Trigger Warning: Suicidal ideation, depression, mental illness.
After feeling horrible for the last few days I decided to finally sit down, focus on my emotions, and reflect. What follows is an intensely personal inventory of my emotional state. Having experienced the connections and sense of belonging that sharing such stigmatized feelings can create, I’ve decided to share it with others- not just for them, but for me.
This is one of the many times that my work has been completely sidelined by depression, but the first that I’ve actually taken time to write about it, to take stock in how I feel. Because the reality is, I don’t really know what to do right now. I can try to swallow it and continue to work, like I usually do, but not only has that never addressed the problems I’m facing, it makes for distracted, ineffective work. So, I may as well take some time to ruminate and examine this weight that’s found itself bearing down onto my chest time and time again.
It’s hard to describe how it feels when I’m really in the hole. The chest pressure is one of the first things I’ll share when talking about it. It’s an immediate physical symptom that persists through depression and anxiety attacks alike. My chest feels impossibly tight, as if a 10lb weight were pressed down above my heart. No amount of deep breathing seems to get rid of it; in fact, any attempts to do away with this feeling usually result in further spirals of anxiety as I quickly feel like someone seeking escape from a room without a key. There’s no way out, my body tells me as the pressure mounts along with each passing second of struggle. Escape, clearly, is not an option.
There’s also a pervading feeling of haziness and lethargy that drapes over my body and mind like a thick winter blanket. Things feel fuzzy, my perception seems to slow and soften, incapable of focus and drive, as my body takes on a weakness and exhaustion. It’s as if every cell of my being is quietly demanding bed, despite knowing it will only make me feel worse.
But perhaps the most pernicious aspect of my depression is the distorted perception of self. In the last few days I’ve heard internal narratives irrationally tell me, “ah, this depression is the real you — it’s how you’ve felt all along but have been avoiding talking about with others, and any feelings of happiness or peace you’ve had over the last few months were just cruel lies to hide your true self.” My mind reflexively creates this story for the depression, generalizing it and making it permanent by coating over the entirety of my past, present, and future.
It of course twists my conception of my self- it’s absurd to think that just two weeks ago, though I still had my day-to-day stresses, I generally smiled and often reflected on my deep worthiness of love, my capacity for building trusting, deep relationships with others, and saw my own potential leadership and power essentially as part of a collective birthright we have to change the world. I was reaching out to friends and comrades when I needed help or support and felt free to shoot off a text telling someone I was unwell, all because I not only trusted people’s love for me, but saw myself as worthy of that love in the first place.
I had such clarity then, along with confidence. I was a helpful, talented person that people respected, loved, and relied on. Even when I would hit bumps in the road, I thought to myself, it would be okay because obstacles- along with sadness, grief, anger, and anxiety- are just a part of life. Not only did I feel that I could take on the world, I knew that was only possible if I gave myself the freedom to rely on others.
But now and for the last few days, I’ve been sitting alone, cold and morose, wanting to post about my mental health online but avoiding it out of fear of being a misery exhibitionist or simply just a downer. Texting or calling the same people I did just a few weeks ago seems like an even further possibility, as I’ve found myself filled with a deep sense of shame, like I’d only be a burden to all of these people who are off doing their work, living what are surely better or more meaningful lives than mine.
Much of this was kicked off by an anxiety spiral I had a few nights ago. I found myself alone, curled and crying in a dark room, considering with grim certainty and confidence that my life simply wasn’t worth living, and that the only problem with my suicide would be the financial burden placed on my partner- which I still somehow justified by considering the amount of supportive people in her life that would come together and help in my absence. I thought about how deeply worthless I am- hell, less than worthless, but an active burden on those closest to me- and how, even if that was all a distorted falsehood brought on my depression, I clearly haven’t been able to escape the thoughts, so my hapless and frequent breaks from reality were reason enough for people to abandon me because, truly, they have better things to do. Fortunately I forced myself to text a friend, and, as always, just writing it all out to someone meant the world and helped me de-escalate.
What led me here in the first place? There is a pattern here- a few weeks of overwork where I sacrifice my healthier and more fulfilling habits on the altar of productivity, leading straight into a brick wall that will take several horrible days to recover from, often at a pace that evens out whatever “productivity” I had throughout my two or three weeks of severe crunch.
