anecdotes and reflections on life with depression and anxiety
Let’s talk about feelings, okay?
My mom has always told me that I “feel things very intensely.” Beginning in the fifth or sixth grade I began to fill notebooks with angsty, pained, (and painful to read) poems about love and loss (in all the wisdom I could muster from my 12-year-old heart). I have a distinct memory of my high school self becoming so consumed with a book on a family camping trip that I talked to no one until I finished it, and cried inconsolably for hours after I was done (in my defense, though, it was a really sad book). But I couldn’t put the book down, rejoin the real world, and walk away from how deeply it made me feel.
Then, when I began counseling in college and we had started exploring a diagnosis of depression, my therapist asked if I had always “tended toward the melancholy.” While that’s not a particularly flattering way to think of oneself (“why yes, I do identify closely with Eeyore, thank you for asking!”), I thought back on my notebooks and on my general outlook and had to admit that, at times, I did.
This tendency to see things with a bit of an overcast tone, on top of a propensity for feeling any kind of emotion intensely, means that I easily become sad -- and then, quickly, very sad. In a person with healthy coping skills and emotional regulation, this kind of sadness, whether from a book or a movie, or from a personal disappointment, or a tragic current event on the other side of the world, can be a passing feeling that might be remedied by a long walk, a talk with a friend, or a journaling session. But in my own experience with with depression, that kind of sadness -- the kind that should be faced and handled as a part of a healthy emotional life -- can trigger a deeper, more disturbing emotional response. For me, at least, the regular everyday sadness of life’s normal events can be like giving my depression a foothold in my soul, a place for it to grab on and take root.
So as I sank deeply into my depression over the past year or two, I began to avoid certain things that I knew would make me sad. I’ll read a crime thriller at the drop of a hat, but pushing myself to read something that had more emotional depth became off-limits. I can only see this in retrospect -- but I spent a good couple of years reading more far-fetched mysteries and police procedurals than I can count, while ignoring books I’d long wanted to read by favorites like Toni Morrison or John Updike because I was scared of what those beloved writers might make me feel. Likewise, I turned away from movies or TV shows that skew toward the tragic and opted either for sitcoms or, again, crime dramas. I passed by articles in the news that looked interesting and thought-provoking because they were about current events or social conditions that would make me feel sad about the state of the world.
I feared that if I allowed myself to feel unhappy in response to an appropriately sad stimulus, my depressive symptoms would take hold, that I would allow the weight of my illness to pull me further down into the spiral of despair that I experience when I am having an episode of major depression. (This spiral will be the sole subject of a future post, I promise. It will be fun.) I couldn’t let myself do it. It felt like too big a risk to give my depression even a fleeting chance to worm its way deeper into me.
I must state here that this is an observation I am making about myself only, and in retrospect only. I know that many people with depression seek out sad music or other media or news to validate their feelings and to feel less alone in their sadness. Personally, I avoided it at all costs. There’s no right way to experience mental illness (again, more on this another time).
But as I am growing and learning about self-care and becoming well, I’m working on learning the appropriate ways of dealing with normal emotional responses to sad things. I recently watched a speech that made me cry. I knew it would make me cry, and feel sad, and I was tempted to go to bed before it came on, but my husband encouraged me not to miss it and so we watched it together. (Coping skill #1: have someone with you for moral support.) I did cry, and I did feel sad, but then afterwards it felt okay. I did not feel the long, spindly fingers of depression reaching up from the depths of the spiral to grab at me. My husband showed me cat videos that made me smile. (Coping skill #2: laugh at things that are funny.)
And tonight, as I’m writing, we’ve decided to go see “Manchester-by-the-Sea,” a film set in my hometown (woot!) that is supposed to be excellent and also incredibly sad. I have asked myself, and my ever-patient husband, several times this week: “Why do we want to go see something so sad?” And also, “How am I supposed to choose to go do something for ‘fun’ that I know is going to make me cry?” Again, I imagined that after watching it I would come home in tears, emotionally wrecked and feeling devastated about fictional characters to whom fictitious sad things happened. (Coping skill #3: remember that sometimes sad things are not real.)
