Joanne.

A Golden, Cheesy Birthday

A week ago today, I did something I don’t often find it within myself to do – I celebrated my own life.  I celebrated being alive, celebrated the fact that I’d been born, and the reality that there are many beautiful things to look forward to in the years to come.

January 25th was my Golden (or Champagne) Birthday. I turned 25 years old, which marks roughly 11 years since I began battling with depression. Sometimes I’ll go as much as a year without feeling it, but over the last two years I’ve been consistently under its shadow.

I don’t know why, but I have been looking forward to my Golden Birthday ever since I learned what one was.  I remember being in Kindergarten and feeling frustrated that I had to wait so long to celebrate mine, but the fact that my anticipation has persisted is unique because my birthday is rarely my favourite day of the year.

Ever since I began my battle with depression, my birthday – a day of loving, celebrating, and drawing attention to myself – has rarely been something I wanted to acknowledge.  I would try to ignore my birthday so much that I even forgot it was my birthday some years, until my family kindly reminded me.

When I’m depressed and can’t love myself, the last thing I want to do is celebrate my life.

But last Thursday, I made a conscious effort to love myself, and I invited over many of the people I love to help me in case I wasn’t strong enough on my own.  It worked – far more than I could have ever dreamed.  I felt happier and lighter than I had in a long time. A long time.  (All of the pizza sitting in my stomach didn’t feel particularly light, but it was satisfying nonetheless.)

The last couple of years have had mountainous highs and cavernous lows.  Fortunately, I’ve formed many wonderful and fierce friendships during this time, even though it has been such a challenge to be loving towards myself.  (Everything balances out, I suppose.)

Sitting with my friends that night, I realized the party was a culmination of the last two years of change and growth that I’ve gone through – for once in my life, I was someone who loved me.

Take my hand – stay, Joanne

At the end of the night I was just sitting and having a happy cry on my own, satisfied with all of the love I’ve experienced that day.  I was about to go to bed when I realized Lady Gaga had just released a new music video for her song Joanne.  Of course, I had to watch – how often does Lady Gaga give you a birthday present? – and before long I was full-on sobbing.

“Every part of my aching heart needs you more than the angels do.”

Okay, now for some context. When I get low and can’t love myself, the thing that keeps me strong is the people I love.  When I can’t love myself, I try to feel how much they love me and how much I love them – I try to feel how much they would miss me if I wasn’t in their lives anymore, and how much I would miss them.  This really works for me.

No matter how low I get, I could never hurt the people I love – even if I feel like I could hurt myself.

But what, you’re asking, does this have to do with Lady Gaga? Gaga’s song is about her aunt Joanne, who passed away at age 19 from Lupus (Gaga was named after Joanne, but she never had the chance to meet her).  The song is about losing someone far too soon, about someone’s life ending before they had a chance to live it.  About someone who was taken away without any say.

Gaga’s song is the voice of her family calling out to Joanne “Girl, where do you think you’re going?”  You can’t leave us now.  Stay.

This is the sentiment I imagine my loved ones expressing to me when I get low.  But for the first time in forever, I heard my own voice joining in with them.  “Girl, where do you think you’re going?”

So I was sitting there, weeping and overjoyed because I realized that I finally love myself.  Maybe I won’t always, but I love myself more than I have in 11 years – and this feels like a turning point. This is the beginning of me loving myself the way I love the other people in my life.  For 11 years, I have persevered because of the love of those around me, even when I could not love myself – I’ve made the choice to stay because of the people I love, a choice that Joanne didn’t get to make.  This is the beginning of me making the choice to stay because I want to be here.

Depression as Meditation

If my depression has taught me anything, it’s that we speak to ourselves very differently than we speak to those around us, and especially to the ones we love.  My greatest successes in loving myself have come through realizing we have to treat ourselves the way we would treat someone else we love.  If I wouldn’t say or do something to my wife, my parents, my sister, or my closest friends, I shouldn’t say or do it to myself.

In other words, I am learning the virtues of daya, ahimsa, and asteya (which come from India’s beautiful religious traditions), but I am learning them in reverse.

Daya means compassion, but it is a concept far richer than that; it simultaneously refers to treating all beings as though they are yourself and seeing all those who are suffering as yourself, for you are truly one with them.  But since my depression has made it difficult to love myself in the first place, I am learning to see myself as all other beings and to respond to my suffering the way I would respond to the suffering of another.  If the people I love are suffering, I am quick to comfort them and seek a remedy – I am learning that this is how I should respond to my own suffering.

Ahimsa (which means non-harming) and asteya (which means non-stealing) are related terms, but each are deeper than their simple translations read.  Ahimsa doesn’t simply refer to non-violence, it means not doing any kind of harm – not doing physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or spiritual harm to anyone, and that includes yourself.  In the same way, asteya means far more than not torrenting movies – it means not stealing time, energy, affection, attention, or any kind of resource from anyone, including yourself.  You can’t practice ahimsa or asteya without treating others as yourself, or, in my case, treating myself as I treat others.

Depression has been with me now for a little under half of my life and all of my adult life.  Sometimes it goes away, but it has always come back.  I cannot say if this is the end of depression for me – it likely won’t be – but each time it comes back I gain a better understanding of myself and I develop a better system of pushing back against it.  I don’t think “grateful” would ever be the right word, but I have learned to somewhat appreciate my depression, inasmuch as it makes me see myself more clearly, and it makes me stronger every time I endure its weight.

I pray that all those who also battle with depression – or anyone who doesn’t love themselves quite as much as they should – can learn to talk more openly about mental health issues, to give one another their unconditional support, and, most of all, to treat themselves the way they treat the people they hold most dear.  But if you can’t love yourself yet, please think of Joanne.  Feel the love of the people who want you to stay, and do no harm to yourself so you do no harm to them – take nothing from yourself so you don’t take yourself from them.  They love you, and they need you.  Where do you think you are going?

(Dedicated to those who did everything in their power to make my birthday a joyful day.  That includes you, Gaga!)

© Rylan Skelly, February 2018


About the Author: I have a B.A. in Honours Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo; I have a love for all major world religions – Eastern, Western, or in between; I’m genderqueer, and I’m comfortable with male, neutral, and female pronouns; I’m married to my dear wife Lynn, who is the love of my life, my best friend, and my muse; I think far too much, and often have too many ideas to know what to do with; and I am a doing being, just like you!

Encourageous LGBTQ Mental Health Prose rosebuds know to bloom in early may

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Rylan Skelly View All →

I have a B.A. in Honours Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo; I have a love for all major world religions - Eastern, Western, or in between; I'm genderqueer, and I'm comfortable with male, neutral, and female pronouns; I'm married to my dear wife Lynn, who is the love of my life, my best friend, and my muse; and I am a doing being, just like you!

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