I recently read 2 great articles about depression that I’d like to share. In Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land, Libba Bray presents an extremely accurate depiction of what it’s like to have depression. I really love the imagery Bray uses and the recognition that depression “is not a consistent state. […] it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups.” I’d recommend the article to anyone who wants a better understanding of what depression is like, or who is having depression symptoms and feels isolated. Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one who’s ever had these terrible thoughts and feelings, and it helps to know that others have been through it too; they know what it can be like. (This is my opinion based on my own experiences.)
The other article, How to Be a Good Depressive Citizen by Ferrett Steinmetz, calls authors out on the tendency to write about depression after the fact in carefully-worded posts (like Libba Bray’s) that describe – but don’t directly express – the pain. It’s a double-edged sword: someone with depression doesn’t want to be That Person causing all this Drama on social media sites, possibly saying horrible things about their loved ones, and making everyone else feel bad. There are real risks involved in being too open online. But there’s also a need to be honest about one’s experiences while suffering from depression, to express the raw overwhelming emotions and insecurities as they happen. Believing one is not allowed to do so can make the depression worse by reinforcing the underlying assumptions that fuel it.
Being a “good depressive citizen” can also perpetuate the stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses. It keeps controlled, “sane” descriptions of a phenomenon as the norm, the actual experience and expression of mental illness as “other,” “crazy,” “insane,” and unacceptable. It makes us invisible when we most need to be seen, incomprehensible when we most need to be understood. It invites judgment when we need empathy. It creates the illusion that depression is something that belongs in one’s past, an obstacle to overcome, and that someone who’s not actively recovering from it – showing steady improvement – is lazy or manipulative or taking advantage of someone or otherwise being bad. That illusion interferes with people’s ability to show each other – and themselves – much-needed compassion.
I found the comment by “NotDepressed” on Steinmetz’s article to be quite upsetting. I considered quoting it here, but I don’t want that kind of toxicity on my blog. There is one sentence that I will quote because it’s a great summary of the stigma we face: “I have sympathy for your plight, but not for the mindset that it should be ok.” Based on the rest of the comment, I take that to mean this person would feel bad for me because I have depression, but wouldn’t tolerate my emotions, perspectives, or behavior. They wouldn’t consider me worthy of employment – or their time. They would want me to “go get help” and come back when I can be “up-beat.”
Well, sorry, but there isn’t a magic pill I can take to make everything better. “Help” isn’t a makeover. It’s not like I forgot to brush my teeth. Recovery from mental illness (to the degree it’s even possible) is a process that takes time. And while it’s happening I still need to live my life. With all my imperfections, thanks. We all have them. And no one is up-beat all the time. (No, not even Kaylee from Firefly.)
I’m so glad this is some random stranger on the internet responding to someone else’s blog post, and not someone I actually know in real life. But I do wonder if there are people in my life who would respond that way if they found out about this part of me; I also wonder how many people with mental illness have a person like this in their life. I find these thoughts very scary and painful – even though the people I have opened up to have been accepting and supportive.
I’m also very angry that this person posted something so potentially hurtful in response to an article that people with depression are likely to read, particularly because they used second person (“you”) throughout the whole thing. When I read things written in second person, I feel like the author is “talking” to me specifically and I take their message more personally. I imagine this is likely a common response, considering how second person is most commonly used in everyday speech. Songwriters intentionally use second person to make their songs more intimate.
How dare some random stranger who has no idea what I’m experiencing tell me that expressing my emotions, thoughts, and otherwise existing as a depressed person is not okay?! How dare they say I’m wrong for accepting myself and asking others to accept me as I currently am?!
The central theme in all of my efforts to “recover” from anxious depression has been a movement toward perceiving myself as a person who has inherent worth that can’t be measured, earned, or diminished. When I perceive myself as worthwhile, I am more capable of taking care of myself, reaching out for help, taking risks, challenging destructive thought patterns, and trying the healthy behaviors people keep suggesting. I’m open to growth and new possibilities.
It’s when I doubt my worth that the worst of my symptoms flare up. Now, it’s not some random person on the internet’s responsibility to make sure that everything I read when I go online affirms my worth. From what I can tell, it’s usually my own thoughts that cause me to doubt my worth – automatic thoughts in response to triggers such as failing to do something I’d considered important. I need to address those thoughts, challenge the underlying assumptions, and sort through my emotional clutter. I also need to accept those parts of myself that I’ve rejected – and nurture the ones I’ve neglected – so I can be whole again.
