I wrote this post for a friend’s new depression blog, but figured it was also relevant here…
It can be hard to know when you cross the line from having a perfectly normal reaction to a stressful situation to having a full-blown mental health crisis. By the time I figured it out, I had well and truly crossed the line and was dancing a delightfully mad jig on the other side.
I didn’t know it in the middle of last year when I spent my long-awaited 30th birthday party lying on the floor and crying nonsensically. I didn’t know it late last year when I had a minor dispute with a work colleague which ended up with me sitting on a bench in the main street bawling hysterically while passers-by handed me tissues. I didn’t know it when I stopped sleeping. I didn’t know it when I started feeling physically ill all the time; when stressful events like uni exams would see me unable to eat for days beforehand. I didn’t know it when I stopped being able to concentrate and would spend a two hour study session reading one page over and over again. I didn’t know it when I stopped laughing with my children.
There was no lightbulb moment, just a gradual realisation which led to the GPs office one summer afternoon. Looking back, there is one question he asked which sums up the whole situation.
“What do you enjoy?”
The answer was,
Aside from the false happy buzz of a couple of glasses of wine (which was always followed by the rest of the bottle and then some and then a shaky, gut-wrenching hangover and more guilt and shame), the answer really was nothing. I was trudging through work, slogging my way through study, performing the many menial tasks of parenting and housekeeping with no energy or joy. I had let go of the things which have always kept me centred – running, writing, reading, connecting with the people I love. I was hurting, yet numb. Lifeless, yet manic. Frightened, yet too crushed by inertia to face the darkness or run from it.
I think my depression was/is probably a combination of life circumstances and a chemical imbalance. I have always been prone to dwelling in the darkness but previously found some way to dig out of it and bounce back before I was in too deep. Motherhood, combined with work and studying and a driven perfectionism, did not allow the time for self-care which I need in order to keep my head above water. And there were other things on top of that, including my mother’s diagnosis with a horrible degenerative illness, which just pushed me right under.
Things did not immediately improve after that visit to the GP. I remember someone telling me, around that time, “things will get worse before they get better”. I did not want to believe him, because it seemed impossible that things could get any worse. He was right. There were several months of fiddling with medication, of rampant self-medication with wine, of digging myself into emotional holes it was difficult to climb back out of. These months, between January and July this year, were by far the most difficult of my life so far. I am raw from them, exhausted. But they were necessary to get me here.
Getting the medication right was only part of it. I have had to demand time to heal. That means leaving my husband with more responsibilities so that I can run for my life most days. It means writing more than I have ever written to try and make sense of it, to organise my thoughts. It means new hobbies and throwing myself into the love of my friends. It means getting down on my yoga mat every day and trying to plant my damaged roots back into the ground. It is lots of little ways of showing myself that I care – warm baths, early nights, chocolate. It means no more outrageous episodes of binge drinking. It means learning how to laugh, dance, sing, sleep , eat well, breathe deeply all over again. It is emotional rehabilitation. Just like learning to put one foot in front of the other again, it is hard.
I believe that the human experience is made richer by sadness and grief. There are things that hurt so much I cannot bear to think of them for any longer than a few seconds. There are times I cannot listen to certain songs, read certain poems, walk certain paths, because it is like putting a hot poker in an open wound. That kind of sadness, that sense of whatever it is we have loved and lost – that is what makes us real. I value those wounds. From them springs creativity. They provide the balance between dark and light which is necessary for the soul to thrive. Depression is not the same as those things. It is not the raw pain of grief or the clenched agony of a broken heart. It is, to use the word I used in the GPs office, nothing. It is the sense that nothing good will ever happen again. It is the absence of hope. It is like nothing, and it is like nothing you will ever experience unless you are unfortunate enough to suffer from it. Real grief adds to you. You learn from it. Depression adds nothing. You learn nothing more from it than you would from having the flu or a broken leg. It is an illness, nothing more, nothing less.
I will never take good mental health for granted again. I realised, just a couple of weeks ago, that there was a dance in my steps and a shine in my skin. I woke up this morning, stretched, hugged my babies. I took time to really smell my coffee, to really feel the early sunlight on my face. I danced a bit to a Beyonce song while I did my hair and makeup. I enjoyed my day at work. I ran in the frosty dusk. I cooked dinner and it was good. I drank tea and ate peanut m and ms and I felt warm and safe. I will never stop appreciating ordinary days like this, where things feel nice and food tastes good and contentedness is a warm blanket tucked around me. May there be many, many more of them. For me, and for you.