I would like to write about depression. And anxiety. As it turns out, these two words go hand in hand, kind of like peanut butter and jelly or the uneaten vegetables left in your vegetable crisper and the brown, slimy sludge that they leave behind. More like that latter.
When people do not struggle with this two-headed beast I think they make assumptions about what it looks like. Depression, for many, conjures images of tufts of hair carelessly peeking out from beneath a comforter, in a dark bedroom, at noon. It looks like drawn shades and heavy black make-up and a mastery of the fetal position. It smells like stale coffee or ashtrays heavy laden with smudgy memories of lost love, forgotten goals or broken dreams. It sounds like a song played on repeat, over and over again: songs like “Everybody Hurts,” by R.E.M. or anything sung by Adele.
When people do not understand depression they say things—well-meaning things—like, “Cheer up! Life isn’t that bad!” Or, “You should just pray more.” Or, “Stop feeling so down.” But this is usually only when you tell them that you are feeling depressed. If you don’t tell them—if they are aware enough to sense it—they might say things like, “Snap out of it,” or, “What’s wrong?” The only problem with asking, “What’s wrong?” is that it is usually a question that gets repeated until the asker feels satisfied with your response. And, as the questionee, you can’t really say, “Well, I actually have no idea. I just feel down.” Because if you say that, a second wave of questions will rise up and douse you with the salty waters of overwhelming inadequacy and self-deprecating thoughts that have you join the questioner so that you too begin to question, “What is wrong with me?” Not being able to answer this question to others is one thing. Realizing that you’re not quite sure how to answer it for yourself can be downright scary as the mystery threatens to strip you of a sensible amount of control over your future.
For me, depression looks like a to-do list. When I am feeling depressed, I have to purpose to plan my day. When I am feeling depressed, I become more measured in the way I move, the expressions I allow to appear on my face and the things I allow to come out of my mouth. This is actually what I hate most about depression: I become more focused on myself than I wish to be.
The reason for all of this self-monitoring is that I refuse to allow anyone else to become aware of how I am feeling inside. I also refuse to give into the feelings of hopelessness and fatigue, the heaviness in my body and mind, or the irritation I can suddenly feel at any given moment. To this end, I wake up, workout, make my to-do list and then proceed through my day purposefully and with the sense that at any moment I can choose to think thoughts that will either lift me up or drag me down.
To clarify, I do not believe that “pretending” to be okay is the way to combat depression. Not even my own. When I tell you that I refuse to let anyone else see what I am feeling, I mean that I do not want my feelings of depression to be the mask that I wear. Instead, I become aware of the feelings and I purpose to go about the business of my day with professionalism and a smile on my face; this practice is not hiding, it is coping.
Depression has taught me that we humans have an amazing ability to decide what we will focus on. We get to choose what we think about. Our thoughts guide our choices. Our choices direct our emotions.
So, mind (think) –> will (choice)–> emotions (feel)
This is why the days on which I am struggling with depression tend to be the days during which I am the most purposeful with how I use my time: I am aware that I need to direct the ship. If I don’t, this is how my mind, will and emotions conduct themselves:
Mind (think) –> emotions (feel) –> will (choose)
In other words, when I act based on my emotions, instead of acting based on my sensible and experienced mind, the cycle between these three parts of myself can begin to spiral into a sticky, emotional morass. I could end up with drawn blinds or, worse yet, listening to too much Adele.
I am going to attempt to share my journey with depression and anxiety over the next several posts. If you have been reading my blog already you know that I have shared several stories of a personal nature: chief among those stories having to do with being a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I mention this to give you some perspective on how uncomfortable it is for me to even think about sharing my journey with depression and anxiety: I feel more comfortable sharing my childhood victimhood than talking about depression. I think the reason is that the former happened to me and the latter threatens to become a part of my identity.
Even though I lived for many years with false guilt concerning the things that happened to me at the hands of perpetrators, there did come a time when my counselor helped me understand that I am not to blame for their actions. This truth shed light on the guilt and shame with which I lived and it brought freedom to my heart and thoughts concerning that part of my life. Though my inner self was affected by those traumatic events, it was easy for me to acknowledge the actions exacted against me as a part of my story but not my whole story.
When it comes to depression, however, I have to make myself vulnerable in the present. For some reason, it is easier to say, “I used to have this problem” than it is to say, “I have this problem.” The “used to” creates an air of competence, victory and mastery. The “I have” creates a feeling of heaviness, uncertainty and fear. To look on the bright side, the “I have” also creates a sense of brotherhood with anyone else who understands that through which I am currently walking. Perhaps we can walk together.
So, come along with me if you would like. There will be some good days and some bad days. There will be some days when I can be freely honest with you and some days when I will have to work hard not to tell half-truths or cover up the ugly parts to protect you from discomfort and me from even more discomfort. There will be days when I want to get too “teachy,” because it is easier to teach you what I am learning than it is to acknowledge how I am feeling. Even so, through it all, I will try my best to be open just in case my own journey helps even one other person.
—Jill Szoo Wilson