Today, my mind is clear. I’m doing my work from start to finish, not minding even the trickier tasks that require more focus. I plan ahead, thinking about what I’ll make for dinner, how I’ll spend my afternoon and evening productively, looking forward to reading a book with some literary value (I just started “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a Pulitzer winner by Adam Johnson, and I’m hooked already). I feel competent, intelligent, aware, self-possessed.
But on other days, even just a few days ago, depression fogs up the glass in the inner workings of my mind, and nothing feels so clear. I can’t plan from one minute to the next, let alone the rest of my day. I slog from bed to couch, turning on my laptop and staring fuzzily at the screen, wondering how I can focus long enough to get any kind of work done. I’m tired, but the fogginess is more than that: it’s like someone half-heartedly ran an eraser over the words making up my life’s script, leaving smudges and faint outlines of letters in my brain without allowing me to see the full lines clearly. Every task, every plan, every idea and ability is halfway blurred out.
I might forget to put the coffee mug under the machine, so the coffee drips all over the counter. I might put body wash in my hair instead of shampoo. I stare at my sweet cat and try to remember if and when I am supposed to feed her. Or did my husband do that? Is she meowing at me? Does that mean she’s hungry? Thinking to look and see whether there is food in her bowl doesn’t cross my mind. Logic is hard to come by right now. (My husband feeds her in the mornings, every morning. Don’t worry, we don’t neglect the cat.)
If I’m able to work, it’s slow going, and I end up trying to avoid any kind of task that might require clear and precise thinking. Or, if that’s impossible, I ask countless questions of a co-worker, many of them to which I should know the answer, and when she responds patiently I feel a dim sense of familiarity -- oh right, I knew that. She must think I’m an idiot. Why didn’t I think to reread that email from my boss for answers to that question?
This isn’t me, is it? The salutatorian of her high school class, the cum laude graduate of a selective college? This person, who loved writing original criticism of medieval Spanish literature and who spent hours devouring Toni Morrison? On foggy days that intelligent, bright woman seems light-years away from the person my depressed brain sometimes makes me. On these days, the most focus I can muster is to reread a James Patterson thriller I’ve read before, or rewatch countless episodes of Friends, taking solace in the mindless and familiar.
The fog doesn’t just settle throughout my brain, though; it takes over my body, too, so I feel sluggish and unresponsive. Can I make my muscles remember how to make the bed? Do I have the motivation and awareness to get my dishes from the table to the sink? On the bad days they stay wherever I’ve eaten. On most foggy days, they make it to the closest countertop and sit there until my husband clears them away (yes, he really is a saint).
It can be scary to feel like your brain doesn’t respond to stimuli the way you’re used to: to know that you are capable of thinking, analyzing, writing -- and doing all of those things well -- only to type your own name six times before you spell it correctly. To know that you’re a great home cook and find yourself staring at the side of a box of Annie’s Mac and Cheese, wondering if you can actually measure the milk and boil the pasta without getting confused or spilling everything or just giving up before you start. These experiences only give credence to the negative self-talk that’s already present in the mind of a depressed person, so I hope you can imagine how it might snowball from there. You feel foggy, so you mess up a couple of things, so your already-negative brain starts to beat up on you for whatever (usually insignificant) mistake you just made. It’s not the ideal mindset for a person trying to take gentle care of herself and push past depression into wellness.
So you slog through what you can at work, you take a nap, and you settle for reading the thriller over the Pulitzer today. You learn to tell yourself it’s okay, that tomorrow will be better, the lines of the script will come in clearer, and you will be competent again. The thing with fog is, when you give it time, it tends to lift.
Thank God for that.
A few days ago, I had to go to the doctor. I was long overdue for my annual physical exam and it was time, but dread and apprehension coursed through my entire body at the thought of the whole thing. The appointment was absolutely one of those things that had me feeling like I wanted to throw a toddler-style, full-blown, kicking-and-screaming tantrum.
This anxiety and fear I was feeling, which had caused me to reschedule the appointment at least twice, had a lot more to do with my depression than it did with the actual appointment. I love my nurse practitioner and trust her implicitly. She saw me through rounds upon rounds of tests when we thought something physical was wrong before I was diagnosed with depression. She takes me seriously and is proactive, yet reassuring. I’ve never had a negative experience with her or with the aides or receptionists in the office. And while I often think that the physical symptoms of my depression could be markers of a more serious disease (you know, like the classic anxious person anthem: could these headaches be a brain tumor?), I really don’t fear some kind of awful, life-threatening diagnosis.
No, what I fear and dread, and even convince myself of, is that something will be wrong with my health that is my fault.
In the interest of transparency: over the past few years, as I have battled depression and put my body through a good number of different medications, I have gained a lot of weight. That’s not what I’m here to talk about, but I will say that I am decidedly an emotional eater, and when I’m depressed it’s my (unhealthy) habit to turn to food. It’s something I’m working on.
Anyway, between the weight gain and the knowledge that type two diabetes runs in my family on both sides, I had convinced myself that I had given myself the disease. This became an enormous source of anxiety for me. I would drink down a glass of water quickly and wonder, “Do I have excessive thirst?” At night if my eyes blurred for a second I would wonder if my vision was changing. I was sure that the junk food I had been turning to was going to catch up with me in a terrible new way, and that everyone I knew -- my doctor, my family, my friends, and most of all myself -- would blame and judge me for being sick. (They wouldn’t, nor do I blame anyone else for having medical problems. People get sick. It happens. They deserve love and care, not presumptions and judgment.)
I also have high blood pressure, another medical issue that runs in my family, and had used my remarkable skills of negative self-talk to force myself into believing that this is something I should feel guilty about and that is entirely my fault.
Cue the anxiety and dread about my visit to the doctor.
But the day came, and I found myself past the awful weigh-in (does anyone like that part?) and nodding to the aide who took my blood pressure that yes, I knew it was high. As I waited for the nurse practitioner to come in, my heart was pounding from anxiety and I felt the negative voices start to creep in. You’re so fat. You deserve health problems. They’re your fault. You’re not worthy of kind, adequate medical care. What do you think you’re doing here?
I realized that I needed to get this under control before the appointment started up again. I began taking deep breaths, trying to slow my pulse. “You are okay,” I started to think to myself. I’ve never been one for mantras, but this one was starting to form in my head almost independently of my own mind. I needed to back up. Before even thinking that I was okay, I needed to acknowledge that I was here, to ground myself, to congratulate myself on getting this far. “You are here,” I said to myself a few times. “You are okay.” The next part just came. “You are worthy.”
I spent the next several minutes breathing deeply, repeating over and over in my mind, “You are here. You are okay. You are worthy.”
I am worthy of quality medical care. I do deserve to be treated with respect, to take care of my body as it is right this second, to take the medication I need to control my blood pressure, to make sure the rest of me is healthy and to allow this wonderful nurse practitioner to take care of me. I am worthy.
The rest of the appointment went fine. I found out that my antidepressant could be causing the high blood pressure. My bloodwork came back, and I don’t have diabetes, or any other illness, now matter how hard my depression and anxiety had tried to convince me that I did and that it would be my own damn fault for gaining weight.
And you know what? If I did learn that I had a newfound health problem, I would still be worthy of respect, deserving of kindness, valuable enough to treat the disease and work to get healthier. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. I have decided that self-blame has no place in how I care for and treat my body.
I am worthy.