|Once again, I am one.|
I haven’t written since February, and as with most human hiatuses (hiatusi?), there’s a story behind mine, one I finally feel able to tell.
The story, sadly, is quite common, one I share with an estimated 350 million other people on the planet. Many of their stories never get told, sometimes for fear of stigma, sometimes by choice. I'm choosing to tell mine now.
In February, I was hit with an episode of depression. It was not my first ride on that not-merry-go-round, but it was a particularly difficult one. As with all of my depressions, recovery was gradual, and I finally felt completely like myself again in mid-July.
Whew and hallelujah.
I don’t know exactly when depression first visited, but I’d guess it was in my teen years, before I even knew what depression was. The malaise recurred often enough for me to semi-jokingly refer to it as my “blue period.” Each time, the pall lifted as mysteriously as it had dropped in.
I say “mysteriously” because its origins seemed unfathomable at the time. I have learned since that depressions are a combination of biology and what life throws at you. We all accumulate baggage. I do not choose to unpack my particular set of suitcases here, but I have opened them, and examined what’s inside carefully — and with help. It’s been enlightening.
People describe depression in many ways. Winston Churchill reportedly referred to his as “the black dog.” I occasionally call it “the big D.” You could liken it to wearing muck-colored glasses. Mostly I say it’s like walking around with cement blocks on your feet.
When depression hits, you still have to function, or at least try to function. Sometimes the illness keeps people from even getting out of bed. Mornings are particularly troublesome for me when I’m depressed. I wake up with a knot in my stomach and a heart full of dread for the day ahead.
Each day’s to-do list looms large and daunting. Deciding anything is difficult. Planning what’s for dinner, grocery shopping, balancing a checkbook — tasks I don’t think twice about when I’m healthy — all seem onerous.
People in recovery programs talk about taking “one day at a time.” There have been days when I’ve scaled that back to one hour, one minute, even one moment at a time. It seems like all I can handle.
And that word “seems” is important.
Simply put, depression lies to you. What you begin to believe about yourself when you’re depressed is so far from the truth. In a relentless harangue, depression tells you over and over that nothing will ever change, that your case is hopeless. And even though I have a long history of recovery and health, the voice of depression always tries to convince me that, well, this time will be different. I will be lost in the fog forever.
Depression is convincing. So much so that over 800,000 people commit suicide every year, according to the World Health Organization. In this country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported over 41,000 deaths by suicide in 2013, or about one death every 13 minutes.
I never tried to end my life, but I understand the pain that leads others to do so. Over the years I have recovered in all manner of ways: from totally on my own to intensive therapy, and once, a brief hospital stay. I have met doctors, nurses, counselors and fellow sufferers (“my tribe”), who all in some way helped me back to the light.
Depression is a tricky, frustrating illness. It may hit three years in a row, then disappear for over a decade. A medication that works well for years can “poop out.” Another may help, but cause troubling side effects. My current toolkit includes an antidepressant (side-effect free, hallelujah), some supplements, therapy, mindfulness, meditation, exercise, prayer, deep breathing, using a light box, copious research, and, at the core of it all, love — for myself and others.
I’ve learned what my “triggers” are, and what puts me at risk. While I don’t live in fear of a relapse, I know it’s a possibility. I take good care of myself.
A phrase came to mind while I was beginning to work on this essay:
I’ve been blessed with people in my life — family, friends and professionals — who have felt that for me, even when I couldn’t feel it for myself. Especially when I couldn’t feel it for myself. You all know who you are. Your presence, along with your prayers, cards, text messages, calls, visits, hugs and walks, are what helped me through. I’m also grateful for my own strength, and the courage I found to ask for help.
As a writer, I collect words of wisdom. I’ll leave you with some of my favorites, words that helped:
“I will believe for you for now.” (on a Post-it from my therapist)
“You can always start your day over at any time.” (one nurse’s mantra)
“One foot, other foot.” (from a dear friend familiar with challenging days)
“In everything give thanks.” (from the Bible, first book of Thessalonians)
That last one can be a stumper. In the depths of depression, it is difficult to give thanks for the horrific weight dragging down your soul.
Depression, like its cousin grief, is part of life, and part of me. The challenge is to learn from it, and in the process understand a bit more about what makes us human. Depression may break you down, but it can also break you open, and leave you with a more compassionate heart. For that, I do give thanks for my depression. (But trust me, I wouldn’t mind if it never showed its face again.)
Finally, there’s a Japanese proverb I found a couple years back, so simple, and to the point. I put it on my computer desktop, as a reminder:
"Fall seven times, stand up eight."
I am one of the lucky ones.
Here I am, standing, with joy.
In the middle of writing this, I noticed that Oct. 4-10 is Mental Health Awareness Week. That gave the procrastinator in me the nudge to finish this post. If you think my words might in any way help someone you love, please feel free to share.