In March of this year, I had a nervous breakdown. It is the third in my adult life. A litany of stressors and my lack of effective coping mechanisms brought it on.
I began therapy when I was sixteen. A doctor diagnosed me with clinical depression and anxiety at the same age. Though I wanted to believe it was simply teenage angst causing all the emotional upheaval, the reality was my biology made the angst into a typhoon. Add in the hormonal changes operating on teenage women, and you can only imagine the hell I lived in, and the hell I created for my sister, mother, and father. But that brings me to the main point of this post. I am not sure, to this day, that anyone truly understands what that – clinical depression and diagnosed anxiety – means. It definitely became clear within my family, after this latest event, when both parents sat me down and asked what I was feeling and experiencing, and both seemed taken aback by my mental and emotional state. My husband often asks questions to decipher my mood and behavior so he can be there for me in ways I need, as well as suggest new mechanisms for weathering the storm. Truth is, despite mental illness being brought to the public consciousness by social media and other outlets, partly in reaction to high-profile deaths (read Robin Williams), I am not sure many people understand the breadth of mental illness, nor do they understand that their interactions with someone while in duress can impact them in an extremely negative way. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not without my ability to cope or deal, as I am sure others who are life-long sufferers have their methods and ways, and I do not blame others for the origin of my depression, however, there are things that people do – family, friends, co-workers – that actually make these episodic moments worse. But I cannot blame these people for living in ignorance, though I am frustrated by it. Societal norms have created a wall dividing those who suffer from those who do not, and I am lucky enough that discussion of these subjects have created small windows so those divided by the wall can at least communicate. It was not always so.
What does depression feel like? Only three people, ever, have asked me this question. I have told others what I am dealing with, and explained to them the nature of how I experience depression, what it may feel like, and the trouble it causes with relating to, and being able to interact with, a wide cross-section of individuals; but only three people, ever, have asked me what it actually feels like, how my depression manifests, the ways in which anxiety has stunted a lot of my experiences, and more. The reason I bring attention to this is because depression and anxiety are a part of me. They are inherent. The same way my hair is brown, my eyes are bluish-green, and my skin is white. Depression is not a choice. Nor is clinical anxiety. It is derived from a chemical imbalance in my brain due to physiological quirks. It’s why sucking it up, or “turning that frown upside down,” or getting over it, are not options, and they are all things HIGHLY harmful to say to someone suffering with depression. You are essentially telling that person that their true self is something that NEEDS change, that they are somehow defunct. Most of my life I grew up with the belief that I was broken because I couldn’t opt for happiness, because I couldn’t erase the emotional and mental anguish of my depression, nor the physical symptoms. In-fact, it took until many years later for me to realize depression has nothing to do with choice, at least as it relates to what is felt. The only choice within depression and anxiety is in reaction. And the most common and notorious of those reactions is suicide.
Robin Williams death devastated me. Not only did I adore him as an actor, but I adored his willingness and ability to discuss his struggle with depression and substance abuse in the public eye. Ironically, almost every interview he gave would somehow tie back to his emotional health, and yet the revelation that mental illness played an integral part in his death was a shock to a large portion of the population. I remember one particular opinion piece from The Huffington Post that brought me to tears. I don’t remember who wrote it, but it discussed depression and the debate of suicide as a brave choice. The underlying message was that until you feel the heat of depression, there is no way, no possible way, you can judge the choice of suicide. I astonished myself by nodding enthusiastically in agreement. For as much as I would love to close the gulf of space between us sufferers, and those of you who live with us, the only thing that could reach that far is willing empathy, and unfortunately that commodity seems deplete in present society. This opinion piece went on to use the metaphor of a burning building to describe the ever-present effect depression has on those who suffer; we are left with two choices: jump out of the window to avoid being burned alive by the fire, or hope that you can stay in the flames long enough that the fire itself dies and you walk away alive, but heavily scarred. It is the most truthful metaphor for depression, and the depression I suffer in particular, that I have ever found. Live in the flames, constantly in fear and in pain, or jump knowing full well that you will die upon impact, and if you don’t, you will live a half-life or choose to take the plunge again. There is no true reprieve when you suffer depression and anxiety. You only have blissful moments where your coping mechanisms make its existence bearable.
