Happy on My Own

Coming to terms with depression in your twenties.

DEPRESSION IS LIKE HAVING A POPCORN KERNEL LODGED in the back of your throat: it just sits there, irritating you, irritating your body. You can ignore it but, eventually, there it is again, scratchy and pissing you off. It’s not your fault it’s there and try as you might, you can’t seem to expel it. You forcefully cough, poke it with a toothbrush until you gag, make that weird hacking noise that makes everyone look at you funny: they don’t understand what you’re doing, and you could give them context but some of them still won’t get it. They’ll just shrug and say, “I don’t eat popcorn.” Other people might cast their eyes downward and nod knowingly, “Yep. I’ve been there.”

Eventually, though, the popcorn kernel will dislodge and you’ll be good-as-new. But what if it didn’t? What if once it got stuck there, it stayed and became a constant source of pain and irritation for you? An isolating, seemingly silly problem that slowly becomes a fixation and negatively affects your life?

MY MENTAL POPCORN KERNEL OF DEPRESSION, the seed from which my anxiety blossomed, has been a part of me as long as I can remember. Before I understood what depression meant, I knew I just didn’t see the world “the right way” and that no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to shift my viewpoint.

The depression initially showed up as an overwhelming sense of heartache that I couldn't seem to explain, no matter how many words I learned or experiences I had. I kept thinking sorrow was something all kids had, and that when I grew up, the purpose of it would be revealed to me somehow. But I grew up and instead of the purpose becoming clearer with time, it became more obscured, and the sadness itself more entrenched in my personality. I was able to escape it by never having any down time. I was an introvert who needed to behave like an extrovert to survive, and it wore me down considerably, both emotionally and physically. By the time I was a teenager, and had extricated myself from the situation at home that had instilled this depression into me, I figured I could finally stop extroverting myself and become, instead, who I knew I was deep down: someone who just wanted to sit alone at home on a Friday night and read nonstop until Monday morning.

When I started college, and started being “myself” it was not as easy as I had anticipated. When I had the opportunity to start over, to stop fronting, to just exist in my own body and mind, I realized I wasn't too passionate about the person I actually was. The role I had played before was far more appealing a personality: people like extroverts. They like people who are charming and entertaining and smile readily and often. They like people who take the lead and aren't afraid to get their hands dirty. They don’t much care for brooding, bookish types who are soft spoken and spend a lot of time alone.

So, I was caught in a strange plane of existence: internally, I knew who I was and how I needed to behave to feel “okay” but the world demanded a lot more of me, and I knew I had the skills to be that person. The question was, how long could I sustain it? I think I already knew the answer when I embarked on this “Double life,” but I was more than willing to deny it if it meant I could somehow be who I thought everyone wanted me to be yet somehow also have a quiet, unobtrusive presence.

What I really wanted was to be some kind of invisible superhero who could just swoop in, fix everyone’s problems, and leave without ever having to make any small talk.

BUT THAT’S NOT HOW THINGS WORK. It wore me down so much, in fact, that when I became ill with something that should have been a routine case of appendicitis, my body and my psyche suffered a break that would go on, unresolved, for about three years.

Because I was derailed by a physical malady, I suddenly had a lot of time to be alone and think about how much I had failed at being myself throughout the course of my entire life. I think it’s a fairly well documented phenomenon that, when people are recovering from an illness of some kind, if they are alone and can’t do much of their normal activities, they do get at least a little depressed. What I thought was circumstantial sadness around having to leave school and feeling sick all the time was actually just the initial seeping out of a deep well of depression that had been untapped for twenty years. And once it was lanced, everything poured out and there was nothing I could do to stop it. At long last, I was finally, utterly, completely, overwhelmingly debilitated by depression.

Still, even in the throes of it, I was convinced I could talk myself out of it. I must have, somewhere along the line, formed this gray paradigm of the world: certainly I could just retrain my brain to see my life differently. A professor from school sent me a book about the brain’s malleability and assured me that I could change my perspective. That I didn't have to feel this way. If only it was so easy! If we could think ourselves happy, no one would ever be depressed again.

Becoming majorly depressed and, in fact, actively suicidal feels like it happens overnight when, in reality, it’s something that has been gradually welling up inside of you for a very long time.

OF COURSE, YOU CAN’T REALLY SEE IT AT THE TIME, all you feel is an overwhelming urge, maybe even a desire, to do whatever you need to do to stop existing. One part of you knows you shouldn't be thinking such things; that you need to self-preserve and survive. Yet there is this new voice in your head, and even though it says horrible and scary things to you, it is the calmest and sweetest voice you've ever heard. Somehow, this voice you know you should be afraid of gives you comfort.

It can all be over right now, it offers you, it’ll only hurt for a second. You argue with this voice because you know you should.

But my family needs me. My friends will miss me, right?

No, no. They won’t. You are a burden to them. They are frustrated with you because you’re not getting any better. You drag everyone down, you see. They will miss you a little bit, but mostly they will be relieved. You should absolutely leave this world, it will be the best way for you to help them, to help the whole of humanity in fact.

But there are so many things I want to do in my life.

Sure, but are you capable of doing them? You can’t even get out of bed and wash your hair. How do you expect to make any kind of difference in the world if you can’t even do something as simple as take a shower?

I think I could get better. I just need more time.

Your time is up. You've overstayed your welcome, dear.

Then, you bargain with the voice. Maybe you try to drown it out with drugs or booze. Maybe you stop eating or just sleep for days. The voice is there, though, and it stops being so calming. The longer you resist, the more fed up with you the voice becomes.

Just kill yourself already!

AND IT WAS AT THAT POINT, as I sat in the parking lot at the hospital, I finally realized I couldn't do anything to fight this voice. Except, of course, give in and do what it wanted me to do. But I didn't even believe in myself enough to think I could kill myself properly, so I felt helpless. My perfectionism made me fixate on how to do it, but every time I found some flaw in the plan— and if I was going to do it, it had to be perfect. There had to be zero chance of survival.

So, in the end, my perfectionism saved me.

THE FIRST WEEK I WAS ON ZOLOFT, I became manically happy. I had been so deprived of serotonin for so long that I had a complete shock to my system. It was the best feeling in the entire world, to be happy, to see color, to feel content and sleep well. I could taste food again (I hadn't even realized I wasn't really tasting things until, suddenly, food had bold, robust flavors). I could stand being touched— in fact, I wanted it. I craved hugs and I couldn't get enough affection— or give it. I sung along with the radio, I danced in the kitchen. I took showers.

After about a month, I “leveled off” — meaning, I guess, that I gradually became more neutral about things rather than giddy. I was capable of happiness when it was truly warranted, and I could also feel a whole range of emotions in quantities that were manageable. I could get mad, but I didn't stay mad. I could cry and then be okay after.

A FEW MONTHS PASSED and I found myself wondering if I ought to feel bad that, clearly, I couldn't be happy on my own. I was cautioned that, without my little blue pills, I would spiral again into the torment of depression and anxiety. It bothered me that I had some defect in my chemistry that, perhaps from birth, had made it impossible for me to want to stay alive unless I took a pill that would insert the belief that I deserved to be breathing air on this Earth into my consciousness. I couldn't do that for myself, no matter how hard I tried.

It is unlikely I will ever be able to live without some kind of antidepressant for this reason. I am twenty-two years old and that feels like a long time. For now, though, it’s working, even if I don’t feel so great about needing it. That’s the best thing about them, actually: they allow me to mull the thought over, but I don’t get hung up on it.

I’m already thinking ahead.

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