But I have decided, in a slow but clearly evolving way, that I am not going to be someone who misses out on life experiences like weeping at the end of an outstanding novel, or crying through a touching, phenomenally-acted film, or mourning with the people of another country who have just survived a terrible earthquake, just because it will make me have feelings. Feelings are okay. Feelings are real and raw and sometimes they hurt, and if you are mentally ill then a lot of the time they hurt, but part of life is learning to feel things as they come over you, and deciding what to do with them, and absorbing them into your human experience so that they make you a better, more insightful, more compassionate person. (Coping skill #4: remind yourself that feelings are allowed as part of your human experience.)
On hard days, or in the midst of a depressive episode, there can be wisdom in choosing to filter out some of the things that cause sadness and despair. But on healthy days, through the ins and outs of life, finding my footing as an emotionally healthy person, capable of feeling and gauging and processing my response to life, is one of the best ways to learn self-care and to grow in my understanding and capacity to care for others.
So, in that spirit, I’m headed to the movies -- with a pack of tissues.
So, you’re really sick -- like with the flu, or a stomach bug -- and you cannot leave the house. Maybe you call in to work, or text a friend to cancel plans, and they tell you to “take good care of yourself.” What does that phrase mean to you?
If you’re fighting your way through the flu, it probably means lots of rest. You might think of hunkering down on your couch or in your bed with lots of Gatorade and water, a Netflix show to binge-watch, a caring parent or significant other or roommate to bring you chicken noodle soup. You might think of all the Nyquil you’re going to pop at bedtime to try to get some sleep. You’ll cuddle up under some blankets and doze and pet your cat and groan for your loved ones to bring you tissues. You’re taking care of yourself.
Or, maybe you’re told to take care of yourself when you’re stressed, or overworked, or going through a breakup. Then you might think of soaking in a luxurious bubble bath, wine glass at hand, soothing music in the background… or, if you’re less like me and more like my husband, it could involve a long session of intense video game playing. Self-care means different things to everyone, and that’s a good thing.
The term “self-care,” though, as it’s intended in the mental health community, is a little trickier to get a handle on, and it’s important to clearly define. It’s easy to settle the idea of self-care into a cozy, comfy box that contains only the warm, fuzzy, happy things we do to take care of ourselves. And don’t misunderstand me: all the things above are absolutely forms of self-care, and valuable ones (for those with mental illness and those without)! But now I want to talk about the nitty gritty, hard-fought, hard-won self-care that those of us with mental illness need to do to really learn to value who we are, to know what we need and want, and to love ourselves. (Cheesy? yes. True? also yes.)
In my personal experience, this kind of self-care is not pretty. It’s not the steam of a comforting bowl of soup wafting up toward your face or sinking into a foot massage during a pedicure. It’s raw, and real, and painful, and it’s absolutely critical to recovery.
It’s picking up the phone, of which you are terrified, to call a therapist, whom you do not know and of whom you are also terrified, to seek help.
It’s baring your soul to said therapist, after one session or after many, many sessions, and fighting back or letting forth tears as you allow the true contents of your heart and mind to leak out into someone else’s presence.
It’s dragging yourself from your bed, with long-unchanged sheets, out of your long-unchanged pajamas, to your shower, though you’re unable to believe that you’re worthy of feeling warm and clean and presentable to the world.
It’s being brave enough to go to work, to the grocery store, to the coffee shop, despite the fear that your desperate sadness, your inexplicable hopelessness might just seep out into the world around you, poisoning the innocent people you come across, or showing them how truly indefensible you are.
It’s learning that night after night of bingeing on greasy takeout and reality TV is not indulging in self-care and comfort food, but denying your body the invigoration of a brisk walk and the decency of some vegetables, and teaching it that the many things it does for you each day are worthless and without meaning.
It’s facing the man at the running shoe store who wants you to take a test run in the shoes you’ve tried on, though you’re mortified because you haven’t run in years, because you have realized that you deserve sneakers that will let you move your body and get healthy.
It’s an acknowledgement that what your illness is making you want -- to hide from the world, to stay in bed, to eat all the ice cream, to refuse to make plans -- are not the things that your soul needs to be well. It’s a process of realizing that you are capable of doing things that are not fun. That do not feel good. That make you afraid and anxious and sad and overwhelmed. And that once you do them, you will be a step closer to being a more whole person.
It’s a new year, and thus a good time to talk about the idea of caring for ourselves in all kinds of ways. For me, this year marks a full 12 months of participating in therapy, of engaging with my mental illness, of seeking to be honest with myself about how sick I have been and how much better I want to get.
