This is What Depression Looks Like

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Last year my father-in-law shot himself. He died.

For all the hundreds of hours I contemplated my own suicide throughout my life, I never thought I would know someone– someone in my own family– who felt that all encompassing desperation and pain with which I was so intimate. My father-in-law was ex-military and earned several degrees. He was funny and never left my husband’s presence without giving him a full body embrace and the words, “I love you, son.”

As much as I want to call my father-in-law a fucking idiot for taking his own life, there is that part of me that knows the darkness, the inexplicable and crazy pain of hopeless depression. It’s only been about a year since my husband has started to truly understand the clinical reality of my own depression and anxiety. I’ve had to break it down through lists of medications, detailed accounts of therapy sessions, exploration some of my writings and my own intense efforts to ritualize the moments when I break down and need help. It goes something like this:

“I’m feeling a dark scream or big cry sitting in my chest. I feel it coming. Something isn’t right and I need to stop what I’m doing.”

My husband knows what to do. A glass of water, a hot shower, anxiety meds, a dark room. I cry and cry and cry until I feel my brain is about to separate from the rest of my nervous system. Rampaging negative thoughts mobilize and move in for the kill. All the while, I am verbalizing exactly what is going on in my head– however crazy or scary it might sound. He is strong and still and reassures me. “It’s not real. It’s passing. This is the storm.” Sometimes I hate his words and fight against them. Sometimes I fold into his arms and allow myself to fall quiet. And then it passes. It always passes.

I wish I had known that my father-in-law had it in him to reach those mysterious, sinister depths. They are tricks of the mind– that part of your brain which shuts down completely in the throes of pure anguish. It is a spiraling, tornadic grip that makes no sense to anyone except the sufferer. For the sufferer, it’s so clear. “I do not want this pain anymore” and “I have done my time here. I want to move on.” and “People will get over this. They are better off without me.” Lies. All of them. And i’ve been on the critical receiving end of those lies many, many times.

Because of circumstances, I was responsible for arranging everything around his death– cremation, memorial service, obituary, reception. Strangely, I was glad I had so much to do. When I was 23, I had to do the same thing with my own mother who had also died unexepectedly from a massive heart attack. She was only 51. So not only did I have experience as someone with depression, I had already gone through this parent-dies-suddenly-way-too-young scenario. And it sucked all over again.

I kept calm and focused through most of it. I was there for my husband, my child and did my best to coordinate a farewell that would ease so many people’s pain. But in my gut, I was terrified that once the initial chaos and activity passed, I wouldn’t do so well. I could feel the tension in my body, lack of sleep, no eating (which is not great for balanced blood sugar which is critical for staying well). And one day after the memorial, it hit me. I had a panic attack, followed by depression. I didn’t want to move, but it was different this time. I felt a deep sense of shame– shame for all the times I considered suicide and leaving everyone behind. I felt ashamed of my condition and hated it profusely. I was angry and bitter and felt trapped beyond description. This was made even more intense by the fact that somehow I’ve managed to protect and preserve that part of my consciousness which is aware of my disease and can identify when my brain is not functioning properly. This is not to say that my emotions weren’t normal. They absolutely were. But for someone who suffers from clinical depression, these experiences are dangerous triggers which can spark, like a match, a deep burning which enflames and engulfs your sense self. It’s awful.

So, as always, I came out of it. I stopped, slept, walked, and forced myself to eat something every 2-3 hours because, for me, my blood sugar is a monumental key to stabilizing my neurology. My psychiatrist slightly increasesed the dosage on my medication and prescribed something new for more intense bouts of anxiety. After two weeks, I felt like myself again.

It’s taken me a while to figure out the area in which I am truly an expert. Like many depressed people, I am a “highly sensitive person” which is a neutral way of saying that I feel things, like, a LOT. I am a passionate person with deep interests and substantial preoccupations with doing “great things” in my life. I want to explore my talents to their absolute fullest, love without consequence and steer the wave of unending ideas and plans that I have to help people, bring change and create art. In the long stretches when I am exceedingly healthy, I get to think about cool stuff like multiple universes, better ways to get books to kids in poor neighborhoods, sketches for my subversive stitching projects, the power of love.

But when you suffer from depression, you can get stopped right in your tracks. That beautiful poem lies there unfinished. The “free food” garden in my yard languishes, the novel moves into a bottom drawer for fear of being rejected more than it can take. My healthy mind is wrapped in duct tape and sits, paralyzed, in the shabby and dangerous basement of my illness. The intense desire to express and create is boxed up, even though you can still hear the pleas for help. In other words, I’m an expert in real clinical depression. Real. Clinical. Depression.

