That Good Ol’ Fashioned Grey-Area Depression

A couple months back, a young woman asked me how she could delineate between sadness and depression. Did she deserve to call herself “a depressed person”? She wasn’t sure. I told her my personal Depression Litmus Test is when I take a right at sadness and drive straight off a cliff into a sea of I Don’t Care. “I’m less productive, I feel like everything I’m doing is pointless, I stop caring about things I normally would,” I wrote.

It didn’t surprise me that she would second-guess her emotions. Many people have a limited understanding of what depression looks like (so many looks!). And even those of us who do know can still find ourselves competing for legitimacy in the Depression Olympics (sponsored by Twitter, probably). Did I eat enough cheese today? Could my sweatpants use a couple more stains? Does this two-month bender put me in the running for the title? The depression title, of course. Sometimes it feels like it has to be earned, as though simply being depressed isn’t enough. That in owning the title, you also have to own the nebulous persona that comes with it.

But depression isn’t a persona. It’s a mood disorder and an illness, not a uniform one throws on to express their inner turmoil. There are several depressive disorders as outlined by the DSM 5 — add to that subjective life experience and a multitude of mental health variables, and it’s difficult to argue that depression could ever manifest as a one-size-fits-all, grey-scale cloak. Your depression could look very different from someone else’s, different from the archetype — but that doesn’t invalidate it. And that doesn’t make it harmless.

I know this. So why, after moving cross-country to Los Angeles, did it take months of lethargy, apathy, and nihilism for me to recognize what was happening?

The first time I felt depressed… what a funny-sad way to start a sentence. As if I know. I used to have this tidy little depression origin story: things were just swell until the year I turned thirteen. That year, 1999, my family and I abruptly moved from Brooklyn to a suburb of New York City. The move made me aware of a few things: 1) I could not trust my treasonous parents, 2) The only person who mourned my moving away was me, 3) cutting myself was an adequate way to deal with items 1) and 2).

This narrative worked for me for a long time. I remember vividly the pain of leaving the apartment I grew up in, my friends, my neighborhood. I remember transforming the journal I kept for English class into a tortured babble book — crying and bleeding directly onto the pages, purposely writing through meltdowns to convey, through shaky handwriting, how fucked I was. How fucked everything was. I remember graduating from bobby pin to scissors to knife in the cavernous bedroom with the air mattress and the beige, wall-to-wall carpeting.

But in packing for my recent move west, I discovered my origin story might’ve begun before that. Before I left Brooklyn, which I would go on to mythologize as The Place Where Nothing Bad Ever Happened. The evidence that my narrative was incomplete came in the form of an old letter from my best friend, circa sixth grade. It was written in purple milk pen and while the pages were water-warped, the words were still legible. “Please don’t kill yourself!” And “I’m depressed, too — but don’t end it. If you wanna runaway, I know a place that can help us,” my friend wrote. I don’t know what I wrote to her to prompt this response. I do know I was eleven.

It’s tempting to dismiss my feelings as those of a mid-puberty, emotional tween, but as I would go on to attempt suicide at fifteen, I’m not sure that’s accurate. I’m also not sure what was so terrible for eleven-year-old me — perhaps nothing. Perhaps this thing was inherited, same as my freckles, the color of my eyes. Who knows? What I do know is that these formative experiences went on to define depression as it pertained to me: it involved crying for hours on end, self-harm, and the constant feeling that the world would be fine without me in it.

By that definition, I was not depressed when I moved to California. In fact, those first few weeks were abnormally blissful. Moving cross-country, alone, was a feat I hadn’t imagined myself capable of — I even began therapy earlier that year for the express purpose of building up the internal tools I was lacking just to pull it off.

I landed at LAX on a Postcard October Day and knew almost instantly that I would not miss the autumn creep that had already taken hold of New York. I would not miss the clockwork depression that promised to visit the season after that, either. Finding an apartment I could afford by myself was the cherry on my self-sufficiency cake. Moving to LA made me feel like both an adult and a teenager at the same time — but not the teenager I’d been. Not the cutter. Not the cryer. I was a Polaroid teen, living in a perpetual golden hour. I was sunbeam beamin’. I was, by all accounts, not depressed. Not immediately, anyway, and even then, not in the way I’d come to define it.