One thing I have never done, at least in writing, is discuss how I experience my depression. My husband knows, and to some small degree, my parents know, but for the most part, even these interlopers who have experienced the flames up close have little to no true knowledge of the devastating effect my depression and anxiety leaves.
I have oftentimes called my depression a black hole. A massive gravitational pull that sits in the dead center of my chest. The enormous weight of this black hole prevents light from escaping, and light can mean anything from positive emotion to actual “lightness of character” (i.e. energy, smiles, a bubbly personality, laughter, etc.). In it’s stead there is nothing but a void. It feeds on all emotion, not just a spectra of happiness, but sadness and anger, as well. When my depression has devoured everything it leaves me in a dichotomous existence; I simultaneously feel void and empty, and yet I feel overwhelmed by everything around me. A great visual for this existence would be the skeletal frame of a barn or a house. It’s standing, yet there is no interior, no guts, and if a large gust of wind came, the strength of that frame would be put to test. Simple acts, like showering, can zap me of energy for the day. I have to pull from a well of strength and hope that I can preform the desired feat before the black hole notices there is more to feast on. In my worst moments, I’ve done nothing but sit in quiet contemplation staring at a wall (literally; during one episode of severe depression I spent almost all 24 hours of my day staring at a wall convincing myself to not cut my legs or arms, praying that I could withstand the flames, praying for reasons not to make the mad-dash to the window).
The black-hole is always present, much like the reality of true black holes. And much like the reality of true black holes, or supermassive black holes, my world, or galaxy, has to operate around its existence. In-fact, much like true supermassive black holes, it devours my existence little by little. Depression can exhibit in many different ways. Most people assume someone who suffers from depression will outwardly appear sad, but otherwise look, feel, and sound normal. Or that somehow manifestations of depression will be observed solely through the guise of mental and emotional understanding, counseling, and discussion. Reality, though, is much more difficult and convoluted, which is somewhat ironic and hilarious when discussing this in the metaphor of a black hole. I’ve experienced constant sickness due to a weakened immune system; insomnia; bone-deep pain; I’ve torn my hair out; cut my legs, arms, and stomach; I’ve scratched the soft tissue of my inner arm until it bleeds and scabs over; I’ve banged my wrists, ankles, legs, and arms, against things in-order to feel something outside of the void; I’ve also stopped eating, showering, drinking, and essentially existing, because of the toll of depression. And the worst part is, I’ve been called weak. I’ve been told to snap out of it. I’ve been told to leave the “emotional stuff” at home. I’ve been told that my mood dictates the tenor of a room, and that I had to pep up because I was creating a negative experience for co-workers. When I can barely carry the weight of my own emotional health, it is beyond detrimental to hear that I need to carry the weight of those around me. And I have been told it is my responsibility. More than once. And that repetition has created an awkward phobia of my place of employment when in the midst of a depressive episode. And when I say phobia, I mean phobia (a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding, disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational).
This is my existence. This is a reality, not necessarily the reality of depression, but it is my reality with depression. I hope that in reading this some of you develop empathy for those that suffer, that you choose to educate yourselves about depression and the positive things you can do to help loved ones that suffer. The biggest thing that’s helped is having a partner who is willing to listen free of judgement and free of unwanted and unneeded advice. In discussing my depression with him, I have been able to work through some of the difficult thought processes that lead me towards anxiety, towards phobias, towards worry. And I hope that by reading one persons experience you are motivated to learn about others, because despite have commonalities in the physiological and chemical spheres, depression is different for everyone. It manifests in so many diverse ways that you cannot just assume someone is not suffering. The best possible practice is to look at everyone through an empathetic lens. You have no idea what is going on in their life, in their mind, in their emotions, just be genuinely kind and nice, because on days I’m at my worst, those moments of kindness are like being handed a life preserver when arms are too tired to keep swimming.