For the last few months, I’ve been suffering. It’s been mainly a quiet sort of suffering.
It’s depression, and what is there to say that hasn’t already been said?
But I suppose, even if it’s been said, for a person going through depression, it’s important to talk about.
Because of the pushback against the pervasive myth that depression can’t simply be shut on or off, many of us who fight for mental health awareness tend to downplay the power of environment. We say that depression can come at any time, for any reason, and when we talk about things like external factors or our thought patterns (also external, by the way), we give a voice to those claim things like, “Just think happy thoughts!” or “Push away the sad!”
It’s perhaps good that so many people work to dispel these myths, but doing so eliminates the nuance and reality behind depression.
I am bipolar. For the most part, depressive episodes have tended to take the form of waves, things that would rise in my life and fall. As I grew, evolved, and learned skills for managing the rise and crests of depression and mania, it felt less like a wave and more like a finger bumping on glass, reminding me every now and then that it was there, that I was not immune to this thing that had once put me in a hospital and almost killed me multiple times.
Evolving to this point has in many ways felt like a vindication. I’ve been able to stand on my own two feet, and more and more, I haven’t felt like mental illness is something I have to write about or talk about. I can mention it when I have to, but it no longer feels like a defining trait, like some sort of iron weights attached to my feet, making everything heavier, harder.
Until it does.
In many ways, maintaining an internal and external narrative that I have reached some higher plane of mental health has allowed me to fashion a time in my life where the story has ended. I am no longer suffering, I am no longer in pain. You can depend on me, you can work with me, you can trust me, because I don’t have that baggage anymore. Look at me, I’m normal. I’m okay.
Until I’m not.
And then the narrative hurts. It turns into a painful rebuke.
I started volunteering for a cause I care deeply about. It was taking off, it was doing incredibly, it was changing the world. They asked me to run their social media department.
I tried. I really tried. But I would get up, and I’d look at the computer, and I’d think about talking to people, and I’d… something would turn off. I don’t know how to explain it, perhaps because it is still there. Perhaps because I’m still afraid to talk about it, even though the few people I’ve mentioned it to have been understanding, have been loving and caring. But in my mind, I have let them down, and some part of me is convinced they are thinking, “We should never have depended on him.”
I know that I have no idea of knowing what they’re thinking without asking them. But when you’re going through this level of deep depression, the years of therapy that have taught you such lessons are harder to bring to the fore. And try as you might your old patterns have a way of rising, rising, part of that larger wave.
And if I don’t tell people, it makes it worse. I know that this is a painful reality for most people suffering from mental illness. How many people are truly open about it, even if they haven’t created some fairy tale narrative that ended with their happy stability?
So then some of the people will say the very things that we tell ourselves. They’ll call us lazy, or undependable, or unreliable. They don’t know what we’re holding onto, they can’t understand it, unless perhaps they themselves talk to themselves that way because of their own struggles.
Little do they know they become unwitting partners with the depression of others. Because depression is, in many ways, a disease affected by our thoughts. That’s the idea behind cognitive behavioral therapy: we treat our mental illnesses through our thoughts and behavior. Even medication is meant to be a tool to give us a leg up to get to the place where we can use those skills.
The point is that thoughts are powerful, be they our own or others’. When you can hardly bring yourself to leave the house (I now tend to go at least 5 days of the week without leaving my home), the thought that you’re unreliable, bad, lazy, failing others, hurting others, etc is enough to make you want to buy new locks and put them on the outside to make sure you never leave at all. Which makes the depression worse. Which makes the thoughts worse. Which makes the depression worse. Which makes the thoughts worse. Which…
What I’m circling around and not quite touching on is that I recently came face to face with the fact that my gamble to turn my nonprofit into my job failed, and I’ve since been looking for work.
For years, this nonprofit was my dream. It was my life. It gave me life. It gave me an identity, and something to strive for. In both healthy and unhealthy ways.
And so when I finally understood that I was wrong for wanting to make it a full time job (both for practical and ideological reasons), it hit me hard. Combined with a job hunt that has taken months longer than I expected and the simple and very practical reality of being broke while caring for a family, it has all taken a toll. Depression has been a specter I keep fighting to escape, but keep descending into the depths of.
The hardest part, though, is that I know saying these things out loud can damage me. How can I convince someone to give me a job while writing about how I’m currently debilitated by depression, hardly able to leave my house? How can I be a leader when people will look at me with that horrible pity that so many people give instead of just love (I don’t judge them, pity is natural)? Will people worry about me more when they see me posting on social media? How can I schedule networking chats and other meetings when people don’t realize that depression isn’t something that turns us into robots, and that we can still hold conversations like normal people? How can I be open when the world tends to punish us, especially if we’re the rebellious types who depend on showing strength so that the detractors can’t use our vulnerability to hurt us?
No, no, no. It’s far better to wait until the depression is over. Wait until I get a job. Wait until I am feeling well. Wait to tell you all about my triumphant happy ending.
Then you won’t look at me in pity, you’ll see me as stable rather than prone to these moments of weakness, you won’t have to see the ugly side of this all, and get to be part of the happy ending myth I tell myself when I escape from the undercurrent.
That’s what I did in the past. It’s why when I wrote about things like manic episodes and near death experiences and hospital visits, it was always in the past tense. I needed my readers to participate in the myth of happy endings with me, and I needed them to believe what I wanted to believe: that mental illness was something you conquer and stand atop of like a knight instead of manage like a simple office worker.
But then. What’s the point? Why did I care to fight for mental health awareness if we were both really just blinding ourselves to what mental health is? Why talk about depression if you can’t see depression for what it is and how it truly manifests?
I want you to see it. The confusing, swirling, disturbing way it leaves and then suddenly returns years later. The way our thoughts and environment feed into it. The fact that it is not a thing to be conquered but a state of mind to be faced. The way you can be one thing one day, and another thing another day. The way, if you’re like me, you’ll tell yourself you’re a failure when you’re really just a person going through something, something that is not something to be ashamed of but embraced in its own way.
And I also want to get better. And I know that if I tell you, if you hear me, it will help. This is what I mean by taking thoughts and environment seriously. My thoughts being expressed through writing is an act of turning thought into environment. Where I can take all that has been swirling, the good and the bad, and bring it into a place where it becomes an object I can work with instead of an experience that controls me. And by you hearing, I get a thousand reflections to bounce that object off of, and to hopefully use to improve someone’s life.
So that’s why this exists, this piece of writing. It’s here to tell you how depression feels to one person in one moment, so that perhaps you might see it in your own life, or perhaps extend empathy to a person who is not acting as you hope they would, even if you have no idea what the reason is.
And hopefully, that’s something I’ll do myself. Now, for me. And later, for others. And if and when it returns, as it does, for me again.