If you haven’t ever been clinically depressed, it can be hard to understand what it’s like. You can’t see depression any more than you can see cold germs, but it is real and terrible. I’m going to try to describe what it’s been like for me, in an effort to shed some light. Pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee and join me on this journey through my psyche, won’t you?
The first time I fell into a clinical depression, I was 19 years old. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I thought I was just sad because I had broken up with my boyfriend. Well, to be more specific, I found out in quite devastating fashion that he had been cheating on me for probably the greater part of our relationship. Or maybe I was the one he was cheating with – I’m still not too clear on the details.
At that time, I was young and starry eyed and still dumb enough to think that a sexual relationship equaled love, or at least commitment. I believed people. I thought if you told someone the truth, they told you the truth back. I was, how do you say, stupid sheltered. I had very little experience with boys and even less with the physical stuff, so I think the scientific term for what happened to me was that I became royally fucked up. I lost most of my social circle. I trusted no one, especially not myself. I often had what I now know to be panic attacks. I’d find myself sweating and dizzy, heart pounding, unable to focus on anything.
Clearly, this event triggered the anxiety and depression, but I was around the age that depression often manifests – late teens, early twenties, so who knows? I could have just been a brain chemistry time bomb waiting to go off. At any rate, I was more than regular-sad. I nearly flunked out of college because attending classes gave me severe anxiety. I was living with my parents, and I had a healthy dose of filial guilt, so I’d pretend to go to school. Every morning, I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed, grabbed my books, and headed out the door. Then I’d drive to the beach, sit in my car, and cry or sleep. Sometimes, I actually made it to campus, but then couldn’t make myself get out of my car. I’d nap in the parking structure for hours. Eventually – I’m not sure how – the fog lifted. I got my grades back on track. I reconnected with friends. I’m lucky, I think, to have made it out of that without therapy or medication.
The second time I fell into a depression, I was a newlywed, living with my husband in Tokyo, where he worked for a multi-national company. On the one hand, I was deliriously in love and thrilled to be married. On the other hand, moving thousands of miles from my friends and family to a huge city in a foreign country shot my anxiety into overdrive. Everything was stressful. Having to interact with a store clerk was terrifying. Navigating the labyrinthine subway system was a fucking gauntlet. I functioned, though. I taught ESL and managed to find my way around. I had studied Japanese in college and gradually became confident enough to speak to people. However, I had panic attacks on almost a daily basis. When I wasn’t working and my husband was not home, I did nothing but sleep, sometimes 12 to 15 hours a day. Many days, I’d set an alarm for 4:30 p.m. so I could make sure to shower and dress by the time my husband came home from work, so he wouldn’t know I’d spent the whole day in bed. Again, I was undiagnosed, unmedicated, and untreated. I just thought I was a pathetic, sluggish, wimpy excuse for a human being. My self-dialogue is super fun, always.
It was under these circumstances that I became pregnant. It was unplanned (yep, I’ve got a Pill baby – he’ll be 16 in a month), which freaked me right the hell out. We were living in an apartment roughly the size of a tissue box. I could barely manage myself. How was I going to take care of a baby? My husband, to his credit, was immediately enthusiastic. He assured me that everything was going to be fine and I struggled to believe him. The first few months of my pregnancy were lonely and scary. I didn’t have gal pals in Tokyo. I didn’t have a social support system other than my husband. I thought something was wrong with me that I didn’t feel more excitement and happiness. I mean, I was happy to be having a baby. Scared, but happy. When I look back on that time, I realize my adrenaline-riddled body constantly thought it was under attack, and I was mad at myself for not enjoying the experience more. Miraculously, though, what pulled me out of that was the birth of my son.
