D is for Depression
I never know quite when she’s going to creep up next to me. It feels a little like the way the sun goes behind the clouds on a bright summer day, leaving me shivering in my swimsuit, unable to concentrate on my book.
For a long time, I was afraid to use the word depression. It sounds scary and clinical, official and final. Recently, I was reading Lauren Winner’s Still for the millionth time when I was caught by these words about a particular bout with depression: “I had never before quite understood that when people said ‘depressed,’ they didn’t mean despondent or morose; they meant actually pushed down, like what a doctor does to a patient’s tongue, or what a foot does to a pedal of a pipe organ.” I had read these words many times before, and I wonder if they crept into my memory, the allure of etymology and exploring a word in other contexts getting me more comfortable with claiming it in my personal lexicon.
At first, my therapist and I were sure that I had dysthymia, a cyclical depression which fit my rhythm of feeling pressed down every month or two. I loved having a diagnosis, a label for the rabbit hole I couldn’t help but fall down. I loved having something to tell someone when they asked, a way to explain myself. But then, I didn’t have an episode for too long, and we couldn’t call it dysthymia anymore.
What I know is this: sometimes I feel very heavy, as if my body is overnight triple-sized, or I am suddenly dealing with the gravity of Jupiter. The thought of going to the library, calling a friend, or taking a shower overwhelms me. I don’t feel like doing anything, there is nothing that I want, and it feels as if the future must continue this way forever. I don’t want to pray.
Before I tried on the word depression and started working with my therapist, I was also deeply afraid in these moments and days. I wasn’t sure if I was going to come out of it this time. During one particularly harsh week, I began to feel that going to the grocery store was impossible. At once, I was back in the late summer several years ago, when my first therapist suggested that I start simply, with energy bars, maybe a few pieces of fruit. The feeling of dread in response to buying food was familiar. I began to trust the process. I had come out before, I would come out again.
For me, anxiety and depression go hand in hand like friends. Sometimes it feels like anxiety lives here full time, and depression comes to visit on occasion. Anxiety is the one who whispers that I will die alone. She is the one who shakes her head as I hold my breath, waiting for depression to rush in when something jars me, or when I experience disappointment or loss. She’s the one who keeps me awake on the nights I have a stomach ache, wringing her hands and mumbling about rupturing appendices. She and I have been friends for a long time, so she has a lot of material. When depression is in town, anxiety flits around my head as I pull myself out of bed for yoga or walk, at last, into the grocery store. She clutches me tightly on those nights, even as I sleep.
Recently, I read a suggestion for combating depression: “When you begin to feel depressed,” it said. “Start moving, and don’t stop.” There are two ways to read this, and I chose to go with the first: take a walk, go to dance class, set your alarm for 6am yoga. There is no magic in these steps. They lift my mood and they make my body feel productive, warm, and often sore, but they do not fix me. They do not banish depression the way Ann Miller suggests in her song from Easter Parade: “Shaking the Blues Away.”
However, when I stop and read this advice the other way, I find a strategy almost guaranteed to fail (one I’ve often tried): run away from depression, don’t let it catch you. Make yourself busy and unavailable until she grows tired and goes home. If only this worked. If only depression was getting paid by the hour, or was like a telemarketer who was tired of having the phone slammed down in her ear again and removed the offending party from her list with a red streak. The problem is that depression waits patiently for that moment when you are alone, spent, and panting from all the running. Depression waits for the moment when you have a side ache. Once she’s found me, she won’t let me go until she’s said her piece.
I’d like to say that I’ve stopped running. This is mostly true. Now, I bring her along with me on my trips to the produce section. I invite her to sit next to my yoga mat. I let her pick a record from time to time. I know that she will eventually get bored, as she always has before. But sometimes when I see her off in the distance I lace up my tennis shoes and let air flood my lungs painfully, willing myself to outrun her just this once.
I have a friend who understand depression from the inside. Sometimes we talk about her behind her back. Once, in conversation with this friend, I told her that I was having difficulty praying in the midst of the bleak landscape. “I can only manage a few words here and there,” I said.
“Sometimes short prayers are the best,” she responded. It’s been a season for short prayers. I’m holding on to my friend’s words through the nights that seem to fall like dark blankets, too many sleepovers with anxiety and depression talking all night long. More often than not, I’m whispering, “please,” or “come,” or simply, “help.” The prayers keep moving, and they do not stop.
This post is the fourth installment of a new series I'm beginning, one for each letter of the alphabet. These posts will be in order, about whatever strikes my fancy, posted each Monday.