A couple years ago, a close family friend and longtime Yukoner, parked his camper at his brother’s Saskatchewan residence, tidied his home, left written instructions for his family and then shot himself. He was 52 years old.
When I found the obituary in a Vancouver newspaper, my heart sank. Both my parents were shocked and devastated.
He was a quiet person who hunted, fished and spent a lot of time at his trapline. His trucks were parked in our yard and we collected his mail while he was away.
As a child, I was drawn to him because he was quiet, calm, warm and looked like the man on the ZigZag packaging, with his dark beard and ‘friendly giant’ stature. He and my dad smoked together, him a pipe and my dad rollies. I enjoyed the lingering smell of his pipe smoke.
I wonder if his suicide could have been prevented had he been capable of expressing his internal feelings.
For many years, I myself lived with mild depression. I know of many people who quietly suffer from a chronic free-floating sadness.
Depression is like walking with a pebble in your shoe; it is irritating, awkward and subverts your stride. But why is it so difficult to simply remove the pebble?
In The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Depression (New Harbinger Publications Inc.) Kirk D. Strosahl and Patricia J. Robinson ask, “Is depression the common cold of modern living? If so, what is the pathogen responsible for this epidemic of suffering?”
Their answer: We live in a culture of Feel Goodism.
Feel Goodism is a culture where citizens learn to evaluate things as good or bad and then use coping strategies to control the bad thoughts, feelings, images and sensations that are labelled as abnormal.
Since I have began taking acting classes with Kate Twa at the Evolving Arts Collective Theatre in Vancouver, I have discovered how depression functions in my life.
Depression is numbness.
Depression is a chronic state of free-floating sadness, a lack of feeling and confusion that protects me from unwanted feelings.
Until recently, I approached adversity in life by avoiding negative feelings. Such strategies are common. The social training we receive leaves us highly vulnerable to depression because the process of living, by necessity, involves unpleasant situations and distressing reactions.
I believe my subconscious mind brought acting into my life to help me relearn life skills. My motivation to be an actor stems from a natural need to express life’s adversity in a way that supports vital living. What better career is there for me than one I am praised for the emotional life I bring to character?
In acting class, we begin with relaxation exercises to gently access our emotional life. In the first few weeks of class, I encountered numbness and lack of feeling.
Kate encourages us to ask ourselves: “What the ‘bleep’ happened to you?”
Within a few weeks of relentless focus and gently prodding the numbness, my body began to respond in tangled knots of buried emotion.
There is strong reason to believe that emotions were the earliest form of understanding among pre-humans. Pre-humans used emotions as a primary form of intelligence. This leads me believe depression is the result of living in a very complicated age.
Every year, in the US more than a quarter of the population will develop a serious problem in their emotional health. The annual rate of mental disorders or addictions to drugs and alcohol is 27 per cent and the lifetime occurrence is 50 per cent.
This means that over the course of a lifetime more than half of the US population will develop a significant emotional health problem. These statistics are alarming, considering that many people are unprepared to contend with depression.
Kirk and Robinson note, “We are not taught to experience our emotions directly, for better or for worse. Rather we are taught to deem an experience as abnormal or normal; if an internal experience is deemed normal, then it’s OK to have it, otherwise it is unhealthy and you should get rid of it.”
Why is film a multi-billion-dollar industry?
Stories are our emotional bread and butter. We go to the theatre to exercise our emotions. All through history, the human collective has celebrated story telling. We need stories to help explore our complex emotional lives, in a society that does not encourage it.
Revolutionary Road directed by Sam Mendes, and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, examines these specific subjects through the lens of a couple in the 1950s, having marital problems. Together they realize they are living a life according to the pursuit of the American Dream. Desperately wanting to preserve their marriage, they discover a solution that supports their need for vitality, excitement, experience and growth. However, societal pressures drive the couple into crisis. Revolutionary Road is an excellent portrayal of our vital needs for healthy living.
Depression plays a pivotal role in healthy living. It is a signal of a healthy body not a symptom of a diseased body. Anesthetized by pharmaceuticals, our body’s natural signals are wiped away. Contemporary society is the sum of generations of people ill equipped to cope with the adversity of everyday living.
Strosahl and Robinson say that suicidal thoughts and behaviours are less a symptom of depression then a response to depression. It is an attempt to change the state of numbness. Artistic media give us permission to feel both therapeutically and perhaps preventively.
I often think of our family friend and his quiet demeanor. I see a man who quietly suffered. I wonder how many people we encounter who share this experience?
Theatre is my route to health.
Ashley Hunking grew up in Teslin. She is now a freelance writer and actor who lives in Vancouver.