~jpetazzo/The depression gnomes

I’m going to try to explain how I felt when I was struggling with depression. There will be gnomes and other lousy metaphors, but don’t let that distract you.

Sometimes, depression feels like two miniature gnomic versions of me are fighting over the control of my brain. You know, a bit like the little do-gooder angel and the mischievous imp that we imagine sitting on our shoulders, giving us advice when moral dilemmas arise.

“You shouldn’t eat that cake! You’ve already eaten a big lunch! Furthermore, it’s full of fat and sugar, which are bad for your health!”

“Chocolate is delicious! You love the cake, and the cake loves you… Furthermore, just one slice won’t kill you! You can always go to the gym to sweat it out… Tomorrow… (Muhahaha!)”

Except the depression gnomes are not good and evil; they’re merely happy and sad.

The happy gnome is the one that is usually in charge, when I’m not depressed. He’s the one who tells me how to bring joy to myself and others. He’s an optimist, always sees the upside in every situation, and he sings “Always Look At The Bright Side Of Life” under the shower.

The sad gnome is not only sad; he’s also an incorrigible defeatist. He’s normally not around, because he’s locking himself up in the basement. Everything scares him, including getting out of the basement. But when he roams free, he writes downer thinkpieces like “Ten Reasons Why It Will Never Work — Number Nine Will Scare You!” and he tends to be very, very convincing.

In January 2017, a few months after being diagnosed with depression, I took a big decision: I would learn and play the cello! Why the cello, and which impact it had on me, are a whole another story; which I won’t tell now. All we need to know is that I managed to rent a cello and to find a teacher. However, my cello lessons were rather far. I had to drive half an hour to get there (and as much to get back). The drive was quite an ordeal, because my lessons were in the evening, it was dark outside, our car’s windshield was very dirty, and the headlights didn’t help much. Furthermore, I had just switched to a different antidepressant medication, and my body and brain were very busy coping with various chemical unbalances, making me even more tired than usual. The drive to my cello lessons and back was excruciating.

A little part of me was thinking, “Hey, you could get that car washed; it would maybe help?” That was the happy gnome, always willing to provide useful suggestions. But I wouldn’t act on it. Why? Because the sad gnome was in charge. And this is what he was saying:

“Whoa whoa whoaa there … Washing the car seems complicated. You certainly won’t wash that car yourself; you don’t even have the cleaning products for that, and it’s cold as duck outside. Taking it to a carwash, you say? And where are you going to find one? Google Maps? Oh yeah? Shall we talk about what happened last time we looked something up on Google Maps?” (Nothing happened, I don’t know what this was about. The sad gnome sometimes seem to know things that I ignore.) “That sounds dangerous, and, you know, complicated. You better drive that old van as it is, Sir.”

And I would listen to the sad gnome, because that’s what you do when you’re depressed. The happy gnome could put together giant neon signs advertising for free cookies when you’re hungry: you wouldn’t notice them; or you’d think it’s a scam. (Honestly, who would give away free cookies these days?)

Right on the road back from my cello teacher’s place, just before hopping on the freeway, there is a carwash. The automated kind, where you plop a few bucks in a machine or swipe your credit card, then drive over a huge contraption that plays Rocky’s theme and then brushes and waxes on and waxes off and does unspeakable things to your car, while you patiently wait inside like a sloth on Noah’s Ark.

I drove past this thing every single time. The happy gnome was jumping wildly up and down, cheering “Hey, look at that, by golly! Isn’t that precisely a beautiful carwash, exactly what we are looking for?” But the sad gnome was shaking his head. This is what he was saying:

“Naaaah, that’s going to be complicated. You will have to slow down, put your blinkers, turn the wheel to get into their parking lot; then figure out their pricing structure, which probably has seven tiers of various upsells and options. This is all complicated and shit. You drive home now. We are tired and we want our bed.”

And I would just drive past it, because the sad gnome’s arguments sounded solid to me.

But the happy gnome wouldn’t give up. Eventually, I got a bit better. My old medication got purged from my body, and the new one helped a bit (for a short while). Of course, I drew lots of satisfaction and joy from playing the cello, too. And we got a subscription to Blue Apron, a service that delivers fancy meal ingredients to your door, complete with recipes, and you just have to follow to instructions and boom! Delicious food happens. All these good things allowed the happy gnome to be in charge once in a while. The sad gnome would tell us, “Sure! You try your thing! But when it will fail miserably, I will have told you so!” — but miserable failures were rare.

One day, as I was driving back from the cello, I saw this carwash for the Nth time. And this time, I signaled, slowed down, turned the wheel, and pulled in. I got their cheapest option. When the thing started playing the Rocky theme, I laughed my ass off. There were multi-colored brushes and cleaning products and stuff making a rainbow on my windshield. When it was done, I drove to the vacuum cleaner station, and vacuumed the shit out of this car. I threw away all the things that were too encrusted with dirt to be recognizable, and then vacuumed again before driving home.

