One of the reasons I have indicated that I will be writing about depression and mental health issues is my on-going fight with depression. It has been part of my life since my teen years and as you will read here, it is still something that I try to manage, conquer, and understand.
I wish that I could fully describe what depression feels like. I wish there were two words to delineate between full-on depression and what I refer to as “beingdepressed.” One is a lingering, on-going, debilitating malaise. The second is a mood.
I have had days where I was beingdepressed because someone I love was ill or because something that I had hoped for fell through. There is a cause for the feeling. It is something that is easily explained and others can empathize. If I told people that my mother was hospitalized and not doing well, they could identify, sympathize, and empathize. If I had hoped to get a job but wasn’t hired, the same would be true. And in both instances the beingdepresed part would eventually subside and disappear. Even in the case of my mother’s illness that ultimately led to her death, I was sad and I mourned, but the beingdepressed eventually lifted and I went on.
Depression on the other hand is none of that. It is not “feeling blue.” It is not being upset or sad. There are times that I couldn’t explain the way I am feeling to anyone, not even those who are closest to me and love me the most. I don’t walk around with the cloud of depression hanging over me like Eeyore every single day of my life. There are days that are joyful, happy, or just average. But when the depression reaches out and grabs me by my heart and soul, there is no way to explain it and no way to “snap out of it” or to “just get over it.” I can’t explain to a family member when he asks, “Just what do you have to be depressed about?”
As I am writing this, an advertisement came on the television for an anti-depressant that had words floating on the screen that people often use to describe what this condition feels like. They are all true, but if you haven’t been there, you will have no way of fully feeling how deeply they are rooted.
The first thing I feel in the throes of depression is an isolation and loneliness. This can range from feeling that there isn’t anyone who calls me or wants to do something with me and no one I could call either. At times I reach out at this point anyway, but a rejection just reinforces the isolation – even when it is for reasons that have nothing to do with me. As I sink in deeper, I wonder why everyone else has someone to do something with, to hang out with, to live with. And at its worst moments I am certain that if I disappeared no one would notice. Okay, some one would notice when I didn’t show up for work or something, but no one would care. The isolation and loneliness are probably the worst part of depression.
Another common feeling is worthlessness. It starts with “I can’t do anything right” and progresses to “why am I alive?” When worthlessness takes hold, my brain will cycle back for years and years to everything I’ve ever failed at, every criticism anyone ever hurled at me, and will progress to every hurt that has been inflicted on me, hurtful words spoken to me, or time that I fell short. I go back to a stupid incident with my grandfather and a bowl of popcorn from when I was around nine-years-old. I know in my head that he probably never thought about it afterward and probably didn’t even remember it. But here I am half a century later still agonizing because I ruined a bowl of popcorn and he wanted some. Maybe it’s the sense of worthlessness that is the worst part of depression.
The symptoms of depression are not all emotional and mental. They include physical ones as well. When depressed I am exhausted. Not tired. Exhausted. To the bone, to the core of my being, unable to get up out of bed or off the sofa exhausted. If you add this exhaustion to feeling isolated, alone and worthless, it sometimes becomes impossible to move. Over the years I have felt this many times. There was only one thing that forced me to get up and put one foot in front of the other. As a single mother, I knew that I had to go to work and I had to provide for my son. There were many days that I couldn’t quite do any more than that. I often sobbed over the fact that he was saddled with me for a mother. I agonized because he was such a great kid and had someone so incapable of being normal, of getting up and getting the meals planned, the laundry done, the house cleaned, the bills paid on time, and all of the other everyday things that mothers do. I was unable to do so many things with him or for him that I wanted desperately to do which then led to more feelings of guilt and worthlessness…and the vicious cycle pulled me down and down and down.
Unfortunately for many years depression was not something that I felt that I could do anything about. It just was what it was. At some point I mustered up every ounce of courage I could and spoke to my doctor about it. She put me on an anti-depressant for Seasonal Affective Disorder (ironically often referred to as S.A.D. which just intertwines depression and beingdepressed even more). Over the years I shared this diagnosis with one friend – yes, just one. One wonderfully pragmatic friend who never gave me the “oh, there there” pat on the back that I thought I wanted, but instead she gave me the, “Hey, it’s time to call the doctor for your pills” that I needed. Eventually the time of year expanded and I had to be medicated all year. We tried many different medications, various doses, and combinations of drugs.
