Somewhere in a California university, whose blood nearly always runs progressive, I sat in a bioethics lecture dumbfounded. One of my cohorts had just suggested, as an assessment of a case study, that depression overrides a persons’ right to autonomy – to self-determination and the ability to decide for oneself what is in one’s best interests. Instead of my expectation of disgruntled silence matched to the statement, there came a long, low harmony of agreement. I felt as if I had just stepped into the twilight zone. As a person with long-term depressive disorder, was this how the world viewed me; an incompetent player in my own life? For some reason, I had relished the idea that there was a new dawn of mental-health awareness rising over the social landscape. I’m not sure I was wrong, but I think perhaps I overestimated the extent to which this new understanding had eclipsed an old, long standing bias.
This statement, that depression causes a hazed kind of self-expression, returned again and again in our classroom discussions. Exasperated, I asked if this meant that a large majority of individuals in our modern era were no longer privy to autonomy, that we had alienated our right to self-determination because we had been unfortunate enough to have our mental chemistry be some sort of deviation from the norm. The answer was a softened ‘yes.’ Depression, it was explained to me, causes a distortion of values which closets principles that may be present when depression isn’t. In this way, depressives divorce themselves from being fully capable. Although they have some right to self-determination, their autonomy isn’t whole. The insinuation that followed was: ‘like depressives aren’t whole.’
The entire thing left me scrambled. If depressives couldn’t hold onto their principles, if they couldn’t decide for themselves what was important to themselves, then my whole life was a ripple of baseless, foggy misconceptions. My self-identity was awash. It was as if I had been accused of building my home out of mist, spectators were certain that it would burn off with the morning sun. So what was it that nullified my right to principal: my chemistry, my sadness, or was it an ‘otherness’ grown from stereotype? Depression has always been a personal variable. I grew up in a home of abuse, grew into a marriage of abuse, I grew while depressed. None of these situations, or the deep well of sadness that understandably accompanied them, stunted my ability to carve values not out of fog, but out of a moral foundation opposite to the trauma I experienced. If I had been a plucky décor item at your neighborhood Target I’d read, ‘grow through what you go through.’ This deep depression, even though for a very long time it had been left untreated, undiagnosed, and unacknowledged had not lessened my ability to dictate that empathy, family, and self-exploration (which suggested I take this damn class in the first place) were pillars of my self-identity. And here; diagnosed, acknowledged, and treated, my values had remained constant.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this line of reasoning might be derived from the conception of depressives as victims of neural chemistry. I reject this stereotype in the strongest terms. I am no victim, and my depression makes me no less competent to define my values than the most able of us, the most ‘stable’ of us. My brain chemistry is not a handicap, it is an experience. This isn’t to say that I am a hero, a tortured artist, or an inspirational figure. I never surmounted the impossible to climb a staircase to Nirvana. I am merely a human. But I am a human with as much right to full autonomy, and a respect of that autonomy, as any other. My experience, although perhaps more melancholy than some, gives no one a premise to deny my competence.
I had believed that the articulation of diverse experiences had been fulfilled to fruition in my neck of the woods. I now believe it is much more important to speak personal truths than to lean on existing narratives, to shed light on a spectrum of thought that exists so that we might all learn to understand, to empathize, a little more deeply. Each of us has a unique form which creates unique experience, each of us is prone to a unique species of madness. That is why flux of emotion, when taken in itself, is no reason for you to be denied the opportunity to create meaning, live your values, or anticipate that those values be respected.