Blog

Oct25
2018

Defying Definition

By Shaun David Hutchinson

This piece is an excerpt from “(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health,” an anthology edited by Kelly Jensen.

I have Doctor Who shoes. They’re custom-made Converse high-tops that I created online. They’re TARDIS blue with white detailing and a black strip down the back that says Police Box. I love those shoes and I wear them everywhere.

I am not, however, the Doctor.

My profession is that of author. I spend most days clacking away on a keyboard (another custom-made job, but one I built myself, with old-timey typewriter keys and a hardwood case), drinking coffee, and talking to my dog. Over the past six years, I have produced an average of two books per year, and all the subject matter I write about is very personal to me.

I am not, however, my books.

Many of my off-hours (and often when I have a day job) are spent working with computers. Programming, building hardware, tinkering. I learned to build computers when I was sixteen. I wrote my first bit of code when I was twenty. I have supported myself throughout the years working with computers, and I’ve enjoyed being able to make money doing something I love.

I am not, however, a computer.

When I was nineteen, I attempted suicide. I was diagnosed with a major depressive episode. I have since been diagnosed as having persistent depressive disorder. I just call it depression. Some days are better than others. Some years are better than others. When everything else in my life is going well, I know I’m about to go through an episode because I’ll begin to feel like I’m getting the flu. I become achy, exhausted, irritable. I have tried many different medications over the years but haven’t found one that works for me. I have come to accept that I will deal with depression for the rest of my life.

I am not, however, depression.

Depression does not define me. If I were to make a list of all the words I, or others, might use to describe me, it might include: “weird,” “inconsiderate,” “quiet,” “lonely,” “goofy,” “kind,” “awkward,” “focused,” and “depressed.” But those are simply different facets of the person people see when they see me. Depending on the time of day or whether I’ve had enough coffee or am on a deadline, a hundred people might walk away with an entirely different set of words they’d use to describe me. And while all those words might be useful for cataloging my behavior in one given circumstance, they would not and could not define me completely. Because we define words, not people.

We define words. We use words to define other words. A single word can have multiple meanings dependent upon context, but it remains a thing that can be defined. “Depression,” for example, is a word with a definition. If you look up “depression” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), you’ll find a list of valuable criteria necessary for diagnosing depression. Look the word up in the dictionary, and you’ll find it defined in simpler terms. I have my own definition of “depression” based on my personal experiences with it, because “depression” is a word, and we define words, not the other way around.

Depression is a thing I carry with me. It is a shadow that lurks inside me. Depression is the smoke that ebbs and flows within my body. Depression is the result of chemical changes within my brain. Depression is the parasite. It is the foreign invader. An unwelcome guest. Depression is the voice that whispers in the back of my head. It is the rain that falls and the thunder that shakes the windows and the lightning that strikes the earth.

It is the ghost that haunts me.

I define “depression,” but depression does not define me because you cannot define a person. Not with a single word, not with an entire book. Human beings defy definition. Yet the stigma surrounding mental illness makes some believe we can use it to define others, and it often deceives us into believing we must use it to define ourselves.

I dislike the word “hysterical.” It is derived from the Latin word hystericus (of the womb) and is often used as a means to undermine women. Men wield the word like a cudgel to undercut women and diminish the legitimacy of any argument they might make. And the tactic frequently works because even those who might not be aware of the word’s etymology at least subconsciously know that it (falsely) implies weakness they believe to be applicable only to women. Calling a woman hysterical is a despicable attempt to devalue her and any argument she might be making by defining her by a single characteristic.

People use “depression” in a similar manner.

I wear glasses, I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I battle persistent headaches, I am allergic to dust, I have depression. I am no more shy about discussing my depression than I am about discussing my glasses or my headaches. I talk more openly about depression because I hope to show others, especially teens, that depression is not a terminal disease. As a result, most of the people who regularly interact with me know I have depression. Most understand that it is simply a fact of my life. A thing I deal with. Some, however, attempt to use it as a weapon to define—and sometimes undermine—me.

To say my twenties were a tumultuous time is something of an understatement. I moved around frequently, desperate to find my place in the world. I dated a guy during that time, and our relationship was combative from the start. He could be kind and funny. We would often drive along the beach road on Palm Beach island and tell each other increasingly horrifying stories about the people who lived in the gaudy mansions we passed. I was madly in love with him, and I do believe he loved me in his own weird way. But we fought frequently. I was insecure and clingy; he was unsure where I fit into his life.

It was during that time that I was also seeing a psychiatrist in one of my many attempts to find a medication to help me control the symptoms of my depression. Some of those medications made me sleep for twenty hours a day, while others seemed to have no effect at all. During one of our arguments, over what I can no longer recall, my boyfriend-at-the-time said, “You need to go get your medication adjusted.”

Just like that, he’d delegitimized my argument and defined me by my depression. It wasn’t me speaking—it was my depression. It wasn’t me packing my bags—it was my depression. I wasn’t me. I was my depression.

In 2016, I gave a speech at School Library Journal’s Leadership Summit about the ways in which books can be bridges, and how they can help us empathize and understand people whose experiences are different from our own. During the speech, I spoke openly and frankly about my struggles with depression and how I use them to shape the books I write. I was and still am pretty proud of that speech, and when School Library Journal posted the video of it online, I shared it across social media. I was working at the time for a company where I was involved in computer programming. My boss was an interesting guy that I’d become friends with. He stumbled upon the video of my speech, which he complimented me on. And that, I assumed, was that.