As time wore on, I became more willing to admit to myself and others that I was medicated for this. I even got brave enough to tell my parents that I was medicated. Something that they were surprised by…every single time I mentioned it over the years. The message there was that we don’t talk about such things. It’s a mental illness and something to be ashamed of. With others I would make a joke of it and laugh it off as “better living through chemistry.” As long as I didn’t really have to talk about it seriously, I was okay.
My pragmatic friend stepped up at one point and encouraged me to see a counsellor. This was a huge step for me and not one I would share with anyone but her. I did it. I went to a counsellor and it was a disaster. One reason it was a disaster was that the woman reminded me of someone who constantly made me feel incompetent, someone I would never trust. I told myself that this was crazy and proceeded to try opening up to her. I sat there talking and sobbing. When I stopped, her response was, “Okay, we’ve experienced that. Now we’re done with it and we’re going to put it up on a shelf and be done with it.” WHAT??? If I had the capacity to do that, I would not be sitting here laying bare my soul! I was done with that.
Several years later, I had a time in my life where my mother was very ill and my father was overwhelmed caring for her, a friend had a son who was attacked and left suffering from PTSD, a friend who had been injured and had her home broken into and had her home damaged in a hurricane (all within a month), a friend who was living with an abusive husband, and a family member in great distress. They were all calling me to talk. I was glad that they all felt that I was someone who could be trusted and who loved them and would want to help. But their struggles became mine. And to add to that struggle, my pragmatic friend was going through a very heart-wrenching, difficult time too. She trusted me and talked to me. I was so glad to fill that role for her, but she was my only go-to person when I was hurting. Obviously I couldn’t add to her burden. So I sucked it up and tried counseling again.
My next stop was a trusted pastor who recommended another counsellor. The new counsellor was straight out of a bad sitcom. He sat there nodding and saying “uh-huh” but never asking anything or offering and advice or suggestions. That became a huge waste of my time and money. I could talk to myself at home! So I walked away from that experience as well.
In the last year I reached a point in my depression that I had never reached before. In the past when a doctor gave me the standard questions about depression and they asked if I had ever considered suicide, I always told them that I was too much of a coward to hurt my self and, besides, I would be much more likely to climb a tall tower with an uzi than to harm myself. The last time my doctor asked that, I still was not really considering suicide – the cowardice is still there along with a fear of the unknown and the fear of pain. But I had reached a point where I was certain that everyone, myself included, would be much better off if I just ceased to exist. We discussed my medication (which I had altered) and she suggested another counselor. I went to see him. I only wish I had had the courage, the wisdom, the advice, and whatever else it would have taken to get me there back when my son was growing up.
This counselor was really helpful. He asked questions and he listened. But the last one had done that. His questions went beyond the “what happened next” or “how did you feel about that” kind of questions. He helped me to reframe things. He asked me to consider the possibility that depression was framing the experiences I was having and my relationships. He gave me books to read. We had conversations. Did he cure the depression? No. I’m not sure how that would work, how long it would take, or if that can be done. What he did was give me the tools to help me recenter my thinking. He gave me resources to turn to when I need help to cope. He did not keep me coming back over and over again. In fact, he encouraged me to work on my own with the knowledge that I can call and come back in whenever necessary.
I’ve hit that tough time of the year – the time when I am always at my worst. Is depression rearing its ugly head? Yes. Is it influencing how I feel, how much I get done, and my social life? Yes. But here’s the thing. It isn’t devastating my life. It doesn’t have a strangle hold on me. I am able to do some self-talk and some reading and some writing to work through and keep my head above water. I needed this doctor for most of my life. I wish I had found him sooner, but then I may have been to insecure and too worried about what others thought to have made the appointment and seen it through. Better now than never.