The Big Lie of Depression
Trigger Warning: depression, panic, anxiety, PPD, dissociation, PTSD
When I was three months pregnant with my son, I wrote a letter to his father. He was my best friend in the world, the person I had spent four months living in a tent with on the Nā Pali coast of Hawaii, and although I didn’t know it yet-the father of my unborn son.
We had been dating for the past two and a half years in a tumultuous on and off sort of way, but we knew that despite the ups and downs there was some ineffable connection between us.
We had even met in a serendipitous way; a friend of mine mentioned offhand that I should meet her roommate because we were so much alike. We ended up meeting by pure chance when he waited on me at a restaurant, though it took me weeks of dating him to figure out that he was the roommate my friend had wanted me to meet.
Our two and a half years might not have been so tumultuous if it hadn’t been for circumstances. I was only nineteen and he twenty-three, after all, and was successfully navigating graduate school until, shortly after we met, I took a three month trip to Europe alone. Before leaving, I abruptly stopped taking an antidepressant medication without a taper and proceeded to have one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life.
Despite how terrifying it was, I wouldn’t allow myself to return home prior to my already scheduled return flight, which by the time I was experiencing full-blown, constant panic, was two months away.
I had the idea that it would somehow make me stronger if I stayed ( thanks, Nietzsche), that I could break my fear, and that if I went home I was giving in; I would be weak.
I retained this idea even after I came home. I continued dating the man who would eventually be my son’s father, moved to Hawaii with him, all the while experiencing a level of panic, depression, and anxiety that it is almost impossible to describe to someone who isn’t well-versed, whether by experience or profession, with this level of psychological dissociation.
After we both moved back and considered the journey (and at least in part, the relationship) a failed one, it still took me a year to write this letter to him, finally coming clean about what had happened.
All he knew in the entire two and a half years of our knowing each other and loving each other deeply was that I had once been on medication and I wasn’t anymore. It was a minute detail, a side note.
When I finally felt compelled to write this letter to him-because it certainly felt like some force beyond me-I was three months pregnant with our child and completely oblivious to it. Funny how love still finds a way.
Some might find this letter triggering, others might find it self-indulgent. I don’t dispute either, and I certainly took plenty of poetic license. What I can say is that it was the closest I ever came to successfully describing the pain and darkness that I was experiencing, making myself vulnerable to a person I loved, and finally being honest about how much I was suffering inside.
I have removed large sections that are very personal in nature, and any mentions of people or places. My hope is that this description will help others feel less alone in their experience, and also help those who have not dealt with mental health issues to understand what the experience can be like.
I call depression the “big lie” because it is the very thing that prevents those who are experiencing it from seeking help. Depression justifies our suffering, telling us we deserve it, it’s our fault, that others would be angry at us, or that we will be penalized, ostracized, or persecuted in some way. That’s why we hide it behind a very convincing mask.
Breaking out of that lie, as someone who has experienced it several times, is one of the hardest things in the world to do.
Date: Tue, May 17, 2011 at 10:43 PM
Subject: checking my pulse
I came home early from work cuz of my tummy. I drank a few sips of beer yesterday, trying to be social, trying to participate, and I guess it was a bad idea, because then I got a headache and kept waking up to run to the bathroom gagging, though nothing came out but little trickles of chemical bile.
It would have been so satisfying for something to come out, that feeling of purging, cleansing, but instead I just sat there gripping the toilet, welcoming the cold porcelain against my feverish skin, feeling like my body was trying to eject me from the inside out, nothing to expel but this vague disease and me, the carrier.
So like most days I woke up feeling exhausted, so reluctant to leave bed, almost not coming to grips with the reality that I have to, that I’m expected somewhere, there are people in whose daily narratives I figure; peripherally, at least. So like most days I get up feeling like I’m dreaming, dragging myself like a heavy object through my life that is a dream, a foggy cinematic.
I am the camera and what I see the projected image. I often wonder what images my lens will fall on as I move through the day, what colors and shapes and sounds will come together to form the illusion of reality in front of my eyes, to prove to me that I am, in fact, on earth, that I am human, that I am living.
And when I wonder this the thought is almost always followed by another; that regardless of the images the world composes for my entertainment, for my continued life-fiction, that all they really can be is fiction, and so why go through it again? And the why is because of beauty, and feeling, and aliveness, and love. And the why is purpose, and meaning, and will to live, and I wonder which of those I’m lacking; is it just one or is it all three?
There is another thing that why is, and that is community, for it seems that social animals like we are built to share life, to cry and love and laugh together, and that purpose and meaning come naturally from sharing these experiences. This truism is an irony that circles in my mind, because it occurred to me as I was literally trying to create meaning out of thin air, after I had examined and rejected the shoddy foundations out of which we create meaning these days, in a splintering, secular culture that is barely a culture at all, and increasingly becoming a mass of people, and those people are individuals by golly because they won their independence and they’re keeping it, along with all the accoutrement.
