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Elephant Dances

Depression can be the elephant in the room.

When I dance, I’m usually not alone.

You may not find that surprising, given that ballroom generally involves two people, but I’m talking about something else: a sometimes comforting, sometimes obnoxious little presence that I’ve become acquainted with. Let us, for sake of narrative, call it an elephant.

Have you ever tried dancing with an elephant on the floor? I don’t remember the first time I noticed it, but I suspect it hung around in my periphery before I perceived it. At first mostly a nuisance, I danced around it, a different kind of floor craft. As time wore on, however, I got used to its presence—liked it, almost. There was something not quite friendly but welcoming in its demeanor. The floor seemed plenty big enough for the two of us, and so we waltzed.

Elephants are distracting, though. Every time you catch one peeking over your shoulder, you can’t help but think. You take your eye off the ball-of-foot balance needed to execute that turn, or cut your natural a little short to avoid its hairy flank. And sometimes it seems that damned elephant has its trunk wrapped around your waist, holding you back. When you turn around, though, it’s across the floor, blinking patiently back. Mine sometimes likes to sit with me in my armchair, unwittingly crushing me further into the cushions.

Some of my friends have elephants too. When I look back, I’ve known about the elephants for a long time. It’s hard to not notice when your friend is overshadowed by a gargantuan pachyderm. Though not always out in the open air, their footprints appear on the bodies and faces of those around me. Some try to hide their elephants from sight, while others deny they have one even as it bears witness at their shoulder. Studies show that their incidence is nearly one in five in the population.

The elephant in the room is mental health. My particular elephant happens to be depression.

The social and internal taboos surrounding this subject are strong, hence the initial abstraction. The everyday language of mental health teaches us that these problems are personal, perhaps implying that nobody wants to hear or see them, and that we can simply think our way out of them. The reality is that, while personal in manifestation, these are problems that millions of people deal with on a daily basis.

More insidious, the idea that somebody can just think themselves out of it tells us that the problem needs only a simple recipe to be fixed. “Follow X routine, think Y happy thoughts, and don’t do Z anymore, and you’ll be good as new!”

In reality, mental health is so directly integrated into a person’s identity, relationships, and world view that changes are hard to achieve on the timeline that most well-intended advice assumes. If my knee hurts when I do bolero, there’s a fairly straightforward sequence to ameliorating the problem, usually beginning with taking a break from dancing bolero. If my self hurts when I feel like a missed opportunity deep in my past has doomed my future, there is no such formula for making me feel better; I cannot simply stop thinking.

I’ve been lucky to fall towards the mild end of the spectrum, in that it tends to be episodic instead of chronic. When I hurt my knee, it needs ice and rest. When I hurt my mind, what can help?

I don’t have all the answers. The best I can suggest is to be willing to talk about your elephant, your problems, and be willing to listen in return. It’s difficult to be vulnerable and let someone take a peek at the inner workings of your mind, but that can help open the doors to more conversations and more understanding. Reach out and touch another’s life, not with the intent to save or fix but to help. Know that seeking help is not a sign of weakness but one of strength.

To all those with elephants out there, I salute you with a mighty trumpet.

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