What’s that old saying, “Those who can do and those who can’t teach”? I’ve never liked that. The snarky condescension, the dismissiveness towards those who educate, the idea that one can either do something or teach others how to do it themselves and the fact that it doesn’t actually make much sense — who wants someone who “can’t” teaching them? There is one time, however, when I feel this old adage so hard, when it feels true like nothing has ever felt true before, like I suspect I am the living, breathing, embodiment of its words, when I am pretty sure that the reason I teach is that I 100% CANNOT — when I am in the grips of a depressive episode.
I have centered my career on open discussions of mental illness. I focus my work on helping folks navigate depression on their own and with their partners so that everyone feels supported and safe. I work to help people understand that depression lies to us; that our society sets us up to face a whole lot of unfair stigma and, regardless of all of that, none of us are “broken.” In theory, I am a sex writer. In practice, I have become something more of a “relate-ability writer.” I write about sex, but make it clear that I’m not super sexy. I talk about mental illness, but I am open about the fact that I don’t have all the answers. I do things that people seem to think are very cool but, I am open about the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing and feel like everyone’s going to find out that I’m a big, huge loser any day now. When the depression kicks up though, it feels like I’m slipping one past everyone, like I’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes and managed to get everyone to look over there at all my shiny, inspirational openness while over here I’ve isolated, and shut down, and turn off. I’m known for being so open that no one notices depression makes me totally closed.
In some ways, this makes my life easier. I always say that building depression and introversion into my personal brand set me up beautifully for those times when I just can’t deal with people anymore. At conferences, when I disappear after speaking, folks just assume I’m off “introverting” — perfect. But I can’t seem to get the same thing to work for me in terms of depression. When my depression kicks up, as it has recently, I don’t feel like people understand. Instead, I feel like people are staring at me, waiting for me to do better, wanting to know more. Wondering why they bother reading my work or listening to me speak. In my mind, they are suddenly very aware that the book I’ve been working on for ages is nowhere near done, and won’t ever be. In that instant, I am convinced that people will catch on that I am a clear case of someone who “can’t” teaching.
So I hide.
I give my readers and colleagues little nods to clue them into how I’m not doing great and folks pat me on the back for how I model open and honest communication about depression (I’m painfully aware that I get this response because of my work and the bubble of people I surround myself with and that it’s a luxury) but if we’re being honest, that’s not why I do it. I do it to hit the cosmic pause button. I do it to brace everyone for the fact that they will not hear from me in the coming days/weeks/ however long. I do it for me.
I talk about self-care and teach people about Spoon Theory — the concept Christine Miserandino created to quantify the limited physical/mental/emotional resources — so we can speak in spoons and offer folks a ton of tools for navigating this stuff on their own and with partners and maybe that is what I’m doing for myself but, from where I’m sitting, it sure looks a lot like I’m buying myself some space, time, and peace so I can consume Netflix and silly Internet content in peace.
I make my living telling people that wherever they are is fine, that there’s no “wrong” way to be, and that we should be kinder to ourselves and each other. It all sounds lovely and people seem to like it. The problem comes when the shoe is on the other foot. When the fog settles around me and I can’t think, can’t write, can’t shower — you know, the fun stuff that comes with depression — it’s not so easy to tell myself that wherever I am is fine, I’m not broken, and I should be kind to myself because, honestly, all I can think is:
“I’m failing and it’s not okay, I’m totally fucked up, and I’m lazy, and have blown WAY too much time getting nothing done under the guise of being “kind “ to myself and now I’m terribly far behind and need to get my shit together. It’s problematic. I start to wonder if I “could”, wouldn’t I?”
Cue more lying on the couch watching some bizarre combination of true crime and HGTV, getting nothing done, slipping further down the spiral, listening to the voice that says “I can’t” getting louder and louder until I start thinking that I really don’t have any business trying to teach others anything. I question the value of the upcoming work on my agenda. I rethink the work I’ve already put out into the world. I become convinced that, not only can I not take care of myself, but that I probably don’t have the chops to be teaching anyone anything. Those who can do, those whose who can’t, teach.
But what about those who can’t teach?
So I hide even more. I do even less. I sink further down. At this point, it’s probably pretty clear where this is going.
There’s only so much I can hide, so far I can run, so much I can deny. I realize that I am building my own boogeyman and taking my cues from every unpleasant thing depression has ever told me.
