anecdotes and reflections on life with depression and anxiety
I've been thinking about Thanksgiving because -- gasp -- it's less than two weeks away. I'm gearing up for the big grocery shop, dreaming of which kinds of wine to buy to go with dinner and already working on some of the goodies I can freeze ahead (make these. Just... do it.)
But it's important to note that amidst all of the festive preparations I'm making to get ready for this holiday and the others soon to follow, I'm still doing the basic things I need to do to take care of myself. I'm still sitting in front of my sun lamp for 30 minutes every morning. I'm still taking my meds. I'm still making time for naps when I need them and walks when I need those, too. Because one thing I'm starting to learn (over years of slow progress), it's that letting those seemingly small things fall to the wayside is a.) the perfect invitation for daily, all-consuming depression to charge back into my life and b.) a way for all of my planning and excitement and preparations to fall apart.
Fall has come.
The humid, 90-degree days have, at long last, left New England -- and good riddance, I say. The air has that crisp tinge of autumn to it, the sky an invigorating blue. I’ve gone to my first harvest festival on a farm. I’ve eaten an apple cider doughnut. I’ve worn flannel (oh, how I love to wear flannel). My social media feeds burst with back to school pictures, then with little ones picking apples and families posing in pumpkin patches. My group of friends has set a date for our annual Friendsgiving dinner, and my in-laws have booked plane tickets to come for Thanksgiving in November. My fuzzy slippers have found their way out of the back of my closet.
The other parts of fall have come, too: grey days of rain and mist, the gradual realization that the sun is setting earlier and earlier each day. In a few weeks we’ll turn our clocks back an hour, thanks to Daylight Savings. I used to love that night, the one marked by an extra hour of sleep, but now I look ahead to it warily, not craving the sleep as much as I fear how the dark evenings will begin to creep up even earlier each day, culminating with the 4:00pm dusk that we get for a few very short (and yet, very long) days a year in December.
It’s coming, that time of year that pulls me like a magnet into my bed, that makes me want to sleep for days on end, that seeps into my brain and tricks me into thinking the sun will never come out again.
You may gather from these words that I have mixed feelings about the season. Autumn has always been a time I looked forward to -- the coziness, the quaint New Englandy harvest-themed events, the return of steaming mugs of morning coffee after a summer of clinking ice cubes in my cold brew. But now, I approach September and the following months with less a sense of warm contentment and more an air of trepidation.
Because, as you might have guessed, I have seasonal affective disorder.
I’ve had about a year to digest this diagnosis. Last fall, as the days grew shorter and my mood grew dimmer, my therapist and I began talking about the likelihood that the “winter blues” I had tried to ignore for years had become (or maybe had always been) SAD. (The acronym for this thing always makes me want to laugh and then cry.) Together, we strategized ways I could deal with the rapid worsening of my mood, the deeper sense of sadness I was feeling, the sense of helplessness that pervaded my outlook of the upcoming holidays. I was most worried about how damn tired I was -- all the time, no matter whether I slept or exercised or napped or ate well. The fatigue felt like an enormous concrete wall, a monolith I just kept ramming into headfirst, day after day.
But I remember leaving my appointment that day feeling empowered to tackle this new diagnosis. Somehow having the validation of a label lit a fire in me -- I felt like I knew what was coming and I could arm myself against the impending doom and gloom (figuratively and literally).
I took vitamin D (I do this year-round, but most vigilantly in the fall and winter); I got back on fish oil. Instead of burning cozy, fall-scented candles, I stocked up on bright, summery, scents: Mango Tango, Pineapple Cilantro. I asked my husband, who gets up before I do in the mornings, to pull open the curtains and turn on lights throughout our apartment, to lessen the temptation to linger in the dark. I walked outside, even on days when I couldn’t get to it until the sky was dimming to dusk. I tried to go to bed and get up at the same time every day (but no, I was not getting up at 7am on weekends, because, weekends).
All of this helped. But it wasn’t enough.
So, after a few weeks, I did the single most effective thing I have done to fight my seasonal affective disorder. I did some research and bought a sun lamp.
If you don’t know, light therapy or phototherapy is the use of certain types of light boxes to mimic outdoor sunlight. For it to work, it has to emit 10,000 lux of light (don’t ask me what this means) and minimize UV rays. There are varying recommendations, but what has worked for me is turning it on at my desk first thing in the morning and sitting in front of it (not looking at it!) as I go about my work, for 30ish minutes (or maybe 45 on those really dark, short days).
