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Painted Brain | Functional Depression
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • January 16, 2015

Functional Depression

“Everything I do in my life, the furious amount of activity I propel myself into, is because at heart I feel completely inert like Cheryl, like I’m 100 miles from any human contact and totally alone and kind of comfortable and righteous in that place, but of course, that’s sort of a kind of depression.” – Miranda July, NYTimes.com 1/10/15

This quote from Miranda July really captured something for me. She is describing the main character of her new novel and, of course, herself. She is one of my favorite directors, and she captures the awkwardness and contradictions of ordinary human interactions with the insight of the autistic, where nothing is accepted as it appears via naturalistic empathic responses. Her thoughts are an effort to make sense of communication, and the nonverbal stuff throws one off rather than lead the way to understanding. She goes on to say that she can only overcome the inertia of her self-satisfied “outsider-ness” by taking huge risks, never knowing the medium of her next artistic endeavor.

So depression is a driving force for me, and I want to understand that better. I desperately needed my recent two-week break from The Painted Brain, my private practice, and my many responsibilities to others (except my cat). In a sense, it allowed me to act out on my depression fully, and it was glorious. If one were to observe my behavior  during the break from a clinical perspective, depression would have been the clear diagnostic winner. I barely left my apartment or spoke to anyone, stayed in bed a lot, took several baths each day, and stared out the window for extended periods of time. I played a lot of classical music, ate junk food, and took naps. Tell that to a psychiatrist.

SE Smith of the Guardian wrote a great essay entitled Depression Doesn’t Make You Sad All the Time about how depression doesn’t always look like depression, and that being seriously depressed doesn’t necessarily impede one’s ability to appear euthymic. Her article illustrates the contradiction of being functionally depressed. To get the closeness and fun one desires from friends, one must wear a smile and present an upbeat side. Showing one’s true colors may ensure support and a helping hand, but the experience is then tainted by the very help that one receives.

So where am I in all of this? I talk about depression often, but I don’t often appear depressed. I don’t even feel depressed most of the time. Ninety percent of my time at work is spent being social, whether leading groups, running meetings, doing therapy, or supervising interns and other social workers. I enjoy it. When I’m alone for an extended period of time, I start recognizing how much effort all of my “social” work takes. My default state is one of silence. Listening to the radio or watching a movie during the break, I noticed that my natural response while listening to and watching things is a somewhat-blank stare, taking it all in but not responding. However, when I’m “on,” I am extremely natural in my expressions of empathy, because they’re genuine, but it takes energy, concentration, and a conscious decision on my part to express on my face what I feel in reaction to others.

One of my favorite conceptualizations of depression concerns the concept of the true self. The true self is often unknown to people who are constantly expected to show a false self to the world, who are rewarded for doing so, and who are encouraged to see themselves through the eyes of others first. The split between an inner true self and the outer false selves leaves them bereft and wanting, sometimes in ways that are not entirely conscious. Recovery from depression, in this conceptual model, means learning about, valuing, and bringing to light this true self, which is not an easy process. The Painted Brain is an expression of my true self arising from a desire for naturalistic interaction, the realistic expression of our inner selves, and the expression of some of my political views. Still, it doesn’t address the silent, lonely, isolated inner self. Now that we’re productive as an agency, now that the Painted Brain is working, I can take breaks and still feel like we’re achieving something amazing. This has solved one of the two biggest challenges about being depressed, as I now feel that I have a sense of direction and purpose in the world. So, do I have a purpose in life? Check!

But what about that underlying emptiness, sadness, fear of death, and social avoidance? It’s all still there inside of me, needing to be expressed. It still needs to come out sometimes, which means that I need to be alone for a while.
I’ll be in touch.

Dave Leon is a licensed clinical therapist and founder/director of The Painted Brain.

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