It’s 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. I’m at my job where I work as a reporter. I’ve just finished filing a breaking news story. My editor commends me for building relationships with sources and getting a scoop on information before anyone else. I share my story on social media and it immediately rakes in good numbers, becoming the most-read story on our website. This is the fifth story of mine in the past five days that has been the most-read on our website. I’m doing well at this job. My boss said I have the most potential out of our team. He said he envisions me taking on a leadership role in the near future. This is the first real job where I felt I made a living wage doing what I love: writing, learning and talking to interesting people. Objectively, these are the best days of my life so far, but that’s not what I’m thinking about.
I’m thinking about all the ways I am a failure. I’m thinking about how this job, which I came into four years after finishing school, is paid about $10,000 less than the average college graduate’s first job. I’m thinking about how my student loans are so high I have to ask my parents for financial assistance. I’m thinking about how it’s been five years since I graduated college and I’m still reliant on my parents. I’m thinking about the dreams I’ve already given up on like writing a screenplay or producing an original short film. I’m thinking about how my father lived under an oppressive government where people were scared to say what they thought and how he convinced his girlfriend to leave everything she’s ever known to marry him on a bus to Rome so they can be sent to the United States together. I’m thinking about how the Augustyn lineage began hundreds of years ago, surviving natural disasters, world wars and the loss of independence of my ancestral homeland, Poland, only to end with me because I can’t convince someone to put up with me for longer than five months. I’m thinking about how the last girl I dated said I was so negative all the time she came to resent me. I’m thinking about when I had an argument with a family member in High School and they whispered to me “You’re an asshole, everyone knows you’re an asshole, that’s why you’re a loser.” I’m thinking I am a loser. I’m thinking about how it’s now 5 p.m., I haven’t done anything at my job for four hours and I’m certainly going to get fired.
This is what I’ve come to understand is my depression. I don’t remember when it started but I can’t remember not having it. It comes in waves that ebb and flow. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few days. Last year it lasted months. I think when I was in High School it lasted years but I don’t remember much about those days. I know when it’s around because I can feel its fog cloud my perception. The fog is for my protection from the vicious criticism I inflict on myself. I’m typically cognizant of my surroundings, maybe a bit too much. When the wave hits I detach from myself and everything else. I become a passive observer to the movie of my life, where I’m the main character, but I’m not participating in the flashing pictures before my eyes. I float from one room to the next, my eyes gaze at one sight then another, but nothing registers. I instinctively open a web browser and a flurry of tweets scroll by, an insatiable number of red notifications are marked read and pages of articles or books pass through me without my notice. I can hold a conversation but I can’t tell you what I just said. I’ll drive my car to a restaurant and hate-eat way too much food. The stuffed feeling in my stomach will anchor me to reality because I can actually feel something. I’ll find myself in the driver seat of my car and question if I can drive because I feel so disassociated with reality I’m not confident I can navigate the roads. I’ll make it back to my apartment and realize it’s dark outside. What did I do all day? What day is it? When did I wake up? How long have I been watching this movie about my life? What am I doing with my life? What’s the point?
That last question turns a mundane day to a moment of crisis. What is the point? Maybe there is no point. Maybe my life is pointless. It’s less than pointless. By being here I am inflicting harm onto others. I have so much debt weighing down on me. I criticize people so much I hurt their feelings. I try to explain myself and I make it worse. I can see their faces contorting in disgust as their subjected to a conversation with me. I have so few friends. Sometimes I think the friends I think I have don’t know how to get rid of me and our relationship is running on inertia – like if I told them “it’s ok, we can stop now,” they’d breathe a sigh of relief and leave me. I can’t imagine this not being true. I have no real value to anyone. I have no real purpose. Maybe my purpose is to show everyone that I don’t have a purpose. I’m depressed. I’ve been depressed. I think I’ve been depressed for months but I don’t remember when I started being depressed. I realize if nothing has changed in the past few months, why would it change tomorrow? Do I have anything to do tomorrow? I don’t have anything to do tomorrow. Would anyone need me tomorrow? What about a month from now? What about a year from now? I don’t think so. What about later today? No one needs me later today. I don’t need to be here later today. If I’m not here, then I won’t be depressed. That sounds nice. Why later? What am I waiting for? Why not right now? Why should I be alive right now?
A common mistake people make about depression is that it’s based in some rational thought. The depressed person has convinced themselves of a reality but if they’re shown the error of their judgement then they’ll understand things are not so bad. Depression has no logic. Only one absolute rule: you will be depressed whether it’s earned or not. It seems that the only people who truly understand what it’s like to be depressed are people who have been depressed. It can be frustrating to throw out questions about the purpose of life to anyone who will listen and only feel disappointed with their answers. The frustration is felt for both parties. “You’re being too negative” is a common endpoint for these conversations. But no one can answer these questions for you.
