Slaying The Sorrow Dragon: On Fighting Depression.

There have been many complaints launched against Millennials, but the one I hear most is that they seem to be too indecisive about Big Life Choices, due to having so many options, and thus they never want to stick with just one. This can possibly make some of them feel overwhelmed. Comedian Aziz Ansari once joked that it takes him two hours to decide where to eat because he spends so much time looking at Yelp reviews to whittle down his choices. While he was half-kidding, I can see how such quests for constant perfection could inevitably cause an entire generation to feel depressed and confused because nothing ever ends up as perfect as what they had hoped for.

Sitting here on a beautiful, spring-like August afternoon, sipping a delicious iced latte outside in the heart of Greenwich Village at the famed Cafe Reggio; I am struck by several competing visions regarding Big Life Choices of my own that remind me I have the opposite problem. At 39, I am no Millennial. It feels much more like I have a lack of options. Having struggled with serious depression for most of my life, the feeling of being trapped in a cage of my own making is a heady weight to carry.

When I was a kid, I’d always dreamed of becoming a famous writer and living in this very village (the same one in which my father’s parents, one of which once worked for Time Magazine, met) working on my next great think piece. You have to remember that in my youth, the Village had not yet become the wealthy, celebrity haven it is now (as I write this, a man who looks exactly like Ira Glass is sitting across from me, reminding me of the irony of this thought). Granted, it still wasn’t actually affordable; but this fantasy, along with unhealthy multiple viewings of Friends and Sex & The City made, to a hopelessly naive kid from rural Vermont, feel like it was marginally achievable. Plus, at the time I wrote prolifically, and hadn’t yet received enough rejection letters to crush this dream the way Tyrion Lannister’s cousin crushed beetles. Being a creative person can be a huge letdown when your desire to turn that creativity into a commodity goes unfounded.

In the intervening years since my forgivably ridiculous mirage has long since been put to bed, it can still make its presence felt whenever I find myself strolling down MacDougal street on a cool, lovely day. Alongside the pipe dream of my youth, however, is the fact that I am in the middle of attempting to leave my career in Education and to find something I would be happier doing. I have no idea what that other career is at the moment, and when pushing 40, it’s a tough road to have to start all over again. I also have been struggling with fertility issues. I have wanted to be a mother for so long, and yet after nearly 5 years of trying, it still hasn’t happened yet. So in-between the career path switches have been endless clinic appointments that seem to be designed to depress my uterus. (Do they make Xanax for lady parts?)

With all of these competing dreams filling my head, it is no wonder that my soul has given in to what famous NYC character Holly GoLightly once referred to as the “mean reds”. It has made any ambition or optimism that things will work out for me in terms of all the various endeavors I am attempting to claw my way towards, feel as if they are not only impossible goals, but ones that I am not honestly worthy of. Why bother trying to achieve anything when I’ve seemingly failed at everything? It’s easier to simply not try at all, right? Though everyone experiences the blue monster differently, Patton Oswalt’s description suits my own dealings with it: “Depression is not terrifying. Depression is seductive and comforting. It sticks around so long because it creates this false sense of “Oh, here’s where I’m safe.” That blanket of the failure-feels makes depression-induced inertia downright cozy: it doesn’t matter, so my effort isn’t warranted. I’m not good enough to do anything I want. That is where too many folks like me get it wrong. That’s how depression seduces you: by convincing you that there is no choice. Millennials know that by having lots of options, you run the chance of making at least one or some of a particular dream come to fruition. By allowing myself to wallow in the mentality of one specific dream or nothing, I have stuck myself into a self-destructive neutral.

To Millennials, the multiple Big Life options might appear as if there are too many alluring possibilities to choose from, and by choosing the wrong thing, they risk feeling like they lost a better option, a better goal. Sometimes, like depression, it can feel more comfortable to hide from your choices than to risk making the wrong one. For me though, feeling like I never had possible choices regarding my career desires compounds the problem of feeling like a failure. Depression does not just prevent you from taking risks; in my case, it can cripple your ability to even bother trying to find a happy median.

The hard part of accepting that is trying to turn off the nagging self-doubt, and the fear that you are somehow not supposed to express that frustration, lest you be judged as being whiny or ungrateful, or telling them that their problems are nothing compared to the suffering of others (Which is such a bullshit argument; everyone’s problems are legitimate within the scope of their own life. It’s not a competition). What people who judge depression sufferers that way often don’t understand, is that depression can be caused by many factors, not just ‘feeling sad’. This is why not all of the same treatments work for everyone, not everyone is affected by it the same way, and not everyone is triggered by the same things. It can be fought with the right tools (therapy, medication, having a strong support network, etc.), but it can’t necessarily be completely obliterated, through no fault of the sufferer’s. This amounts to victim blaming, and can make it an even harder cycle to break from when you feel like you aren’t allowed to acknowledge it.

Sitting here at Cafe Reggio, on a quiet afternoon before Shabbat, I am struck with the notion that the only way to not make depression my permanent cuddle-buddy is to force myself to modify the dreams I have without abandoning them. The Millennials and I share that fact in common, though we may reach it in different ways. Depression takes time and patience to fight, but so does being content. I am starting to realize that as a creative person, I’ll still be able to write my next great think-piece while hanging out in the Village, but it will not necessarily catch a big audience; and no one will be recognizing me on the street any time soon. (And also, unless my husband or I become gazillionaires overnight, we will never ever be able to afford to live in the Village. Like you know, most people.) That’s okay, because even if I never make a living at it, I will always write because it is in my blood. I feel happiest when I write, and that is more important than parlaying that talent into something it might never have been meant to be (or good enough to be). I also realize that while I am having serious trouble getting pregnant, children in some form, even if not through my own pregnancy, are still possible; and that is more important than anything else. And I will eventually succeed at another career someday. It will simply take longer than I used to think it would. That doesn’t mean I’ve failed, it just means I’ve learned how to move forward.

There is a great line in Colin Hay’s beautiful ode to sorrow “Waiting For My Real Life To Begin” that always struck me as the core problem of thinking in a depressive state:

“Well I woke up today/And suddenly/nothing happened/But in my dreams/I slew the dragon.”

Whether realistic or not, dreams take action to accomplish. And expecting them to magically happen, much like they seem to on television, or on social media, which makes unattainable fantasy so tantalizing is what makes despair so devastating. It feels like your own hopes were working against you the whole time.

The Millenials are right, there are far more options for success than I used to believe there were for me. But I will never see them if I refuse to leave the blanket fort sorrow has so lovingly crafted for me. If your dream is to slay a dragon you cannot access, it’s okay to look for another beast in order to conquer your desires. Every time you fight depression, no matter what your age, gender, or situation, it is an achievement you have made, it is the ability to overcome the siren call of surrender. The only way to win that war is to keep on waging it, and not give up on dreaming altogether.

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Shannon O’Neill

Vertically-challenged, Flamingly Liberal, Irish-American Jew. Writes & travels whenever possible. Kind of a weirdo. Living the life of Murphy in Troy, NY.