“Are you spiraling?” my husband might ask, as I express that it’s been a hard day and all I want to do is go to bed. If you’re a regular reader, this phrase might be familiar to you: the concept of the “depression spiral” has worked its way deeply into my personal lexicon of mental illness descriptors. I think it works so well because it captures so accurately the momentum that depression can gain as it whirls around a person, sucking him or her closer and closer to the edge and eventually down into a deep, dark hole of apathy, sadness, hopelessness.
This is part one of a few entries I’m planning to write about the spiral. There are at least three big aspects of this thing for us to face down together, so I’m planning to address the following, in separate posts:
1. What it is this so-called spiral, and how do you manage to keep getting yourself sucked into it?
2. What’s it like inside?
3. How the hell do you get out?
So, here we’ve got part one. Bear with me, please, because we’re going to back our way into the twisty depths of depression by way of a sillier, more mundane analogy. I think it works, so I hope you do too.
Yesterday was a hard day. I missed a lot of work; I cancelled dinner plans with a friend; I didn’t even make it to the grocery store as planned. I spent the day in bed with the curtains drawn. I was filled with a kind of apathy and darkness that is hard to explain, but I did write a little as I was feeling this way, and I thought I would share it here, because it’s a good window into the mind of a person with depression on a tough day.
I’m in a mood. It’s not sadness, or hopelessness, or desperation. It’s not frustration or anger or longing. It is complete and total apathy.
I have things to do today. Instead I’m writing, because I think maybe if I at least capture how little I feel at the moment, how very, very little I care about my responsibilities or expectations or plans, maybe at least I might feel better, or maybe at least you will better understand this smothering, unrelenting tendency of depression, this complete un-caring.
I don’t want to do any of the things I am supposed to do today. And not in a shrugging, “I don’t feel like it but I guess I’ll give it a go” kind of way. I mean I don’t want to do them in the most drag my feet, send me kicking and screaming, “don’t make me interact with the world” temper tantrum kind of way. Don’t make me do my work at this silly job. Don’t make me go to the grocery story and force a fake smile every time I maneuver the cart around someone else and say “excuse me.” Don’t make me go sit in my favorite pub, or coffee shop, or restaurant, with any of my very lovely and caring friends, all of whom are fabulously understanding about my illness, and catch up about life for an hour and a half. Don’t make me go.
This dramatically oppositional reaction to having to do life things is, in a way, ridiculous to me, because no one IS making me go. Just me. I don’t care about any of these things right now, and I don’t know how to snap out of it and make myself care, but apparently (and this is a theory my therapist is working on) I care so deeply about what people think that I “beat myself up” (her words) when I do something that I think other people won’t like (say, for example, cancelling dinner plans). And this beating myself up part is, obviously, counterproductive. [Note from today: I did cancel the plans, and guess what? My friend wasn’t angry at all. She was entirely understanding and even asked me to let her know if there was anything she could do to help. Why do I spend so much energy worrying about letting people down?]
So apparently, and ironically, I find myself at the junction of apathy and over-caring. At this moment in time (and it is only a moment in time, in the grand scheme of things, thank the Lord) I find all of these activities completely draining and pointless; and yet, if I allow myself the luxury of self-care and take a break for the day, I will spend hours in bed alternately dozing, reading and kicking myself for being so weak as to need to take a break from the everyday social rigamarole that is a typical, everyday life.
I did take a break yesterday, in the interest of self-care. And today, friends, I woke up feeling just fine. I put on clothes that I didn’t sleep in. I made myself a cup of coffee. I plan to work a full day. After that, I’m thinking the grocery store sounds pretty doable.
I could imagine that after all this reading, you could be wondering whether I’ve experienced any of the emotional symptoms of depression -- the sadness, the emptiness, the apathy -- or just the physical symptoms of fatigue and malaise that I’ve described up to this point. I’ve decided to take a break from the chronological telling of my story to address this, as the mental and emotional piece of depression is incredibly important and in many ways, I think, harder to understand.
The truth is that I experienced a great deal of frustration, loneliness and sadness leading up to my diagnosis, but once I found out what was wrong, a lot of that went away for a good couple of years. In the past 2 or 3 years, however, the emotional piece of the disease has taken a much stronger hold on me, and I’ve gone from having days of feeling easily worn out or just plain exhausted to being completely debilitated by a deep, aching, empty feeling that penetrated the core of who I had always known myself to be.
I honestly want to try to describe this pain without being melodramatic or overly emotional, and yet -- if you have never experienced how depression can worm its way into your soul and hurt, constantly, until you’re so tired of hurting that you feel nothing -- I can understand that it may seem that way. All I ask is that you read with an open mind and try to understand with an unbiased heart.
Imagine you wake up in the morning and you feel as though, overnight, your heart has sunk into the pit of your stomach and stayed there, throbbing, until it becomes a dull but persistent ache that has spread to your entire body. Maybe it’s raining and you have a dentist appointment later that day, or maybe it’s a warm sunny day and you have plans to spend it in your favorite place with friends: it doesn’t matter. The entire world looks ominous through the lens of the depression that has taken hold of you. Whatever lurks beyond the door of the bedroom doesn’t feel safe. Sitting up and swinging your feet out of bed feels insurmountable, not because of the mind-numbing fatigue you feel but because it just hurts inside. Just pushing yourself up to turn off your alarm makes all of your insides clench with discomfort and fear. You dread the moment your partner wakes up or comes into the room because you know he or she will realize immediately that it is a bad day. Looking at another person makes you want to burst into tears because the internal hurt you are feeling is so strong and you dread passing that on to another human being.
This kind of sickening, draining sorrow is so exhausting and so remarkably unique in its misery (often and especially because there is no discernable reason behind its appearance in your life) that it seems like you can’t possibly get through a day (never mind a week, or a month, or a year) feeling this way. Mostly you want to go to sleep and stay there, preferring unconsciousness to pain, but if you can’t do that then you start to think of ways to stop hurting. The only times I have ever had thoughts of self-harm, which thankfully last only seconds for me and upon which I have never acted, occur when I am in the depths of feeling this way. I am grateful to say that aside from these fleeting thoughts, I have not struggled with this horrible manifestation of my disease. But I do understand why seeking a physical release for the internal agony can be tempting. I jiggle my legs incessantly, I scratch bug bites too hard and for too long (one of them scarred), I pick at my cuticles. I count down from 100 over and over again in my mind. And when there is no more energy for any of this, I go blank. My husband reports watching me stare at the walls, eyes glazed over, responding to nothing, for minutes at a time. I guess I would say that during these times I am hurting less, because I have completely shut off from caring about anything, and yet I know it’s scary and unsettling for anyone to see how deeply apathetic I feel toward everything in that moment.
This is some of what depression has been like for me over the past couple of years. A spell like this can last a few hours, a full day, or several days in a row. It can be combined with intense anxiety or it can take over all on its own. Sometimes I’ll have just one bad day in the middle of a great month. Sometimes I’ll have a few good days in the middle of a mostly-bad month. The unpredictability is scary and infuriating, and can make it hard to make or keep plans. So when a friend that may be struggling with depression cancels on you last minute, or is evasive and noncommittal, or shows up and seems completely disengaged -- I hope that, maybe, you’ll think of this post and feel somewhat better enabled to comprehend what they’re going through. Be patient, ask what you can do to help, and love them the best you know how.