The Imaginary Orange: My Life with Depression

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I feel like I’ve been a little less restrained with my opinions lately, and — at times — this has gotten me in a little bit of trouble with folks who might not be used to that from me, or when I say something genuinely stupid about an issue I don’t fully understand. (Sorry #InternationalMensDay)

This isn’t me going senile, or suddenly becoming a different person than I ever was. In fact, it’s the opposite of those things, and for those who’ve noticed I feel I owe you an explanation.

I’ve been dealing with depression for at least 20 years. That’s going to be a surprise to many people close to me, but perhaps not to some. I’ve hidden it well. So well, in fact, I didn’t even know it myself. As I began actively treating my anxiety issues, my doctor and I discovered — surprise! — I was dealing with depression as well. And, like unraveling a mystery, the deeper I’ve gotten into recovery, the more I’ve realized I’ve been living this way for almost as long as I can remember.

Depression can be different for a lot of people. For me, it made me feel like all of my feelings were lies. Or, rather, that some of them were lies, and the rest were real. But I couldn’t tell the difference.

You’re told that only some of the things you are given are actually real. The rest are imagined. Now, are you still holding an orange?

Imagine you’re in a dark room. You’re handed a series of objects and asked to identify them. You’re handed an orange. You know it’s an orange; you’ve held one before. It feels like an orange. It has the smooth, bumpy skin. It has heft, like a softball but heavier. And when you squeeze it, it gives. It’s an orange. You’re holding an orange.

Now you’re told that only some of the things you are being given are actually real. The rest are imagined. Symptoms of your disease. But you can’t tell which ones are real and which ones are symptoms. Now: Are you still holding an orange?

This was my depression. For over two decades I felt like only some of my emotions were real. The rest were odd feelings I couldn’t trust, coming from a place I didn’t understand. And I couldn’t tell which were which. So I distrusted all of them.

It’s hard to understand how debilitating it can be to live life with untrustworthy emotions until you’ve done it. Everything we do is influenced by emotion. We’re emotional animals. We sense emotions in each other, and we react to the emotions of others around us with our own emotions, and the cycle continues. This is how it’s supposed to work.

As an empathetic person dealing with depression, I was in a kind of hell. I could acutely sense (and still can) the emotions of others, but I couldn’t trust my own reactions to them. I could tell that you were holding an orange, but I couldn’t trust that the orange I held in response was actually an orange.

This was my depression. For over two decades I felt like only some of my emotions were real.

To say that this had a profound effect on my ability to form and maintain relationships with other humans would be an understatement. To most people I presented as “too serious” or “prickly.” And, I was, but it was a shell. A wall projected to protect myself from the confusion of emotions I couldn’t understand, and to protect the world from my own inability to emotionally interact with it. Underneath that shell was someone desperate to love, laugh and feel. But when I tried, I would feel as if I’d done something wrong. Misinterpreted a nuance. Acted out a flawed emotion. Offered an orange with an outstretched, empty hand. I felt like people didn’t “get” me. And, to be fair, how could they? I didn’t get myself.

If my depression is like being in a dark room holding an imaginary orange, treatment has been like turning on the lights. I still have depression. I still sometimes experience odd feelings. My depression still hands me the occasional imaginary orange and tells me to feel it, but now the lights are on, and I can see that my hand is empty — or when it’s not.

Here’s where this comes back to me opening my mouth and saying dumb things. On top of my depression, I’ve dealt with anxiety issues for most of my life. Particularly in regards to not upsetting other people. I have a deep-seated and often monstrous fear of being around people who are upset. Now is not the time, nor is this the place to explore where that comes from, but it’s something with which I’m well familiar. This is the impulse that has continually driven me into entertainment and media fields, and that encourages me, more often than not, to play peacemaker.

I abhor other people’s negative emotions, so throughout my life I have sought to soothe them. Often to the detriment of my own happiness. If you wanted an orange and didn’t have one, I’d give you mine.

I have only very recently become comfortable enough with my own emotions to accept that those of other people are not necessarily my fault, or responsibility. To some of you this might be obvious, but for me it was an epiphany. Such is the tyranny of my depression and anxiety.

I felt like people didn’t “get” me. And, to be fair, how could they? I didn’t get myself.

So, to recap: I’ve lived most of my life afraid to feel my own emotions and with a phobia of upsetting other people. Yeah, not great. But nobody is perfect. And here’s the good news: Now the lights are on.

I wish I could describe the feeling of experiencing unfettered emotions without fear with a more profound (and less cliched) metaphor than “the lights are on” but that’s how it feels. For two decades or more I was living in the dark, and now there is light. I feel free. I feel like me. I feel like anything is possible, and that no matter what might befall, I’ll be OK.

Instead living in dread of what surprise emotion might lurk around the corner, what seemingly familiar object I’ll; be told to hold and wonder if it’s real, I can trust that what I’m feeling is actually what I’m feeling and not a symptom of my disease. It’s extraordinary. And as a creative, communicative person, I feel again that I can share those feelings with the world and use the arts I’ve developed over a lifetime in media to help others experience the joys (and despairs) that are a part of my human existence.

So if I seem more outspoken to you, or more expressive, or abrasive, or excited, or angry, or sad, or so full of joy I can’t restrain myself, it’s true. I am feeling all of those things. And now that I know they are no longer imaginary oranges, I want to share them.

Sorry in advance if that sometimes gets me into trouble. I’m still learning. 

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