[Written for my other blog in June 2014.]
I’ve had depression in the past, and I’ve been treated for it. I had my first experience with it when I was in college; my depression at the time was fairly mild, and I wanted to just take a pill and be happy. I was offered counseling services and refused. In retrospect, I had plenty of things going on emotionally that I wish I had gotten help with. My depression was not purely a chemical imbalance like I insisted it was. I had psychological and emotional issues that were also contributing factors, but I either wasn’t consciously aware of them or I wasn’t willing to face them, so I asked for the pills and I got them, and I took them for years. I’ve been off them for about eight years now and I was doing fine for the most part…until this past winter. Looking back, I was beginning to struggle a bit in the fall but it came on so gradually that it didn’t register on my radar as anything to worry about. I was keeping afloat and it seemed a little harder than usual, but sometimes that’s just how it is with me.
But after the holidays ended…game over.
My psychological state took a massive kamikaze dive and there was no mistaking it for anything other than what it was. Major depression, if you’ve never experienced it, feels like your well-being is rotting out from under you. I’ve been feeling sad, for sure. Very, very sad. The kind of sad that a manicure or new shoes or a bitch session with my best friend can barely make a dent in. It’s in my bones. But depression is more than just that – persistent sadness is one of the main symptoms, but there are so many more, and I have way more of them this time around than I did before. The feeling of utter hopelessness is the hardest, scariest part. My life is more or less the same as it was six months ago, but six months ago I felt good about my life, and I looked forward to things, and I felt excited about whatever was ahead of me. When the depression hit full-blast, it knocked out virtually every positive feeling I had about myself, my life, and my future. And because I’m someone who fights hard in the name of optimism and positivity and gratitude, that scared the hell out of me. Suddenly, I felt like I had nothing to live for, nothing to look forward to, no reason to get up every day and participate in the world. My little mental game of “Let’s turn that frown upside down by making a list of things I’m grateful for” became completely laughable. That little voice inside that usually speaks up to say things like, But M, it’s really not so bad, is it? was suddenly saying, Why are you even here? Getting out of bed in the morning became an incredible ordeal, because turning on the shower and washing my hair felt like an exercise in pointlessness. Why go to work? I’m no good at what I do. Nobody there likes me. I contribute nothing to humanity. I have nothing ahead of me to work toward and look forward to. I saw my future yawning open in front of me and it no longer looked like a doorway leading somewhere mysterious but probably awesome. It looked like a bottomless pit that filled me with dread. And I didn’t really tell anyone because there didn’t seem any point in doing so. I’m familiar with the kind of things people say to sad people (because I’ve said them myself) and I knew that it wouldn’t do any good.
And all day every day, for months, there was a relentless despairing monologue running in my head telling me that I’m useless and boring and unlovable and no good to anyone, and I’ll never have anything that I want because I don’t deserve it, who the hell am I to think I deserve anything when I’m such an awful waste of space? I mentally checked out of my job and I felt myself withdrawing from my social life bit by bit because the idea of voluntarily being out in public and talking to people and pretending to be okay made me want to start screaming. I had no interest in anything but eating, sleeping, and staring at the TV. (Being depressed sucks because the only things you’re interested in doing are things that will keep you feeling depressed.)
In real life, depression does not look like it does in the Zoloft commercials. There’s absolutely nothing cute about it, and it doesn’t feel like I’m rolling along under a puffy gray cloud and feeling a little down in the dumps.
It’s ugly, and it feels messy and dark and terrifying. It feels like I’m fighting with my own mind. It can alternate between unbearable sadness and an almost eerie blankness or numbness, where I don’t really feel much of anything. I don’t feel sad, but I don’t feel anything positive, either. It’s total robot-style apathy. In a way, I hate those days even more.
The turning point came in mid-March when it was gray and freezing cold and I was crossing the river on the State Street bridge to catch a train home from work. It had been a particularly bad day; I was so crushingly sad that I felt sick to my stomach and the thought of walking four blocks to the train made me so tired I wanted to cry. Depression can bring on a level of physical fatigue that’s truly astounding – a “sit and stare at your ringing phone because you can’t find the will to reach for it” level of exhaustion that makes even the simplest tasks feel like insurmountable feats. (This does not help with the feelings of uselessness and self-loathing.) Things had finally reached a point where I was legitimately worried about myself and was trying to figure out what to do about it. Maybe my hormones are out of whack. Maybe it’s run-of-the mill seasonal depression because this winter’s been so bad. Maybe I just need a vacation. Maybe I need to find a therapist.
