who and what we are
As much as I know mental illnesses are genuine physiological illness, it still feels *weird*
(blahblahblah usual content warning for frank discussion of mental health.)
Between 1960 and 1990, violent crime in America more than quadrupled.
It's not too hard to imagine possible reasons this might be so: a steadily disillusioned citizenship after a thoroughly pointless war? The breakdown of traditional ties of faith in an increasingly secular nation? Job losses brought on by stagflation and automation creating growing pockets of poverty in once-powerful cities?
Nope. The answer is gasoline.
It's still hotly debated, but a number of researchers have made a (in my opinion) fairly convincing case that a significant part of the 1960-1990 rise in crime (and similarly abrupt decline thereafter) is due to the widespread use of lead in gasoline.
The theory goes like this: young children who have been exposed to lead often face significant impairment in brain development, which increases things like anger and aggression, and decreases things like self-control and empathy. Children in areas where leaded gasoline is legal have historically faced abnormally high rates of lead poisoning, which makes them significantly more disposed to violent activity.
Now, on one hand, I believe that we as humans have some level of control over our actions, and that suffering from lead poisoning doesn't make it okay to kill or hurt somebody. (As evidenced by the far larger group of non-violent lead poisonees.)
And yet there's something I find existentially devastating about the fact that there are probably thousands of real people, sitting in prison right now, who you could truthfully walk up to and say: "If your local gas station growing up had used unleaded gasoline, you wouldn't have killed anybody."
"You would have lived a full, free life."
I don't know what heaven is like, but I've always pictured God telling us random, interesting facts about how the world really worked.
The physicists were pretty close, but there's no such thing as an "electron"
Topology was more-or-less correct, but a huge waste of time.
Every species evolved via natural selection (except lions, which were created in their current form)
But sometimes I'm not sure I want to know the truth.
Because what if the deep, troubling questions I've ruminated on have real answers?
And what if the answers aren't satisfying?
When you feel like you're the protagonist of the universe, questions like "why do I have depression?" seem like they deserve a really profound answer. Maybe it's to inspire me creatively. Maybe God's trying to test me. Maybe it feels like a burden now, but really it'll help me to grow and later in life I'll see that it was a good thing all along.
Or maybe... not.
Maybe my phone is too close to my head when I sleep and the radiation screwed something up.
Maybe the instant gratification of the internet and social media have retrained my neural pathways in fundamentally destructive ways.
Maybe the thiamine mononitrate I just found on Captain Crunch's ingredient list secretly contributes to suicidal ideation and we just don't know it yet.
How's that for a satisfying answer? I feel lonely and miserable and worthless all the time because of a vitamin in a breakfast cereal.
But maybe that's just how it is.
If any of the lead people get to heaven, that's what they're going to have to hear.
Why should I expect any better?
When you first find out you have depression, it can be helpful to treat your mental illness as some sort of outside force, completely separate from your constant, unchanging self. I felt like I was the same, happy person underneath, and depression was a mask hiding that person from me and everyone else.
And I think this is a useful fiction, or at least it was for me, because it helps you navigate and fight through a lot of the self-blaming, self-hating thoughts that come with the diagnosis and early stages of a mental illness.
But I think the reality is more complicated than that. It's true that you are not your mental illness, but I think it's also true that I'm not the same person I was before my mental illness, and not always for the better.
I've always struggled with pride and self-image, because when you're a kid and people tell you you're really smart you tend to believe them, and in an ideal world this could just be another trait, like "I am 6'5" and bad at balancing and good at math" but at least in my super-nerdy middle and high school circles there's a fine line between "smarter" and "better" and let's just say teenage Colin was full of himself in a way that makes me cringe even alluding to it now.
And so, as a result of a lot of things ranging from the bible to blunt conversations with my brother, I started to work on it. And certainly it was stop-and-go, and I'm not saying I ever became the most humble person on the planet, but I do think I made real progress in putting other people before myself and valuing the input and perspectives of others in addition to my own.
And then I got depression.
There's some level on which depression requires you to put yourself first: you need to watch your emotions carefully to keep them in check, and there is a real need to withdraw and work on your healing that keeps you from being as outwards-focused as before.
But also it's just... easier. When you're emotionally worn out and trying to stop your brain from yelling at you, it's just easier not to reach out to people you otherwise would have, or sign up for things to lead or ways to volunteer your time. It's easier to buy that extra tube of cookie dough and excuse it with "I have depression and this will cheer me up." And that doesn't necessarily excuse my becoming more self-centered, but it certainly does explain it.
And yet, somehow, in my head I'm still this more-selfless person who likes to volunteer my time and work towards causes I care about. In some ways I'm convinced that deep down, I'm still the person who leads homeless outreach or organizes prayer meetings, and once the symptoms of depression finally subside my "true" self will shine through.
Every once in a while I get a glimpse of this self. I'll have a flash of motivation, a spark, like the cracks of light through a window that tell you the sun is shining even though your shades are drawn, that say yes, it's dark now, but once this cover is gone, what once was will shine through again as brilliantly as before.
Or maybe it's not like that at all. Maybe it's more like the stray pencil smudges that still remain when you've erased your newest sketch. "There used to be a picture here, and now there isn't." It's not hiding, it's not waiting to be released, there's just no longer such a thing as that picture and nothing you do will ever change that.
But you can always draw a new picture.
And I think that's what my "depression is an outside force" mental model has been missing. For so long now I've been trying to get back to how I was pre-depression. And certainly there are lots of qualities I had then I'd like to regain.
But that Colin doesn't exist anymore. And no matter how much therapy I go to or which medications I take, that Colin will continue to not exist.
But even if I can't revert to the most selfless version of Colin, I can make this Colin a little more selfless. I can make this Colin a little more loving. I can make this Colin a little more faithful.
It won't be the same picture.
But it can still be beautiful.