Self-medication is a bitch. It works, there’s no denying that. But how well? For how long? What’s worse: acknowledging that you’re depressed, or creating a new reason to feel bad about yourself while the old reasons drone on in the background?

It took about two months for me to settle in after the move. To acquire an apartment, and then a desk, and then a chair suitable for desk-sitting. I gave myself permission, in the meantime, to work less and play more. Eventually, I’d return to my anxious, Type-A, Virgo self. I’d earn some money, write, make myself worthy of the life the former me had stitched together. But not yet.

And then, not ever. I was partying a lot, enjoying the kind of freedom I had previously decided didn’t belong to me. She of no safety net, of no spousal or parental support. In New York, it made sense to live to work. I didn’t have many alternatives. But taking a time-out from the grind agreed with my body — more specifically, with my anxiety. Why go back to being that person? That palpitation-hearted, fire-chested person?

It’s a strange thing — to care so much about every detail, to require medication to ward off the excessive, destructive worry — only to turn around and not care about anything.

The depression I was accustomed to involved a lot of kicking and screaming. This was not that. This was laying in bed for days at a time until it felt like my spinal cord had melted into my mattress. Watching hundreds of hours of cancelled TV shows instead of responding to emails. Leaving bed only to heat a frozen pizza or to drink with friends. This was berating myself for being lazy, even as my “laziness” began to feel more like some unshakeable condition I’d had since birth. This was thinking, “You’d probably feel better if you went for a quick run, or maybe just stretched,” and, “It’s OK if you’re not gonna work today, but maybe reading a book would make you feel less shitty” — then ignoring that internal voice and pressing the “Continue Watching” button on Netflix.

I had zero energy. Some days, I had zero emotions. I would walk around my apartment touching surfaces and craft supplies, almost amused by the way nothing warranted a response. “I feel like a robot,” I told a friend, robotically. When I managed to feel something, it was disdain for the act of caring. Why should I care?, I’d think, why should I care when we’re all gonna die? I didn’t necessarily want to die, I just became clear-eyed about the fact that it was an inevitability, one I’d done nothing to slow.

During this period, I asked a friend if he thought he (we) maybe did some not-great things regarding his (our) health because he (we) figured it was only a matter of time. Do we hurt ourselves to speed up the process, to take ownership of our lives? If we’re to blame for our ultimate demise, doesn’t that take the control away from everyone, everything else? I still can’t decide if this line of thinking is a function of anxiety — worrying so much about death that you attempt to illogically defeat it by taking its options away, or depression — caring so little about your well-being that you actively assist in your own destruction. My guess is a little bit of both.

Grey-area depression. It’s not a medical term, but it’s the best way to describe my first few months in California. On Consecutive Day #3 of laying in bed, I’d occasionally think, Maybe I’m depressed. Maybe. I just wasn’t sure, you know? Like the woman who wrote me, second-guessing her emotions. Like all of us for whom things feel bad, but not as bad as before — not as bad as the depressed character on that groundbreaking sitcom, not as bad as your depressed friend, whose suffering eclipses your own. Have we, those of us dwelling in the monochrome doldrums, earned the title?

The problem with the grey area, with saying “maybe so,” is that you’re not compelled to figure out if there’s an actual problem. You find ways to write off all abnormal behavior: I just moved! I’m taking a self-care week! I’m just a disgusting, lazy, garbage human! And of course, the old standard: It’s just not that bad. Maybe it’s not, comparatively speaking, but there’s nothing good about it, either. And because I couldn’t differentiate between “not bad” and “good,” I spent months in cyclical malaise before talking to a professional and looking for solutions.

So fuck the title. Fuck the archetype, the sweatpants, and the idea that you have to drown before you’re worth saving. Sometimes it’s enough to realize you’re sick of treading water.

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