I sat down at the kitchen table to write at 8am. When I next noticed the fading light in the grey winter sky, it was 3pm. The whole day had been lost to a fog of depression.
“Getting stuck,” a friend of mine calls it. She had experienced it a lot, when her sister was murdered. The sorrow was so deep; she would become frozen by it. She’d sit down on the couch, and look up to find hours and hours had passed.
I called my husband in tears. “How can I work when I feel like this? How can I write anything inspirational? See anything clearly? I know the deadline is there, and I just. Can. Not. Do. It.”
This is how depression manifests for me. I get stuck. I can’t rouse myself from my spot at the kitchen table, make the phone calls that are awaiting me, or even get out of bed. I am, what the doctor’s call, “somatically pre-occupied.” Yet, ironically, I develop insomnia. Life loses its intrigue. There’s no zest, no color. Worst of all, I can’t connect with my passion. And my life has always been about passion.
“Warning: Falls Frequently In Love.” This phrase hangs over my office desk, and often s serves as one of my social media taglines. The idea of bright, hot, unstoppable passion defines me. But when the depression comes, the passion is lost—and so am I. A girlfriend of mine recently experienced a traumatic birth. Her baby is still in NICU. Every day we hold our breaths, we hold on to hope. In trying to describe her emotional state, she says, “My sadness is an ocean.” When the depression comes, the passion departs and I too am left with an ocean — still and dark, with storm clouds brooding on the horizon.
I’ve experienced this level of depression six times in my life thus far: When my family experienced a big upheaval in my 20’s. After the birth of both my children. When I left the church and lost my tribe. When I lived abroad. And the latest bout, this past winter, when I began to come to terms with the way chronic pain has forever shaped my past, and limited my future.
Every time the ocean of sadness opened up before me, I made the same mistake. I didn’t acknowledge how bad things were. I didn’t get help.
There is so much shame around depression. It is seen as weakness (although many, many people I know suffer from it.) In the health-conscious part of the country where I live, taking a RX for depression is tantamount to drinking whilst pregnant. And because women are diagnosed with depression more often than men, admitting to this ailment seems to reinforce the old stereotype of “the weaker sex.” All of these factors tempt me to think that I can handle depression on my own.
I always forget that I cannot “mind over matter” myself out of depression. Yes, there are behavioral things that help. (Getting outside, not isolating, etc.) But real, clinical depression can’t be overcome alone. Neither can postpartum depression, which is largely hormonal. And depression’s nasty little cousin, anxiety? I need help professional help with him too.
Everyone’s journey is different. And sometimes when the umpteenhundereth person offers you their sage medical advice, you want to throw a book at their heads. A fellow migraineur once told her co-worker that she’d “had a headache since 1987.” The coworker said, “Have you tried this medicine called Excedrin?”(Book. Aim. THWAK!) Then again, it’s the pooled wisdom of women that so often gets us through. So I’d like to tell you what helped me, in the hopes that some part of it might be the piece of the puzzle you need.
Get Help Early. When the depression returns, I never get help right away. I think “It’s not that bad.” I “struggle through.”
I don’t have a great success rate.
I have to remember that although I may feel foggy on my meds, they do give me a bit of a buffer-zone while I re-start therapy. Eventually I have to wean off of them in order to feel the really deep stuff. But if I start the anti-depressants early on, I don’t sink as far into the depression.
Because I’m prone to S.A.D. and I live in the Pacific Northwest, I now automatically start (or increase) my antidepressants in October, and take them throughout May. This keeps me from losing months of time to increasingly long periods of being “stuck”–which is what otherwise happens when I “wait and see” whether or not the grey is going to get me. I’ve finally come to accept that my body needs a full arsenal of counter-measures for the relentless winter.
Meds and Therapy Make a Lovely Couple. Many people try using anti-depressants without going to therapy. I’ve never had a mild enough case of depression for this RX-only method to work. I prefer to see anti-depressants as something that help me “hold space” while I do the deep work of therapy. Therapy has also improved my chronic pain, because having someone to talk to decreases my stress. And having a therapist on-call protects my husband from having to be my primary caregiver; thereby softening the impact depression has on my marriage and my family.
