“I didn’t want to die because I hated myself; I wanted to die because I loved myself enough to want this pain to end.” – writer Martha Manning (from her book Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface)
I am one of the lucky ones… able to manage the Darkness through a daily pink pill and fierce commitment to self-care through a myriad of saving rituals, activities, and connections.
But many are not so fortunate, as I was reminded recently when I heard of a precious depression-crushed life that didn’t make it. I didn’t know him, only learning of his suicide from a non-friend Facebook “friend”‘s status. Amidst the obvious shock and grief in the Facebook responses, the questions also poured out… why didn’t he reach out? why didn’t anyone know he was in that much pain? why ??
Because Depression had him. The kind with a capital D. The kind that poisons every morsel of hope, turns once-healing tears to excruciating emotional acid, and makes the very act of living a task too great to face.
Honestly? I don’t really want to talk about this. I don’t really want to look at memories of my own days that recognize his experience. I don’t really want to poke around in the ashes of my own Depression in case the flames leap back up. And I really don’t want to add this Depression thing to your impression of me.
But I need to. I need to speak up on behalf of yet another voice that has been silenced by Depression, a silence that removed a beautiful life. Even though every Depression is as different as every human human being, maybe the threads of similarity can help change the course for the next life on that brink.
(I know this post is long, but this topic is too important to shortchange. Please keep reading… this really really really matters!)
One of the most insidious things about Depression is that it gnaws away — painfully, messily — at one’s ability to do the things critical to sustaining life.
“At the times when you are depressed, you need the love of other people, and yet depression fosters actions that destroy that love. Depressed people often stick pins into their own live rafts.” – The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon
When Depression has wrapped its noose around my soul, it tethers me to my solitude, even as I know intellectually that the one thing I need most is connection — to the outside world, to someone, anyone, who might understand or at least know how to toss a juicy slab of meat at my Depression and distract it for a few minutes.
When Depression has dug its claws into me, the tears it squeezes out offer no relief, only an increased desperation of fear that maybe this time relief is gone forever.
When Depression has ruthlessly scraped my underbelly, even beauty feels like alcohol poured on a fresh wound as it reminds me of what I can’t feel, can’t experience, can’t get comfort from.
Those have been the days when I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe… then cried harder, curled into a tight little ball as the Depression physically collapsed me in on myself. Those have been the days that I moved from room to room, curling up and crying in each — on the bed, on the floor, on the chair, standing up, lying down — in the hopes that maybe just maybe I could find the magic position to break Depression’s knuckles and release me. Luckily for me, Depression has always worn out before I lost my ability to fight.
Depression gets you from the inside out. And for me, it gets my heart and soul long before it gets my intellect.
Antonin Artaud wrote on one of his drawings, ‘Never real and always true,’ and that is how depression feels. You know that it is not real, that you are someone else, and yet you know that it is absolutely true. It’s very confusing.” — Andrew Solomon
I remember so clearly the day I knew, without a doubt, that it was time for medication. I was in grad school, in a new lesbian relationship (one which, by the way, is still delightfully intact 15 years later), and working fulltime — all significant pressures, even the good ones. I was writing a research paper (my Master’s Practicum? can’t remember) … and crying. Typing and sobbing. Knowing I had to keep working but unable to stop the overwhelming angst, despair, and bone-breaking emotional weariness.
And I realized at that moment that I no longer had any control over my emotions. I was completely intellectually aware of my behavior, yet all I could do was watch myself fall apart. In that terrifying moment, I realized that “going crazy” doesn’t happen in an unaware haze… it happens in fully lucid helplessness. Thank God I had my partner there to anchor me in enough reality to somehow bring me back to myself…and a therapist appointment which led to a psychiatrist appointment which led to the the little pink miracle of Paxil.
By the way…contrary to my expectation (and fear), the medication doesn’t take my emotions away — it just allows me to access all of myself and my internal coping tools for the natural ups and downs of a full, richly-experiential life.
Here’s the thing that totally sucks for those who want to support someone struggling with Depression: we’re really really really good at hiding it most of the time. Even when we are sucked into the dark vortex, the place where even the thought of the herculean emotional effort it would take to pick up the telephone makes us burst into tears, if you do contact us, we might smile, joke a little bit, and do an award-worthy impression of a happy person.
