I spent the next few years stuck at the bottom of this crevasse, but something was different. If I squinted just right, I could see a tiny spec of light off in the distance. Most would have felt hope, but it was discouraging to know how far I had fallen. I didn’t bother screaming for help. Who is going to hear me down here?
I would have some good days, which I could occasionally string together into good weeks. But the darkness would eventually find me. While I still thought about suicide often, I never put the gun back in my mouth. The part of me that wanted to live considered this a win. The other part wasn’t convinced. Weeks turned to years, and the suffering relented.
Depression is misunderstood by those who don’t suffer from its debilitating effects. The best support people can muster is usually some version of “don’t be sad… you have so much to be thankful for.” They don’t understand that depression has nothing to do with being sad. It is the perpetual and active suppression of ANY emotion, which is exhausting. Killing yourself isn’t about finding relief from the sadness. It’s about finally being able to rest in peace.
In 1980, a psychologist named Bob suggested the complexity of human feelings could be reduced to just eight emotions. The result of his work is called Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.
Picture a flower with eight petals. Each petal of the flower represents a core emotion. Directly across from each emotion is its polar opposite. The core emotions are; joy versus sadness, anger versus fear, expectation versus surprise, and acceptance versus disgust. The intensity of the emotion depends on where you are on the petal. As you move closer to the center, the emotion becomes more intense. For example, excessive joy is ecstasy, whereas less joy becomes serenity. The space between the petals represents new emotions formed when you combine two core emotions. According to the good doctor, love is simply a product of joy and trust.
My simple summary does not do his life’s work justice. It’s worth a Google to learn more about the Wheel of Emotions. For instance, we didn’t even cover the part where he believed these emotions came together to trigger behaviors that helped us survive as a species. The intense feeling of fear (emotion) told our body to start running (behavior), so we didn’t get eaten by the lion (survival).
What I want you to learn from this little psychology lesson is this… DEPRESSION IS NOT LISTED ANYWHERE ON THE WHEEL. It is not an emotion. It is the inability to feel any emotion in a healthy way. There is no joy or sadness. For me, depression was a gigantic cosmic black hole at the center of the wheel. I wasn’t lying at the bottom of a deep dark crevasse of sadness. I was trapped in a singularity, void of all feelings. What hurt the most was when I realized, much later in this story, I didn’t fall into the black hole… I WAS FUCKING PUSHED.
No eight-year-old can process the terror of sexual abuse. The rage, loathing, and grief would have suffocated him. Most healthy adults have difficulty navigating their emotions, so what chance did an abused child have? Instinctively, I knew the only way to survive was to push that little boy into the black hole so that nothing could hurt him. And it worked, sort of.
It took decades to realize the emotional petals are connected. When you throw sadness into the void, it also sucks in the ability to feel joy. To avoid feeling disgusted, I also had to sacrifice trusting anyone ever again. I remember one day proudly telling my wife that I was an “emotionless robot.” I believed it was an incredible superpower. Like Peter Parker’s spider bite, the caustic pain of my abuse had cauterized my feelings, so nobody could ever hurt me again.
I share this now with the benefit of hindsight. Unfortunately, I had buried deep inside me the origin story of this cold and calculating robot. Throwing little Hank into the void worked so well that I forgot he was down there. Eventually, I even learned to suppress the memory of why.
Flash forward forty years, and I was exhausted from avoiding my feelings. I didn’t stick a gun in my mouth because I was sad. I did it because I was incapable of sadness. I wanted to feel again. And that’s when things started to change. The Universe heard me and put in motion a series of events that would save my life by restoring my ability to feel.
This was never about learning to be a better climber. I didn’t know it then, but the only way to heal my wounded soul was to dive deeper into the darkness and rescue that little boy.