Note. This is unedited and upon second reading, I've decided to keep it that way. To me, what came out, digressive, at times not making a clear argument, tense shifts, grammar embarrassments, etc. are EXACTLY how my brain is working.
A while back I was commissioned to write a solo performance piece on the theme of “waking up.” Immediately I thought back to an idea I had sketched out last year. It was a monologue about a woman trying out to become a team mascot and how important wearing the mask was to her. When we put on masks, we can become different people. We purposefully hide our true selves. Oftentimes, this is a good thing.
For months, I struggled with the play. It wasn’t working in part because I hadn’t yet figured out what it was really about, and in part to my recent diagnosis: Major Depression. (I feel that deserves to be all caps). I wasn't shocked at the diagnosis; it'd been a long time coming. Meaning, it had been a long time coming for me to acknowledge it and get myself to a doctor and a long time coming to consider any kind of treatment. You see, I had been struggling for quite some time. Years. Stuggling, but handling. "I'm handling it," has been (still is?) my motto. That’s the PRIDE some of us with this disease feel when we decide to not treat our illness.
“I’m handling it," I said.
"I'll scream louder, then," said my Depression.
I noticed my inability to read more than a sentence or two without losing my concentration. Next, I struggled to comprehend ideas. Everything was confusing and tossed around in various places in my head like all the laundry I’d flung around my bedroom. Chaos.
Then, memory loss.
Besides the general and sometimes debilitating malaise, writing became my biggest struggle. Which sucks when you’re a writer.
Creating new ideas was somewhat easier (still, they were fewer and farther between) than engaging the real craft: revision. With a muddy mind, lack of concentration, and inability to comprehend simple concepts, there was no way I could revise my work. Writing became insurmountable. Logical script fixes confused and overwhelmed me. Outside of the malaise, losing my ability to craft story was the most frightening symptom of all. When it goes, you’re gone. And I was gone.
I handled lying on the couch for hours.
I handled canceling plans and obligations.
I handled crying or worse, lack of empathy.
I handled the voice in my head saying stupid nonsensical things about my self worth.
But I couldn’t handle not writing. Well, at least not elegantly or with grace. I knew what I needed to do: give the fuck up. All of it. Writing, producing, going to theater, seeing friends…
As the deadline for the second draft of my play approached, my panic increased. I relived, over and over, the nightmare that was last year’s revision fiasco with another play I had been commissioned to write. For a year, I knew what wasn’t working in the play and for a year I kept going down a rabbit hole. I couldn’t save the play because I couldn’t make my mind work. I wanted to play with language and rhythm—I wanted the dialogue to dance on the page—but the rhythm in my head was an incoherent mess. of Noise. So much noise. It was the beat of my brain, thus became the beat of the play.
Here's how it kind of goes:
1. Open the play.
2. Read the play.
3. Close the play.
4. Call friends to read the play.
5. Beg friends to give you feedback on play.
6. Understand the feedback (my goodness, yes, that was SO simple, how did I not see it?).
7. Be excited that you think you know how to revise your play.
8. Open the play.
9. Stare at play.
10. Understand nothing.
10. Close the play.
It got bad enough I stopped opening up the play, anymore. I gave up.
Or rather, I failed.
Let’s pause here a moment and consider failing.
Is it such a terrible thing? No. I mean, I know this logically, and there’ve been many creative people who’ve been quoted on the virtues of failing, so obviously failure is good. Good for the soul. A lesson in there somewhere…
So, I tried to accept failure (and thought I had). But I’m learning now that I only wish I had.
Sure, sure. Lessons learned and all. But to someone with depression, failure is this little insidious blot that mixes in with disappointment you’re sure others have in you and colors everything around you a despondent, drab grey.
Speaking of despondent...
Recently, I went to a theater event with a friend. It was a terrific site-specific play where we had to traverse paths, stairs, and the Sutro baths ruins. It was a remarkably clear day, but punctuated by the typical cold San Francisco winds coming off Ocean Beach. I'd been looking forward to it. I'd been looking forward to spending time with my friend, a beautiful, funny man, who appears to have boundless energy (his mask?) and enthusiasm.