It’s very, very bright. It’s not particularly pleasant. The one I bought isn’t particularly cute, either (cat stickers helped with this part). But holy hell, guys, it worked.
My energy lifted. My mood lightened. I felt like I could actually get through the day without sinking into my bed with an very serious announcement (to my husband, or my cat, or just myself) that I was hibernating until spring. I felt like I could do my work and then go do other stuff, without a three-hour nap first.
It wasn’t perfect. But it was better.
This year, the familiar apprehension toward the imminent shortening of days started to make itself known in early August. (As my father-in-law likes to say in a dry, faux-cheerful tone: “Summer’s all downhill after the Fourth of July!”)
I was starting to allow the seasonal affective disorder to control my plans and behaviors before it even set in, even when I was feeling well otherwise. I remembered how capable, how equipped I felt last fall once I named what I was dealing with and faced it head-on. I remembered that while I can’t control the changing of the seasons, I can absolutely control how I think about them and how I take care of myself as the leaves turn and the afternoons darken. I can make choices now that will help me take care of my future self then.
I dug the sun lamp out of my closet, set a cheery candle called “Color Me Happy” on my desk, and went for a walk on my favorite sun-splattered trail on the first day of fall.
My duo of fall game faces: sitting in front of my beloved sunlamp, and enjoying changing colors at a local swamp trail.
“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.
As I have begun to think of myself as a person in recovery from a depressive episode, rather than a person who is presently depressed, I’ve had to start looking at how my days and weeks come together and what the pacing of everyday life looks for me in recovery.
Through this process I have somehow taught myself to recognize what a “good day” looks like and to take full advantage of it. You never know how long a good spell might last, I tell myself, so you’d better get in all the things you’ve been wanting to do before the clouds drift back over and cover you in shadows again. As a result of this (somewhat misguided) “carpe diem” attitude, these good days have begun to look a little frenzied, sometimes socially but often just around my household, and generally, for whatever reason, in the form of cleaning.
I work from home, so when I feel well and have energy and motivation to get things done, I not only perform my work tasks ably and efficiently, but feel spurred on to get things done around the house as well. I appease my Fitbit by pacing around the house as I pick up clutter, make the bed or dust a shelf or two. I use my lunch break to wash the dishes in the sink and then, as if by magic, feel antsy with desire to continue “being productive” as I finish out my work day. I might go for a walk and then come home to continue cleaning and make dinner. Once I’m in this zone, it’s hard to make me stop; I want to make sure every room in the house is straightened up before I relax. I have been known to straighten throw pillows or refold the blanket behind my husband while he sits calmly on the couch, looking at me with a bemused expression.
If you know me personally, you likely know that my home is most often in a state I like to call cheerfully cluttered -- we live here, and it looks like we do, which I think makes it comfortable. I am by no standards a neat freak. The tea towel hanging on my oven door (thanks, Mom!) proclaims, “Anyone who has time to clean isn’t reading nearly enough!” and this is a fairly apt description of my attitude toward housework. Cleaning and keeping house tend to be the first things to fall off my to-do list when I’m depressed -- where would the energy for that come from? -- so when I actually feel like doing it, and like I can do it, I make sure to do as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible. That way if tomorrow comes and it happens to be not such a great day, I have at least accomplished something in my brief respite from depression.
The problem with this kind of frantic pacing is that, often, it more or less guarantees that a good, accomplished, productive day will be followed by a listless, self-doubting, exhausted day.
Why, I asked my therapist recently, could I not expend all my positive energy in one day and wake up restored after a night’s sleep, ready to do the same thing again? Why could I not spend a day working, exercising, keeping house and cooking like a “normal” person without experiencing an almost crushing fallout the next day?
The answer she gave me, which depression often seems to give us, is simply, “because.”
Because I have an illness that impacts my energy levels.
Because my energy, despite all my efforts, does not operate on a 24-hour cycle that kindly resets each night for the following day.
Because when I allow my mind to become a whirlwind of things to do at work, things to do after work, things to do around the house, things to do over the weekend, things to do before a friend stops by -- I become exhausted.
