Depression’s Epic Battle with the Seven UU Principles…

September 4, 2011

…or, another night at the Video Store.

There are many things even the psychologists and psychologists who have made it their life’s work to study depression may never understand about the disease. There are also still many misconceptions and stigmas in our society about depression.  As someone who has struggled with the disease for over half my life, what I am still learning is how great an effect it can have on those around you.  I’m also learning how much more difficult it can be to live up to the seven principles when depression surfaces.

This blog begins with another encounter at the video store where I work part-time.  Actually, this encounter began more than ten years ago, but I’ll explain that soon enough.

A couple entered the store, talking amongst themselves.  I said hello and how are you, as I try to do for every customer that comes in, and got the feeling that the woman was talking extra loud to her companion, and purposely not returning my greeting, annoyed that I had spoken to them before she was ready. I shook it off, after all people are often rude to those who work in retail, and was only partly listening as they walked through the store, pointing out movies they clearly thought were low-brow or otherwise objectionable.

Eventually they made their way to the counter, and I said hello again.  The woman, rather than returning my greeting turned to the man she was with and said, “oh, I guess I need to get the card.”  In a few brief seconds, the tone of her voice, the way she turned her head away from me as I spoke to her, and then the first name on the membership card she presented brought back a sharp memory.

It turns out I had gone to college with this woman, and a brief encounter with her is one of the most painful memories I have. We shared some mutual friends, but had never really got on ourselves.  Part of it was that at the time I was still recovering from the suicide attempt I had made while in high school and was very sensitive to criticisms, imagined or real. She was one of those people I consider lucky in that she always seemed self-possessed and upbeat.  More than once, she had entered a classroom with a joyful cry for the mutual friends of ours, while I was in the middle of sharing something personal about a hard time we were having. So, I take my share of the responsibility for not forming a friendship or at least cordiality toward her. I know I often sighed or scowled at her greetings; she never seemed to care what was going on before she entered the room, but expected those within it to respond to her mood as soon as she was there.

I am probably still (a decade later) too defensive about this, but I attest that two people can dislike each other and still each person is a good human being. I did not care for this person, and I shared with some mutual friends that I found her behavior rude.  Once, when someone else was complaining about her, I filled in the blank when he said “She’s just been so…” and I said “bitchy.”  I stand by my right to feel that someone is acting like a bitch, but that does not mean I deny their inherent worth and dignity.

Well, what happened next is what came back to me when I heard that familiar voice in the store and knew I’d have to talk to her face to face.  A few days after I made my off-the-cuff remark, I was standing alone in the library when this woman walked briskly up to me and demanded to know why I was calling her a bitch behind her back. She railed into me for several minutes, and though I can’t remember ever word she said, I did remember her voice clear enough that the same emotions came back to me when I heard it again this week. I felt awful for hurting her feelings, and wanted to explain that I had never consciously intended to be mean to her and had not called her a “bitch.”  This may not be a distinction to many people, but I feel naming someone’s behavior is far different from classifying someone in a way that implies they only behave one way.

However, at the time I was not able to make either of those points because not only was I so taken by surprise by what felt like an ambush from someone who hadn’t really even ever had a conversation with me, but every time she screamed “what do you have to say,” and I started to speak, she would cut me off with “I don’t want to hear it.”  The humor of the irony is probably the only thing that kept me from completely falling apart then and there. Eventually after berating me what she deemed a sufficient amount, she stormed away.  I finished my work in the library sniffling through tears, and trying to hide it from the helpful librarian.

The hardest part about writing this is that I don’t want to make this blog about pleading my innocence or asking for pity.  I said something not particularly nice about someone not to their face. That’s not a nice thing to do, and it’s not something I’m proud of. But if I had thought it was possible to have a fruitful conversation with her about our differences, I would have tried. I might have been able to be honest about the fact that it was true I did not like her, which was one of her accusations, but still knew she had the right to be the way she was, just as I had the right to my feelings. In my wildest imaginations, I never would have thought she would be so offended. I can only assume my non-verbal and regrettable spoken comments had gotten blown out of proportion, which I might have been able to tell her had I been able to speak more than a word or two before she started talking over me.

Likewise, she had no way of knowing where I was coming from.  She had no way of knowing that I cried for days after that encounter.  She may or may not have known that I apologized to all of the mutual acquaintances we had for anything I had said and putting them in an awkward position, and pretty much stopped talking to them at all after that day.  They all seemed surprised that I was apologizing, but I didn’t go into details about why I felt I needed to.  After that, it was just too difficult for me to be myself around them, and it was easier to stay in my shell and socialize as little as possible.

This woman had the right to her feelings. She didn’t know how close I came to suicide that weekend as I dwelt on the encounter and convinced myself that I was such a horrible person I didn’t deserve to have friends that I could say something mean to.  She might not have even remembered the incident when she ran into me this week. She almost definitely wouldn’t have imagined that thoughts of suicide resurfaced for me with the memory that her voice triggered.

I have no way of knowing if it was real or imagined that she was being condescending to me when she pointed out the low-brow movies she was renting were for a class she was teaching.  Just like she had no way of knowing that I was spending my nights working in the video store as a second-job after giving up leading a congregation for several years.  I found myself wanting to explain myself to her, but was able to recognize the impulse as self-defeating and let it go.

How funny is it that those that hurt us the most, who show us the least respect, are often those we are most desperate to prove ourselves for?  Just as I had the right to find her behavior years ago rude and hurtful, she had the right to feel condescending or whatever it was she felt when we made our awkward conversation as I checked out her movie and offered her the store’s free popcorn.  (If I claimed to know what she was thinking or feeling that would prove I haven’t learned anything, right?)

Likewise, you never know when you step out your door whether just being yourself that day will make someone feel good or tear at their soul a little.  All you can do is promise yourself that if somehow you were granted omniscience into others feelings, you would never intentionally hurt them.

It keeps coming back to the two principles I remember best: the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, and justice equity and compassion.  It’s hard to keep those in mind every time you interact with someone.  Sometimes its harder to remember your own inherent worth, and allow yourself to be compassionate about your own shortcomings. Sometimes when you are most in need of the principles to help you, that is also when you are least likely to follow them as you should.

The only thing that saves any of us is that we may still have another chance.  Every morning when you wake up, know that you have the opportunity to live the life you want and be the kind of person your faith calls you to be.  And, when you fail, even though there are no confessionals in a UU church, you can use your faith to guide you toward reparations to another human being or yourself.

It’s not much, but I gave the woman I accused of bitchy behavior a smile and a bag of popcorn. And maybe the memory she gave me will remind me that I need to keep trying as hard as I can, even when my disease makes that difficult.