When my son was very small, the worst word he could think of was “butthead.” Mo was shockingly articulate even as a preschooler. He had quite a vocabulary, but his arsenal of insults was still pretty childish. “Butthead” was his big gun. I don’t know where he picked it up, but can still picture him, about four years old and furious. He paused mid-rant to muster the courage to use it, or maybe he paused for dramatic impact—but I remember that hesitation and then his angry little face as he spat the word: BUTTHEAD.
Children are so literal. I can imagine why my son found that word so offensive. Picture a butt in place of a head–awful! Ugly, freakish… and if you are a butthead, whatever comes out of your face is poop, right? Taken literally, “butthead” is downright disturbing.
With my daughter, the worst word was “chatterbox.” Maddy is a born talker. It’s in her genes. Every time someone called her a chatterbox, she was crushed. “Aw, honey,” I’d soothe, “It’s not a mean word; it just means you talk a lot. Our whole family does. Don’t feel bad.” But she did feel bad; she felt gravely insulted whenever someone used that word to describe her.
Finally, I got it out of her: when Maddy was little, she equated the word “chatterbox” with the term “litter box.” No wonder she was offended. Is there anything more disgusting than a litter box? A stinky, messy box full of dirt and poop? (Again with the poop. It’s a recurring theme with children.) For some reason, her childhood brain overlapped those two concepts and every time someone teased her about talking too much, she felt like she was disgusting. Poor kid.
Despite my rich and varied repertoire of curses and insults, for me, the worst word is “worthless.” I’m not sure why that one hurts so much. I can’t recall anyone ever calling me worthless. No, the only person who ever uses that word about me is me. “Worthless” is a word that creeps into my head when my depression is acting up. In fact, that’s how I recognize that it’s depression. I really, really hate that word and I don’t use it….but my depression does.
If you’ve never struggled with depression, that may not make sense to you. Depression is not the same as being sad. If I tell someone I’m depressed, and they ask what’s wrong, I know they don’t get it. Nothing is wrong except my brain chemistry, which is telling me that everything is wrong. It tells me repeatedly and aggressively that EVERYTHING IS WRONG and there’s no hope of it getting better. There are no voices in my head—nothing that dramatic—it’s just my own thinking gone askew. I know it’s false; I know it’s chemical. But it still really, really sucks.
You know when you have PMS and you fly off the handle for some stupid reason, and you know it’s stupid but you can’t stop? Or you start crying and you realize it’s just your hormones but you’re not any less sad? Same idea. I have dealt with depression for most of my adult life. I usually recognize it as biochemical nonsense, but that doesn’t always make it easier.
“Worthless,” I’ll hear myself thinking. “This is all worthless. Why even bother? Nothing is going to change. Nothing is getting better. This is a hopeless waste of time.”
Truth be told, this is why I haven’t posted in weeks. I’ve been fighting with my moods. I have written a few posts, but I always abandon them when those vicious thoughts begin. If I write about depression, I sound whiny. If I pretend everything is fine and blog about something else, I sound false.
When I’m depressed, the critic in my head is blown all out of proportion and nothing gets past it. Everything is worthless: blogging, Weight Watchers, trying to save money, trying to be good mom…all my productive, healthy impulses are subject to attack.
When I was in therapy, they referred to this as “cognitive distortions,” which basically are flawed thinking patterns. They taught me how to counter those thoughts with more realistic, sensible ones. That helps—recognize the falsehood and replace it with something truthful.
When I was religious, they said those thoughts are the voice of The Enemy (yep, that means Satan) trying to bring you down. I know it sounds loopy, but it’s one of the more helpful lessons Christianity taught me: you don’t have to own every thought that comes into your head. You can reject the bad thoughts because they aren’t coming from you. Again, recognize the falsehood and replace it with something truthful.
One of the most useful techniques for fighting depression is a sort of hybrid of those two concepts. I can’t remember where I learned this—possibly from a David Burns book? The idea is that you reject those negative thoughts and refuse to own them—in fact, you give that ugly voice in your head a name. You give it a separate identity from yourself, and then you tell it to shut up. You tell it it’s wrong, and you tell it why, and you take a stand in your own head against the crazy talk.
I know, sounds like goofy psychobabble…whatever. Try it next time you’re beating yourself up. It’s pretty effective.
As I’ve been working on this post, I thought of a perfect name for my ugly depression voice: Butthead Chatterbox. So appropriate! That’s what I’m going to call it when I tell it off, like this:
Depression: This post is worthless. Trite…hackneyed…worthless. It’s also embarrassing. Do you think anyone reads this? And if they do, they’re just going to know what a mess you are. Why bother?
Meg: Shut up, BUTTHEAD CHATTERBOX. I don’t care if anyone reads it and besides, they do read it. They told me they miss my posts. You talk too much and you’re full of poop.
See how that works? It’s absurd enough to make me laugh, but it’s also a reminder of how hurtful words can be—even the ones that seem silly. When I think of my angry little boy and my vulnerable little girl, my protective instincts come out swinging…just what I need to fight the Butthead Chatterbox.
P.S: For an entertaining but oh-so-accurate picture of depression, check out this post by genius blogger Allie Brosh. In fact, read all her stuff; she’s hilarious.