anecdotes and reflections on life with depression and anxiety
The soft glow of my Kindle fades as my eyes drift closed. I force them back open and try again to find my place, determined to stay awake for one more sentence, one more paragraph. (Such is the life of a near-fanatical bedtime reader.) But despite my best efforts, I am soon rolling over, pulling the blankets up around my shoulders and wedging the now-darkened Kindle halfway under my pillow. I sink into a comfortable sleep for five, ten, twenty minutes -- bliss -- and then, suddenly, I am awake again.
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.
Hey, hi, hello.
If you haven’t been here before, then hi (with an exclamation point)! I’m excited about you! You can learn about me and this blog here and, if you want to, you can start at the beginning of my delightful mental health story here. Or you can just read this. Or you can skip around and read what you want. Really, it’s up to you. Obviously.
If you’ve been here before, let’s start with the obvious: it’s been awhile. Thanks for coming back. I’m glad you’re here, and will readily acknowledge that I disappeared from this blog the way an introvert ghosts a crowded party. (Oh wait -- I sometimes do that too. Whoops.)
So, formalities aside -- here we go. I want to tell you about why it’s been a while.
It’s been awhile because in the past, words have strung themselves together in my brain with a pressing need to be expressed and received immediately, and I would have full paragraphs in my head before I even sat down to type. I could write blog post after blog post, editing on the fly, often struggling to wait even a day between posts. And then, suddenly, it all stopped. The words just bunched all up in my head and refused to form meaningful sentences. They boycotted -- or mutinied -- or went on vacation. What had been so easy, so available to me, had vanished.
And so: silence.
I think one reason my writing slowed down at first was that I wrote a post about how easy it was to get pulled down into the spiral of depression: how you can tiptoe around it and give it a wide berth and still manage to get sucked into a vortex of aloneness and worthlessness and hopelessness.
Then, in all my wisdom, I promised a part two that would explain what it actually feels like inside that place. And hell if I could bring myself to sit down and write about that experience in any way, let alone in a cogent and articulate way that would be accessible to readers. I just couldn’t go there.
At first I couldn’t write about the dark spirally depression place because I wasn’t in it. Thank the Lord, hallelujah, I wasn’t in it. I was doing more than just getting through life: not just working and eating and sleeping, feeling bored and useless and drained, but actually finding time for the things that constitute living. I was doing things like nurturing friendships, and exercising, and cooking, and volunteering. I was sometimes enjoying my job. I had purpose. I felt like I was actually living life a little bit, and why would anyone who is thriving (or has even allowed herself to think that she might feel like she’s thriving) want to willingly put herself in that familiar, treacherous place of misery? Just for the sake of writing a few words?
And the longer I was unwilling to write about that place, for fear of venturing into it again, the more stubbornly I held back from writing at all. I’m a people pleaser, my therapist says -- always worried about what others will think, trying to anticipate how I can best live up to their expectations instead of my own -- and so having promised a part two about “the spiral,” I thought that I couldn’t write, let alone post, anything else until I wrote about that. And now, as I check the date on that last entry, I am startled to see that it has been almost 17 months since I published anything on here.
I’ve certainly thought about writing something and posting it. To be perfectly honest, I’ve thought about it almost every day. My website subscription came due and I renewed it, promising myself that it would be good motivation to actually start writing. That was months ago. It took weeks and weeks of mentally prepping myself, of talking myself up, of reminding myself that I have valid thoughts and decent words with which to articulate them. But I was afraid to come back without the content I had teased in my last post.
Finally, after months of hemming and hawing and not writing, I realized -- in the words of my wonderful therapist -- “Who cares?” (That’s her code for, “You’re a grown woman and you can do what you want and live how you want and who cares what anyone else has to say about that?” She probably says it at least once a session, and I love her for it.)
Who cares what I said I would write back then? Who cares that I took an unplanned hiatus from blogging? Who cares that now I’m back and I’m writing something different from what I said I would, a year and a half ago?
Who cares? If you’re reading this (and seriously, God bless you if you are) then you obviously have found a way to be okay with this lapse of mine. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that others, whether they’re close friends and family or Internet strangers, are often capable of offering more grace and acceptance than we are willing to offer ourselves. I think you’re probably that kind of person. I’m pretty glad about it.
(Did I really think someone would come at me for not writing what I said I’d write? No. Do I really tend to make decisions based on what I think people want me to do? Yes. Do I still roll my eyes every time my therapist says that I should stop doing that? Yes. But only because she’s right.)
So here we are. I have some things to say and some stories to tell about living with depression and anxiety, and if you’ve made it to the end of this rambly bit of writing then you must be at least a little interested in whatever that might turn out to be. For that I’m thankful. As for the epiphany that I can write what my soul needs to write, and not what those grumpy depression thoughts tell me I “should” be writing -- for that, I’m optimistic.
“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.
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.