Mind you, I have been dealing with it since I can remember which technically qualifies me as someone with “early onset major depressive disorder.” That sounds downright Oscar-worthy. But the fact is that– like being poor or double jointed or a socialist– I just didn’t know there was any other way to be. I thought everyone had an annoying chorus of negative thoughts and weekends spent in bed and a dull sense that there had been a mistake in my being born. I had fantasies of joining the unknown in my sleep– my soul and neurons and unleashed bliss could rejoin the cosmic soup which has played a cruel yet hilarious joke on the whole of humanity. I was convinced we could all experience peace and joy when the lines between “me” and “others” could finally be dismantled in death.

This is what I’ve always thought about– since I was 9 or 10. I can’t really tell you the exact age, which is one really terrible quality of depression. I have virtually no long term memory of years, places, people, experiences. But I do remember how I felt. I can tell you how I felt when I was three years old, seven years old, 12, 19 and on and on. But I depend on other people to give me back my memories. The memories I have are given back to me through filters of sympathy, confusion, judgment, remorse, victory and emotional peril. I take people’s word for it that I have always had an infectious laugh, a nice smile and a way with words. I don’t need to remember those times, because the smiles and laughter are my rewards for cutting through the infection of my disease, and that’s more than good enough. It’s good enough because every breathless, hysterical laughing fit, every happy tear, every sincere smile is mine and lives in me somewhere. For months and even years at a time, I can feel them running for their lives like the last living people in a zombie wasteland.

Lack of memories is a big reason I became I writer. I thought I needed to remember every last detail of my life– like soaking up Game of Thrones determined to watch straight through without needing to go to online forums to figure out what the hell is going on. But I don’t need to remember it all. What I do need to remember is that for every self help book or spiritual practice I have explored, I always left out some critical key ingredient in understanding myself, my pain and my place in this world. My brain… and its smaller than normal hippocampus.

It’s taken a long time to come to this point, fully realizing that only about 1/3 of people with depression and anxiety ever get diagnosed. And even if you’re diagnosed, it may be weeks, months or years before you literally stumble upon the right combination of meds and the right dosages. You have to be your own advocate, which is particularly challenging when you’re not at your best. And if you can find someone to talk to and guide you through the complex minefield of your mind with actual clinical research and facts, that’s even better. I take extra Vitamin D, fish oil and other natural protocols. It’s all a work in progress– it’s all an intricately designed plan to help prevent me from ever going to that dark, unforgiving space where thoughts of suicide live and thrive.

I will miss my father-in-law and I am so very sad for my husband, who will never know how thoughts can lead to such violence. I am grateful he will never know, and that I can bear that knowledge for him and truthfully say, “It was never about you. There was nothing you could do. Absolutely nothing.”  I can erase that guilt for him because he knows that I know what it feels like to be that hopeless. I’m not ashamed anymore of my former suicidal ideations, because I know it’s helped some people who are mourning to let go of my father-in-law without blame. And that’s something.

Poem-a-day #2: The Only Waltz

The only waltz

Worth a listen

Are the ones

That are played

After the party

Is finally over

 

The only waltz

That brings tears

Makes me walk

Down the hole

In my heart

 

The only waltz

I could learn

Is on strings,

With my voice,

Twinkling and sighs

 

The only waltz

Fit for dancing

Happens in rooms

Lit by candles

And your shadow

 

There’s a waltz

Purring inside me

Wanting to show

How to glide

How to swing

 

The only waltz

I can play

The only waltz

I can hear

The only waltz

I can dance

Never ever ends

But sometimes appears.

Poem-a-day #1: How to Escape a Tsunami

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How can I let go of you now? You’ve seen my panic stricken face.

You know the sharp stone that vibrates in my belly.

I don’t know what it is, or where it came from. But you have one too.

I dream of scooping out the rock from my body  like an avocado pit. I carve it into a bookend and offer to do yours, too. The pain in our guts could be bookends shaped like funny monkeys covering their eyes. They each have a fez and wicked little smiles.

“Don’t read these books,” I imagine them saying.

And I invite you over and unveil our pain which is holding up a strange book called How to Escape a Tsunami. We’d scratch our heads and talk about how we would do it, even though our town is landlocked.

We would sit a long time.

We would discuss whether we should pick up the book and read it, despite the monkeys implied warnings. You say, “Yes.”

There is nothing inside this book except the word, “RUN” and then hundreds of drawings. Sweeping bits of landscapes and a beacon of light on a mysterious mountaintop all painted in gold. Dozens of pages filled with tree roots, twisted and gorgeous– thirsty and thrilling. Still.

