Is Suffering Enough?

I suffer from what is commonly called mental illness. Several years ago I was diagnosed with depression and have been taking medications since then. This is hardly surprising seeing as how some 16 million Americans experience “major depressive episodes” and that does not include all the Americans that have a more general depression, without, perhaps, these serious events [1]. I like to think I currently have the latter variety, although those who know me best would likely say I’ve had bouts of the former as well. Mental illness in general, and depression in particular, have been thrust into the public view of late with the untimely deaths of people like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade and the conversations have been many and serious [2, 3]. But even for those who deal with mental illness, these conversations, while important, may also be unsettling.

When I listen to a radio program about mental illness, its impact on society, family, art and culture, I often feel conflicted: is this about me or is this about other people? Do I ‘deserve’ to consider myself part of this conversation being that I am largely stable and, even in the worst depths of despair and self-loathing, I never did anything truly dangerous to myself or others. It is true I threatened violence against myself, but I never took any real steps towards fulfilling them. My depression manifested itself mostly in a chronic anger that would, on occasion, explode in a storm of entropic rage. Is mere anger and incurable pessimism enough to declare myself mentally ill? I’ve never suffered hallucinations, voices or the perpetual drive for self-destruction. I’ve lacked self-esteem and have actively undermined my own skills and abilities, but is that sufficient to join the company of those who cannot leave their homes for fear of the outside world?

This is the question that troubles my mind when well-meaning celebrities and public figures emerge and testify to their own depression or other relatively mild mental illness. Yes we should be doing all we can to eliminate whatever stigmas there might be towards mental illness, but are all conditions equal? Just because you can open the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders and say “There! That’s what I have” does it automatically put you on the same level as someone incapable of holding a job or maintaining a home? [4] Most likely this is an academic exercise, a philosophical dilemma to which there is no real answer or conclusion. Perhaps this ambivalence stems from the very psychological issues I have been describing? In the end, whether or not I feel I truly suffer from mental illness is immaterial; what matters is that I’m aware of the hurdles my mind places before me and that I do whatever I can to defeat them. 

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