Shadows & Fog
Let me tell you something. The next time you find out that someone you know has wrangled with clinical depression and come out the other side intact, immediately offer your sincerest congratulations. Because you are in the presence of heroic courage. You are in the presence of someone who has waged a life-and-death struggle and won. At least until the next bout comes around. Hmm. Sounds a lot like fighting breast cancer, doesn’t it?
Grappling with depression is not for sissies. I’m not talking about having the blues once in a while. I’m talking about how, out of nowhere, this sneaky mist of desperation creeps up on you, slowly, invisibly, like carbon monoxide. And before you realize that you should run for your life, you are slumped into a kind of emotional suffocation, a kind of paralysis, lurking just out of sight one minute, choking you the next. And it goes on. And on. For days. And days. And nights and weeks and months. Even years. No matter what you do. You can shove it away sometimes, you can even go to work, have a night out, laugh. You might figure out how to function and paste on your game face sometimes, but always, always, when you lie in bed trying to fall asleep, when the alarm clock goes off and you have to haul yourself out of bed to go to work, it’s there. Like your evil twin, your shadow self. Haunting you. Threatening you. Clamping onto you when you least expect it, with its chilling, unbreakable tentacles.
I could write a book. Hell, I could write several books. I’m an expert at surviving depression, mine and other people’s, because I’ve been doing it all my life. I remember experiencing my first bout of depression when I was as young as seven years old. This was decades before SSRI’s, or even wellbutrin and trycyclics. This was back in the heyday of electro-convulsive therapy, commonly known as shock therapy. This was the era when doctors prescribed valium, of all things, for people with depression. Great, huh? Giving a depressed person a drug that depresses the central nervous system. This was also the era that gave birth to the suburbs, along with their cocktail parties and backyard barbecues and block parties. People drank high balls and Manhattans and stingers like they were ginger ale. People drank the hard stuff. A lot. Lotta self-medicating. Didn’t work either. Frequently made things worse.
My poor mother suffered from pretty serious mental illness. She had cycles of major depression all her life. And when she wasn’t depressed, she was just peculiar, isolating and talking ragtime, in a way which I now believe was symptomatic of a personality disorder with paranoia. She certainly had a persecution complex. The original conspiracy theorist, my mother, and a champion grudge-holder. My father, I think, suffered from a kind of chronic depression called dysthymia. When I was a teeny kid, he also developed alcoholism, like so many people with underlying depression do. He finally quit drinking when I was ten, after one of his best drinking buddies destroyed his marriage and almost lost his job to alcoholism. After my best friend’s mom died of liver cirrhosis from alcohol. After our neighbor down the street committed suicide by running her car in a closed garage. It was one of those ones built under one end of the house, so the gas floated up through her house, almost taking her sleeping children and husband with her. So it all added up to a massive wake-up call for my dad to finally quit the nightly, after-work visits to the local bar, and the temper tantrums, and the screaming, dish-throwing fights with my mother over dinner every night. She actually had better aim than he did. But it was good they stopped all that. We were running out of dishes by then.
So, I really didn’t stand a chance. When I think back, I don’t know how my poor parents hung in there either. It wasn’t easy to grow up with them, but they were, in spite of everything, loving, hard-working people who were both children during the Great Depression of 1929. How’s that for irony? They were both very intelligent, creative, resourceful people. High IQ’s, both of them, my mom having the highest IQ in her class all through school, my dad being double-promoted twice and allowed to graduate high school at 15. My dad was a musician and a photographer when he wasn’t at his day job. My mother wrote syntactically clever, sardonic poetry, kind of a like a cross between e.e.cummings and Emily Dickinson. Turns out a lot of people who are intelligent and creative and resourceful develop depression. People like Dolly Parton and Ellen DeGeneres. Like Jim Carrey and Harrison Ford and Ernest Hemingway. People who are successful, accomplished, brilliantly talented, hilariously funny. Amazing people. At least I’m in good company. I try to remind myself of that when I’m having one of those dark nights of the soul.
“That’s me in the corner.”
from Losing My Religion, by R.E.M.
I think this is going to have to be part one of a series. If I tried to write out all the things I’ve learned about suffering with depression and conquering depression and figuring out if you have depression and what kind of depression you might have and how to treat depression, I’d be here all night. But let me just say, for those who were wondering, that I slipped off the edge again about four weeks ago, which is why you haven’t seen much of me in cyberspace. I managed to go to work and stuff, but it was all a little touch and go there, and I’ve only just been able to buckle on my emotional crampons tightly enough to climb back up. I’m gonna be fine. I always triumph in the end. But I wasn’t expecting it this time, so I got a few more bruises than usual.
What happened, you ask? Why now? And just when I was finally on my way to putting the cancer-related fatigue behind me. Chemistry, ladies and gentlemen. Neuro-chemistry, to be exact. Stuff like dopamine and norepinephrine and serotonin, and god knows what-all. I’m just one of those lucky people whose neurotransmitters and enzymes and stuff get out of whack now and then. Most of the time, it’s set off by some kind of stressful circumstance, some situational thing, which is often what sets it off for most folks. You know, stuff like having back surgery. Or my mother dying. Or recovering from breast cancer. That kind of crap. I have to say, though, that this past year-and-a-half probably takes the cake for screwing up my internal chemistry. I’ve had to deal with so many external assaults and weird medications and just place bull-crap, it’s really pretty amazing that I functioned at all. Oh, well. I’m upright now, “standing up, taking nourishment,” as one of my patients used to say.
Listen, though. This is important. You are not alone. You are not the only one. There is help. Don’t sit there suffering. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not a sign of ‘weakness.’ It’s not your personality. There’s a reason it’s called a ‘mood disorder.’ The way you feel, the thoughts you have, those are symptoms. So, go talk to a doctor or a counselor or your absolute best buddy. You can feel better, honest to god. That’ll be my part two.
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