At the risk of jumping the shark, I’m going to uncharted territory with today’s post.
In this blog, I’ve written about everything from love and marriage to invasive medical procedures and bull semen. I’ve revealed my thoughts on parenting, work, family, human nature, fashion faux pas, the tragedy of cat nip addiction, and my spectacular inability to master any form of choreographed dancing. But one topic I’ve never discussed is my tendency toward depression. It’s not that I’ve hidden this part of my life, and it causes me no shame. Rather, I choose when and to whom I talk about a condition which I share with approximately 18 million American adults.
My goal here is not to provide you a comprehensive course on depressive disorders. You can go to to WebMD, Wikipedia, or Google, for all the basics. Instead, I want to write about my personal experiences, and how my life has been affected by the presence of such a stubborn condition.
Specifically, my type of depression is dysthymia—-a chronic condition characterized by consistently low moods. I am not bi-polar. I am not self-destructive. I am not a substance abuser. And I am generally thought to be a jolly, if not downright silly, person. So how can I be depressed? See, depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Our brains shift out of balance for lots of reasons—-falling in love, grief, extreme anger, terror, guilt, worry—all of these feelings happen because chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin have stopped working and playing well together. When that happens, our brains are capable of resetting the balance and restoring order to our universe. With depression, however, the brain cannot accomplish the reset by itself. The feelings associated with depression (sadness, isolation, hopelessness, guilt, fatigue, apathy, anxiety, etc) become troublesome, and in the case of clinical or major depression, overwhelming. Dysthymia (like other forms of depression) is more common in women and can develop into episodes of major depression, especially when paired with other health problems or stressful situations.
I want it known that I’ve had a pretty sweet life. All around me are folks who shoulder burdens much heavier than my own. But I remember my first episodes of depression occurring after my dad’s death. Cancer took him when he was 46 and I was 14, and chaos ruled our home during that time. From the outside my family appeared to be adjusting to the loss and moving on; but trust me: each of us carries individually relevant scars. For me, they take the form of anxiety issues. Experiences that cause me stress can transform my dysthymia into full-blown depression.
It was years before I realized what was happening. Hot flashes, obsessive thoughts, sleep problems, weight gain, guilt—both justified and undeserved—and worry, worry, worry. The worst thing was knowing I was unable to control these feelings. They seemed to live and breathe as they wreaked havoc in my mind and body. Eventually I sought help, and a combination of medicine and behaviors keeps me from spinning off into outer space. But I live with it every single day of my life.
So how does it feel? Most days I’m absolutely fine. Don’t forget that in spite of my depressive tendencies I’ve worked, enjoyed a long and loving marriage, raised two fine kids, and maintained friendships. I am, without doubt, a people person and a social creature. But sometimes I do all those things through a slight haze. And if I’ve recently had to deal with something stressful or I’ve had reason to be anxious, then that haze thickens into a heavy fog. It feels like I’m trying to walk through waist-deep cement. It’s a daily battle to accomplish simple chores like housework or cooking. It’s realizing things that used to make me happy and satisfied no longer interest me, and I grieve their loss. Thoughts are hard to control, and I ride a pendulum between nervous energy and deep apathy. I might not make the best choices, I might act impulsively, or I might find it difficult to act at all. Here are the words of an anonymous sufferer, in response to the question “What does depression feel like?”:
Depression feels like a circle of guilt, worthlessness, inability, weakness, and fear. All wrapped up in silence and fog. You don’t function like you used to, you can’t think like you used to, you can’t participate like you used to and you let down those depending on you like they used to. You live in a circle of fear and guilt and your brain constantly reminds you that you no longer measure up and there’s no point in trying anymore.
The good news is I’ve learned to adapt and to adjust. Yes, I take medications. But more than that, I respect my condition and keep a watchful eye on it. Remember when I said I’m generally known to be a jolly person? I’ve always been a laugher, and since I know that laughter is a natural antidepressant, I laugh every day— not just because I like the giddiness, but because it helps me maintain a positive outlook. Reruns of FRIENDS and my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics work magic, as do intriguing conversations with interesting people, innocent flirting, great music, being social, and enjoying family time. I write. I make jewelry. For awhile, I baked away the blues and really gave Betty Crocker a run for her money! Especially helpful is having a husband who understands and is fiercely supportive of my needs. During low periods I don’t watch sad movies, read scary books, or listen to news reports about tragic events. Instead, I fill my mind with things that are happy and positive. I also read devotional books, talk to God, and meditate on the Psalms. That King David could really turn a phrase.
I also leave my own head and turn my thoughts outward. My dysthymia (with its episodes of anxiety and outright depression) has actually made me more empathetic and less judgemental. If people are incapable of knowing the twists and pivots of my mind, if they can’t feel what I’m feeling on a given day, then how can I know and feel them? We are really, truly, all in this life together, and just as I’ve had to reach out for a strong shoulder or an attentive listener, I am determined to be those things for others in need.
Some studies have suggested that creative types (like me) are more susceptible to depressive disorders. Perhaps it’s because we are a bit more aware of, or in tune with, or at the mercy of, our emotions. The term tortured artist was coined for a reason. But I’m certainly not looking for sympathy. After all, I’m not the only person who struggles to manage anxiety or depression. If the statistics are correct, anywhere one hundred people are gathered, at least 10 of them are suffering. Life has dealt those of us living with depression similar hands, and even though we have to play them wisely, we’re still in the game. Don’t you doubt that for a minute!