Lo and behold: I could now actually SEE on the road! I don’t know if it was because the windshield was cleaner, or the headlights were cleaner, or purely psychological, but either way, it felt so much better!

Encouraged by this immense success, the creative part of my brain was on fire!

“Let’s go do some shopping!”

I got some amazing cereal from Aldi. Duck breast at the Broadway Butcher Shop, to cook one of my favorite dishes magret de canard avec pommes de terre sarladaise. I did the groceries, took out the recycling, then collected the various archeological artifacts lying around the car. I discarded what was obviously of no value (like the coupons for $2 off a dog wash valid until March 2013) and kept whatever might have sentimental value to the owner of the car (my partner’s mother, who was generously letting us borrow her car, by the way). I ordered one of these magic trees that you hang to your rear view mirror to dispense a light scent of “mountain breeze” or whatever; and I put a small garbage bag in the car to collect future trash instead of letting it pile up all over.

That felt awesome.

I’ll tell you, that car (which had 180,000 miles back then) looked so spanking new and shiny that when I picked up my Mom at the airport, she called it “nice.” (Granted, she had just spent more than 12 hours in multiple planes, so her judgement might have been slightly altered by that time; but still!)

So, where am I getting at?

For me, depression is this sad little gnome that constantly sits on the brakes of my brain, and tells me that it’s not gonna work, and therefore it’s not worth trying.

That sad little gnome is even actively sabotaging any effort at making things better. He’s hiding from my view all the nice things that people are doing to help me (including myself), and he’s telling me that everything they do is meant to hurt me and make me feel bad. He makes me forget that I have something delicious in the fridge, only to remind me sourly about it long after it’s past due date and has grown multicolored lifeforms.

Why the hell am I listening to this creepy sad little gnome? Because I know him. At that point, he had been around for 36 years in my head. And he knows me, too. He has known me for just as long. He knows me and my thoughts and my apprehensions and my fears, better than anyone else. He knows how to be convincing and carry his point home, alas. In the past, before I was depressed, he was silenced by the optimist, the adventurous, the creative, the imaginative part of my mind. “It’s not gonna work! It’s NEVER gonna wo—” “Well, I did it anyway, sorry!”

Sometimes, the sad gnome is right. It doesn’t work. But that’s OK, I try again, or try other things, and it’s all good. Depression kicked in when for some reason, I started paying attention to the sad gnome. I noticed that he is able to prove wrong the other one more and more often. So, unwillingly, I listened to him more; and that was a vicious circle.

Breaking that vicious circle was hard. It still is. Before being diagnosed with depression, in a last ditch attempt to get better, I took a break home in France in the summer. One of my best friends visited from the US. We rented a little convertible and we toured Brittany and Normandy together. It was wonderful, and it helped, but it wasn’t enough. I started medication and therapy. More friends visited us in Kansas City for Christmas, and after their visit, there was a dancing pole in our bedroom, and I learned a few tricks on it. I started the cello, bought half a dozen Raspberry Pis, a soldering iron, 50 feet of LED strips, and built things. It also took a visit of my Mom, and of another one of my best friends; the unwavering support from the woman I love and cherish; and a cocktail of dubious chemicals flooding my central nervous system every morning.

But I feel alive again.

The sad little gnome is still up there; he’s still babbling about nonsense and sad little gnome things. But I’m re-learning to not pay attention to his endless rants. And sweet José Herbert Philemon Gontrand Creeps, it feels better.

If you’re depressed, I don’t know if you have a sad little gnome or fairy in your head. I bet you do. She’s been telling you a bunch of bad advice over the last few years. “You’re not happy with that person! Do this instead! Hey, what if we got drunk? It solves everything!” She also knows you very well, and knows which strings to pull to make you do what she wants, what she thinks is right. She doens’t really mean you harm; no more than my sad little gnome. But she doesn’t believe that things can be better, because she’s looking down in the dirt and can’t see the birds flying in the sky above. You have to stop listening to the sad little fairy, and let your creative mind or soul or spirit take over again. Or maybe another part: creativity helped me, but everyone is different. Video games helped me too, because even when I couldn’t be good at anything, I could still be good at video games. (Sometimes it was the last thing convincing me that I hadn’t become completely stupid.)

Find your cello, create something, conquer something that’s easy, so that you can cherish these victories, even if they are of little merit; so that they give you the confidence to move to harder things. Never forget that no matter what happens and what you do, the happy fairy is never gonna give you up or let you down.

This work by Jérôme Petazzoni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.