Sadness and depression are not the same.
What credentials do I have to make this claim?
None except experience.
I am a melancholy sort. Give me a cloudy day, please. Sometimes the sun is too bright for my mood. I want to tell the sun, “Stop trying to make me happy.”
Melancholy is generalized sorrow. Such an inner state is realistic and stoic. Melancholy can be a frequent mood, but it isn’t going to hold me down like depression.
I experience reassurance in melancholy.
I am wary when someone tells me, “Come to dinner; it will be fun.” I’m not against fun. And I will go. However, I will laugh a little quieter, ponder a sentence longer than my friend.
I can live this way, maybe even be grateful that I see the world as a shade more gray than others. Leave yellow sunshine for others. I am not that color today.
Gray inside is sadness, not depression.
My next-door neighbor dies. He lives for 92 years. For three years, he lives in acute pain. During the last year of his life, he invites me to visit once a week.
He tells stories about the Korean War (our ration was beans without meat).
He describes going to church (the homily doesn’t work for me, but the host and wine always do).
My neighbor is an Irish Catholic. He refers to his friends, not by name but by their homeland or]racial-ethnic identity.
He loves “My German,” who takes him to breakfast at McDonald’s every Saturday.
He misses his Latino buddy, the man with a soft voice who he meets at cardiac rehab.
Looking out the window, he remembers the Italian co-worker who walks up the sidewalk, rings the doorbell, handing him a bowl of homemade spaghetti sauce.
My friend dies. That’s it. His life is over almost complete (is any life ever complete, even at 92?).
I feel sad. That week I drive to the hardware store, past the Church where my Irish Catholic received the Eucharist every week before his illness.
I grieve. I am not depressed.
Yet, three times in my life (please, no more), I’ve experienced major depression, most recently treatment-resistant depression.
Depression is a disease. There is absolutely no doubt, an all too often fatal disease.
When depressed, my whole body hurts from the top of my head to my smallest toe below.
I cannot walk a block. My body carries a forty bound weight, like a large bag of bird seeds.
My brain is fried. Flames have burned away my true self (even my false self).
Dramatically, I claim, I am no one, nowhere. It is like I have been thrown into the grave with my friend; whispering the cliche, I might as well be dead. My brain is broken (oh, would it be a broken wrist instead).
This is not sadness. Sadness is watching the sunset knowing that not everything went well today; living the sober thought that this is okay for now.
When major depression kidnaps those unseen neurons of my brain, I long for sadness, sorrow, grief. Anything is better than this brute who divides my life from the comfort of gray skies and kind neighbors.
In grief, the only medicines I need are tears. And the memory of a friend telling me how he and his army mates did receive beans with meat, once overseas, at the end of a long march (the meat was a piece of fat smaller than a fingertip).
In depression, I need more medicine than what works. Let’s mark the list: Luvox, Paxil, Pamelor, Klonopin, Lamictal, Effexor, Wellbutrin, Desyrel. I receive electroconvulsive treatment, which erases my memories, like looking into the bright, yellow sun burns away sight. My memories are tossed into the sky somewhere, far away from my brain.
I miss my neighbor. He told me once, “I get sad just sitting here but then I think sadness isn’t so bad. My heart is beating. I have my home, and my German friend is taking me to McDonald’s today.”
A year ago, I was sick with depression. The only thing I can do is throw seed out to the birds once a week and then back to bed. I am alone by choice. I hear the clock tick away every minute of the day. I memorize the sound as the furnace sends heat through the vents; two clicks, a pause, a third click, then the wind of warm air moving from the basement to my cell above.
I hear family footsteps, I shake. I am so ill that I recoil from anyone seeking to be near.
My isolation is not sadness. Solitary confinement is treatment-resistant major depression, and I have no idea when the day will come when plain sadness will extinguish the flames. I will feel shiny and new, carrying a warm melancholy wherever I go.
And I do go. I force myself to do more than toss the birdseed onto the grass. I walk the block.
My neighbor is sitting in a chair on his front porch; with a walking cane next to him.
He sees me. “Come here,” he says.
“Where have you been?”
I say, hesitantly, “I’ve been in the hospital with depression.”
My neighbor holds his left hand, touching his forehead as if to protect himself from the sun.
“Well, you know,” he says, “You aren’t the only one in this neighborhood who gets depressed.”