovers, friends, and siblings. I acknowledge your sincere desire to help through tough love. And I know from experience that you are right about how activity helps beat back depression.
Tough loving care givers, your heart is in the right place. And I thank you for your concern. But I’m begging you to consider very carefully the way you phrase your encouragement. Remember the person on the other end listening to you has a severe physiological problem that squeezes out the ability to feel pleasure. There is no “just” or “simply” involved. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is part of beating depression. Feeling worse than you’ve ever felt in your life, you have to find a way to say goddamn it all I’m getting out of bed and dragging my ass to the shower anyway. It’s a death march to lumber those 4 meters to bath. You get there by some small banal miracle—that you’re too sad to appreciate or even notice—and you immediately lay back down to hide beneath the stream of warm water. Rest on your back. Close your eyes and let the heat from the current dissolve the tension like in one of those mindfulness cd’s where the sveltey voiced lady helps you blow all your negative energy into an imaginary cloud on the exhale. Sounds relaxing?
It’s not. With anhedonia, your brain doesn’t respond to things that should feel good like a long warm relaxing shower. In a recent Ted Talk, Andrew Solomon has described these moments of stupid, daily struggle with his typical breath-taking eloquence. You know all this effort for tiny things is absolutely ridiculous. If you usually have a good sense of humor, you might try to make a joke about how dumb it is for everything to be this hard. You won’t laugh though. Jokes aren’t funny with anhedonia. Can you think of anything more fucking wretched in life than losing your ability to laugh at jokes? Remember this when you are trying to motivate someone who is depressed. Jokes have stopped working because of abnormal neurology. I'd rather snap my thumb in half again.
If you can help someone be active anyway, those pleasure circuits eventually kick back to life and start firing again. But to support effectively you must first acknowledge how hard it is to do anything at all in this state. Rhetoric matters!
It wasn’t just football that I temporarily lost in those days. Cam Newton’s run, going to the movies at Opera, the Musee d’Orsay. A collection of paintings that has moved me and moved me every time I’ve gone back since I first saw them in the summer of 2000. Manet’s Blonde aux seins nus and Dammes aux eventails. I took a group of American high school students to see the art I love the most, and all I could think of while there was how much time I had wasted learning French language, literature, and culture. I had nothing to say about impressionist painting, never would again, and only wanted to race home and crawl back in bed. Everything felt lifeless. Running on the Champs de Mars, teaching, writing, reading, steak, pizza, duck confit, Proust! Montaigne, cooking, trips to the market, the Kaiser bakery around the block from our apartment and their almond croissants. Every morsel tasted like another endless helping of the same empty, stale mud.
If you know how I love running my mouth for vicarious War Eagle Tiger Glory, you might think I was relatively tame during the run up to the BCS Championship Game. I assure you I wasn’t. My brother, the bammer, recently introduced me to closed and hidden social media pages. Doubtless, I was more crass and obnoxious then I’ve ever been about a football game. I just took all my obscenity underground to a place of mutual consent where everyone had freely chosen to be part of a no holds barred trash talking group. Though even there, we briefly debated whether or not the cops should get involved monitoring the content of our posts.
Bama Bro and I have long had a very deep connection through humor, stretching to at least the mid-eighties watching and endlessly rehashing scenes from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I know you are but what am I? Oh! Our poor parents. We can go for long stretches without talking much, and we often did when I was out trying to conquer the world of Proust scholarship. After these long stretches though, our personal banter clicks back on instantly as soon as we speak. I know where he’s headed with his next crack before he hits it and vice versa. I haven’t had so much fun consistently interacting with him in a very long time.
The jokes are funny again. Auburn came within inches or seconds of the Mount Cam Pinnacle they summited in 2010, back when I was hell-plummeting through severe anhedonia. But for a blown hamstring on a kickoff coverage play and we might be talking about two national titles in the past four years. It didn’t go down the way I wanted it to, but, man!, I sure had a hell of a time coming in First Loser. WFE anyway.