And because exhaustion -- sometimes even productive, proud, elated exhaustion from living life -- simply creates the perfect toehold in my mind for depression to sneak back in and say, “You silly woman. You didn’t think you could actually keep up with that type of pace for more than a day or two, did you?”
So, my therapist suggested helpfully and cheerfully, maybe you clean the bathroom and straighten up the living room and then sit down and read your book or watch a show.
Maybe you leave the kitchen floors for tomorrow.
Maybe you prioritize your energy and well-being over the course of days, weeks, months, instead of cramming a week’s worth of responsibilities into a single day.
I sigh and roll my eyes and sit back, looking at her. “Is that really it?”
Yes, she says, that’s really it, and you have to look at it as a form of self-care, recognizing that treating a good day like it will be the only one you have will cause you to spend so much physical and emotional energy that then it really will be the only one you have that week.
This kind of retraining is really, really hard. But I’m trying to think of the good days as an opportunity to enjoy life, in a combination of productivity and recreation and relaxation, rather than a race to get everything done before I feel unwell again. Because the dishes and the grimy stovetop will still be there tomorrow, but this day -- a day of motivation to walk in the sunshine, of the capacity to enjoy a good book in the warm company of my husband and my cat, of unfettered gladness to be alive -- is happening now, and I’ll be damned if I don’t spend some of that precious energy learning and practicing how to enjoy that too.
I’m going to get a little extra-personal in this post, in the belief that the more honest and vulnerable I can be, the more my readers can understand the many nuances of life with mental illness.
I want to be a mother.
Of course I do. If you know me, I doubt you think any different. I have always loved children and I think I’m a pretty nurturing person. I like to take care of others. I really like holding babies. There has never been a time at which I have not thought that I would grow up to be a mom, that I would throw all my love and energy and joy and sanity into raising a family, that my husband and I would have cute babies who would grow into happy kids who would turn into sullen teenagers who, hopefully, would become the kind of adults who will love us and take care of us when we are old and creaky and grouchy. It’s always been our plan.
Ah, the plan -- that silly thing we occupy ourselves with making, and remaking, and pretending we have control over, until one day we realize that here we are, that carefully curated plan cast to the side, as we have busied ourselves with the actual, beautiful grind of just living our lives.
Before we got married, my husband told me (less than halfway joking) that he wanted to be “done having kids” by the time he was 30. Well -- almost six years later -- I am on the last legs of 29, he’s not far behind me, and there are no kids on the horizon.
I’ve grown accustomed to the questions, whether they are nosy or curious or needling or serious. “When are you thinking about having kids?” “Are you guys thinking about trying soon?” “You know if you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never actually have them.”
Please (and especially if you are a person who has asked me this yourself) don’t get me wrong. I’m not offended by the questions. We’ve been married for almost six years, and I’ve never been secretive about my desire to have kids. I’ve even offered a [very vague] time frame in the past (“oh, maybe in a year or two…”) so it seems pretty normal that as I round the base toward 30 I’d have to be at least thinking about it.
I know that I don’t need to own a home before I start a family. I know that I don’t need my finances to be in impeccable order before I think about getting pregnant. I know that nothing will actually prepare me for motherhood, because motherhood is unto itself one of the most breathtakingly difficult and wondrous things this life has to offer. I know that. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t wait to be ready; “ready” is a highly relative term.
There’s a lot of good awareness rising up lately about why it can be insensitive to ask a woman whether and when she is going to have children. She may be struggling with infertility. She may have grown up with parents who didn’t show her how love and family should be. She may have miscarried once, or twice, or so many times she can hardly count.
But did you ever think that she just might not feel that she is well enough, mentally, to responsibly bring a child into this world and care for it the way she knows she can, and longs to, and someday, hopefully, will?
Of course that’s not to say that people with mental illnesses can’t, or don’t, have happy, nurtured, cared-for children. They do! All the time! My point is simply that, just as with any other medical condition, some of us must work harder or think more carefully or wait longer to get to a healthy enough place to have kids.
On the surface, some days, I have my act together. I work full time, my house is reasonably organized and clean, I have a plan for dinner that doesn’t involve using an app on my phone to order it, I get all my errands done. I am acting like any regular adult who does these things all the time, and I think, “I’m so ready to add kids to this picture.”