And I rejected it just for this reason, that it seems to me an undeniable failure. But my mistake was rejecting people along with it, to close myself and hide away until I came up with a better answer, and what pressure, and what loneliness, and what contempt I developed for the world. Me, who always meant to find a better way to love.
So now here I am seemingly having forgotten how to do just that. Mostly now I long to love, but don’t do it directly. I long to love myself and the people around me, the people I’ve made alien, made other. I sit amongst them feeling half-human, feeling corrupted in some way, wishing I spoke their language, peering through a barrier I see is paper thin and yet solid as granite. That barrier is my pain, somehow, which is scabbed over with my pride. And I sit there begging inside that I can break through, searching frantically for fractures that might allow me to breathe, to shed the frigid barrier I’ve encased myself in, and then I’ll alight and say I’m finally here, I’ve arrived after all that struggle, pure me without all that extra heavy weight I was dragging along behind my feet.
The same scenario a thousand times over. My life in loops. All ours are, actually, but you notice it more in some than others. Some are stuck in a kind of spastic rewind. We recreate the same people, our families and friends, the same scenarios, homes and places where stories happened, where we felt our lives were imbued with meaning.
But still, although I feel like I’ve been fighting so hard for such a long time, I’m still encased inside this false version of me. It’s false because it’s sad, I guess, and angry. It is only a thin layer of daily imagined despair, that projects itself outward just in the moments of waking, before I have a conscious chance to reign it in, and then it settles on me. I feel it in those moments as I transition from sleep, feeling something like peaceful and unharmed and perfect and then it descends, and my mind begins its loops of worry and defeat and loneliness and how can I do this, where can I draw strength when all these wells are empty, and my heart quickens pace and I think it has begun; another day of my disease owning me.
I want you to know I’ve really been trying. That I told myself you have to get up, you have to be alive, animate yourself and maybe your body will remember how it loves to move, how the blood loves to circulate in your limbs. I’ll keep up maybe the adrenaline, the momentum will catch me one day, and I’ll be animated all on my own, from the inside out, without this material force that I have to draw upon. It really is a strange sensation to rely on your muscles alone to move, to have been abandoned by that lightening force from within that makes existing feel so easy and natural and desirable.
I feel more present now than I did then, I guess, but it seems that becoming more present has presented me with more pain. It seems that I traded a little of my nonexistence for reality and with it that pleasant numbing has subsided. It heartens me to feel, a little. I don’t want to be numb.
I want to feel to full capacity, the way I felt when I first moved back in February and I could feel the pleasure of the sun on my skin in such a real way, or the wind on my face while I rode my bike, just like a child, because it seemed the medication took away those other insidious feelings that colored my existence, the tiny anxieties that meet me when I wake up, the feeling of heaviness, lethargy, illness, of being half-alive, those feelings that cover up joy.
I think a lot about a potential future where I’m alive again and happy, and sharing my gifts and living among people, and participating in the world that I shunned for so long that’s really not so bad but could do with some improvements. I’ve never felt more genuine joy than when I give, but now giving feels empty, I feel I have very little to give.
You and [mutual friend] really shocked me. The first time we all hung out at your house I could feel myself leeching, feel myself sucking in the life in the room like a black hole. And I thought, it’s only for now, they’ll forgive me. There’s something wrong. It’ll be past soon. And then you can give again, you won’t be taking.
I just kept thinking, why the hell do they love me so much? This weak and tiny version of me; how could they love me this way?
But I think about how that feeling will reignite in me and I’ll do things for all these people, how I’ll be strong again, the caretaker that I know myself to be, the person who uplifts her friends and encourages people and gives permission. A leader, someone who sets examples, who nurtures, who loves so well.
I’ve been taking tiny steps, trying not to run ahead of myself because one day I feel momentum and maybe even a little inspiration, and then my heart falters and I forget what I was excited for, and this up and down goes on for days, always more days of emptiness than fullness, the lifted days almost a little taunting.
But even if I can’t carry over the enthusiasm, the true will, I still mimic it. So slowly maybe as I feign interest in making a life and it begins to take shape around me, I can get a little boost from watching my own hand create. Because really, that’s what depression is; the loss of the creative impulse, which is ultimately the impulse to sustain life.
And isn’t that ironic coming from me, considering what I do, what I’m passionate about, what I write about? Do you even remember that person anymore?
