“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.
You’ve got a coffee table, right? You know, one of those low-ish tables in the center of many living rooms or dens, sometimes displaying glossy books and magazines (or holding a pizza box and the remote control). In our house, it’s kind of a centerpiece of the room -- smack dab in front of the couch, it’s an old trunk that someone in my husband’s family, whose identity I am ashamed to not remember, made. We eat off of it. We watch TV over it. We share crosswords on it and play video games over it. It makes for a convenient wine glass perch or footrest. It’s right in the middle of the room, in the middle of our lives, all the time, and yet: do you know how many times I have slammed my leg, or toe, or some other poor, bruisable body part into it?
So. many. times.
Well, Lauren, you might say, you KNOW where the coffee table is, right? Why don’t you just, you know, step lightly, please, and walk AROUND the damn thing? And so you’re thinking I’m clumsy (true), but I’m thinking that you have also likely stubbed your toe or banged your knee into some piece of furniture that you are, in a technical sense, used to walking around. You regularly avoid the thing in the middle of the room so as to prevent injury; you’ve learned to do this for your own well-being. And yet, nevertheless, sometimes the collision and subsequent bruise (or curse, or one-legged hop as you yowl in pain) still occurs. Right? Because it’s there in the room, all the time, and sometimes these things just happen. Or you’re tired, or distracted, or lazy, and you just don’t pay attention to where you’re going, and before you know it, you’ve got a bruise the size and color of a plum on your thigh and find yourself wondering, how did this get here?
Now, imagine that the living room is your whole life -- your brain and your heart and your mind, your entire psyche. And imagine the coffee table that is always there, ever waiting to stub your toe, is, instead, a deep, black, spiraling hole, right in the middle of everything, all the time.
Do you see how omnipresent it would be in your life? Do you see how careful you would have to be to avoid brushing the edge, to minimize the risk of falling in? How, if every time you got careless or cut a corner too close, instead of banging your shin you could stumble, and get sucked down into that thing?
That’s how it is with my depression. While I could relegate the big trunk to a less prominent part of my home, and replace it with a smaller coffee table that might be less likely to appear from out of nowhere to injure my poor, easily bruised flesh, I sadly don’t get to choose, say, a smaller, less obtrusive mental illness, like maybe one that isn’t so dark or so swirly or doesn’t have such a strong gravitational pull. The depression spiral I’ve got is impossibly wide and all-encompassing; like a huge, dark pit, it has a big, round mouth that gapes open blackly, and I have to remember all the time to walk around it, to do everything possible to not fall in. I spend most of the time that I’m well trying to walk around the opening of the spiral, giving it a wide berth on all sides, and otherwise pretending that it’s not even there. Oh, that huge cavernous hole in the theoretical floor of my psyche? Just make your way around, folks. Nothing to see here. Just another part of the decor.
The problem with circumnavigating a pit of this nature, which is constantly and darkly whirling in the living room of my life, is that it has a constant, vacuum-sucking type of power to it, a momentum that builds rapidly in size and strength, so that sometimes the edges of the spiral surge up and out, over the usually-contained edges, and emit a forceful pull. It’s opportunistic; it will time those pulls just right so that if you aren’t watching your step, if you’re paying just a little less attention, you make yourself vulnerable to getting dragged toward the edge, or worse -- down into the dark.
So while we all do common sense things like looking where we’re going when we’re in a room full of furniture, I have to do a lot of vigilant self-care types of things to make sure I don’t walk straight over the edge and into the pit. There’s a lot of psychological walking around the furniture to be done here.
For example: maybe one night I don’t sleep so well, and when my alarm goes off I’m exhausted. I talk myself into getting out of bed but I might, metaphorically speaking, shave a few steps off the berth I normally give the spiral’s edge, because I’m tired and I don’t want to deal with keeping my mind alert, with maintaining my distance from anything that might trigger me into feeling insecure or sad or unsafe. In cutting the corners I start to hear the dull roar of the spiral, calling to me. I might glimpse a shadow in the distance. Suddenly I remember that depression is present in my life.
Then maybe a coworker says something to irritate me, or we might not have what I want for breakfast in the house, or I might have an appointment I’m dreading later that day, and suddenly I’m a little grouchy. If I’m healthy and practicing the right kinds of self-care, all of these things are, if not minor, then at least surmountable obstacles. I can make choices to step around the pit (ignore the coworker, make myself a healthy breakfast, try some positive thinking about the appointment). But if they converge in the right setting and at the right time -- maybe on a rainy Monday, say, and the house is a mess and I’m just so tired -- I can cut the corners even closer and find myself dancing around the edges of the great chasm that is my very own mental illness. It’s like when you’ve fallen asleep on the couch and get up to stumble to bed, and you know that coffee table is right where it always is, but your eyes are halfway closed and you don’t want to wake yourself up too much. You think you can stumble your way around without hurting yourself, using just the minimum amount of effort, until you walk smack into the thing. Then, you’re not only suddenly wide awake, you’re awake and in pain. How did I get here?
The spiraling abyss of depression loves when we are tired and grouchy. Tendrils of the dark waves that pulse up and over the edge of the void surge, beckoning almost as a crooked finger, calling me toward the precipice. My guard is down. I want to sleep. I want to not deal with the outside world. Suddenly the edge of the pit seems like a comforting place to just hover for awhile, to take a break from being a responsible and healthy person who wants to take herself seriously and get all her things done and do her work and exercise and make dinner and clean the bathroom and see her friends. Suddenly the darkness of the spiral is appealing, because there’s no one down in there, and maybe if I just look into the blackness I can rest my eyes for a minute, let my guard all the way down, relax and just stop trying. so. hard. to resist the undertow of depression.
Now, you see, I have suddenly -- and so easily! -- shifted from steering well clear of the beckoning gulf, to cutting a few inconsequential corners, to now, as we stand at the mouth of the spiral and peer in, wondering how good it would feel to just let go of all of the effort it takes to stay away. Wondering how bad it really could be to just let myself be drawn into the familiar, shadowy twister. Giving in means giving up, relegating myself to my bed, shutting out the world. It sounds so easy.
At this point, if I am well enough, I have a decision to make. I can suck it up, muster all my strength and do something to reel myself back -- take a quick walk, or send a message to a loved one, or practice some mindfulness -- or I can relax into the pull, letting the waves of depression pull me further and further into the spiral, and fall into a truly black place. It’s a hard choice to make, because one requires energy and motivation and action, and the other requires only a simple letting go, a surrender of control. Choosing to take action when you’re weary and indifferent is hard. It’s much easier to keep your eyes mostly closed and let whatever happens, happen.
And when I’m less well, by the time I’m at the edge there is no decision left to be made. I just fall, sometimes as if I had tripped straight down -- ass over teakettle, as the saying goes -- into the spiral. If I’m very unwell, there will be times that I feel like I have always been inside of it, with no memory of having gotten there. But regardless of how the fall happens, once I’m in, I’m in.
What it feels like inside that whirling madness, and what it takes to claw my way out, are topics for another day.