The end of this month marks the one-year anniversary of when I first came down with depression.
It happened quickly. There was no known trigger. I was driving, almost home, likely singing out loud, and BOOM. I felt my mood plummet like all my happy chemicals took a running leap off the side of a bridge.
At first I thought maybe it was cyclical hormones. But it wasn’t the right time, and anyway, this didn’t feel like that. It was a feeling I’d never had before, scary because of the newness, and scary for the feelings themselves.
When I bring up depression so many people ask me, “What exactly IS depression, anyway?” We have a cultural impression it simply means sadness, but it’s so much more complicated than that. I have struggled this whole year with trying to put words to how depression feels. What can I say, what metaphors can I use, to communicate this strange feeling to someone like myself, who had never experienced it before that day?
Weariness without being tired.
Apathy without the lack of energy.
Loss of will without loss of capability.
Despair over nothing at all.
Words from anti-depressant commercials came back to haunt me: “Are you losing interest in things you once loved?” It’s not just that, though. You lose interest in EVERYTHING. Even laying on the couch zoning out to TV. It’s not like having the flu. There is no comfort to vegging out. There is no comfort to taking a day off.
There is no comfort.
I tried so hard to observe my emotions without being controlled by them. To analyze my feelings without believing I was my feelings. Even as I suffered, the writer in me wanted to learn, to understand. Sometimes the feelings won, though. Sometimes it felt like my brain was panicking, like there was part of me rocking back and forth rapidly in my head to self-soothe, to make it go away.
Sometimes I would find myself frantically going through a list of things that might bring me comfort: food, alcohol, calling out of work, crying, venting to someone, standing on my head — ANYTHING to get rid of this horrible feeling. Usually I could control myself. Usually I would remind myself that those impulses are just that — impulses. The body trying to self-soothe.
I don’t blame my body. It’s in charge of ensuring my survival. But it gave me one more thing to deal with — controlling the impulsivity, on top of the despair, on top of the cloudiness of mind that made it hard to process quickly, multi-task, or make clear decisions. My instinct for the correct action to take in a situation used to dart like a silver fish through clear water. Now my decisions rise up as if through syrup. Murky. Slow.
I don’t remember very much of last fall. I know I got through my full load of classes. I got A’s. I held out, hoping it was the stress of work and going to school full time, plus some family drama, that was making me feel this way.
But it wasn’t.
In February I finally got on medication. Except they didn’t warn me the medication might make it worse for a while. That sucked.
Then it got better.
The medication started working. I started to feel like my normal self again: buoyant, excited, capable. I got back on a diet, lost twenty of the pounds I’d gained. I moved to a gorgeous and inspiring new house. I had success at work. I even learned through some family members that depression apparently runs in my family! Wow! Solidarity!
Unfortunately, over the past couple weeks the depression seeped back in. I had a particularly bad day, the worst day so far, and actually had to leave work for the first time. Driving home was so hard. Every moment I had to force myself to stay present, to keep making all those little muscular changes involved with driving. Resisting the pull toward entropy was exhausting.
By the grace of God my doctor had a cancellation and I was able to see her the very next morning. She put me on a second anti-depressant, one that deals with different chemicals. I have felt a little better each day, and still have more upward swing to look forward to.
Things have been hard lately for another reason: apparently my first anti-depressant gave me a new side effect: anxiety! Another fascinating and new experience. An irrational panicking of the brain — I know when it’s happening, but the feelings are sometimes stronger than logic.
And still, I’m lucky. So, so, so lucky. I don’t have panic attacks. I don’t self-harm. I’m not suicidal (a sincere thank you to everyone who asked if I needed more help than I was letting on. You’re doing the good work). Heck, most of the last year, even in the darkest times, I was still able to write. Beyond lucky.
