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Ben Wyatt is not depressed

"Unemployed" doesn't mean "not working," and depression looks different for everyone


June 14, 2016

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    When Ben Wyatt quits his job in the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana, in order to pursue an ethically sound relationship with his colleague, Leslie Knope, the quirky Parks & Rec character embarks upon an absolute odyssey of unstructured time. 
    He outfits himself in T-shirt advertising all-but-forgotten 90’s alt-rock band Letters to Cleo, stops attempting to tame his hair and throws himself into his new, time-consuming claymation hobby.
    Wyatt initially insists he’s “the furthest thing from depressed” and, waving his claymation doll in front of the camera defiantly, he asks, “Do you think a depressed person could make this?” 
    Oh, Ben, you card. You’d be amazed by all that a depressed person can do. 
    Ben Wyatt was without work for one week. I’ve been unemployed for going on three years. My partner reminds me regularly that I have actually been quite hard at work during that time, even if it’s not socially sanctioned, paycheck-wielding work. 
    I moved three times to three different states. My partner and I refinished our kitchen cabinetry and several pieces of furniture, installed a back splash and an oven hood, and rebuilt and tiled our powder room floor. We replaced sinks and light fixtures, painted walls in our powder room, kitchen, bedroom and living room, and scraped down the popcorn ceiling in the master bath. 
    I all but perfected our everyday bread recipe, learned to make traditional Turkish food, nailed a pretty complicated gumbo and deep-cleaned the house time and time again, from the baseboards up. I wrote, edited, organized and published poems, responded to a handful of pretty heavy family emergencies, and traveled to see friends in California, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. 
    And, like Ben Wyatt, I played with clay, making miniature foods: tiny cakes, pizzas, cheese plates, fruits and even a commissioned charcuterie board. I shingled, refinished and redecorated my childhood Tudor-style dollhouse, even landscaping its front yard and laying tiny bathroom floor tiles, one by one. These projects required me to learn to use pastels, oil and watercolor paints; they provided me with sensory input, intense focus and finished products. 
    I always imagined unemployment would be a long-term vacation and/or a hyper-focused time of self-improvement. But I did not spend these years writing a memoir, or fixing my problems, or even sleeping in. 
    In reality, in my case, unemployment looked more like a constant fight against boredom. Eventually it became a petri dish in which self-doubt thrived. What did I have to talk about, to say for myself? 
    My introversion, which was already profound, grew more far more prevalent. When you meet new people, they inevitably ask what you “do,” and I didn’t know how to answer. Feeling dull and mute in a new place is bound to breed loneliness, and loneliness leads to depression. 
    Whether in an office, on a farm, or in the food service industry, I have always been an incredibly hard worker. I do well with structure, reasonable supervision and expectations, and without those parameters, I have really struggled. No matter how busy I stayed over the past three years, life has felt off. 
    So, like Ben Wyatt, it is time for me to go back to work, and after a long and steady battle with inertia, I have made it happen: This fall, I will be teaching five classes at Georgia Southern. Since getting the offer, I have been compulsively building a professional wardrobe and lesson plans, both from the ground up. 
    It’s been a while since I’ve used certain surfaces of my brain, so I’ll need to dust them off before putting them back to use, and I am hoping to lull other, less helpful thought patterns into remission. 
    Soon, I will be bringing home a modest quantity of bacon, and you will hardly recognize me. I will be wearing real pants, and complaining about having no time for myself, instead of having too much.

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