Human natural selection: what it’s like to be held back by your own neurochemistry

Human natural selection: what it’s like to be held back by your own neurochemistry

Natural selection. Darwin’s theory of evolution. When learning of these phenomena in Biology class, we envision cheetahs chasing down and catching the slowest gazelle in the Sahara, frogs mastering the art of camouflage in the rainforest, bison fighting to the death for a mate on the plains.

For a long time, I also thought that natural selection only applied to the animal kingdom, that humans were exempt from this competition. But we are not; natural selection still exists within our human realm, just in most people’s eyes, instead of life or death, it’s the difference between a “good” and “bad” life.

Sometimes, it feels as if I have been smited or cursed. Seventy-five percent of my life is spent behind distorted lenses: drawing wrong conclusions, second-guessing myself, feeling invincible one minute and completely and utterly incapable the next — I am a tiny, feeble snail, and life is the kid outside my shell poking me with a stick every time I inch my head out.

I have clinical depression and anxiety.

I know it’s hard looking from the outside in. I know I don’t seem like I’m depressed; I know a lot of people think I’m joking at first when I tell them. Major depression, dysthymia, bipolar disorder and other depressive mood disorders are often reduced to detached, nondescript symptoms such as “persistent sadness and suicidal tendencies” simply because the nature of our language can’t fully describe it — they’re so much more.

Depression feels like I am stuck in quicksand, trying to keep myself above the collapsing surface. Depression feels like I am treading water in a deep, deep ocean, and once I begin to sink I do not have the means to come back up. Depression feels like I am riding a wild, relentless bull through the desert, and when I am inevitably thrown off into the dirt, the bull continues to barrel into the distance. The analogies are endless.

It feels as if the human phenomenon of natural selection has neglected us in this sense, that we are unfit to live “good” lives because of mental illness. As the able-bodied and sound-minded homo sapiens take strides, push through their struggles and conquer their goals, we are left behind, deserted. With no second glance or consideration, we are left to pick ourselves up, miles behind our peers. And from there on out, it gets much worse. Natural selection becomes animal, a fight just to survive.

The people who suffer from mental illness are so much more than the sad, lazy, unlovable characters that exist in society’s stereotyped expectations. We are different, yes, but not worse. Underneath the fog of depression are beautiful, talented individuals, capable of anything, but just unable to achieve their full potential because of their neurochemistry.

The truth is, I’m tired. It is an outrage that we are still alienated for something we cannot help, that we try so much harder to accomplish half of what normal people can accomplish. What have we done to deserve to suffer? And why are the disorders that clearly inhibit us, not to mention the daily suffering we fight, de-legitimized by society?

Depression and anxiety and any other mental illness are not excuses. I don’t get a “get out of jail free” card. But it should be a minimum to be given a little more leniency in consideration. It should be a minimum to have my suffering be recognized legitimately, just as any person suffering from a physical illness or impairment is recognized for theirs.

These arguments have all been made before: victims of mental illness are suffering and you need to be aware of it and have more sensitivity.

At the end of the day, and at the end of this rambling article I’m not sure what to say. Life is hard, especially if you suffer from mental illness. People should learn to be more sensitive, both to others and themselves, to make life less hard for everyone. Other than that, there’s not much one can do. Mental illness is extremely difficult to get over, which is why a lot of cases are chronic. It’s not a one-step or two-step cure, it’s years and years of therapy, often with medication.

Society still, and quite possibly always believes that those who suffer from mental illness are “other.” We are the lazy, weak, cowardly. We are the “lesser” humans, unfit for survival, left in the dust in the competition of the fittest. From a biological standpoint, maybe this is true. But haven’t humans evolved past that base structure for survival? Isn’t the one factor that sets us apart from animals our ability to feel empathy?

With the polarizing rhetoric aside, I actually believe there is a way to bridge the rift and promote understanding on both sides. It’s not your fault you don’t understand my need to stay curled up in fetal position on a Friday night just like it’s not my fault for needing that time to sort my feelings. It’s not your fault you don’t understand me just as it’s not my fault I suffer from depression. Why don’t we both try a little harder to meet in the middle? I’ll try to curb my negative thoughts and you begin to educate yourself on the very real suffering that comes with mental illness. Maybe then, we can foster more understanding from both sides. Maybe then we may feel more comfortable to talk, to crawl out of our shells, and embrace the vulnerability we all hold inside.