In my last year of college, 1968-9, the improvisational theatre group I was part of rehearsed on a stage in a coffee house. Not only our group rehearsed and performed there, but singers and other performers, sometimes famous ones. That was where I heard Odetta, Tim Buckley, Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. At a vigil for peace in Vietnam, Joan Baez was seated behind me and, at one point, started singing “The Dove Is A Pretty Bird.” Can you imagine suddenly and unexpectedly, from right behind you, hearing her voice burst out in song? It was shockingly beautiful.
One night, Joni Mitchell performed there. It was winter and she had just broken up with a boyfriend. Every song she sang, even the upbeat ones, was a song about sadness.
At that time, I was dealing with a form of depression, but didn’t have the insight to name it that. There were days I felt I was being attacked from within. I would have a good time, talking with friends, dancing, and suddenly felt like I had no right to have a good time. I had to do something great first ⎼ change the world and prove my self-worth, or at least get a good paying job.
That night, I was totally absorbed in Joni Mitchell’s singing. But after her last set ended, any pleasure I had taken in the music turned into pain. I left the coffeehouse on my own without saying goodbye to my friends, got on my motorcycle, and took off. I drove into a storm of my own making, to freeze the pain so it could no longer touch me.
Depression is not just a lowered mood. The word means to press down, weaken, and reduce, as in to reduce the information you take in, or to feel the weight of the world press down on you. You might fear a situation is reducing, stealing your life from you and you are not strong enough to stop it. Depression makes the world look so dark you can’t see much of it, certainly not see anything that might lighten it up. Sometimes, you don’t even see who or what stands in front of you. And your ideas about life and reality can be as rigid as the metal bars of a jail cell. Finding the key to let yourself out can be difficult.
Or maybe it’s wrong to say that depression dims the light. It is more accurate to say that when the light is dimmed by your neurochemistry or your response to a situation and you feel locked in a jail cell of your mind and can’t find the key ⎼ then you are depressed.
I have a vague memory, which I’m not sure is accurate, of my father telling me that if I tried to make a living as a writer, I’d end up as a bum on the Bowery. Or maybe I subconsciously stole that image from somewhere, like a Henry Miller novel, and imposed it on my Dad ⎼ or on myself. I feared that if I worked at something creative, like writing or acting, or some profession I really liked, I’d wind up a Bowery Bum. Maybe my writing and acting was a way to rebel against that fear. Such a disturbing image can lock up your mind….
**To read the whole post, discover the conclusion of the piece and ways to better care for ourselves and our families or friends, go to The Good Men Project.