Maybe one of the best things I learned in high school (apart from the C programming language) was how to think about depression.
It was one of those annoyingly frequent adolescent episodes where an adult tells you something you think you already know and don’t need to hear again, and then years later you realize, oh, that’s what he meant. It really was very simple. My health teacher was trying to impress upon the lot of us that there is no shame in mental illness, and that there should be no stigma attached to seeking help. He said (something along the lines of): you go to a surgeon to get surgery; you go to a doctor to set a broken arm; you go to a psychiatrist to treat depression.
In my experience, there are all kinds of good reasons to not get treatment. You’re a kid, and you don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about the particular way that you feel bad. You’re in high school, and there’d be something wrong with you if you weren’t full of angst. You’re in college, and it’s normal to feel isolated when you live away from home for the first time. All true.
I don’t remember what finally got me to retrace my steps past all the rationalizations and look at myself the way I’d look at anyone else. My dad probably figures into it, but I don’t really want to unpack that right now. Point is, or was, no, it’s not “normal” to nearly fail your afternoon class because you never feel like getting out of bed. It’s not “normal” to have to go hide in a bathroom stall for a while just to be where people can’t look at you. It’s not “normal” to be hungry all day and not want to eat. People have to eat. It feels weird to even write any of that, because I have never thought of myself as a person who does weird, unhealthy stuff. But I do, sometimes, and it sucks.
So one day, after sleeping into the afternoon and missing calculus, I thought, if I had a flu, I’d feel like shit and stay in bed and miss class and fall behind. Sounds familiar. But a flu goes away; I should be doing something to make this go away too. I thought, I have a flu in my head, and instead of dealing with it I’m just sort of sucking at everything. That’s no good! I should see a doctor.
When I started taking Wellbutrin, things got better, but in a way that is hard for me to explain. What I think people sometimes don’t see clearly is that the cost of depression is not the feeling bad part. I consider myself something of an expert on feeling bad, and let me tell you, there is a lot of comfort to be found in prolonged, self-indulgent melancholy. It can have all the nuance of a really nice wine, it’s easy to project, the people around you respond by trying to take care of you, and it provides a rationale for just about anything you want to do but know you really shouldn’t. Feeling bad can be so good that it becomes a habit—but breaking that habit is what counseling is for. At least in my experience, the worst part of depression is the enormous opportunity cost of not wanting anything. That’s what the Wellbutrin is for. It doesn’t make me happier, it makes me more motivated to do things that make me happy. It isn’t a panacea, but it sure as hell beats staying in bed all day.