The thing about living: on my depression and anxiety

Last October I had one of my worst episodes of 2016. In a room by myself in Athens, I rocked back and forth feeling completely alone wanting to slash my rubber skin into pieces. Crying came as long sobs and then short intervals. Nausea didn’t allow me to eat or digest. My gag reflex was constant. Crying had me over the sink throwing up nothing but air. I looked at myself in the hotel room mirror and could not recognize this animal with  long stringy limbs and red eyes. I felt sick. I was sick. But with that? How disgusting does a human have to be to make him/herself sick like this? I went back to sleep. As is with most of these episodes, I don’t know exactly when I begin to feel better or when I start to work my way up. Maybe I decided my flight was the next day and I had things to do. Maybe I got the evil out of my system and decided I was okay. I’m not entirely sure.

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I’ve contemplated suicide numerous times throughout my childhood and adolescence and young adulthood. I don’t think this makes me special in any way, if anything perhaps I’m part of a special club in which nobody knows who the other members are because it is a lonely and miserable idea. Most of us don’t ever get to suicide but for the love of God, do we get damn close to giving up. Life is heavy and terrifying. Death is just as heavy and terrifying, but suicides don’t occur because death is great. People are afraid of living. Curled up in bed with eyes wide open, I just know I cannot handle the world, I cannot handle anything. I am less than human and less than an animal. Even inanimate objects have more strength than this mediocrity. When I eventually snap out of it, it’s like I am seeing the sun again. Like my real self has reentered my body and I can laugh, love, support others and myself again.

How will we better contain depression? Expect no magic pill. One lesson learned from treating chronic pain is that it is tough to override response that are hardwired into the body and mind. Instead, we must follow the economy of mood where it leads, attending to the sources that bring so many into mood states- think routines that feature too much work and too little sleep. We need broader mood literacy and an awareness of tools that interrupt low mood states before they morph into longer and more severe ones. These tools include altering how we think, the events around us, our relationships, and conditions in our bodies (by exercise, medication, or diet).
-Professor Jonathan Rottenberg

It wasn’t until maybe 2014 and 2015 that I seriously began to consider that I wasn’t just “acting out”. I began to research on anxiety more deeply even though I had used the word to describe myself before. I began to take into the account the words that people were using to describe me: volatile, bipolar. The people who said this about me weren’t any healthier than me which was why I initially rejected these words but then I figured, hey, there’s something there. Maybe there was a reason why I attracted people with similar issues. Maybe there was a reason behind my nonstop binge drinking. Two bottles of wine by myself on a Wednesday night- no problem. In the absence of reason, my old foes of abandonment, dejection, rejection would lullaby me to sleep into another day where they would come haunt me again. This was life at one point.

I’ll be very vulnerable now. I’ll make a list of all the things my head tells me when I’m right in the blackness. They’ve been dancing in my head all week and they need to go somewhere:

  1. You’re making this up because you’re weak.
  2. You’re weak, you’re taking up space. Die already.
  3. You’ll never live up to their expectations. You’re a disappointment.
  4. Nobody will love you or father your children because you’re sick.
  5. This is why you don’t have friends. You’re toxic.
  6. You’re scary, you scare people, you are a disease. Untouchable.
  7. People will leave you eventually because you’re this.
  8. Their sadness, their anger, their unhappiness is all your fault.
  9. You hurt everyone around you. You’re toxic and people should stay away.
  10. Nobody knows what to do with you because there’s nothing to be done.

Rinse and repeat. Not so long ago a dear friend of mine said to me “What astounds me is that you know all this, Mishell, so how come you can’t fix it?” Ah, and there it is. I am incapable. But do I know? If describing it means I know how to control it then shit, I’m fucked. I haven’t gotten a proper diagnosis either and quite frankly I don’t want to- what if they tell me I am okay and everything is in my head? I couldn’t take that. What I do know is that sometimes I get triggered into immense fear and get shut off from people for a few days. I don’t take medication and I’m a bit afraid to- what if it creates irreparable damage to something in my brain? Someone once told me it could be hormones and I should have this checked out for being triggered by PMS. I’ve tracked it and sometimes it coincides and sometimes it doesn’t.

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On one of my flights back to Melbourne I waddled into a bookshop at the airport and bought Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. I finished it during the flight and gained some insight into myself. Some of my take-aways from the book was the quote above which really just says: change your habits slowly but surely. What I found most comforting about the book, however, was Haig’s description of how he felt. Usually when I talk about it nobody gets it and meet me with blank concerned stares which don’t help the 1-10 list. I do try to stay on top of the readings and articles about mental health. It’s a bit strange to have information and still be able to manage so little. Religion helps and then it doesn’t. In a spiritual sense I’m sure elder relatives would say some sort of demon has taken ahold of me or my shamanistic relatives would say a bad wind caught me. Who knows.

One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future. Far from the tunnel having light at the end of it, it seems like it is blocked at both ends, and you are inside it. (…) So the fact that this book exists is proof the depression lies. Depression makes you think things that are wrong. But depression itself isn’t a lie. It is the most real thing I have ever experienced. Of course, it is invisible. To other people, it seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames. And so- as depression is largely unseen and mysterious- it is easy for stigma to survive. Stigma is particularly cruel for depressives, because stigma affects thoughts and depression and depression is a disease of thoughts.

When you are depressed you feel alone, and that no one is going through quite what you are going through. You are so scared of appearing in any way mad you internalize everything, and you are so scared that people will alienate you further you clam up and don’t speak about it, which is a shame, as speaking about it helps. Words- spoken or written- are what connects us to the world, and so speaking about it to people, and writing about this stuff, helps connect us to each other, and to our true selves. (…) There is no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are. Misery, like yoga, is not a competitive sport.
-Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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Waking up becomes difficult. Caring becomes difficult. Talking to people, saying hello, answering ‘I’m good, you?’ becomes difficult. Asking about others becomes difficult. What a selfish disease this is. There are people around me with actual, more tangible problems, you know. I hope people forgive me for being like this, I hope I forgive myself because it’s hard and embarrassing. There’s so much more going on the world and this is my problem? Of course it’s embarrassing. A couple of articles I read today helped me less absurd. In this article by Ben Locker for The Guardian, Locker shares a feeling I know all too well: “Depression is with you when you wake up in the morning, telling you there’s nothing or anyone to get up for. It’s with you when the phone rings and you’re too frightened to answer it. It’s with you when you look into the eyes of those you love, and your eyes prick with tears as you try, and fail, to remember how you love them.”

Haig does offer ten reasons to stay alive in his book. Here is his tenth reason:

You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at your baby daughter’s face as she lies contentedly asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view like this one and feel the beauty, there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.

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