Find Underlying Physical Components—Call a N.D. Depression is emotional and physical. The medical model has M.D.’s prescribing anti-depressant s– usually without nutritional support or therapeutic counseling. Whereas the naturopathic model has N.D.’s who move past the quick-fix to look for the underlying physical issue.
When I began to work with a naturopathic doctor, she spent nearly two hours with me reviewing my symptomology. Then she ran a series of more nuanced blood tests than what my M.D. used. She discovered several underlying causes that were effecting my depression. I was allergic to gluten, which meant my gut was not absorbing essential nutrients, nor expelling toxins from my body. I couldn’t absorb iron, and was severely anemic, which meant I had no energy because oxygen wasn’t getting to my brain. This caused me to be ashamed of “how much I could get done,” and contributed to daily headaches. The pain from the headaches made my adrenal glands over function, increasing my anxiety. I didn’t have enough Vitamin D, even though I was taking the FDA recommended dosage. Without Vitamin D my body couldn’t produce the “feel good” hormones I needed – like dopamine. And the low level of protein in my mostly-vegetarian diet was not enough to compete with the northwest weather, thereby preventing me from producing and absorbing serotonin. The naturopath helped me triage these things, and we addressed them one at a time. As my iron leveled out I had more energy, accomplished more of my daily tasks, and felt less ashamed. I also experienced fewer headaches, so my adrenals stopped over-producing and the anxiety decreased. The Vitamin D improved my insomnia. And as the “body load” off all these dysfunctions decreased, my depression began to improve.
Don’t Underestimate Your Personal Loss. I play this ridiculous game called “Compare the Trauma.” Perhaps it was because I grew up in the era where children were told “Eat your peas. There are starving children in Africa!” Perhaps it is because I have a compassionate heart. Perhaps it is because I mistakenly think that calling other people’s problems “worse” than mine will somehow soften my own. (It’s probably all of the above.) I used to think this was noble—downplaying my own grief. Now I am learning that ignoring the losses in my own life, only increases their power. Unprocessed trauma in my life has given depression a very firm foothold in my psyche. Working through those losses one by one in therapy, and being more present to feeling new losses that arrive, creates more ease around the sorrow. It’s still there. It’s still deep. But it has a little less control over my world than it did yesterday. (One day at a time.)
My daughter Cate likes a song by Lenka, called Trouble is a Friend. The video is both dark and charming. Shadow puppets depict monsters and ghoulies that pop out at a girl who is traveling through an enchanted forest. As she travels she sings a chipper song:
“He’s there in the dark, he’s there in my heart
He waits in the wings, he’s gotta play a part
Trouble is a friend, yeah trouble is a friend of mine”
For a long time I tried to pretend that loss was not present in my life. I tried to ignore the traumatic events of my life. I tried to minimize the impact of death, and pain, and broken hearts by pretending they were not my long term house guests.
Trouble is still not a friend of mine, but at least I am learning to say “Hello.” Perhaps the sadness cannot go away until we invite it in for a cup of bitter tea. Perhaps we who struggled with depression must learn to sit beside the darkness for a while. Perhaps in learning its true nature, we can finally say goodbye.
My older daughter Eden recently loaned me a Y.A. book called Mockingbird. It’s a novel about a school girl who has Asperger’s Syndrome. The girl explains to the reader all the coping mechanisms she’s created to get through her days. When the playground is overwhelming she lets her vision blur to “Stuff Animalize” the people, softening the assault on her senses. When she speaks to a school mate she tries to recall the cartoon chart of emotional faces in her counselor’s office so she can figure out what they are feeling. I quickly came to admire this child, who was working so hard just to get through a recess, much less a life! For the first time I understood why people prefer the term “differently abled.” This girl was not weak. Just the opposite. She was incredibly strong. She was resourceful beyond imaging. She was productive, and clever, and above all, resilient.
You are these things too. Even if you cannot see your own strengths. Even if you are burning with anger over your lot in life. Even if you are running on fumes. You are still here. You are resilient, and that my friend, is inspiring.
My affirmation and blessing for you today is this:
The sea of sadness will not consume you,
You will learn to float.
May your trashing subside into a gentle drift,
may the tides be in your favor,
and may you soon come to better shores.
*your magpie girl