Opinion by Richard Bleil
For pretty much my entire life, I’ve fought with depression, whether I was aware of it or not. As an child, I was very quiet and spent hours alone in my room. As mom and dad counted their blessings to have such a quiet and well-behaved boy, I wrestled with feeling like an outcast, never quite fitting in where I should.
In graduate school (late ’80’s to early ’90’s), my friends finally convinced me to seek a counselor. Without much income, I qualified to participate in a counselor-in-training program at a nearby teaching hospital, where I was diagnosed as “manic depressive”. These days there are at least a dozen variations and nuanced gray zones in this once all-encompassing diagnosis, but it all comes down to struggling with some form of depression. My therapist said that even on my best days, when I feel like I’m flying and elated (rare though it be), I’m probably still only about as happy as most people feel every day (lucky people). Such days are always followed up by a prolonged, and often unexplainable, crash, a very low low that lasts for days or even weeks, which, she said, was probably because I realized how happy I should be and that contributes to bring me lower than even my typical low. If that sounds like it sucks to be me, well, yeah, it kinda does.
But here is the point of today’s discussion; I find that my surroundings both reflect my current mood, and contribute to it. When I’m depressed, I really don’t care about my surroundings, things getting dirty, dishes piling up…it just isn’t important to me. If the depressive episode lasts only a day or two, it’s probably not a huge deal. I don’t generate a lot of dirt in that time. The reality is that I find it difficult to find the energy and motivation just to eat, basically to survive, let alone cleaning up after myself. I literally will spend days in bed, without eating, getting up to go to the bathroom, and right back to take a nap.
If the episode lasts a week, or a couple of weeks, or a month (and yes, it will, sometimes longer than just one), then things get really bad. They pile up, the house is dark all of the time, the dishes start to smell, the garbage piles up…it’s like a living hell. Now, when this happens, I’m still depressed, but as I look around at the dark house, I realize how much work I need to do, and that begins to weigh heavily on my mind. I’m ashamed at how disgusting the house is, I pray nobody will come visit because I don’t want them to see it, although I’m also desperately lonely and wish that somebody would. (Yes, conflicting thoughts is a part of my depression.) I want to get out and escape it, but can’t find the energy to do so, don’t want to do it alone, and can’t think of anything worth doing to motivate me to get up and get out. I sit in my house, slowly rotting away like a corpse in a mausoleum.
The irony is that I never want my public face to show my inner turmoil. It’s probably because I was raised as a man, and men don’t show their weaknesses. This might be why many men avoid blogs like this one, but even today, as vulnerable as I have been in these blogs, if you saw me walking down the street you probably wouldn’t see the inner struggles I have even as I write this. But, without the energy to dig my way out of these depressive holes, I still find energy to do things to keep up appearances. I still do laundry on a regular basis, shower, and shave. I still keep work appointments (but struggle with personal ones), and do my best to appear in control, at least in my own life. It’s odd really.
There was a time that I was so depressed, and my surroundings had slid to such a level that a good friend of mine took a day off to stop by my house to help me clean. I thanked her profusely, but could never thank her enough for what she did for me that day. But for me this is the first step to getting out of these states. I have to get up, and start to clean up the mess around me. This is actually a good thing. Not only does it make the house brighter, but it removes the stress of needing to clean from the checklist in my mind, and gives me a sense of accomplishment. I’ve learned, through the years, to keep an eye on my surroundings. When my house starts to fall into disarray, it’s a sign that I am heading for a depressive episode, sometimes even before I recognize the onset myself.
If you have a friend or loved one who suffers depression, I ask that you be tolerant of their living environment. It might just be a reflection of their inner struggles and turmoil. If you would like, and if they are willing, you can even help out. Having a partner to help with the work might be the motivation they need to start to pull themselves out of the hole, and you might be doing more for them than you realize.