“Is that real gold?” I ask.

“Are these real places?” you ask.

We can barely make out the world in this strange book that tells us to run and shows us what the world could be, and how it is. It is a map that shows a way out of terror. It doesn’t matter which direction you go. Everywhere is safe, as long as you’re not alone.

I don’t know what love is anymore. And that is beautiful.

When Worlds Fall Apart

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When the world falls apart, and all that is left behind are charred bushes and ironic, blown over street signs and cats catapulting off of slumped over rooftops, it will be bearable if we are together. We would tackle the urban terrain like modern day Survivors and you would gather Pringles and dried fruit and keep me away from dangerous others—like gun-crazy hillbillies and politicians and bears. You will have a trusty survival guide and will teach us both how to siphon gas and live peacefully in the wilderness. It will be hard, but fun because the joy of life is in your music and my words and all the stories between us.

I wake up from scraped up dreams all ice ages and cavemen and poodle-sized mosquitoes and wonder if we were sent to that time and place, would our love survive or would we succumb to tribal roles and vicious meat battles? I think you would amaze the cavepeople with your not-so-cavelike drawings, and tell them about the future and all of the history that lies between them and us—Roman intrigue and Chinese dynasties and Hollywood. They will think you are God or the Devil or least an Alien— in any case, they will be scared and give us pelts and whatever kind of jerky there is and we will leave and be together. And on their cave walls are cartoon strips and recipes and poetry and reasons why women should not be dragged.

The world is a fragile place, and for all of our sensitivities and causes, you would think that it would chew up and spit out people like us. But we are the ones who will survive. We are not Rooms-to-Go and 401Ks and Outback Steakhouse. Home is where we are, with our dog and cat pack, which we will have to protect because they can’t fend for themselves. Perhaps we think we are like them—once wolves and bobcats, now soft and finicky. No. We are not “once human.” Our love makes us strong—Oscar-winning, best-scene-ever strong. If we were POWs and were separated, I would not betray you. I would not believe their lies or their chocolates or their moment-of-weakness humanity. Whoever believes that our bodies are all there is has never believed love of God or person.

And if our injured country goes the way of Hoovervilles and soggy socked misery, our joys will be found in candlelight moments, and the sudden release– like humanity’s smile– in the need to hug and cling more than usual. Funny thing is, you give yourself to me, every single day, as though the world may very well fall apart.

Random Word Generator: New

New

The tide has come and gone. Again. As ever.  I live four hours from a beach, but I know this is true. It is not new. Neither is this poem. It has been written a thousand trillion times plus one in the minds of sleepy children uncertain whether or not their dreams were real or imagined. It was written by my10th grade English teacher one night after his girlfriend left him. It was written by my older sister in that hateful note she left me before she moved out for good. It was written by my neighbor who keeps her house dark on Halloween because she is scared of any sort of mask. It was written in every half-baked business plan, roads to fortune, that ever was. It was written when I fell out of my old self and into screaming love for the first time, and then it was gone.

There was one grown up without normal manners who told me once that everything that ever was has already been thought, written, sung, danced, painted and cried over.

We twisted spoons together with our minds, and drew pictures of heroic horses and their unaffordable, fine black carriages as though recalling a personal memory and not something from last Sunday’s movie at the empty theater with sticky carpets.

I wrote the perfect title for the book I will never write. I sang the first goose-pimpling chorus to the song that will never been sung. I stretched my tired, inflexible body in a modern arch I mastered long ago when happening upon harmless grass snakes in the woods behind my house. They summoned me, or perhaps the other way. But it was a dance always crouching in the silent anxiety of my days.

The drywall in this new house is textured and rough, but sanctimoniously uniform. For an hour, I grip an orange and green glass marble in a tight fist convinced that my best idea is trapped inside of it. I fantasize that I might be able to throw it so hard it will pass through the drywall without a scratch, the universe reassembling itself in honor of the only new thought to come about in five thousand years.

Instead, it is legitimately cold under a vast Texas sky. I find a scarf, but keep my flip flops on. The summer was a living hell, I say out loud to something without breath. The wind pushes leaves into my face, and I swat them away like fruit flies. I should be grabbing them like million dollar bills or kisses. I steer my head toward the stars and know this has been done before. I remember now. I bury the marble next to the dead Peruvian Lemon tree that died in last year’s freak snow storm.

I don’t long for the stars out of reach. Instead, I survey the leaves at my feet, gather them quickly and release them to the wind like wishes. Now, they are in my neighbor’s yard.