And I need to be more selective about my media consumption. As I told Wakana, “I was looking for myself on Facebook, but I ended up getting lost instead.” There’s a lot of hurtful messages out there, a lot of people like “NotDepressed” thinking they can tell marginalized groups what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, or even that they just don’t deserve to exist. It’s very difficult to avoid internalizing those messages, especially if you’re constantly bombarded by them from a young age. I’d like to see less hurtful messages and more people supporting each other, using their privilege to defend marginalized groups, working together, etc. It’s there and I think it’s growing, but it’s not necessarily going to be the first thing that shows up. I need to actively seek it out.
Going back to the title of this post: The purpose of this blog is for me to write about depression as I’m experiencing it. To be honest, I find being a “good depressive citizen” much easier than expressing my deepest darkest emotions as I feel them, especially in writing. The main reason why I’ve been posting so sporadically the past few months is because my symptoms were quite severe. I was spending a lot of time playing The Sims 3 and otherwise avoiding reality. (I have to admit it: I have an addiction. A very serious, even life-threatening one.) It wasn’t that I wanted to hide what I was experiencing and be a “good depressive citizen,” but that I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling; I often felt like I didn’t really have anything to express. When I wasn’t playing The Sims 3 I was oversleeping, spending too much time on Facebook, and trying to keep up with life. There wasn’t any energy left for blogging.
Then this past week or so, something changed. We set the clocks an hour ahead. The days have been getting longer. We had a couple days that really felt like spring. I’ve been knitting and reading fiction novels. I became very angry about the way Fox and I have been living and made some efforts to clean. I actually met with Wakana in person for the first time in weeks. I had a fantastic weekend that included a visit from Banji and didn’t crash afterward. Sometimes I even feel happy for no apparent reason.
A huge part of it is that people I love and respect went out of their way to show they care about me; Fox’s immediate family even came to visit and cooked for me. I was able to talk about my feelings and concerns, feel listened to and understood, and even consider my situation from a different perspective. And I was able to reciprocate without feeling overwhelmed. That felt very good.
Another part of it is that Fox went away for the weekend to spend some time with his friends; I needed to stay home to take care of the dog. I knew I would need to get through the weekend without him so I reached out to others for help, and the result was fantastic. I got to spend time with other people I care about and found that I do quite well – possibly even better! – when I have the house to myself. I feel like my brain is working differently, and it probably is. Like a fog has been lifted and a weight has come off my shoulders. (Now, if only I could go somewhere without people I’ve known for over a decade asking me where he is!)
It’s not that I don’t love him or that I don’t want to live with him, but the way we’ve been living together really isn’t healthy for me and is probably just as bad for him. At the very least, we need to find things to get each of us out of the house interacting with other people; the times can overlap but should also provide each of us some time home alone. I’m working on asserting myself, but for the time being (and possibly forever) the only time I can really make my own decisions is when I’m alone.
So I had a great weekend and I’m feeling a lot better than I had been. I’m starting to get into my old interests again and actually do things that are meaningful to me. I want to do something to celebrate the Spring Equinox. I want to get back into focusing on my life, my career, who and what I want to be.
I want to walk away from the depression and never look back. But I know from experience that that’s not how it works. Depression is episodic; some people might be fortunate enough to only experience one episode, but it’s common for a person to experience several episodes over the course of their life. This is at least my third, it’s kind of hard to say. I still have symptoms: I’m tired and achy and grumpy (especially in the morning) and sad for no reason and anxious about leaving the house. In the middle of the awesome weekend I had to tell the Critic to stop berating me and instead help me play the passage I was sight-reading on viola. The symptoms are just less severe, and for me that feels wonderful. Miraculous.
I’m afraid it won’t last. The severity of my symptoms will fluctuate; I really hope I won’t be suicidal or inclined toward self-harm again. I do believe that I’ve grown a lot in terms of being less co-dependent, perceiving myself as a person with inherent worth, asserting myself and enforcing much-needed boundaries. I also have a lot more to learn.
I’m clinging to every good moment, especially when I feel happy for no reason. I’m also trying to let myself feel whatever I’m feeling and do something to improve my mood if necessary. Today Wakana taught me HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. If I feel any of these I’m supposed to stop and do something about it. Maybe that will help me maintain and improve upon my current level of functioning. Even if all it does is deter the next time my symptoms become more severe, I’ll have a time when I can live life more fully. Isn’t that what this is all supposed to be about?
Whatever happens, I’ll do my best to portray it honestly.