I did not have post-partum depression. I had post-partum euphoria. From the moment that baby was placed in my arms, I had this absolute certainty that this was the reason I was on this planet. I didn’t care that I ended up in a wheelchair for three weeks (although I will never let my son and his giant head forget that). I didn’t mind the lack of sleep or the constant nursing. I was attentive maybe to the point of obsession. I hadn’t at that point noticed a pattern to my upswings: periods of frenetic energy where I needed little to no sleep, feelings of extreme confidence and purposefulness, the need to constantly be doing. Which, hey, if you’re going to have one of those, might as well have it as the mom of a newborn. The problem, though, is always the crash.
There’s always a crash.
The third time I went into depression, I was actually diagnosed. I finally had a word for what was going on with me. We were living stateside again, in Washington. We’d upgraded from the tissue box apartment to a lovely house with a big yard. I stayed home with our son and joined a couple of mothers’ groups so as to have some social interaction. Then two things happened: 1) I began to suffer from the lack of sunlight (I grew up in Hawaii, folks – I had no idea what Season Affective Disorder was) and 2) while my parents were visiting us, my father had a stroke. These things going on simultaneously led to probably one of my biggest crashes ever.
Initially, I was fine. Awesome, even. I’m like that when shit hits the fan. All business. I was caring for my toddler son, helping with my dad’s rehab which turned a three week visit into a three month stay while he recuperated, and trying to keep my mom from freaking out, all while my husband commuted to San Jose, California for work four days a week. I was rock solid during that time. And then? It was time for my parents to return to Hawaii. As soon as my body had breathing space, it fell apart.
I went to my doctor who prescribed Prozac, and I happily complied. I was just so happy not to be faking. This was real! She also recommended cognitive therapy. I went, although I felt a bit silly. I didn’t have real problems. It reminded me of having to go to weekly confession in Catholic school. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t have enough sins to confess, so I’d make things up. The talking did help, though, and so did the meds. After a couple of months, I felt so much better that I decided, genius that I am, to just stop taking the pills. I obviously didn’t need them anymore.
For a week, I thought I’d discovered the secret to life! I have never been so productive. I was baking, cleaning, writing, crafting, etc. and only sleeping about 2-3 hours a night, and I felt so good. Then one day, Bob came home from work to find me sobbing and rocking back and forth. He immediately called my doctor who guessed correctly that I’d gone cold turkey off my meds, which as it turns out is a shitty idea. He also informed my therapist, who at our next meeting gazed at me patiently, folded her arms and said gently, “So. Are you ready to be real now?”
That, boys and girls, is how I learned that my brain needs care and maintenance as much as any other body part, and that when my balance goes off, I need to take medicine the way a diabetic needs insulin. I learned that depression doesn’t mean weeping 24 hours a day. You still do everything. You laugh, you work, you parent, you love, you clean your damn house. It just feels like you’re moving through Jell-O. I could do most everything that I normally did, but it took 20 times the effort. And I learned that I didn’t have to just feel that way until it went away. I could act on my own behalf.
Recently, I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, which weirdly came as a big relief, almost as big a relief as when I learned what clinical depression was. Those times I’d find myself sweating like a pig for no reason in the canned soup aisle of the supermarket, or when I’d suddenly have a pounding heart rate and shaky hands – those were the result of my body’s glitchy alarm system. Like it or not, I’m like a faulty smoke detector that goes off at random, unpredictable intervals. It’s not fun to be this way, but it’s great to know that this is the issue. And you can bet your sweet bippy that I take my pills like a good girl to keep the ol’ chemicals balanced.
I react differently to stress than a lot of people. Things like percussive noises and (I don’t even know) helium balloons blowing in the wind send me into fight or flight mode. It’s okay, though, because I know what’s going on, and I am ardently, militantly, on my own side. I’m a hot, lovable mess. I can deal with that.
So, that’s what depression and anxiety look like for me. Those are real things and they manifest differently depending on the individual. I’ll never stop advocating for meds and therapy and things like exercise and healthy diet, and I’ll never stop talking about it because I’m tired of the stigma and the mocking. My hope is that eventually all this mental health stuff will become stupefyingly boring and commonplace.