I was diagnosed with severe acute depression about a month after my 21st birthday, although I'd been struggling with it for several months before. The irony does not escape me that the acronym for severe acute depression is SAD. Well played, universe.
Getting to that point was a slow, sneaky downward spiral involving a divorce wracked with terror, loneliness, isolation, drinking too much, and the deep dark shameful things that make up a 60 Minutes episode.
Ultimately the details hardly matter. What matters is that one day I was driving home from work and I was hit with the realization that I just didn't care about anything anymore. It started with casual thoughts about my husband cheating on me. I probed my innermost feelings and was vaguely surprised to discover that there was nothing to probe. A concept that would have formerly elicited a blinding rage, searing betrayal, and jealousy now just resulted in my subconscious knocking on the empty doors of my heart and getting only echoes in return.I was a blonde zombie.
I didn't care to do anything, think anything, or see anyone. I was nothing, simply existing in the barest, most boring way that a soul can. Blank white paper in an empty white room.
Just making the effort to get help was Herculean, and I still don't know how I did it. Blocked at every turn trying to seek help through the military medical system, I waited five harrowing days before I finally found myself in my doctor's office for my scheduled appointment, politely explaining that I thought it would have been perfectly reasonable to walk into Walter Reed and slit my wrists open in front of the welcome desk in order to get someone to pay attention to my explicit, strangled statement "I NEED HELP".
Apparently that's exactly the kind of thing that gets you locked up, though, and it took some very, very fast talking to allow me to walk out of there with a high dosage prescription of Zoloft and mandatory therapy appointments.
See, the most terrifying thing about depression is that it's in your MIND. I mean, obviously. But it becomes, after a while, a living, breathing demon that witnesses every one of your thoughts, privy to all of your hopes, fears, fantasies, and desires. It subsists on those things, eventually sucking the life out of each and every single thing that brings you joy or pain or hope or anger or any emotion at all until you're left with empty shriveled nothing.
When you are ill in body, you can pinpoint where the trouble is exactly and to an extent, it's outside of your Self. Mental illness, on the other hand, is buried INSIDE your Self, and that is the most frightening thing of all. You can’t trick Depression. He sees every one of your thoughts. Even in a clear moment you’ll think, “OKAY. The next time I’m sucked under, I’m going to do this, that, and that to stay afloat.”
Yet there he is, big black leathery wings folded, perched in the back corner of your mind, watching these feeble thoughts unfold. Talk about drafting your battle plans with the enemy in the room. Besides, trying to muster the kind of energy required to put any of your pathetic little “strategies” into place is just laughable anyway.
There’s nothing quite so pathetic as sitting at home alone on a Wednesday night, a bottle of cheap wine with the canned laugh track from Friends blasting through your tiny dark apartment on an endless loop while you lie immobile on the couch for six hours straight, gripping the cushions beneath you until your fingers go numb and listing reasons why you SHOULDN’T jump out your 8th floor window - to fly, to do something to let out the turmoil inside you, to feel nothing and everything at the same time, to get that rush of something, to EXPLODE. Then you realize you can’t come up with anything better than “Well, you might just severely injure yourself and not die and then what?”
Even today, I wouldn’t have considered myself suicidal back then, strange as that sounds. It’s not like I wanted to die because life was so terrible that it wasn’t worth living, no. It was more just...wanting to feel something. Adrenaline, maybe. Or fear. Or pain. SOMETHING. Anything to bring color to the blank white paper, even if it was red. Doing something reckless seemed like the only way to get there, coming close to death the last resort. Only problem was, I ran the risk of actually being dead afterwards, and that WAS a problem, because it would kill my already-widowed father and then throwing myself off a bridge for “fun” seems kind of selfish and unforgivable.
I never jumped off anything. I just stayed on the couch until the sun came up and then got up, got dressed, went to work and waited another day for the Zoloft to work. Waited in the waiting room of the therapist’s office. Waited in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. Waited for her to increase my dosage. Waited for something to happen, waited for something to change...and one day, it did.
I can’t say when. Really, I have no idea because so much of that time is just a blurry, gray mess and looking back is like trying to squint through fog. All I know is that one day I suddenly felt like I was surfacing, and slowly blinked my eyes at what was going on around me - life.
I really do understand why people don’t talk about depression much. It’s the same reason I’m scared to do so, because it makes you feel diseased, or like a failure. It’s admitting that you are broken - that what once started out as whole and innocent is no longer. Even if you can come clean about it, most people don’t know what to say or how to handle it.
Some toughies want you to just “get over it” or “work through it” which, I assure you, creates the same feelings of helplessness and confusion akin to telling someone who’s lost an arm to try growing it back. Some even suggest it’s just a rough patch or you’ve simply had a tough day - possibly the most damaging thing you can say to someone with depression - as if I did not feel small enough. Others become upset and emotional, and you find yourself in the supremely odd position of trying to apologize and comfort someone else about YOUR depression.
(“Look, I’m sorry I’ve upset you, I think, but I can’t quite tell because I can’t feel anything at all. Would you please just get out of the way of this nice ledge? Sorry. [Maybe?] Thanks.”)
Looking back now, it seems strange to me that I wound up saving myself. I had people in my life, people who saw me every day and knew what was going on and who cared about me, but who ultimately did nothing. I don’t intend that to be an accusation, perhaps it’s just a testament to my superior acting skills - but in the end as helpless and paralyzed and incapacitated as I was, I was the one to save myself. I still don’t know how.
What I do know, now, is that there is a happy ending to my story. (Well, as much of an “ending” as you can get when you’re only 23, I suppose, but still.)
There ARE footnotes to this little story - natural medications I still take to keep the “blues” away, a fitness routine that makes me feel good, a purposeful choice to eliminate things in my personal life that no longer serve me - but nothing comes for free, and it’s such a small price to pay for my now utterly effervescent joy that I still can’t quite believe I have.
Perhaps even more valuable is the knowledge that I can survive, that I was so much stronger than I ever thought even during my weakest, most pathetic moments. If I ever get sucked under again - I can be okay. I'll always be okay.
I still want to jump off bridges and leap out of windows. But this time, I’ll be rocking a parachute, and be grinning the whole way down - just for the hell of it.