My friend Mary struggles with depression. She has always suffered from this malady, the “Irish flu" as we laughingly call it (when she is able to laugh, that is). Currently she is in a downward spiral, which is sad to see and at times frightening to be around. The other day I went to visit her. It was mid-day on a Wednesday. When I got there she was in bed, in a dark room, blinds drawn shut against the dazzling winter light. She had been in bed since 2 p.m. the previous day. "Don't you want to get up?" I asked. "I can't" she responded. "I just don't have the energy." Granted, Mary is no spring chicken but I know that her lying there in that bed staring at the ceiling had absolutely NOTHING to do with her age. So I did my best to keep her company. I tried in vain to read her the New York Times headlines. "This world" she whispered as I read to her… "this world is nothing but a cesspool."
“Here we go again" I thought to myself. "Alrighty then, moving on" I countered, "there is a wonderful exhibit currently showing about the fashion designer Christian Dior and the history of the house of Dior. Would you like to see some photos from the exhibit?" "No" she said flatly. "But why not?" I asked, bewildered. When not consumed with depression, Mary was very interested in the arts. Dance, theatre, photography, opera, music, fashion. "I don't care" she said. "Just take a peek" I insisted, showing her an image on my phone. "Stop it" she snapped at me. "I'm not interested."
I found myself suddenly deeply frustrated, so I decided to do a little test. It was my “Hail Mary” attempt at getting a smile out of her. However fleeting. An attempt to make my visit a success. Because that's what I wanted, just one small smile from her. A flicker of happiness to combat the gloom in that room. I felt like a knight going into battle, me against her depression, and I was hellbent on winning. Also, I have to admit, as I sat there I was getting increasingly uncomfortable. The depression in her darkened room felt very contagious. Sticky. Like malevolent velcro. I had the panicky feeling that if I stayed there much longer I would catch whatever she had and then any spark of joy I had smoldering within me would be extinguished, permanently. I felt, shamefully, that she was trying to pull me down into the depths of despair with her. I don't blame her for this. I grew up around chronic debilitating depression. I know what it looks like. I know what it feels like. I know what it smells like. In my experience depression is a toxic stew of hopelessness, lethargy, and enthusiasm for nothing but the eventual release from this earthly plane. And if the depressed person tries to pull others down with them I believe that that too is part of the disease.
"Ok" I said, starting my test after we had descended into a baleful silence with her staring at the ceiling and me staring at her. "Last thing. I promise. Just take a look at this." I held my phone in front of her eyes as she lay there, not even trying to hold the phone herself. She seemed unable to even lift her arms. Her body was as heavy and immobile as lead with the depression taking up residence in her mind. "What is that?" she said as she tried to make out what was happening on the screen being held in front of her eyes. "Those are baby goats" I told her. "What?" She opened her eyes a little wider. "Baby goats" I repeated, "as in goats, but babies." "What are they wearing?" she asked."Baby goat pajamas" I informed her. "And what are they doing?" she asked, the agitation rising in her voice. "They're having a party. Look, that's why they are jumping up and down on the hay bales. It's a baby goat pajama party. I watch it every day. It makes me smile." "Why would anyone in their right mind film that?" she looked up at me, suddenly irritated, angry even. "Well why wouldn't they?" I asked. "It's the cutest thing. I can't help but smile when I watch it.” "Turn it off" she demanded. "Are you sure?" I asked. "Yes, turn it off. It's idiotic." "Well yes, maybe it is 'idiotic' but it’s also adorable and it makes people happy." "Not me" she said. "It doesn't make me happy." "Why not?" It was obvious that I was losing this battle. She was quiet for several seconds and then she sighed, a defeated and exhausted sigh, like the last breath before death sort of sigh. Her eyes were now closed. "I hate goats" she said. "They stink. And you must know that historically goats have always been associated with the devil." How was I going to counter that? The freaking devil? Satan himself? "But surely not the baby goats?” I begged her."Yes" she assured me, "even the babies."
And then I knew that my visit was in vain. And I was pissed off. I saw that nothing that I could do or say or present was strong enough to break through the iron veil of her depression. The cutest puppy, kitten or baby in the world would not snap her out of it. Not even a posse of baby goats in baby goat jammies having a big old party. I couldn't break through that day. I had lost the fight. And so I left.
It was maddening, that visit. I had been witnessing her depression for years. Several decades to tell the truth. And something snapped that day. Honestly, what I wanted to do after I left her apartment was to run back and give her a talking to. I wanted to slap her across the face and drag her from the bed. "Get up! Get up goddammit" I would yell, pulling off the covers and grabbing her arms while jerking her upright. "You need to get your life together! Enough of this bullshit! I'm sick of it!” I would pull her skeletal body into an upright position, shaking it furiously and screaming into her face "there is nothing wrong with you! Do you hear me? NOTHING!!! Snap out of it. Stop it. Just stop it!!!!"
But then I remember myself in active addiction. I was a sneaky addict so no one ever had to slap me across the face or pull me out of a bed but I didn't really need that anyway. I would scream at myself. Scream at myself in my head all day long or sometimes even into into the mirror, just like I wanted to scream into Mary’s depressed face. "What's wrong with you?" I would say, unable to stop using drugs and alcohol and horrified at myself for that. "Just stop it. STOP IT. Just stop drinking already" I would yell at myself. But on my own, I could not. Like my depressed friend, I was paralyzed. And that experience allows me to have compassion and empathy for her and what she is going through today. My mind, like hers, has also been my own worst enemy at times.
Our mutual friends will call me, ready to give up on Mary entirely. "I'm sick of her moaning" they will complain. "She needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps." "First of all" I will admonish them, "that bootstrap nonsense is physically impossible. I've tried it and I know. You just topple over AND strain your back. And secondly, this is not her fault. It's certainly not her choice. She is incapacitated because she has an illness. I know what it’s like because I’ve been there myself."
For now I don't think I can really help my friend. I can only visit and keep her company. She refuses doctors, medication, help of any kind. Her depression comes and goes, affecting her and everyone around her like a bleak, exhausting fog. She did say to me once "I don't know what happened exactly. I don't think there was one specific incident. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was thirteen and everything just sort of went grey. Just like that, from one day to the next. A thin veneer of sadness just sort of settled over everything and I've never been the same since". It was heartbreaking.
I'll continue to be there for my friend. I’ll try to be as empathetic and patient with her as the people in the rooms of A.A. were to me when I first walked in. Living an addicted life, I didn't know how to help myself at first. I leaned on my Higher Power and the people in the rooms of A.A. and that saved my life. I hope my friend eventually gets some relief. A respite from her demons. I have seen her break free from the grip of deep depression before so I have faith that it can happen again. As for me and my "Irish flu", I continue to do the work it takes to keep myself happy and in gratitude. That starts with being an active member of A.A. and doing service. I also pray and meditate and try to be of help to my family and others. And if I've done all that and I still feel down I know that I can always re-boot my joy by watching those wonderful baby goat pajama party videos. On repeat.