[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask: AskAWK@villagevoice.com]
I’m a depressed person. I get sad and unmotivated and basically just feel like being away from everyone, including myself. It’s weird because most of the time I don’t really have a good reason for feeling so bad, I just feel it anyway. Do you have any advice on what to do with bad feelings like this? People don’t understand me. I try to tell them, but they think it’s just me being too sensitive, or I should just snap out of it. You always seem so happy and I really look up to you for that. But do you ever get depressed? How do you stay so positive?
Downer In The Dumps
Dear Downer In The Dumps,
For nearly all of my life, I have struggled with severe depression. Sometimes it’s been a lingering feeling in the back of my head that something isn’t right, and that something is me. Other times it has been a full-blown physically incapacitating despair. It’s hard for me to even describe it, let alone imagine going through it again, although I imagine I will, as I have dozens of times before.
The times when my depression was really bad are difficult to put into words. People who haven’t been depressed asked me if it was like being in a really bad mood, or feeling really, really sad. It’s not like that at all. It’s not a mood or an emotion. Depression is like being exposed to a truth about reality that is so full of sorrow and misery that it shuts down the very part of you that exists as a human being. It’s like being told that everything good about life was a lie and that the biggest lie of all is you. But you’re not just thinking about these awful truths, you are the awful truth — and you become that feeling.
People have also asked me, “Why can’t you just snap out of it?” Trying to “snap out” of depression is like trying to eat food when you’re nauseated. It’s like trying to stay awake when you’ve taken a dozen sleeping pills. It’s like trying to run a race where you’re underwater and everyone else is on dry land. It takes an extraordinary amount of strength just to exist in the midst of a depression. Just breathing with your lungs takes a full-blown conscious effort. You feel like you don’t want to do anything ever again. You feel like you don’t want to be. And then you feel bad for feeling that. And so on.
The fact that it’s so hard for other people to understand what it’s like to feel severely depressed can add to the feelings of frustration and alienation. Depression distorts and stains every aspect of yourself and the world around you and rips away at everything that is happy and beautiful, as though the façade of joy has been removed from everything you once held dear. It’s like having a fever in your soul. It’s like what the end of the world tastes like.
In addition to these overwhelming physical feelings of terrifyingly bleak depression, I’ve also continuously wrestled with a long list of other low emotions: frustration, jealousy, resentment, anger, rage, hatred, violent impulses, paranoia, and feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion, despair, selfishness, self-pity, and low self-esteem. Mixed in with these feelings have also been extreme shyness, anxiety, fear and dread, and a general feeling of guilt about having all these feelings in the first place. I’ve never had a justifiable reason to feel this bad, and that made me feel even worse. I have a good life and good people around me, so why can’t I just be happy all the time? I’m still trying to find that answer.
And maybe I never will get an answer, but in the meantime, I think the best answer I have is: because I’m human. I can also tell you that these bad feelings have motivated me and pushed me and challenged me in ways that I would never have been otherwise. Maybe I was meant to feel this way for a reason. And even if I wasn’t, I’m going to try to put them to good use while I’m dealing with them.
I’m not proud of these feelings, but I’m not ashamed of them, either. I don’t identify myself as someone who “has” these feelings — they’re not me. They are just something that the “me” is experiencing, and all I can do is not let them beat me. They may take me down for a few minutes, or an hour, or a day, or even a week, or maybe even longer.
But the one thing I have learned throughout this odyssey is that those bad feelings are not who I really am. They are not the truth. And they will pass. And I will get back up. The real me is somewhere in there all the time, and the test is to see if I can hold on tight enough to make it through the storm. We must hold tight, and then try to rise back up. Maybe not instantly, but at some point, as soon as you can feel it start to lift a little. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to push through it. Pulling out of a depression by sheer willpower is among the hardest physical and emotional challenges I have ever engaged in. But I have done it, and you can, too.
Sometimes I think depressions are just growing pains — like exercise for your soul. When you exercise your body, it gets sore as it rebuilds and gets stronger. And maybe sometimes life experiences make your soul get sore, and then it has to grow and expand to recover. Growing is painful. Growing is life. Life is painful. It’s learning how to master and direct that pain and use it for something beautiful.
I never would be writing to you about this now had it not been for these experiences. All these bad feelings have led to something. They have been the core motivation for me wanting to learn how to feel better — how to become a better person, and be someone who is truly worthy of being a human. I decided to devote my life to overcoming these feelings and turn that into my entire work.
That’s what first motivated me to start my party mission, and to become a musician and entertainer — to get cheered up and hopefully cheer other people up, too. I wanted to have something I could devote myself to that was all about “feeling good,” a feeling that was bigger than me and, most importantly, bigger than my bad feelings. This became something that would force me to find a way to rise up when I otherwise wouldn’t have reason to. We can pull the best out of ourselves if we have a life-or-death reason, and this became that for me. I believe that through these sorts of efforts, we really can become more than we are. Life is something that we have to figure out and do whatever we can do to keep going while we can. Turn the negatives into positives. It’s all energy — good or bad — and we can use it to fuel our highest and most worthwhile efforts on this earth.
Never feel afraid or ashamed to seek help from others, including doctors or other professionals. Never stop trying to figure out new things you can do to change the way you feel. Stay close and hold tight to the things that you know bring you real joy. And remember, at the heart of it all, there is a truth and it’s telling you that life is beautiful and that you are a good person who deserves to be part of it. Even when that truth is lost in the darkest storms of your hardest moments, please remember that it is there, and that even though it may seem far away or very small, it is more powerful and larger than our pain and struggle. That will pass, but the truth will remain. Have faith in that.
We can keep getting closer to that truth, and we can let our devotion to it become the centerpiece of our lives. It’s a truth that tells us everything is OK even when it seems like it’s not. It’s a truth that tells us that it’s OK to feel however we feel, even when it hurts. It’s a truth that tells us that life is more beautiful and awe-inspiring than we can even contemplate — and, most amazing of all, that we are a very real part of it. It tells us that it’s all going to be OK. That you will be OK. That you already are. Never forget this. I love you. Stay strong.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.