by Michael Phelps, 20-time Olympic Gold Medal Champion
It’s difficult to describe depression to someone who does not suffer from depression. Human nature dictates we reference a personal experience to relate to others, so the non-clinically depressed reference the loss of a loved one or a tough semester in college to relate. Often, they conclude it must be external elements that fuel clinical depression.
It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea of their brain chemistry being the culprit. It’s been my experience that large swaths of the population think depression is some footnote in the DSM, a symptom of being tired or bored. Some people react with self-righteous indignation.
“Listen, Bill, I’m not happy all the time either. But I suck it up, and go on with my day. Life is hard, man.”
The clinically depressed have heard some version of this dazzling pep talk any number of times.
“Oh, life is difficult? I thought that life was supposed to be all trampolines and Rice Krispies Treats. This comes as a total shock, but now that I know that life’s default position is ‘fucked,’ according to you, Assistant Manager at Forever 21 & Official Human Condition Expert. I’ll readjust for this new paradigm.”
For me, it’s not about sad. “Sad” is when I realize that a new episode of Breaking Bad is postponed for a week. Now, depression is when I truly understand that I am going to die alone, and everything that I am, everything I have worked so hard to build and rebuild, to construct and demolish, everything I think is important and true, my existence — this brief fleeting spark of consciousness — will be stifled and forgotten. My bones will turn to dust, and I will be washed away into the cold, infinite ether of the universe.
It’ll be like I was never here. I will be nothing. Lost in the void. I will be forgotten. And also… I have to wait until Sunday for the next-to-the-last episode of Breaking Bad.
For me, depression surreptitiously manifests itself in all sorts of tricky ways.
Depression is hysterically sobbing while watching West Wing reruns and eating a $15 store-bought red velvet cake with a serving spoon.
Depression is hating myself, but still compulsively wandering onto improvised stages in dive bars and failing bowling alleys and trying to make strangers laugh in 4-minute bursts.
Depression is staring at the endless collection of deodorants at Target, trying to decide, “am I a Pure Sport kind of guy, or a Pacific Surge man?” and concluding that I am going to die someday and none of this matters…and Speedstick is probably a good utility antiperspirant.
It’s not about being happy, either. “Happy” makes me uncomfortable. It’s a turbulent emotional condition, like rage. It’s unpredictable and irrational and hard to accurately judge the intentions of the person consumed by it.
It’s the same reason people are afraid of clowns.
If you are exuding that much unabashed joy, then the only reasonable conclusion is that you have come untethered from reality and you’re probably a dangerous individual.
Happy is, and should be, a short-term condition. Joy allows the symbolic self to flourish and temporarily mute the static hiss of a dangerous, cold, ambivalent universe.
It allows us to forget about all the shit.
Happy is a temporary denial of the truth. Although indispensable and necessary, it’s no way to live a life.
I’ve seen what “happy” does to people over the long term. People who insist that they are happy end up having psychotic breaks and intentionally punching the nose of their minivans into the front window of a McDonald’s after the drive-thru kid accidentally shorts them a McNugget in their Happy Meal.
I just want to be alright. I want to be 80%. I want to be a toothless smile. I want to know I am going to die in the same way I know I should revere the last piece of pizza. I want to learn to appreciate the unbelievable miracle of consciousness, however brief. I want to be okay with temporary. I don’t want to spend my life rushing to build sandcastles, hoping I won’t be forgotten. I want to be okay with being sad sometimes. I want to be okay with being happy sometimes.
“Listen, Bill, I’m not happy all the time, either. But I suck it up and go on with my day. Life is hard, man.”
Yeah, life is hard but, I haven’t eaten a red velvet cake in months; I’m not sweatin’ McNuggets, and the Breaking Bad finale is just a week and a half away.
So I guess I’m alright.