Each January I make all kinds of promises to myself surrounding self-care, but I’ve come to realize how backwards my motivation has been. I resolved to lose weight because I didn’t like the way I looked -- not because I deserve to be healthy and have more energy. I resolved to read certain books because I told myself I’m not well-read enough -- not because I just love to read. I resolved to organize some part of my house because I felt ashamed at how it looked to others -- not because I deserve to feel peaceful and comfortable in my home.
This year brings many of those same goals, but with an entirely different perspective. I still want to eat better and exercise, to lose weight, to read certain things and clean certain things and on and on. But after a year of evaluating the idea of self-care, I’m no longer doing them out of shame and guilt and embarrassment. I’m doing them to take care of myself in ways that feed my body and soul, because I am strong and I am brave and I can do them and I deserve more.
There will be days of Netflix marathons, and ice cream, and bubble baths, and greasy takeout. But they will be in the company of days of daring myself to do the hard things that I deserve to do, not because I should, but because I can, and because I will be more well because of them.
Well, my friends, I am at last breaking the radio silence that has deafened this blog for the past two months. Many of you reached out via social media and in person to ask whether I was okay, or if a new blog post would be up soon. Thank you for caring enough to check in -- that kind of support is incredibly humbling and cheering. I’m grateful for you.
The truth is, I have been absent from this written world for a wonderful reason. I have, at last, and for now, anyway, pulled myself out of the muck and mire that is my depression. (Now, for the love of all things holy, let’s all please knock on some wood together.) I’ve not been writing because I’ve been out living! Doing busy, normal, happy things! Without the three-hour naps in the afternoon, without the nighttime dread of the following morning (well, almost, because still, I will always be the person who snoozes three times and wishes for a nap as soon as she is out of bed). Without the crippling fear of leaving the house or the distinct, stomach-wrenching feeling that nothing at all in this life matters.
Instead, I’ve been reading at the beach. I’ve been helping a friend with her little ones (is there anything happier than a two-year-old who gazes up at you when you wake him from his nap and says, “Auntie Lauren, I’m glad you’re here!”?) I’ve been painting our master bedroom and refashioning it into a relaxing, clutter-free haven from the rest of my cheerful, lived-in apartment. I’ve been enjoying time with family: celebrating my father’s semi-retirement from the local fire department and meeting an aunt and cousin for lunch with my mom to reminisce about our sweet Gram.
And in all these good, good things of life, I managed to cram the fact of my depression into a teeny, tiny box and shove it way back, into the corner of my mind, and ignore it for awhile! Well, mostly ignore it, anyway. Of course I’ve kept up with therapy appointments and my medication. I’m not throwing caution to the wind, and I’m under no illusions that I am actually depression-free, because I don’t think that will ever be a reality for me. But as I felt more well, and engaged more fully with the world around me, it became hard to want to sit down and write about the disease that has taken those things from me before. Why would I want to continue to write about mental illness, force myself to think about the difficulties with which it has engendered my life, when I finally felt able to just go about my business and live?
And so, as days strung together into weeks, and those weeks into months, my accidental summer hiatus from blogging unfolded itself into my lap and stayed there. Whereas previously I had thought constantly about the blog, jotting down new ideas for posts and checking my views, I now felt strong enough to give myself freedom from that. I had new, real-world obligations and engagements, and my therapist viewed it as a healthy thing that I was not making myself beholden to my blog followers (sorry -- I really do love you!) since it is, in fact, my blog, not anyone else’s. It was good to remind myself that I didn’t owe this writing to anyone.
But time has passed and I am learning to settle into life as a mentally healthy person. (Once again, and I cannot stress this enough: I am not taking this for granted, and I am certainly not magically healed. I’m just doing better.) And I have found that I do miss the writing, and the processing that it helps me do as I pick my way through the brambly, overgrown pathways of living with depression and anxiety. And those of you who have reached out have made it clear to me that there is something of value here for others, as well. So rather than continue the hiatus, which has allowed me some time to enjoy the summer and heal privately, I will journey on publicly once again. I hope you’ll find the trek valuable, whether it offers you encouragement, solidarity, information, or understanding.
So, here we go again! Thanks -- as always --for being here.
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.
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.