It’s this privilege that makes my depression hard to talk about sometimes. Fellow sufferers have implied I have it relatively easy, so I shouldn’t complain. Well-meaning individuals have implied it’s my own fault: I’m not trying hard enough (I am), I’m not taking the right vitamins (I had all my levels checked, and my thyroid), I haven’t figured out what’s really bothering me (pretty happy with my life, thanks), I’m not leaning on my faith hard enough (God’s not punishing me, promise), etc.
These experiences can make it hard to feel comfortable sharing, but I persist because I have the right to own my story, and I still need support. I persist because being open about it helps others.
I am so proud to be able to say that several strangers — strangers!! — have reached out to me online or by phone because they saw my story, or someone else told them about me.
In my professional life I have been able to meet fearful confessions with solidarity — me, too! It’s so easy to get wrapped up in our own heads and play by rules we forget are made up. So easy to think we shouldn’t get help until we’ve taken care of everyone around us. So easy to not notice how bad it’s getting because you’re so focused on getting through one day, one minute, one second at a time.
So easy to feel alone when no one else around you is talking about it.
So I’m talking about it.
Holy crap you guys, I have RELATIVES with depression! Coworkers! Friends! Current and previous sufferers — we are all around you!
Normalizing the fact that for whatever reason my brain doesn’t always make the right chemicals has been so liberating. It’s an illness like any other, a slight issue with one of my body parts. And I’m treating it.
These are the things I want to say to you, if you think your brain might be giving you depression.
Objection: I probably don’t need help, it’s not that bad
I mean, it’s your choice. But don’t forget this: you DESERVE to feel okay. You DESERVE to be healthy. You are the caretaker of your own life, your own best advocate. Treat yourself like your dearest loved one: If they were suffering, would you tell them it’s probably not that bad and they don’t need help? No, you would drive them to the doctor’s office yourself, wouldn’t you? Do the same for your own self. Take care of you.
Objection: it takes so long to get help
I’m not going to sugar coat it. Yes, it takes a few weeks to get an appointment, then to be analyzed, then to get a spot to see the prescribing physician. Then to ramp up on medication. Then to get the dosage correct.
But the time will pass anyway. Why not spend it on working toward a future when you feel better? IT IS WORTH IT.
Objection: I can’t afford treatment
I won’t sugar coat this one either. It’s expensive. I am so lucky that I can afford it. But don’t count yourself out just yet. Call around to clinics and ask if they take your insurance. Ask about copays. Ask about financial aid. Ask about discounts. You can find someone to help you.
Objection: I want to get help. I just can’t.
It’s getting pretty bad, huh? Time to tag in a friend. A teacher. A manager. An HR Rep. A librarian. The customer service line for your health insurance. The national suicide hotline. Someone doesn’t have to be your relative, your BFF, or your significant other to want to help you. You will be SHOCKED by the number of casual acquaintances or even strangers that would LOVE to help you look up resources, to help you make an appointment, or give you some encouragement. Just try it. Say this:
“I think I might have depression. I want to get help, but I can’t seem to do it for myself. Will you help me?”
Resource: How to cope day to day?
For a headache, you can take aspirin. For a cold, there are oodles of products. For anxiety, you can take a prescribed medication, like Xanax. Unfortunately there is no quick-fix, take-as-needed pill for flare ups of depression. I know, because I asked.
Instead there are things you can do to prevent episodes, and to manage them as they come. Often these are the same things. Here’s what the doctor recommended for me: Get out of your own head. Exercise. Meditate and be mindful. You know, all those things that are super hard to start, but once you get momentum it helps keep you on track.
Sometimes the only way out is through.
I have no plan to quit the anti-depressants anytime soon, but I might try it in the future. School has started for me again (only 8 classes left until my Bachelor’s!). I still have books to write. Dreams to achieve. Better days ahead.
When I’m in the throes of an episode, sometimes my words fail. Communicating is exhausting. I put out a call for support on Instagram recently and the love you sent me was so helpful. Thank you to everyone who wrote a note of encouragement. It’s good to know you’re listening.
I hope to update you soon with news of improvement. I’m confident this will happen.
Until next time,