———————–

(Words in bold were gathered from a random word generator. )

 

 

Random Word Generator: Selective Memory

Run, Misery, Photographic, Flew, Julius

Crawl carefully in the mystical place of the heart– it is the most free you might be. This is the diary of a masterful claw. A song strung out serene, empty and without light has all the lure of a photgraphic journey flashed furiously on a wall at dinnertime. I have never been there, I will never go there, it was not my dream. Why, then, do we repeat the silly misery? It flew away from us once, now pesky and righteous, dripping in a heartless tapping that defeats our senses. Now, there is the cat to consider. Julius doesn’t smile or jump or cower. He never did– we made him up from day to day. We do that. Bending in time, stretching beyond our psychic means is very dangerous and fattening and overall quite bad for the heart.

Pop Candy – Episode 4

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The first time Alex saw Ava it was in an ad for a Co-op Radio benefit. There was a photo of her and three guys– all hosts of the most popular shows. The foursome looked very bummed out because it was a benefit for the station which had burned to the ground just a week before. No one knew the hows or the whys of why it went up in flames. It was a mystery. Co-op was still was sharing space with the college radio station for the time being, and they had cut their programming by almost seventy per cent until they could raise enough money to buy a new, small studio.

When Alex saw Ava, he felt as though he had hit the mother lode. She was petite with light-haired pony tails. She had perfect, straight Bettie Page bangs and wore black-framed glasses with rhinestones. The photo was in black and white, and he wished he knew what the true color of her eyes and hair really were. In the picture, Ava wore an argyle cardigan over a concert t-shirt which Alex finally made out to be from U2’s Joshua Tree tour. He wondered where she scored the shirt since she must have been in kindergarten at the time. Maybe she had a cool aunt or uncle who passed it down to her. Or maybe she had bought it online. She didn’t seem like the kind of person who buy something like that online, so Alex concluded that it came to her in some wonderful, serendipitous way– like she had come to him. And although she was frowning for the camera, her eyes had a hint of a smile that calmed Alex to the bones.

With the cutback in the schedule, Alex had temporarily panicked thinking that “Pop Candy” would be off the air indefinitely. But Ava wasn’t cut. She was popular. Alex was relieved and disturbed by this fact. “Hey,” he thought. “Who else is listening to her? There can’t be someone out there who loves the show as much as I do.”

Alex had been doing pretty well since discovering “Pop Candy” and he looked forward to it every night. On the weekends, when Ava wasn’t on air, he would line up one album for Sat. night and one for Sun. night– recordings that Ava had talked about or recommended on air. He would sink into his bean bag, put on his garage sale headphones that made him look like a rusty robot and would listen to the entire CD from beginning to end, eyes closed. Sometimes he didn’t have any pot or beer, so it would take him nearly three songs before his mind would stop racing. But for the nights that he did score some weed or had enough for a twelve pack, he would barely make it halfway through before falling into a deep, dreamproof sleep.

He would imagine Ava sitting in a bean bag right next to him, her headphones plugged into the same stereo. Every now and then they would look up at each other, smiling and nodding to the music. Their hands would be clasped and they would tap rhythms on the back of them to keep time. Maybe she would squeeze his hand every now and then at some particularly sentimental lyric.

Tonight, he was listening to The Bends by Radiohead. When Fake Plastic Trees came on, tears began to quietly flow down his face in a torrent of salty, stinging pain. Soon, his face was hot and soaked through like a sponge. He ran the palms of his hands roughly over his eyes and pulled the tears through his dirty hair making it shine in the moonlight streaming in. He could feel the wounds of the years bursting through his skin, ravaging his body with the bold, ruthless pain of regret and fear. He didn’t quite understand what the song meant, but he cared about the person who could write something like that and lamented his own lack of ingenuity when it came to expressing such longing for something better.

At that moment, Alex’s father burst into the room, flung on the lights and took what looked to Alex like a war stance.

“Enough is enough, Alex,” Mr. Whitney said. “You’ve drained the liquor cabinet and you haven’t been out of this house for two weeks. Now you’re sitting in the dark crying like a little girl. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“What? Nothing. What?” Alex’s tears dried up like drops of water on a 400 degree skillet in summertime.

“Tomorrow, I’m locking you out of the house. And there’s nothing you or your mother can do about it. When you get a plan, a job, anything, you let me know and you can get the rest of your things. I’ll pay your first month’s rent, and then you are on your own.”

