I have depression. I’ve had it for years–I suspect since I was about five. I can still remember standing in the hallway just outside my bedroom door, staring at the wall, and thinking, “The world is gray for me. It always will be. It’s supposed to be that way.” The key things about that memory for me are first, that I recognized that the world’s grayness was somehow related to me personally, second, that it would never change, and third, that in hoping for a happier, more colorful world I was somehow sinning.
The world stayed gray for a long time. It got very, very dark when I was in sixth grade, and it didn’t really get better until I began to deal with the reality of my childhood, I had my son and my father died. The gray came back under the pressures the economic crash brought, and I’ve been dealing with greater or lesser degrees of grayness ever since.
It’s hard being chronically depressed. It’s harder in some ways now, because I had several years when the clouds blew away. There’s something very disheartening about knowing that this is a battle I will wage my whole life, and never really win. My only victory will lie in continuing to fight. The idea is exhausting.
But here’s the upside: Surviving depression for this long has taught me a few tricks. They’re based on my own experience, so they work for me, but might not for you. Still, though, it can’t hurt to share, right? For what it’s worth, here they are:
1. I know the difference between being sad and being depressed. Sadness happens. We just lost Leroy. That makes me sad–but it doesn’t necessarily make me depressed. When I’m sad there’s an immediate cause–and while sadness and grief can be intense, they are by their very nature transitory. Sadness is like the surf–it comes in waves. In between, there are periods of relative okayness. Grief generates energy, and for me, grief demands expression. I write. I paint. I talk. And I ease the pain.
Depression, on the other hand, is like quicksand. There is no momentary escape. It sucks me down and down and down until it’s all I can see. There are no periods of okayness. There is only the knowledge that the world is gray, and the sun will never shine again. Depression demands that I hide–that I retreat. When I am depressed I do not write, paint, or even talk much. I live by remote control. And above all, I never, ever, share my despair with those I love the best. What would be the point? The depression tells me that there is no solution, that I have no right to burden them with my gray world. After all, it is mine, alone. I must somehow be responsible for my depression (after all, Christians are happy people, right?). I caused it. I have to fix it. And I know there is no solution. When I am sad or grieving I ask for–and receive–sympathy. When I am depressed I don’t ask. I know I don’t deserve sympathy–or help.
2. Depression has no one solution. The doctor who first diagnosed me with clinical depression explained it well. “It’s like inflation,” he said. “Depression results from multiple factors working together. You have to address it on multiple fronts.” And then he prescribed anti-depressants. But then he said, “The pills won’t cure your depression. They just replace chemicals in your brain that make it worse. They allow you to deal with the other contributing causes from a position of strength.” And so began a journey into self-discovery–one that I’m still making.
Depression is both emotional and physical. When some of us live with prolonged pressure and stress, our brains literally “forget” how to produce the chemicals that make us feel happy. Depression medication replaces those chemicals–but it does nothing to deal with the pressure and stress that exploited our initial vulnerability. Doing that takes hard work, honesty, and the kind of courage that journeying into the alien and unknown requires. For me, that’s exactly what was required. I was taught that my only happiness, safety, and indeed survival, rested with the very people and institutions that were causing me the greatest harm, even as they professed to have my best good at heart. Relieving those pressures required giving up the things I knew all the way to my soul were necessary for my survival. It required hurting people who couldn’t understand why I was acting as I was, and why I was limiting and ending certain relationships. But I did it, and the pressure eased, and so I had a number of years where I got sad and scared sometimes–but I wasn’t depressed.
Pressure is pressure. I’m back on the meds these days. The economic crash didn’t make me sad, but it applied unrelenting, seemingly unending pressure and stress–the things that triggered my depression in the beginning. I almost lost my house. I went through bankruptcy. And then I lost my cat. It sounds silly when I say it like that, but Ginger had been with me for twenty years, through all sorts of life changes. We had History. And then she was gone. And I grieved. Grief may generate energy, but it is also exhausting, and combined with the constant economic pressure I forgot how to be happy again. The world turned gray. And because I had been here before, I recognized what was happening.
It made me furious at myself. I had not needed the meds for years. Having to go back to the doctor and tell her I needed the anti-depressants again, having to find a good counselor and start on the hard path of working through yet more junk, felt like failure. It felt unfair. I had already done all this, hadn’t I? I was Better. Why did I have to keep fighting the same damned battle over and over again? Other people didn’t. And so there I was, right back where I had been before, only this time I had a son.
I wanted the fight to end. But the only way it would end would be if my life ended. And as lost as I was, there was a part of me that still refused to do that to my son. And so I sucked it up, admitted my “failure,” and went to the doctor. I found a counselor. And I started the long, painful process of detoxing my life all over again. It didn’t feel like victory; it still doesn’t. It just feels like survival. It feels like being a good mom.
Another thing that made this time different was that I had already discarded a lot of the things that had contributed to my depression in the past. I had learned some good coping techniques. I knew to get plenty of rest. I knew to not indulge in negative self-talk. I knew to get outside in the sunshine. I knew to meditate. I knew to remember that as dark as things looked, they did not reflect reality. I knew to have faith in what my reason told me was the true state of affairs. I knew to ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and look the Big Bad directly in the face, and say, “I can survive that. As long as The Boy is all right, I can survive that.” Mostly, I knew not to look to the things that had hurt me for help. I knew to ask myself, “When do I feel most connected, most my true, best self?” and then spend as much time as I could in those places, doing those things. I knew to hold onto the knowledge that nothing is forever. This seemingly endless pressure would end sooner or later, and if I held on and fought, one action at a time, five minutes at a time, the clouds would eventually roll away. And I knew that even though the pills tasted like failure, if I didn’t take them I was denying myself something that would allow me to fight my demons from a position of strength.
It works. I’m sad about losing Leroy, but I’m not depressed. I’m helping The Boy find his way through his first real brush with grief. I had a dinner for Leroy’s friends and family. I’ve notified the people who need to know about his passing. I’m working with the school to get The Boy caught up on the work he missed. I’m teaching my classes this term, but I’ll be taking a leave of absence for a year starting this summer. I’m writing again. I can see a future for us. I’m doing better than coping: I’m living my life well. Which isn’t to say there aren’t still ragged edges. I can’t find the lawn mower book, so I don’t know how to replace the battery on our electric lawn mower, or even where to get the replacement. The car needs work, and I have to arrange for that. The Boy and I still haven’t gotten a handle on the weeding. I still find finances a challenge. But the sun is shining.