One person’s sea otter is another person’s pot-smoking dog-mermaid (this graffiti was photographed near Lake Washington, Seattle, WA).
“Just get over it”, they said. And really all I wanted to do was crush their toe with my foot.
Maturity comes with time.
Nowadays I understand the impulse behind the statement. The sheer terror of witnessing someone you care about descend into the turbulent darkness of their own minds. The horror when you realize that you are not in control; nothing you do is good enough; and this might not end well. Nobody likes to feel powerless.
“Just get over it,” they said, because they were afraid. Wouldn’t it be such a relief, they thought, if that person over there, me, with the filthy clothes, and the stench of sweat, just decided to get their life together? It would mean not having to look at their – my – suffering. Suffering is what happens when you give in to your base impulses, letting your mind wander without self-restraint into places it wasn’t meant to go, like depression. Giving in means it’s a choice. And if it’s a choice you can change it. Right?
I remember going to see the doctor and filling in a questionnaire about my mental state. I was a 21-year-old university student and suicidal. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with major depression. He explained that I was experiencing a chemical imbalance, or a deficit of happy chemicals and that if I took antidepressants, we could get my chemicals back under control. Think of it like someone with diabetes, he said. A diabetic has to monitor insulin levels but once the levels are balanced they can live a satisfying, rich life. I so wanted to believe that, but it just didn’t feel right. Or rather, it didn’t make me feel much better.
I mean, diabetes (at least, Type II) is also the result of certain life choices. My grandmother was diabetic. She was also overweight and loved sweets. She died young as a result of diabetes, my mother told me. Would I die young because of my depression? If she was unable to balance the chemicals in her body would I have any more success balancing the chemicals in my brain? What if I didn’t have the will power? I felt weak and hopeless and incapable of anything good.
Besides, maybe I was better off dead. If I was born with a chemical imbalance, as the doctor seemed to think, then maybe I was a failure of evolution and should be weeded out of the human gene pool.
But something else was bothering me. Everybody experiences low moods. Some people are able to bounce back from those dark moods much more effectively than others. Why? Was it their brain chemicals? Was it will power? Didn’t the media proclaim: “If you want something badly enough, you can get it”? Even the Bible said so: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20). Why, then, was I not able to overcome my so-called chemical imbalance through faith or will power? It must mean that I am a bad, weak person.
Telling a depressed person to “get over it” is a little like telling an amputee to just get up and walk. In both cases you are likely to face an angry response.
I tried the pills – and overdosed on them in an impulsive attempt to kill myself. I liked the irony of dying by anti-depressant. I survived and realized that pills alone were not the answer to my problems. The thought of death, too, brought little comfort. What if all that happened was that my energy, my suffering would leave my earthly body and float like a ghost through time for all of eternity? Around this period I discovered writings from people who belonged to my tribe. Like me, they struggled to fit in and lived between genders. This blew my mind. I started to explore gender and, more specifically, my masculine side. I cut my hair short and didn’t correct strangers who addressed me as “he”. It was nerve-wracking and exhilarating.
I started appearing publicly as a man and got a job at an on-demand publishing company that seemed to barely notice my gender expression. That I could live comfortably in my skin, be employable and feel optimistic about my life was a mental revolution for me. I stopped taking antidepressants altogether and focused on transitioning to male full-time. This meant testosterone injections bi-weekly, a more masculine wardrobe and informing friends and family. Some accepted it more readily than others. The depression lifted despite some particularly painful family interactions which saw me ostracized from my parents. Despite the pain, I saw hope at the end of this dark and stormy tunnel that was my life. I didn’t yet know what my life’s meaning was or what I had to contribute to this world, but I was beginning to understand that my life had value.
I was not weak, or depraved, or a waste of earthly space. I had some say over my life.
It’s ten years later now. It’s hard to remember how it felt in that place my mind went, where the darkness ran so deep it felt like I was rotting from the inside out. I understand now so much more of the dynamics of the illness that gripped me, the “major depression” that in the eyes of the doctor was simply a chemical imbalance that needed pills thrown at it.
Healing is a life-long journey, and perspective is the ocean we sail along. It’s constantly shifting. Today-me would tell then-me to not listen to the critics who have nothing better to offer than “just get over it”, because today-me understands that while the expression is perhaps well-meaning and inspired by fear and love, it isn’t helpful. Instead, healing only comes when you get “into” something, deeply, completely. And once you’re in, you get to rearrange the puzzle-pieces of your life the way you want. I got into my depression, alright. Deeply, painfully. It nearly destroyed me but it didn’t. I survived. And that makes me strong.
My tortured history made me the person I am today, and I like that person. Many people do. Today-me values then-me and thanks them. Because of you, today, I’m building the life I want – one puzzle-piece at a time. Thank you.