A few weeks later, I was venting to him about an issue I was having with a member of our team—typical office politics that had gotten on my nerves. And while I’m not shy about expressing my opinions, I also dislike pointing out problems unless I am also going to offer a solution. So I did that. I vented. I proposed a fix. And I thought I’d made my point. Then, as I was leaving, he said, “You going to be all right? You’re not going to kill yourself over this, are you?”

I didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t have stolen my voice any more effectively if he’d yanked out my tongue with a pair of pliers and cut it off with gardening shears. With that one question, he had reduced me and my argument to nothing more than my mental illness. He had defined me by my depression. I spent the rest of my time working there knowing that any time I offered my opinion or brought up a complaint, he would attribute my words not to me but to my mental illness.

Society continues to see mental illness as a person-defining trait. When some people find out you have depression, suddenly every action—past, present, and future—becomes attributable to the disease and not to you as a person. Your actions are no longer your own. Your words are no longer your own. They become the actions and words of depression, and you become something less than human. Which is ludicrous. When I had my gallbladder removed in 2010, no one dismissed me because a part of my digestive system was faulty. No one listened to something I had to say and responded, “He can’t be trusted—he doesn’t have a gallbladder.” Yet this happens all too frequently with those who live with mental illness. We are dismissed, distrusted, told our thoughts are not our own.

And the most fucked-up part is that once someone has defined you by your mental illness enough times, you begin to define yourself by it. Depression is a pathological liar. I’ve published six books and have many more scheduled to come out. Yet my brain will spend hours telling me that I’m a shitty writer. That every sale, every good review is a fluke. That I should give up and spend the rest of my life working with computers in a cubicle. I spent a large chunk of my twenties and thirties doubting myself. I questioned whether the strangers and friends and family members who had ascribed my words and actions to my depression were right. I spent hours awake at night replaying every facet of my day and wondering if I’d only done or said certain things because of my mental illness—and in doing so, I undermined my own sense of self. And when others so readily blamed my actions and words on depression, it made it more difficult for me to separate the truth from the lies within my own brain. If all those people were right, then maybe the things my brain was saying were right, too.

It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve regained the ability to definitively say that my actions are my own. That my words belong to me. That I am not depression. Reaching this point has not been easy, and it’s a process that never ends. There was no huge defining moment for me when I recognized how to change. It was a slow realization over many years. But the most important step for me was learning how to filter out the voices that didn’t matter from the ones that did. Because the insidious trap of depression is that it tells you that either everything everyone says is right or everything everyone says is wrong. If a friend says I’m a good writer, and I believe them, then when a coworker says I’m overreacting because of my depression, I must believe them, too. Only that’s not true. People lie, just like my own brain does. Learning who is trying to help me and who is simply trying to define me has allowed me to better see when my brain is lying to me and when it is telling the truth.

Taking back my life has happened in many other smaller ways, as well. It has required finding confidence in myself. And, honestly, I had to fake that a lot in the beginning. Sometimes I still have to fake it now. I’ve heard that liars often tell a lie so frequently that they begin to believe it. I’ve learned that combating a lie with the truth works in the same way. I keep repeating that my actions are my own, that I am worthwhile, that I am not the result of my depression, that I deserve to live. I tell myself those things daily to counteract the lies depression tells. Each time someone attempts to attribute my actions or words to my mental illness, I stop and tell myself that they are wrong.

A support system is crucial to the process. Friends, family members, anyone who cares about you. It might sound cliché, but my mother is a touchstone for me. When I’m not sure I can trust myself, I’ll call her to talk things over with her because I know that I can trust what she says. To my mother, I am not the Doctor or a computer or my books or depression or even simply her son. I am a whole person: complex and unique and loved. She doesn’t define me; she accepts me.

You may know someone who has a mental illness, but that person is not that mental illness. Don’t try to tell them they are. You may have depression, but you are not depression. Stop telling yourself you are. Wake up every day and tell yourself that your thoughts and your words belong to you. No one is allowed to undermine who you are by defining you on their terms. Depression is a disease, a collection of symptoms. It is not a human being. It is not a person. It may live in your skin, but it does not control you. It may whisper in your ear, but it doesn’t speak for you. It may be the smoke in your body, but it cannot suffocate you. It may be the result of chemical changes in your brain, but so is hunger. It may haunt you, but it will never drive you away.

Define words, not people. Define “depression,” but don’t define others by it. Because we are people and we defy definition.

“(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health” is available for purchase now. You can order the anthology here. To learn more and read an additional excerpt, visit https://www.workman.com/products/dont-call-me-crazy.

Shaun David Hutchinson is a published author from Jupiter, Florida. He is the writer behind the young adult novels: “We Art the Ants” and “The Deathday Letter.” He really likes Doctor Who.

Kelly Jensen is an editor and writer. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @veronikellymars.

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Comments (2)

  1. Cliftonguest

    By Shaun David Hutchinson, thanks so much for the post.Really thank you! Keep writing.

    Reply  |  
  2. Summer Dale Washko

    This is beautifully written

    Reply  |  
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