Anyway, we go. It's beautiful. The sets, the costumes, the environment, my friend. But it's also three hours. Three hours of being out in public. Three hours (five if you count the drive there and back) where I'd have to engage. Where I'd have to put on my mask.
My bandwidth for being engaged has shortened dramatically in the last year. Within an hour or two, I zone out. I disengage. I can no longer make small talk or laugh sincerely at jokes. I can't answer questions (and if you start asking me questions, I experience them as if their being delivered by a machine gun.) I get mentally tired. I get physically tired. I close down and get quiet.
After the show my friend turned to me and yelled (depression brain magnifies sound), "Did you LVOE it?!"
I replied, "Yeah. I liked it." And I really did. I really liked it, but all I could muster was a bland, "yeah." I couldn't level up to any amount of enthusiasm. I had disengaged.
Later, on the drive home he asked what was up and I told him. And I felt bad because he'd been looking forward to this day, and my blankness, my dullness, had to have taken the joy out of it for him.
GUILT. That's the point I was getting to with this digression. Guilt of letting people down. FEAR of their DISAPPOINTMENT in you.
Let's rewind back to the play: . "[T]o someone with depression, failure is this little insidious blot that mixes in with disappointment you’re sure others have in you and colors everything around you a despondent, drab grey. "
Normally, this would cause me enough anxiety to get shit done. I hate letting people down. It’s THE WORST. But this time, I was beginning to feel something new: not giving two fucks about anyone else (but, like, not in a good way).
I wanted to GIVE UP. All of it. And to do that, I had to convince myself there was no hope.
I told myself I was washed up. I would never write another play. Ever. Hell, I didn’t even want to walk my dog. I was/am the worst.
Oh. And to hell with everyone (not really) who keeps saying “you can do it.”
Can we talk about how destructive it is to hear “You can do it!” No, Walt. No, I can’t. And sometimes, that’s the truth of it. And when I see my limits and you’re still saying, “you can do it,” all I feel is pressure and inadequacy. I don’t feel heard. Sometimes I can’t do it. Sometimes I don’t want to do it. And I resent being expected to do it.
Which leads us to OBLIGATIONS. We all have them. They're necessary. (I mean, I can't back that up with science, but it seemed like the thing to say).
Obligations. Clearly not giving two fucks about letting other people down doesn’t last long for people like me. So, I land back at the screen, staring at this new play about mascots and masks and crying and admitting I’d have to pull out of the project. For the first time ever. I’d have to send a humiliating email to the theater and tell them I couldn’t fulfill my obligation. I’m an asshole.
Quitting. Sometimes, it’s the right thing. Sometimes walking away is the better choice. Right?
One perceptive and kind friend asked me recently, “Maybe you’re doing too much?” Yeah. He gets me. Sometimes it’s okay to say no. Learning to say no is as important as saying yes, taking risks, and challenging yourself. It’s a balance I’m struggling to learn, but felt more comfortable exploring considering the alternatives (churning out a crap play, disappointing people, and being a blight on the theater’s reputation).
So I sent the email.
But. I wouldn’t be me if I had fully embraced letting go. Instead, I asked for an extension. One last shot before pulling out, before disappointing everybody I’ve ever known (these peopleà, “you can do it”) and having them think I’m an unreliable boob and who will never want to work with me ever, ever, again.
Anyway, this other thing happens. I have “up” moments. I get shit done. I have ideas, I want to do all the things, and yeah, I over-commit.
Fortunately, the second deadline was nearer to one of these episodes, in that I had the energy to sit up straight for a prolonged period of time. The concentration was still shit, but this other half of me wouldn’t acknowledge it.
I opened the play and felt the same wave of despair. How do I fix this? What is this play about? Why is she auditioning and not already in the role? It was that last question that did it for me. She’s already wearing the mask. She’s already performing. I started typing, and as I did, I realized the play I had been writing was not about “normal” people wearing their “normal” public masks, blah, I was writing an exploration of identity through depression, and the performance of mental illness!
I had a breakthrough. Not only as a writer, but as someone with clinical depression. Through this play, and now this post, I’m able to acknowledge what I had been avoiding.
I am depressed.
And I’m not always handling it.