Then soon, maybe the next day or the next hour even, the dark, vicious shadow starts to swirl in the air around me, encroaching on my mind, my space, my heart until it settles inside me, cloaking all of the light of my optimism, my hopes and goals in impenetrable darkness. “Of course you can’t be a mom,” the shadow tells me. “Look at you. You didn’t even shower or make your bed today. What makes you think you can be responsible for growing tiny lives and hearts and dreams when you can’t even make yourself a cup of coffee?”
Thankfully, the darkness doesn’t come as often or stay as long these days, especially compared to several months or a year ago, but it does still come. The doubts and insecurities that a healthy person might have about parenthood multiply tenfold, or more. How can someone who worries about being five minutes late for a dinner reservation possibly handle the concerns and anxieties of being a mother? How can someone who has had days of being unable to get out of bed, much less face the obligations and duties of everyday life, possibly bring a healthy child into this world and not mess it up?
Not to mention what the shadow tells me about the genetics of all of this. “Depression runs in your family. Do you really want to bring a person into the world who will experience this kind of pain and sickness? Do you think that’s a responsible thing to do? Do you think that’s fair?” No, I tell it. It sounds awful. Why would I ever knowingly give someone life when this is how they could feel once they get here? What kind of a mother would I be if I did that? What if my child had it worse than I ever have? It will be my fault. It is, in fact, desperately unfair.
Again, I beg you not to misunderstand; I don’t take these thoughts as truth. Depression lies, as we know, and it lies well, making us feel uninspired, unimportant, incapable, unworthy. I know that I will be a good mother, if I am ever blessed with that opportunity. I know that my husband will be an outstanding father. Any child we have will be showered with an absurd amount of love not only from us, but from grandparents, aunts and uncles, family, and friends. We will care for those kids, and love ‘em, and raise ‘em to the best of our ability, and no level of depression will change that. And I’m well aware that I can no more control passing on mental illness genes than I can the genes that may (or may not) pass along blonde hair and blue eyes, or near-sightedness, or the wide Finnish feet my husband’s side of the family always jokes about.
So the reason my husband and I are choosing to wait, to not have children at this exact moment of our lives and in our marriage, is not the fear that these thoughts are true. It’s the reality of the illness that causes them, the truth about where I am in my slog through the swamp of depression. I’m learning about myself, about my illness, about ways to treat myself better and cope with my emotions and change my behavior to allow for improvement in how I feel and think and live. In this way, no, I am not yet ready to become a mother. And yes, someday, hopefully soon, I will be more ready -- at least psychologically -- to step up to the task. And I need to be more ready, because there’s also the idea of what my hormones will do when I become pregnant, the need to taper off of medications I’ve come to rely on for the duration of my pregnancy, and, of course, my super-increased risk for serious postpartum depression. It’s a lot to think about, so yes, I want to be more ready than I am right now. I want that baby to grow inside a happy, healthy mama, and come out to be mothered by a woman who is strong, and graceful, and resilient, and rational, and self-loving. There are ways I can work on becoming those things for that baby now, so that I am more ready to evolve healthfully as a mother when the time comes.
But one of the biggest lies we learn from our culture, from social media, from the entertainment industry, is that life is a race -- that we must keep up with the neighbors -- that we must meet all of life’s milestones at the same time and in the same way that everyone else does.
A dear friend once shared with me the quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” (Google tells me that Theodore Roosevelt actually said it.) But I’m learning to live it. My children, whoever they will be and whenever they will come, will benefit far more from a mother who learned to live and grow and breathe and cope within her mental illness, rather than one who rushed into parenthood because she felt like it was supposed to be the right time. I will content myself with the knowledge that as I wait, and work on myself, my health, my recovery, my soul, I am becoming the mother that I will someday, Lord willing, actually need to be.
I’d love to be ready now. It’s hard to watch cousins and friends and former classmates announce pregnancies and start to grow their sweet families. Some days it actually really sucks. But most days it’s just another day to cherish being married to my best friend, have the chance to sleep in on weekends, be overly affectionate to my cat and focus on becoming well. “Ready” means different things to different people. Maybe these words can add a new layer of context, an extra tinge of compassion, the next time you wonder why that happily married, baby-loving couple hasn’t made their own just yet.
oh, hey --
My name is Lauren. I'm thirty-something, and I like to take naps and read good books and watch bad television. I love my husband and I love my cat, and I live with depression and anxiety, which is mostly what you'll read about here.