We have honed our acting skills because in the end, that’s what’s saved our lives. When we’ve got nothing left to face the little tasks of life with, we pretend we do. We pretend we are functioning human beings. And we go through the motions until the lucky ones of us actually do regain our sense of self and our ability to reconnect and take the risk of feeling life again.
But… also know that for me personally, most of those times you see me happy, I truly am. Depression has required me to construct a life that feeds me as much joy as possible to tide me over on those days when joy has left the building.
So we don’t leave you a lot to work with, it seems. And for that, I apologize… and offer you these nuggets of what have helped for me, and I suspect would help for others. (But I’m not a doctor, and each Depression has a life of its own so please get professional advice if you’re not sure what to do. Therapists are invaluable resources for everyone touched by Depression)
Find little ways to connect. A phone call (which we may or may not answer), an email, showing up at our house with cinnamon buns and coffee.
Nudge, but don’t push. Encourage us — gently — to interact with our world in some way… but know also that some days interaction with anything more than a few feet outside of ourselves can feel like a sledgehammer against exquisitely delicate crystal. Nudge gently, notice our reaction, and if you see the crystal begin to crack, just be with us. My greatest comfort during the worst of my Depression was my partner simply working in the same room with me. No interaction needed, just a loving filling of space near me.
When it gets really bad, be afraid FOR us, not OF us. When you’re afraid FOR us, it feels like support and maybe even a lifeline. When you’re afraid OF us, it’s a confirmation for us that we are out of control, and quickly feeds the fear we are already feeling. Remember how I said I was fully aware of my behavior when I was pretty much paralyzed by an indefinable toxic mess of overwhelming emotion? That means the Starla you know (and possibly love) is still there. At the core of all this, the essence, beauty, and familiar parts of the person you know and love are still there… they’re just hidden.
Ask what is our preferred salve. If we can get just a hint of relief from the suffocating soul-pain, that glimmer of hope has a chance to lead us back to our functional lives. For me, it’s a trip to the grocery store to simply walk the aisles. (seriously!!! and it’s ok to laugh… I do too!) Something about the lights in particular grocery stores, combined with the act of simply being around other people clears enough space in me to at least be able to breathe freely. And if I can breathe, I can remember how to live. If you are fortunate enough to walk through a Depressive episode with someone close to you and both of you come out intact on the other side, ask them what they think might help next time this happens. (Hope for NO next time, and always always be ready for a next time).
Never ever ever ever use the phrase “feeling blue” or “down” when referencing our feelings in the midst of Depression. It feels like trivializing what is at that moment the gravest most daunting thing we have ever experienced. We are not just feeling blue. When it’s really bad, we are in the midst of what feels like a very real, existential crisis. Believe me, we are not just feeling blue or down or sad.
And if you are the one gouged by the claws of Depression around your own self, I offer you the wisest words I’ve heard yet:
Here’s what I know that saved me: act fast; have a good doctor prepared to hear from you; know your own patterns really clearly; regulate sleep and eating no matter how odious the task may be; lift stresses at once; exercise; mobilize love.” — Andrew Solomon
When you’re feeling good (oh, the blessed peace of feeling a regular day at a manageable level!!), set your safety nets up. Work with a therapist (and your journal) to find the triggers that will mace another bout of Depression just long enough for you to slip out of its grasp.
And don’t stop fighting. Always look for that thread (even if it’s tiny) to pull to unravel Depression and bring it to its knees so YOU can stand back up.
Kick Depression in the groin with an email reaching out to a friend to say simply “It’s bad. Call me?” or
Drag your already battle-weary self to the nearest grocery store and walk around… each step showing you that there’s still hope to step through this, or
Read this blog post again and know that others are reading it and YOU ARE NOT… and never ever ever will be … ALONE, even when it feels like you don’t even have yourself as company. You are still in there, even though the light is so very dim at times, you are still in there with every breath, and my God you are one amazing human being!
Ok, I think I’ve said enough for one day. Almost. I still need to thank you for reading this, for sharing it with those who need to hear these words. As I’ve said before, Depression doesn’t want to be talked about… so let’s talk talk talk talk TALK!
<climbing down off my soapbox, taking a deeeep breath, grinning at each of you, and heading off to my day job >