Today, a friend re-blogged something on her Tumblr blog that hit very close to home for me. I'll paste it at the end of this post, but for now, I'd like to say a few things. (Probably at length, as usual.)
I used to be depressed. The person described in the Tumblr thing isn't me anymore, but for the most part, it used to be. I never became actively suicidal, though I would be lying if I said that the thought of just disappearing into the wilderness and letting myself die of exposure didn't look awfully appealing from time to time when I was at my worst. And I did function to some extent in the rest of the world, though it took a tremendous amount of effort. In fact, I was only able to function at all for two reasons. First, the only other member of my household was (physically, at least) in worse shape than I was at the time, and she was mentally about as bad, so if I let my depression take me over, she'd have nobody to take care of her. So although I was entirely convinced of my own worthlessness, the hate that I felt for myself at the time actually drove me to make myself useful to her because I felt that I'd be even more worthless if I let my issues get in the way of her recovery. Second, I was still singing with my community choir, which helped me immensely because it forced me into some badly-needed social interaction with people who like me, and which was (and still is) directed by a kind person with an excellent sense of humour. In cases like mine, laughter really was some of the best medicine I could have asked to receive.
Depression stole valuable things from me: time and ambition. I can't do anything about the years I lost to it, but my ambition has largely come back, though it brings some of its own frustrations with it. Foremost among them is the fact that although I'm making progress, I still haven't managed to build myself the kind of life that I'd like to have. And this is because that awful void, the feeling that nothing really matters and that the world would be better off without me, took me far too long to escape. (No doubt this was exacerbated by the fact that I never sought treatment for it; I didn't want to be medicated, especially as I was reasonably sure that my depression wasn't the result of any sort of chemical imbalance, and I'm still young enough that I might want to or have to change my health insurance plan at least once in my life. Even in Canada, a pre-existing condition like depression, even when a full recovery has been made, can be a bad thing to have on one's insurance record.) In fact, I still occasionally feel its pull, especially when something goes more than usually wrong.
And sometimes it threatens to send me back. A little over a month ago, I had what I now think might have been a minor relapse, though I denied it at the time; I felt very gloomy for about a week, and I had several reasons. I'd been worried about a couple of my friends; one has two daughters-in-law who have been diagnosed with cancer, and another was at the time facing some difficult circumstances that were not of her own making. Then, I started worrying about my future; I've been out of teacher's college for several years now, and although I am working in a classroom now, I don't get paid for it. True, I wasn't exactly free to leave for a couple of years (and it wouldn't have been a good idea anyway, given my mental state at the time), but I do sometimes worry that I've managed to screw myself over by not seriously looking for work outside of my district for most of the time since I earned my Bachelor of Education degree. (I've started actively looking for teaching jobs elsewhere again since then, though, so this is less of a concern now.) Overall, I was feeling pretty awful.
And to top it all off, for various reasons, the venue for my community choir's spring concert this year was bringing back some pretty seriously painful memories, some of which involved the man of whom I wrote in this post about two years ago. Since then, I've completely moved on; I stopped missing him quite some time ago, and although I'll never forget him, I've put him quite firmly in my past. Still, I've recently had a number of reasons to realize that he hurt me in ways that I hadn't even known about at the time, and while I have friends who are helping me to deal with them (often without even realizing it), sometimes the damage that he did becomes more apparent. And while I'm not quite sure why it happened so strongly near the beginning of May (though I certainly have my suspicions), this, on top of everything else, left me feeling rather shaken. All in all, I was feeling pretty vulnerable, and in past years, all of those things put together might have been enough to tip me back into a full-blown episode of depression.
But they didn't.
The difference was that I now have friends whom I trust with these things; I don't just know that they won't abandon me, even when I'm feeling rotten and do something stupid like start to isolate myself. I believe it. I trust them with my vulnerabilities, and they've trusted me with some of theirs. Between them, they've helped me to develop the tools that I needed to fix something in me that I hadn't even realized was still broken. When I get gloomy, they don't let me stay that way. One of them has even inspired tears of relief and release with little more than a few well-chosen words that reminded me that there really is hope and that I'm not as awful a person as I'm still sometimes afraid that I am. Knowing that these people care, and that I can trust them, is incredibly powerful. Without them, I would probably not have gotten through that as well as I did, and that horrible week that I recently had would certainly have sent me back into the mental state that I was in when my depression was at its worst.
I can say with absolute certainty that what the following description says is true. I've been there. So many kind, compassionate, funny, intelligent, unusual, talented, and caring people have helped me to stay away from that territory; some of them even have first-hand or second-hand experience with depression themselves. So if you ever feel inclined to dismiss depression as something insignificant, the sign of a whiny and lazy individual, think again. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to uphold the fiction that everything is OK; it takes even more to admit that it isn't and to ask for support from loved ones and seek out the help of trained professionals.
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Depression is humiliating. It turns intelligent, kind people into zombies who can’t wash a dish or change their socks. It affects the ability to think clearly, to feel anything, to ascribe value to your children, your lifelong passions, your relative good fortune. It scoops out your normal healthy ability to cope with bad days and bad news, and replaces it with an unrecognizable sludge that finds no pleasure, no delight, no point in anything outside of bed. You alienate your friends because you can’t comport yourself socially, you risk your job because you can’t concentrate, you live in moderate squalor because you have no energy to stand up, let alone take out the garbage. You become pathetic and you know it. And you have no capacity to stop the downward plunge. You have no perspective, no emotional reserves, no faith that it will get better. So you feel guilty and ashamed of your inability to deal with life like a regular human, which exacerbates the depression and the isolation. If you’ve never been depressed, thank your lucky stars and back off the folks who take a pill so they can make eye contact with the grocery store cashier. No one on earth would choose the nightmare of depression over an averagely turbulent normal life.
It’s not an incapacity to cope with day to day living in the modern world. It’s an incapacity to function. At all. If you and your loved ones have been spared, every blessing to you. If depression has taken root in you or your loved ones, every blessing to you, too. No one chooses it. No one deserves it. It runs in families, it ruins families. You cannot imagine what it takes to feign normalcy, to show up to work, to make a dentist appointment, to pay bills, to walk your dog, to return library books on time, to keep enough toilet paper on hand, when you are exerting most of your capacity on trying not to kill yourself. Depression is real. Just because you’ve never had it doesn’t make it imaginary. Compassion is also real. And a depressed person may cling desperately to it until they are out of the woods and they may remember your compassion for the rest of their lives as a force greater than their depression. Have a heart. Judge not lest ye be judged.