Song #25 // The Lumineers, “Cleopatra” [Cleopatra]

I have depression.

I’m not depressed. Or sad. Or blue. Or simply an introverted asshole. Nope. I have a clinically-diagnosed chemical imbalance that is the cause of (not the result of) emotional and psychological issues. It’s depression.

(Ahh-ha! exclaim the ex-girlfriends, friends, and colleagues. That explains it!)

It’s been official for a few years now, but I’ve always felt it. Always known it. I’ve known it the way a homosexual child knows he’s gay years before he understands sex. I’ve known it the way a girl knows that he’s a boy long before he understands gender. I’ve known it the way a bird knows to flap its wings the first time it catches flight. I’ve known it long before I knew what it was.

How else can you explain my near-daily bouts of crying in elementary school, my bursting into tears during a homeroom lesson, ushered into a quiet corner and calmed down by a teacher, later unable to articulate and explain what was the matter inside of me when my mom was called in, instead only able to mutter that I was “sad”? How many hours afterward were spent trying to get me to explain what had made me sad, because surely it was something that happened, something that someone did or said, something that was external to my inner stasis, right?

How else can you explain my high school years where I was captain of teams, a darling of my after-school jobs, president of nearly every club imaginable, and even homecoming king? You know that movie Rushmore? That was based on my high school years. If you doubt me, look up the RCHS yearbook from 1997. I’ll be on every page.

And yet I had no friends. Almost literally none. I spent my free time listening to Morrissey and writing poetry. I spent my time imagining a way, and a world, out. I ate lunch with a mentally disabled kid I barely knew, a much younger kid from my rowing team, and my beard of a girlfriend. Was I gay? I wish. Did I think I was better than everyone? Exactly the opposite.

How else can you explain my need to be loved, my serial dating and hoping for everlasting faith? How else can you explain needing to be invited out, sitting at the end of large dinner party tables and feeling completely alone? How can you explain such a dichotomy of feeling, when the only emotion upon returning home is guilt, and maybe a bit of relief?

None of that is completely in my past, of course. With apologies to my Scientologist readers, modern medication lives up to its billing. Therapy works as well for me as it can for anyone, although admittedly I don’t go, and even further I kinda wish everyone did, myself included. How much more empathetic and understanding could we all be if we simply turned our focus inward for 60min segments each week?

And yet despite all of this certainty. Despite all of this self-awareness and something that borders on a nascent inner-confidence I still keep all of this hidden (well, till now, of course.) I don’t check disability boxes. Don’t share the knowledge with my closest friends and family members. I still feel as if I have to sneak into a psychiatry office. I feel inferior, and either give in to that feeling, or try to over-correct it, the way a car tries to turn against an icy road. Northern drivers know to turn with the slide. But not me. Not us.

And why? It’s a disease like any other. Mitch Hedberg had a joke along the lines of “Alcoholism is the only disease that you can get yelled at for having.” But even alcoholics are celebrated for seeking treatment for their (often behavioral) disease. It’s public and rarely rare. When I visit Notre Dame each fall for a football game, the local AA chapter meeting is right there on the weekend program, just across campus from the thousands of people binge-drinking behind their cars.

And yet here’s depression, a cruel mental suffering not unlike the equally evil cousins dementia and Alzheimer’s, and we bury it. When celebrities discuss it openly they’re often lauded as being brave. Those instances, even when celebrated, are fleeting.

Instead they’re carried silently by the kids at the edge of the playground, by the teens unwittingly trying to self-diagnose late at night into diaries, and by the adults who are misunderstood as quiet/arrogant/insecure/selfish when they’re simply trying to figure out their place in this world.

There’s no bravery in publicly admitting any of this. It was passed down to me from generations who equally combated alcoholism and myriad other diseases living just beneath the surface of my gene pool. And yet it’s been presented as my cross to bear. My personal burden.

Maybe writing this sheds that weight just a little bit.

Maybe all I need is some help carrying it.

This is an excerpt from my “Self, Help!” manuscript How to be a Good Dude.

This marks the commercial turn in this year’s list, with one of the only songs to be played across the FM spectrum with equal love. Ironic then that I almost kept it off for just that reason, eh? In our world–a world I’m very much co-creating–popularity can be a four-letter word. Well, screw that. Any song that can so expertly combine stomping melody like a drum bouncing down a mountain with folk-wisdom lyrics like:

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

is OK with me. If anything I wish sentiments like these were more popular, more out in the open, less shadowed in certain corners.