That wouldn’t be too surprising, since this is a cycle that’s happened several times just in the past year, and I may have gotten the worst of it this time around because I thought I was gleefully stepping out of the same cycle — that I could “take” just a few weeks of a heavy workload for the sake of the election season, and the onset of cold weather and limited daylight. But taking care of yourself, it turns out, is a lot like medication: it only works when you’re doing it, and it’s easy to forget how important it is until you stop doing it. Social time, prayer and worship, and creating an actual schedule and sets of goals and to-do lists for my work, have all been slowly phased out over the last few weeks. That scheduling is important- without marking down my work plans and commitments, I suddenly begin staying in bed for hours haunted by tasks I think I should be doing instead but continue to put off. Considering I’ve barely scheduled any work for this week, it’s almost like I was expecting this crash.
One of the worst parts is that no one is making me do this. The work culture throughout most of my organizing is built on a lot of overwork, but with people actively telling themselves and one another to take a break. We aggressively push against any attitudes that fetishize overwork. I literally can’t think of a single time where a peer or superior has instructed me to work more. But I think I may have been so entrenched in these counter-narratives that I started assuming that I was just naturally bringing it into my work and creating a balance- that my hectic work schedule could be offset by half-days set on the fly, that I’d let myself rest and focus, somehow, even without hard starts and stops to the work day and having more than one day off. Even saying this though, I feel like I’m complaining, like I’m worth less than those who are unfortunate enough to have to work unpredictable 10+ hour days with little to no weekends. I quickly begin to compare myself to some mythical other who is valued not by the joy in their life, but the productivity they bring to the world.
That’s something at the core of a lot of this. A fundamental sense of doubt and worthlessness stemming from my work and wealth- and lack thereof. Even though so much of my work is diving in to move people from the behaviors and thought patterns brought on by racial capitalism, I still find it lurking, deep inside of myself, like chicken wire holding together the entire frame of my being. I’m struck by this deeply rooted feeling that I’m disappointing people and will continue to, projecting the image of unforgiving bosses, teachers, and parents on just about everyone in my private life and work. This fear of disappointment mixes with my distorted sense of self and quickly twists into a fear of being found out, as if, once again, some “real me” is slipping from behind a facade, and my world would end if people actually saw it.
I’m caught in a few different knots of thoughts and feelings. A recognition of the untruth presented by my illness, along with the irrelevance of fact — I still feel horrible, and there’s no sense that it’s going to go away. I want to get back to work, it’s important to me, and others rely on me — I rely on me. But I feel too stuck in this fog to make a real go of it, creating a sense of uselessness that further thickens the haze, constricting my breath and limiting my vision. Can I take even more time away from today to focus on my needs and seek out healthy support, or will I remain distracted by everything I’m not doing? Is it wise to try to hop back into my work and wait for the feeling to go away? I find myself lunging toward answers but nothing is within my grasp. One word comes to mind though, as frustratingly naive and overly simplistic as it is: Love.
Just the other day, less than 24 hours after my initial spiral, one of my leaders told me this: “Rafael, I have to thank God for you, I thank God for Keystone Progress, I thank God for our relationship and all the work you’ve put in to support me and help me transform into the person that I want to be — for myself, and the community”. I thanked him, and told him how bad my depression was getting, and promised that I’d take time to really ruminate on his words of affirmation and let them in. I haven’t done that work yet.
My partner and I were at a friend’s wedding that weekend. A beautiful ceremony turned deeply moving when the bride and groom, both writers, exchanged vows, giving me more to reflect on as I seek out a path forward. First came from the groom, saying that he loved his soon-to-be wife “for seeing the parts of me that my own vision obscures”. The bride shared a journal entry from her angsty tween Victorian theatre kid era — where she wrote that she feared she would never know love, which seemed to be something only for “the Golden People”. But through their relationship, she shared, she’s now clear that love isn’t for only the lucky few, but that love is that very thing that “makes Golden People.”
I don’t know when this feeling will stop. I especially don’t know when I’ll no longer be victim to such a cycle of burnout and emotional despair. But here’s to hoping that I’ll give myself the grace and courage to reach out to others and let their vision round out my own. Here’s to hoping that sooner rather than later, I will come to accept and celebrate love for and from myself, others, and the world, and spend more time as one of those Golden People we all deserve to be.