Heads up, y’all! Today, I’ll be discussing my own dealings with depression and how this affects me as a writer and a human. If you’re not feeling up to reading about depression, including references to self mutilation and suicidal ideation, maybe go check out this cool video about biodiversity instead. Or, you know, do both! Cheers!
It’s very tempting to start a post like this with statistics and definitions. I want to talk prevalence and symptoms and stuff like that, because it’s so clinical, so quantifiable. It’s concrete and factual, about a thing that can so often feel hidden and only quasi-real.
But in the interest of keeping things brief, I’ll skip all that. I’m not a psychologist, I’m a patient, and I can only write what I know. Here’s what I know about depression.
I get down sometimes. I can’t always predict when it’s going to happen, or how bad it’s going to be. Sometimes it’s just several days of being glum and unfocused and listless. Sometimes it’s weeks and weeks of hopelessly wishing there was some graceful and acceptable and not-sucky-for-the-people-who-love-me way to just not be alive anymore. And then eventually I slog my way back out of the tarry hole I’m in and things are better. Often, things are great, and stay that way for weeks at a time. But then I peak somewhere and start my decline again. I go through this cycle maybe four times a year, although I’ve never really counted, but it’s always hardest in winter and easiest in summer. I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember, well before I moved to Alaska with its pronounced seasonal shifts. The first time I specifically remember thinking about suicide, I was somewhere around eight years old, and I’ve been fantasizing about it off and on ever since.
Depression reminds me of the time I was still figuring out my intestinal disorder, became severely malnourished, and lost the ability to properly taste food; everything took on a strange metallic taste that just made it that much harder to force myself to eat. Likewise, depression affects everything, tinting the taste of my every thought, my every reaction, my every emotion. It takes the bad things and places the blame on me, no matter what. It takes the good things and tells me I don’t deserve them. It makes it harder and harder for me to engage healthfully and happily with those around me, because I don’t deserve them and they would be better off without me.
This is especially devastating pertaining to my children. A parent constantly works hard to do right by their kids; depression strangles the joy and amplifies the pain.
For me, there is a terrible guilt to depression. How can somehow who is so blessed be so sad? It’s not my darling husband making me sad, who works so hard and loves so completely. It’s not my sweet sons making me sad, those cheerful boys who always get good grades and never ever get in trouble at school or at church. So what’s wrong with me?
The answer is probably a bit chemical, probably a bit learned. I don’t know the exact nature of it, and I don’t think knowing would make one lick of difference.
It’s hard for me to tell exactly how far it extends, too. I know that it changes my perception, but I don’t know if it changes others’ perceptions of me. Can they tell? I know they can sometimes, when it’s really bad, and those are the times when it’s hardest to make myself keep going out. But those are the very times when I need to keep working at the school, keep going to church, keep talking with my friends. When I drift away from those things because I don’t want people to know, I sink deeper and deeper and deeper. That’s when things start to get out of control and I begin hurting myself. Sometimes the pain helps me to feel a little more control. Sometimes it stands in as a small punishment in place of the larger one I think I deserve. Sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing it, or even that I am until I see the damage.
How does it affect me as a writer? As a volunteer at my kids’ school? As a teacher at church? As a wife and parent? In every aspect of my life, depression settles first like a shroud, just a gray veil that I see the world through. But as it gets thicker around me, it’s hard to stay connected. I forget things: birthdays, appointments, walking the dog, eating. I find it harder and harder to connect with the people around me, whether they’re family or strangers, on the internet or in real life. It’s difficult to write because anything that feels genuine sounds melodramatic and whiney, but anything else feels incredibly false. It’s difficult to work and volunteer because I feel so useless. It’s difficult to love because I feel so unlovable.
Not everything about depression is terrible, at least not for me. There are a few things that this struggle has granted me that I don’t know if I would have been able to learn otherwise. Greater depth of emotion. Stronger sympathy for any kind of suffering. The desire to comfort people going through struggles. An incredible love and loyalty for those who help me through. I don’t know if I would have these qualities any other way. These are deeply personal things and vary person to person, but this holds true for me. Besides this, I worry that if I were to blunt my ability to feel the very deepest of my depression, I would similarly be shaving off my ability to feel the pure joy and true elation I so often do between those bouts of sadness. I’ve never been any other way, so I don’t know.
This in no way means that I don’t fully support the use of medication under the advice of a doctor. My illness is such that I respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy, but requiring medicine is a reality for many people struggling with mental illness. This does not make them weak or a failure any more than a cancer patient requiring chemotherapy is weak or a failure.
I’m not sure why I’m posting this here. This is, after all, a writing blog, and depression is certainly not just for writers. Besides that, I feel least like a writer in my deepest bouts of depression. But I felt like it should be said. There is an awful loneliness to depression, in that it feels like nobody understands how deeply it aches. Maybe one of you readers feels that ache right now. If it’s any comfort, you’re not alone, even when it feels that way. I wish I had heard that message more when I was younger and at my most fragile.
Things that help me:
Give someone close a heads up when things are getting bad. I always tell my husband at the start of a bad spell, and he helps me get through. A relative, a friend, a spiritual leader, a trusted teacher: anyone who loves you would be honored to stand with you.
I keep the national suicide hotline programmed into my phone, and those wonderful folks are glad to chat for as long as they are needed. They are so kind. If you feel like things are starting to get out of control, look up your region’s hotline and give yourself easy access.
When I begin to sink, it’s so so important that I stay busy. The distraction is nice, but more important are the connections to other humans. Staying busy, whether with work or with volunteerism or just playing cards with my family, makes me feel more valued.
Exercise. This one is so hard to hold on to when I’m in the pits, but it makes a huge difference. Whether I’m exercising by myself or with a sports team, it helps me to feel more alive at a time when I otherwise feel numb and exhausted all the time.