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A Year of Depression

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?

Heaviness.

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.

Google ‘clinical depression’ on your smart phone to take this test.

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.

Forward

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,

<3

Savannah

20170826_124929

Depession Strikes Back

 

(Psst, I’m going to be at Seven Sentences with Maggie Stiefvater in Nashville on April 2nd. If you will be, too, pop in and say so! Let’s meet up!)

When we last spoke about this issue I was full of hope and excitement, having passed through a hard, dark chapter in my life. Or so I thought.

I regret to inform you that my depression made a comeback at the end of January. I countered with medication, which at first seemed to help, but then sort of… didn’t. Unfortunately my doctor’s office had to reschedule my follow up appointment so I spent about a month going through the worst episode I’ve experienced so far. Not getting it right the first time and having to do tweaks is perfectly normal, but it also super sucked.

One of the questions they asked in my appointments, both with the initial therapist and later the doctor is, “are you experiencing feelings of hopelessness?”

And my answer at the time was… no! I had hope for the future, and I acknowledged these feelings I’m experiencing aren’t normal or reflective of my regular self/life, and that I am both able to and willing to get help for them. I felt confident the doctors and I could handle it together.

But I thought more about that question as I witnessed myself living with depression, and analyzed how I felt and acted. I thought about the nature of hope, and about all the books I read (some of which were incredibly influential) where hope is considered a driving force of life and humanity. And how, very slowly, bit by bit, day by day, something in me was eating away at my hope.

The future once was something to look forward to, something bright and exciting. A climb. But over the past month it seemed like a meander over flatlands. Repetitive, boring, unfulfilling.

As a writer I strive to put words to these feelings, and accurately describe what I’m experiencing.  One of my breakthroughs recently is that depression doesn’t sap my energy — it takes away my stamina instead.

A subtle difference.

I had the energy to accomplish something, but the driving force to get there was gone. It took an external pressure, like an impending deadline, to get me into gear. And if there was no external pressure, something like cooking healthy meals, exercising, doing laundry, and sometimes even showering just didn’t get done.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I had good moments, hours, days. And even in the throes of it, I am so grateful that I’m able to remain functional and otherwise physically and emotionally healthy. And I’m able to keep the faith that this is temporary, and it will get better. I am so, so lucky that my life is otherwise stable and drama-free.

An interesting side effect of depression is that it didn’t leave me any energy for non-essential concerns, or playing mental games with myself. Through inability to exercise and emotional eating I gained back almost all the weight I lost a few years ago. That was a disappointing thing to realize, but I also care less about it than before. My response to discovering my stomach isn’t as flat as I like is now, “well, whatever, everyone can just deal with it,” instead of obsessing about it all day. I found it was easier to send emails asking for favors, or to say direct, firm things to people. I guess the depression made me less self-conscious, and I appreciate that. Silver linings!

There have been some other interesting and positive things to come out of this experience. After I made the announcement on my blog, several people reached out to me to share their own experiences with depression. Mentioning it at work or in public has led even more people to open up in confidence, which is so wonderful and helps me feel more normal. There’s an invisible network of depression-sufferers out there, and so far they have all been warm and encouraging :-)

I was particularly grateful when a relative reached out to share they’d had the same experiences, down to being able to detect when their depression starts and stops. What a relief to hear that! Apparently this ‘episodic’ depression is rare and unusual, and several people and even doctors met my descriptions of what I felt with skepticism. But I’m not the only one!

I hope that being open about what I’m going through will help reduce, even in some small way, the stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses. Perhaps if I’d known I had blood relatives who have gone through this I would have recognized what was happening earlier. Not to imply anyone did anything wrong here — I live states away from the core of my family and am relatively young myself. I mean, when is it ever a good time to sit down with a relative you see maybe once a year and tell them your mental health history? But on the other hand, I know about my family’s physical health risks — the history of cancer, BRCA status, heart disease, etc., but no one ever talked about mental health trends in the family. I want to make sure my little sister knows what I’m going through, and what it feels like, in case this happens to her someday.

And look, talking about this is… risky, I know. I don’t want depression to define me, or for other people’s internal prejudices or misconceptions to affect our interactions, especially at work. It’s awkward, too, sometimes. But on the other hand, to my knowledge no one has treated me differently, and I haven’t suffered any negative consequences by being open about this. That’s a wonderful thing, and I’m glad for the courage of everyone before me who disclosed stuff like this, when it was much harder and riskier. I stand on their shoulders.

Thankfully, when I could finally see the doctor they got me some help and modified my medication. As of Monday I’m feeling so, so, SO much better. I was able to get back on my healthy diet and start running again. I also finally feel ready to confront Shotgun Girl edits once more.

Over the past month I didn’t write very much, because Shotgun Girl was with some amazing critique partners, whose time and attention have been a marvelous and generous gift. They say it’s ready, you guys! Just one scene left that needs some tweaks. I took the time off to read a ton and tentatively dream about my next project. I like to have something in the wings even while I should be focusing on Nameless. Shotgun Girl took two years to incubate and I don’t have another project queued up like that, but lots of faint ideas I’ve been waving at distantly for several years now. Maybe one will come forward and announce itself soon.

I’m not sure where my mental health will go over the next few months, but I did want to disclose it’s been hard to stay active on social media. I also can’t seem to reach out to people very much, but if you get in contact with me I can enthusiastically respond in kind, so feel free to say hey.

Also, if you know of any un-put-down-able thrillers, please recommend them to me!

I loved Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter, and The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon.

Also also, is anyone else so excited to read Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor? My pre-order came in this week but I haven’t even cracked it yet. I know it’s going to be so good I want to savor the idea of reading it just a little longer.

<3

Savannah

PS: Look how big and pretty that Gracie-dog has gotten! She’s gained 20 pounds and grown much taller since we got her at the beginning of December!