Maybe I’ll just die.
The idea slithered into my parade of thoughts and marched merrily along like it belonged there among all the other legitimate ones. Except it didn’t belong there. At all. It stopped me dead in my tracks, and that was the moment I realized that this situation was a hundred times worse than it was the first time around and it was not acceptable, and that trying to handle it myself was not just hubris, but also possibly dangerous. It’s a scary thing to feel like there are thoughts in your head that don’t belong there and it feels like they don’t even originate with you. Those moments feel like the depression is a living, breathing thing that’s taken up residence in my body. A few nights later I stumbled upon the Twitter hashtag #depressionlies and watched people all over the world tweeting about their experiences with depression and how it makes you believe things about yourself and your life that aren’t true, and I cried hysterically because so much of what they were describing hit extremely close to home and were symptoms that I didn’t even know were symptoms – anger, forgetfulness, irritability – and I realized that I may have actually been depressed for much longer than I thought and I was officially in this thing way over my head.
I’m sick, I thought.
So I did what people do when they’re sick. I got help. It’s been almost three months now, and I’m making progress. Sometimes I feel almost normal and get a quick glimpse of what it’s like to be fun and interesting again. (I miss that a lot – my sparkle.) Some days the “I wish I was dead” thoughts are back in a big way. But there’s no quick fix for this, unfortunately. It’s just going to take time. About a month ago I had a really horrible week in both my professional life and my personal one, and I had a very bad backslide that lasted about three weeks. That sucked, but it taught me that if you were to make a graph showing my upward, positive progress, that diagonal line is going to have some dips in it. Sometimes big ones.
There’s a lot of talk about how mental illness shouldn’t be stigmatized because it’s no different than having something like diabetes (which I firmly believe is true), but at the same time, mental illness is a strange bird because you don’t cure diabetes by paying someone to listen to you talk about it for 50 minutes a week. I’ve read that depression is complicated because in many cases the root cause of it is thought to be chronic stress, which can cause changes in your brain chemistry that may be responsible for the symptoms of depression. So the question “Is it only psychological/environmental issues that are making you depressed or do you have a chemical imbalance?” becomes really tricky, if not impossible, to answer because one can cause the other. So I’m addressing both. The problem is complicated, so fixing it is complicated too. I have moments of frustration because I wish I could see more concrete progress – I would love to be able to get a lab report with numbers on it that shows I’m getting better and be able to count on the idea that when I attain improvement, I can keep it. I don’t get that reassurance here, so vigilance is important, along with huge amounts of patience and an equally huge amount of faith. And now that I’m starting to feel a little bit better, faith is beginning to be possible again. That inner negative monologue is still there, but I can turn the volume down sometimes so it doesn’t monopolize my consciousness to the extent that it did before. That’s a pretty big deal, when you think about it – while treating this thing often bears a resemblance to feeling my way through a funhouse while blindfolded, I work hard to remember that in this fight, even the smallest victories are important.
I’m not sharing this because I’m seeking an avalanche of concern and attention. I’m content with a little bit of awareness, for me in particular and for the illness in general, because it is a very real and very serious thing. I’m not quite myself a lot of the time these days, but be assured that I’m not going anywhere – there’s help to be had, and I’m getting it. I’m more sensitive than usual and my fuse is pretty short, and I feel like I’m not able to be as good a friend as I normally try to be because I’m overwhelmed with so much of my own stuff that relating to and sympathizing with other people is really difficult – not because I don’t want to, but because I quite literally don’t have the emotional capacity sometimes.
One thing treatment’s taught me is that I have a lot of difficulty practicing self-care. I feel like it’s never okay to put me first or say no to something in the interest of looking out for myself and what I need. I equate that with being selfish. So I’m working hard on that and also learning to recognize my limitations. Sometimes it’s okay to say “OMG I can’t even” and just go home. But I can’t let myself become socially isolated either. I have a lot of balls in the air, is what I’m saying. And while it’s really difficult, I also have moments when I’m actually pretty excited about it, because I’m learning how to be a happier person and who doesn’t want some of that? So I know that I dumped out a lot of worrisome information here, but I don’t want anybody to freak out. There’s light at the end of the tunnel – I can’t always see it, but I know it’s there, and I’m going after it.