I wish I could watch it like a movie, so I could have proof that it actually happened. It’s fading away. I trust those memories less and less, the memories of happiness, memories of feelings that I doubt my capacity for. I’ve seen so little evidence lately. I feel like I might just fade away, flicker on the periphery, become a part of the backdrop in all the other dramas, let mine fall by the wayside, until I disappear totally and exist only and briefly in memories. A girl you used to love, I wonder what happened to her? And the answer is that, as James Joyce puts it, one by one we’re all becoming shades.
As much as I feel that way, I keep hoping. That in another month’s time this medication will kick in, and I’ll remember how I’m simply okay, that I don’t have to believe the whispers in the back of my mind, all that psychic chatter that winds me up like a toy, that ties me in knots, that steals me away from the present. I wonder so often how things would’ve been different if I had stayed on it, I ask God to show me the film of that alternative cosmic reality.
Do you know that place you go when you’re lost in thought, when someone has to nudge you to bring you back? That’s where I live, most of the time. It’s another realm, I think, maybe the one they call the Hungry Ghost. It’s made up of hallways where we wander, looking for something lost, and those lost things are our thoughts, empty wind thoughts that we chase down hallways. And every time we chase them we leave the present, the human realm, and enter into a realm of wind.
The wind scatters our thoughts like paper, it chills us, and the more we wander the more nervous we become that we won’t find our way back through the labyrinth of hallways to reality, to rejoin everyone in the humanity. This feels like a cold place, a place we don’t belong, where we are unsafe and far from home. Some people wander so long they forget they’re looking for anything, they just keep wandering and watching their thoughts blow by on the wind, and mutter to themselves under their breath, for company.
I feel like I’m running for the end of the hallway. I see the other side, sometimes reach a hand through, then I’m dragged back by thoughts that have taken root too deep in my mind. I’m struggling against the wind. I’m starving for light. For fresh air and sun and warm embraces that express real love, real joy, we’re glad to have you back, Crystal.
I keep imagining that this will all pass. That I’ll look back and laugh a little. Because I know it’s just on the other side. That I only feel pain from moment to moment. That any new moment could offer peace and love and happiness if I could just remember that alternate route, that groove in my brain that’s lain dormant, the synapse that’s atrophied from negligence.
When I was on medication I saw how clearly it was a choice, that I chose to be happy from moment to moment, that I chose not to descend into this dark escapism. That’s why I tried so long without it, just make the choice Crystal, just make the right choice, choose to be happy. Fake it til you make it. Don’t tell everyone you’re sad because that makes it stronger, makes it more real.
It seems though, that the drug gave me the fuel I needed to make those choices, or to even experience the pleasure of those choices in the moment. Because I tried, I went to yoga religiously and I got up every day and I kissed you and threw all my love into it but still, some element was missing. Some element that made those things matter, made them more than moving my body from place to place and reacting to the movie screen.
The element, I guess, is love. It’s really like a fuel, the life-force. Another thing they call depression is an energy crisis, a lack of love. Like small animals and babies who have all the conditions for health, nutrition and sunshine and exercise, but despite it all they whither away because they don’t have enough love. Nature takes them back to rest in love until conditions can be more favorable to live in it. It’s called failure to thrive.
I wonder sometimes if it happened so long ago for me, something when I was young that I’ll never get back, that gives me this sense of being unsafe, uncared for. And it became so normal that I didn’t notice until I really couldn’t get out of bed anymore, and the alarm bells were so loud I couldn’t brush them aside, tell myself I was being lazy. I saw I was really letting myself fade, failing to thrive.
Despite every strength that I have, my gifts, my capacity for life. And I wonder if it’s not just a little musing on the part of the divine, a little evolutionary experiment. To give me every natural tool for success, for self-sufficiency, and then to throw in one curve ball, one that eclipses everything else and makes me weak, weak in the strangest way, weak in the soul. And then my life, the test. To overcome this weakness of my will, this urge for death-because one way or another I think in this life I’m meant to die-or to buckle, to collapse and never rise again, let the earth take me and become God’s abortion.
But really, my urge for death is an urge for God. The only thing I ever really crave. I think I feel life too acutely, feel my body dying as I occupy it. And I feel everyone else’s pain, too, it rises up from the asphalt in waves, like heat. Sweltering. It presses on the back of my mind, their cries, their suffering. It’s like the hands of the dead in the river Styx, clutching at my ankles, pulling me down.
But only because I stopped to listen to their moaning, only with the best of intentions, a light heart and a child’s compassion. I forgot to steel myself against the world when I attempted to save it, to make my mind firm, like a fortress. I did it in a different way, that killed me. I did it to my heart instead of my mind.”
If you are in need of help, please tell the people you love. Tell everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are eloquent or justified or even coherent. They want to know, and they want to help you. If you don’t share your pain, you rob them of the chance to even try, and you rob yourself of the possibility of support and compassion.
You are not to blame, and no matter how you feel, you are not alone.