Before Alex could jump up and say “Hey, Dad. I do have a plan. I mean I have an idea, and it’s slowly getting better. I mean, I’m getting better– just give me some more time…” Mr. Whitney slammed the door shut so hard, Alex’s shelves came crashing down and his CDs fell like tarot cards across the dusty rug. His heart began to race and his eyes darted toward all of his belongings as though he had to make a split second decision on what to keep and what to let burn. He felt his world had suddenly exploded into flames and he had no idea where he was going to go once the sun came up.

Pop Candy – Episode 3

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The only things that had really ever changed in Alex’s room were the color of the walls which had gotten darker over the years like dried blood, his posters and a black computer desk he had stolen from the neighbor’s bulk garbage pickup five years earlier. He had meticulously steam cleaned the exterior and used an exacto to remove stickers bearing the likenesses of Justin Timberlake, Beyonce and Usher. He lay in his twin bed gazing out the screened window and listened to the whoosh of maple leaves that signaled a coming storm. He could not see the stars anymore. They had cleared the wild meadows near his house to put up a new subdivision – “Whispering Willows”- and the street lights, along with the ever growing population of outdoor shopping plazas (strip malls) had stained the night sky that he grew up with. It was black now. And that made him nervous.

It annoyed him that he knew there were stars in the sky, but he couldn’t see them. Though he had spent most every night with eyes squeezed shut listening to wind and crickets and the sound of Nightline blaring from his father’s office, he had suddenly realized that he absolutely must see the stars… or he would do something drastic. It slowly became a compulsion, but he did not realize how severe the itch to see the stars had grown until one night he burst out of his room, ran to the car and started the ignition all with the intention to drive far into the countryside until he could see the Big Dipper. That was the plan. But once he put the car into reverse, Alex blacked out and awoke to paramedics slapping his face. In the corner of his eye he saw his Dad’s car neatly tucked into  the side of the neighbor’s Suburban. The white steam slid into the night air and he thought how nice it would be to go to a sauna tomorrow. Just get all the toxins out, sweat out the pain and the chemicals and the crap he had been breathing in that disgusting room over the garage.

The next day, he had forgotten all about his night terror. He had blocked out all conversation with others throughout the day until it seemed he had only been awake for an hour or two. He was a stoic genius waiting. He knew that he had been born for a reason, and that all was not lost for his lack of work, ambition or focus these last few years. He discovered, during his blackout, that he was waiting for an idea. Just one, simple, exquisite idea that would shoot him out of this house forever. Maybe it was a household invention. Or a mathematical equation. Or an engineering breakthrough. Or something to help babies or dogs. He didn’t know. But he felt good knowing that it was just a matter of time until something happened.

Alex’s confidence soared while he shaved, clipped his toenails, washed his face and applied his topical ointment to the eczema on his feet. But for all the fantasizing about getting his due someday soon, his anxieties returned once the lights were out. He tried to focus on the crickets, but they would not chirp to the rhythm that was in his mind playing over and over. Ode to Joy. He had to quickly abandon the crickets. The trees were no better. Where there was wind last night, tonight it was as still as death. It seemed everything he wanted wasn’t there.

Alex felt his heart racing. His body was one large itch that could not be scratched. If he didn’t hear the crickets play Beethoven or see the hidden stars or hear the song of the trees that was soothing and sweet, he didn’t know quite what he would do. His mother had the only key to the liquor cabinet, and he was fresh out of the two liter plastic bottle of vodka he had finished the day before yesterday.

Alex reached over to his clock radio and looked at the time. It was 10:33 p.m. He tried to hold his breath for a full two minutes. If he could do that, he could do anything and everything would be OK. After 45 seconds, he let out a deep gasp followed by an alarming squeal and burst into tears. Alex’s hands darted toward the clock radio to hurl it against his bathroom door. It fell to the floor and the crackling volume pierced the air. He went to grab and adjust it, but he inadvertently tuned to the Co-op station. He heard the unmistakable voice of Kate Bush and felt that at least he had been thrown a piece of driftwood tied to an old boat on a tumultuous sea.

Alex pulled himself together, crawled into bed and tuned the station in so it was clear and uncluttered by static. He adjusted the volume. Not too soft so he couldn’t hear it, but not too loud that he couldn’t go to sleep. He lay flat on his back, palms up and spread out, face relaxed and he listened. He couldn’t remember when or if he had ever heard a Kate Bush song on the radio. Her voice was an instrument. He wished that Kate was actually his sister or cousin or aunt. Mostly, he let her birdly voice sing of a lonely woman waiting for her long lost love to return from the sea. It was haunting, and he fell asleep just as Ava’s voice pushed him into a dream… “thank God for Kate Bush. I’ll be back tomorrow. Until then, I’m Ava and this has been Pop Candy.”

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