In recent years I’ve learned to see the depression instead of trying to ignore it or wish it away in an ill-conceived attempt to be “normal”. This along with the process of educating a partner who had never (knowingly) been close to someone coping with mental illness made me much more aware of what is going on at all (ok, maybe just most) times. I’ve gotten better at identifying what’s happening when it happens. In the past, I didn’t recognize depressive episodes, I would just see their impact (the missed deadlines, the emotional messiness, the inability to function) and beat myself up because, obviously, it was just evidence that I was terrible. This process wasn’t easy. There’s a lot of stigma around the behaviors that come with depression and things I started off afraid other people would think had, at some point, grown into things I believed were true. I spent a lot of time having arguments with myself in an effort to undo the damage wrought by my own judgment. These days, I see it as it comes on. I can recognize it for what it is and name it. This, I have noticed, takes a bit of the bite out of depression. It’s revealing the punch-line to someone else’s joke before they finish. It’s getting my own back.
While developing a language for depression doesn’t make working during those episodes easier; it does make living during one a bit more do-able. Rather than stumbling through a terrifyingly dark cave with my hands out in front of me, at least now I have a flashlight. Consequently, instead of constant fear, I can find the moments of humor. Yeah, it sucks that I fall down the spiral and can’t get work done periodically, but I’m not going to pretend it’s not funny that I caught myself thinking “I haven’t written in a week but I just spent an hour debating why, if the Property Brothers (fuck it, I watch HGTV when I’m depressed.) are twins, do I only find one of them attractive?”.
I continually work on reminding myself what is actually “me”, what is depression, and what is depression’s interpretation of me. For example, when I am too overwhelmed and exhausted to clean my house, my immediate thought is, “I am lazy.” So, I take a minute to look at the facts: What other symptoms have I been experiencing? What other responsibilities have I been dealing with? Often I am forced to recognize that the facts dispute my immediate thought (in this case that I am “lazy”) and indicate that said thought is the result of depression. So, when I’m thinking “I can’t navigate depression myself and I can’t teach anyone anything” I can take a minute to examine the evidence: I have survived, to date, four extended depressive episodes and two decades of dysthymia— I can navigate depression, even if doing so sucks. As for the “can I teach?” question, that one is harder for me to listen to the evidence on but, looking at my work and the response it receives, I’m forced to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, I’m decent at my job.
Do these tricks make everything feel better? No. But I am no longer swallowed whole by depression, and I am learning new things about myself, about depression, about compassion, about empathy, with each episode. It used to be that my depressive episodes spat me out a bit worse for wear; these days, I seem to come out the other side a bit stronger, a bit bolder, and a bit wiser.
What these tricks do is help me help myself. They break the train of thought that makes me want to hide more, do less, and sink as far down as is humanly possible, even if just for a few minutes at a time. They interrupt that voice that is shouting “you have no right to teach people about this!” sometimes with logic, sometimes with humor, and they shut off that insidious loop in my head that shrieks “those who can do, those who can’t teach but fuck it, because you can’t do OR teach!!!” The tricks cut in and make space for me, not Depression-Brain Me but the bit of me that’s struggling to be heard under all the other stuff that’s going on, the me that would love nothing more than to turn off Forensics Files and get a ton of work done (but maybe isn’t there yet, because that happens). My tricks usher her to the front of the room and hand her the microphone so that she can have her say, which is great because I need that part of me to remind Depression-Brain Me of stuff when I’m really down in it.
We talk about being kind to ourselves and “self care” and people picture bubble baths and massages but sometimes it’s just about being realistic. No one has all the answers and no one can do all the things. No one is open all the time and being closed when I need to doesn’t nullify all of my openness. It’s never going to look “perfect” and that’s okay — there are plenty of folks out there selling “perfect” online. What I teach is the idea of “you get to be where you are, when you are there” and perhaps the best, most effective way for me to do that is to model that all of us, even the teachers, are sometimes in the bad places; the HGTV, insidious loop of sad thoughts, not feeling great, completely unmotivated places. In the end maybe it’s not a question of whether I “can”, maybe regardless of what I do, I AM teaching.
When it comes down to it, depression makes it feel like I just can’t do anything and it tells me I have no right to teach but, when I take a close, honest look at myself, it seems that maybe I can and I do and, even when I’m down; I teach . . . it’s just that sometimes I have to teach myself.