On a run a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about depression and mental health. You see, I came across this Upworthy post about how there’s a growing movement of folks getting tattoos of semicolons. The English teacher in me partially cringes as I could rail on for days about the abuse and misuse of semicolons, but this post wasn’t about that. In fact, it was about people using semicolons to invoke discussions about suicide, depression, self-injury, and mental health awareness in general. You see, the semicolon represents a pause, a point where the author could stop; however, there is another part that is connected that continues the idea (see how I did that there? ha). The semicolon represents the potential for rupture yet also represents connectivity. This analogy between the choice to NOT commit suicide and the semicolon touched me deeply. I won’t go plumb the depths of my own mental health history, but let’s just say I’m not unfamiliar with the complexities of depression and anxiety. Nor am I unaware of how I use running and exercise to keep these things at abeyance.
Yet in the last couple of months, I’ve had some folks “come out” to me about their running addictions (or other disordered behavior, like overly controlled eating). It’s made me realize how complicated people are, how there are things we use to get by, cope, deal…really, survive…that can turn on us. Some of these are healthier like exercising, and some are self-injurious like cutting or drug/alcohol abuse. However, there seems to a knife-fine line sometimes between what is actually “healthy” and what is “injurious.” I have alot of friends who are in recovery–whether from church, dysfunctional families, eating disorders, drugs/alcohol, or life in general–and all of the coping mechanisms people use, whether dysfunctional or not, have helped them bear the burden of everyday life and keep going on. We all do this in small ways. If drinking and smoking didn’t take us out of ourselves–however briefly–no one would do it. In fact, I’ve heard of some people writing letters to these coping mechanisms expressing their gratitude for keeping them alive but acknowledging that it was also time to let them go.
You see, at some point, there is a tipping point and the survival mechanisms themselves begin to tear away at us. It’s easy to argue that running or exercising everyday is good, that drinking a glass of wine everyday is good, etc.. But obsessing about that running or that wine, doing it multiple times a day, or to extreme lengths, no longer helps to keep the demons at bay. Rather it’s another monster demanding to be fed and catered to. You no longer belong to yourself, but serve the master of addiction. And while it’s always possible to find someone worse off than you, more extreme than you, to justify that you’re ok, you begin to sense that maybe you’re not.
The first steps is always acknowledging the problem, but it’s also a long road of recovery after that. Of learning to heal what is hurting, of knowing how to ask for and get help. And it’s a continuing journey. There’s a line of an old Ani DiFranco song that says, “They say that an alcoholic is always an alcoholic. Even if they’re stranded on a small desert island, even if they’re dry as my lips for years,” and it’s sung with incredulity at the seeming-impossibility of such a concept. Yet it’s true. I’ve heard of my share of alcoholics/drug addicts who were clean/sober for 10 or 20 years, relapsed, and died within a few months.
Similarly, I have friends who struggle with cycles of depression. They get help, stay active, do the work of being healthy, but something still brings back that depression. But they know that it is a cycle and that the fog won’t last forever. As the Bible says, “this too shall pass.” Or for the Kurt Vonnegut fans, “And so it goes.”
The journey doesn’t have to be one of defeat or without beauty in its own manner. There’s a huge tree down the street from my house and I marvel at it. It’s large and probably very old, but it also has all these weird growths on it, presumably scars from some sort of disease or damage. It reminds me how we all carry scars, some visible and some not, but we can continue to grow stronger and survive.
So if you think you might have a problem, ask for help. And if you’re struggling with some aspect of life, remember what I’ve said before, “You are not alone. You are enough. You are loved.” Be gentle with yourselves, be grateful for being here today because not everyone is, and be gentle with others.
P.P.S. I just read a post from a teacher blogger who encountered the Semicolon Project and wrote about her own experiences with depression/anxiety. Good read!