Have you ever noticed that people who struggle with depression love fantasy?
I’ve fought depression since I was ten years old, but I only recently started talking about it. The response I have received has been overwhelmingly positive.
In the midst of my deepest depression, there was one pinprick of light: fantasy.
Fantasy takes different shapes for different people. For some, fantasy means a TV show with charming characters. For others, it means rugged games of football, where all blurs into the home team’s fight for victory. For still others, it means creating art. Etching tattoos, filming painstaking YouTube videos, or launching great splashes of paint on canvas.
For me, fantasy has taken many forms.
When I was six, I wanted to be an artist. I did the best I could with my little brushes. I recreated pictures from books. I painted the sky, painted trees. There was something beautiful about how the light of the sun bore its way through a cloudy day. I didn’t know of subsurface scattering yet, but I knew the light’s effect on the particles in the clouds.
I remember the first time I was able to capture the light with paint. Grey acrylics with a touch of yellow finally found the mood I wanted. It was exhilarating.
When I was ten, I played with Legos. In the morning, I would wake up and leap from the top bunk, often landing on my brother on the way down. “Chandler!” I would shout, “what are you into today?”
We both knew what that question meant. It meant, “pick a theme”. He could say, “knights”, “pirates”, “divers”, or “Arctic explorers”. And we would build Lego knights, pirates, divers, or Arctic explorers. We would build as long as we could, until an adult stopped us.
I remember the feeling of throwing myself into a theme. Once Chandler and I decided what we were “into” that day, Cameron was no more. On Arctic Explorer days, I was an Arctic Explorer. Everything I had went into that fantasy. I wanted a backpack, a rope, boots, an ice pick. We built Lego Arctic, complete with polar bears and tiny snowshoes for our minifigures.
As I got older, my interest in Legos waned. I began to feel the depression around this time. It was a constricting feeling, gnawing on my soul. I began to fight with my parents, and I felt like my life had stalled. My interest in girls began to deepen, but I didn’t know what to do about it. It was terrifying.
I began to struggle with my self-worth. I felt like I was drowning in loneliness. Masturbation and pornography were my secret shames, and I felt like a monster. I must be the only one feeling so much pain. I must be alone. Everyone else seemed to have it figured out.
It’s unbelievable how alone you can feel, even in the midst of a crowd. Even when I was with my friends, I felt like a misfit. I never quite fit, but I wasn’t sure why. It was as if on the inside I was screaming for help, but on the outside I didn’t know how to speak.
That was when books entered the scene. The deepest fantasy I had ever encountered, books took me to different worlds.
In books, I found friends – characters who felt just like I did. Alone. Lost. Afraid. The characters in books weren’t perfect. They had flaws, bruises, dark secrets.
The books of Avi were a breath of fresh air. I entered the world of Tony from Windcatcher, fell in love with Poppy and Rye, and cried with Crispin. These were characters I could relate to.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls broke my heart and gave me hope all at the same time. Here was someone just as broken as I, someone I could relate to. The book left me with a hallowed, hollow feeling. A sacred brokenness. A bittersweet, longing desperation and resignation. I can’t explain all the emotions in words. These feelings just were.
Books gave me hope. Unlike anything else, they showed me the power of story. I learned to identify with the characters’ struggles, and I learned to see purpose in my own pain. I began to see life as a story, and that changed everything.
Writing my own book gave me even more opportunity to express myself. Over a couple years, I wrote over 200 pages of a fiction book. I was too embarrassed to show anyone, because the struggles of Tate, my character, matched my own. I wrote each chapter as I grew. My fight out of depression was a fight alongside my good friend Tate.
So many of my real-life friends struggle with depression. And they are all lovers of fantasy. Whether they escape into the magic of a TV show, the beauty of PHP code, or a book they write, fantasy is an escape.
Fantasy can help us to interpret reality and understand our pain and purpose. It’s easy to think of fantasy as a non-essential, but I believe it is critical to mental health. The process of imagination is the best way to clear the mind.
These days, I haven’t spent as much time in the fantasy world, and I can feel my mind getting rusty. In the midst of one of the most difficult times of my life, I walked into the hallowed halls of a library I had never seen before.
I walked up to the desk, where a kind librarian named Paris set me up with a new library card. Everything he did was with a tongue-in-cheek, fashion-designer flourish, and I smiled as he handed me the fresh new card. He took my old card and looked at the streaks and smudges. He raised an eyebrow, and I nodded. Paris threw the old card away.
Thanking him, I walked through the library. The smell of books – my old best friends – greeted me. I smiled at the familiar scent. This was clearly a library under loving care. There was a fireplace next to giant windows overlooking an empty field, and the fire crackled gently.
I was home. Waking up the sleepy library computer, I typed in, “Mitch Albom”. A favorite author of mine. He had several new books, so I chose one and sat down by the fire.
Before I knew it, I had lost myself in the world of Chick, a former baseball player who felt his life had passed him by. His depression brought him to suicide, but he failed. And for good reason. There was more his life had to offer.
I laughed, I cried, and I related. These were the times I missed. Nostalgia and catharsis blended in a beautiful dance. This was should be.
There is hope in fantasy. Sometimes you need to lose yourself in another world to find yourself in this one.