It doesn’t help that seeking answers will net a collection of mixed answers sending mixed signals. As a white male, I’m simultaneously advised to be more expressive with my feelings and to stop complaining because statistically I’m doing better off than most people. I don’t think this phenomena is unique to my identity. I’ve lost track of the number of women I know who pursue careers only to be judged by their lacking personal life, while married women with plans for children are mocked just as frequently. In this age of information, our varying worldviews collide with every lifestyle vulnerable to criticism. For many people it seems there’s a thousand ways to do things wrong and nothing you can do right. It’s no wonder that the millennial generation has accepted nihilistic humor with open arms, a type of comedy that celebrates the futility of trying to find a purpose in life. These jokes glorify psychological issues in the same way that a Hollywood movie gets audiences to root for the underdog, except there’s no antagonist to overcome, only a self-destructive worldview to embrace. Many rising comics frequently use mental health problems as the set up to a funny joke. I can’t say I’m above this trend. Existential dread is kind of the ace of spades for guilt tripping. It’s like: don’t worry about trying to get people to hate me, I already hate myself.
Since depression has become a punch line, it’s not always so clear who is truly suffering or to what extent. My generation faces two unique phenomena that feed into this crisis of unhappiness: an unusual amount of systematic failures and internet connectivity that ensures everyone knows when bad things happen. Have other generations faced global recessions, constant mass shootings, ballooning personal debt and dwindling career prospects in the face of new technology? Sure. But they didn’t have an IV drip of every catastrophic event delivered to them via a device they keep with them at all times. It’s no surprise that many have adopted nihilistic humor as a coping mechanism to weather the barrage of bad news. When depression is co-opted as a type of humor, how can you tell if someone feels truly depressed or if they’re contributing to our cultural discussion about the future of our generation? A friend posting “I wish I was dead” to social media might be an obvious red flag, but if a similar message is conveyed by Nihilist Arby’s or Melissa Broder, it’s not clear what type of response is appropriate. The rise of this type of humor normalizes depression and makes it difficult to broach the topic when actual worries arise.
I think another fault is people view depression as something you overcome. It plagues you for the dark moments of your life but you get better eventually, right? In reality, depression is closer to a cancer diagnosis. There’s treatment, it can go into remission, but there’s no guarantee it won’t come back. Sometimes it comes back when it doesn’t make sense. The deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington prove that. Two phenomenally talented artists with thousands of fans and an extensive loving family. These titans of success and support structures accomplished more than most people in history but the tolls of depression came to collect all the same.
It’s hard not to say the depression landscape seems hopeless. A person can fuel their own self-destructive fires of depression, the world provides heavy criticism but few answers and our internet culture makes it difficult to identify when someone is truly struggling. What can a person possibly do to combat these forces?
An outsider observing a friend’s fall to depression might feel helpless but in these instances, as cliché as it might sound, the best antidote to the world’s darkness is genuine positivity. Not to be confused with empty platitudes or childish rejection of negative emotion. Refusing to acknowledge sadness is just another form of repression and you’d have to be a fool to think an impersonal slogan like “look on the bright side” has ever helped anyone. It’s a simple fact that people don’t express their appreciation for one another as much as they feel it. For whatever reason, many people feel awkward taking compliments which discourages genuine expressions of appreciation. In pursuit of avoiding awkwardness, our friendships are devoid of the acknowledgment for why we maintain these relationships in the first place. The presence of positive reinforcement makes a difference, but that’s not all that’s needed.
It’s true that no great person became great on their own, but on some level the individual has to choose their own destiny. You may not be able to will yourself out of depression, but you have to find your own reasons for wanting to stick around in this world simply because no one else is going to do it for you. In my experience, many people who are the most depressed are the ones holding themselves to an impossible standard. They’ll look at the lives of their heroes and feel ashamed they haven’t accomplished as much as quickly. There is no universal blueprint for success and there is no guide to happiness. The only meaningful comparison is who you were yesterday to who you are today. Define your goals and reflect on the progress you have made instead of the dreams you haven’t accomplished yet. By that metric, you may surprise yourself.
When I began writing this piece, I had that job on a Tuesday and everything was going well. Of course, a few weeks later, I was fired. Not because I did anything wrong, but because that’s sometimes what happens in corporate America. This was eerily similar to where I was a year ago. Freshly out of a job with plenty of doubts about my future. My latest dismissal could have been more evidence to the self-fulfilling prophecy: Of course I was fired, I am valueless trash and they’ve finally caught onto my act. But that’s not what happened. Instead I received an outpouring of support from colleagues, sources and readers who were bewildered by my dismissal and shared commendations of my work while offering ways to support my continued success. These suggestions could have been struck down by a more bitter and resentful person, but I made the choice to believe that their kind words were genuine. This was very different from where I was a year ago, where I still had a support structure helping me, but nowhere near its current size and passion. This support structure wasn’t handed to me, I created it by being the person I am. I chose to define myself by my ability to succeed, not my occasional setback.
I may never escape depression, but it does not define me. I am already a defined person. I am the person who found a job I love and put my passion over compensation. I have a family that will support me if I need help. I am the person that didn’t let anything stop me from pursuing my dreams but found others I care about more. I am the son of phenomenally brave and ambitious parents. I am the beginning of the Augustyn lineage in North America. I am the person who doesn’t settle for convenience over happiness. I am me and I accept that who I am includes some bad with the good, but I don’t let temporary moments of doubt redefine who I am. Neither should you.
Images edited by Kaleigh Kessler