I’ve spent the past year recovering from, and coming to terms with, a depressive episode that happened at the beginning of last year. All depression alters you, but there are some encounters that reach so deeply into your core that they leave you permenantly, utterly changed. My breakdown of 2015 was such an episode, and I’ve spent the following months trying to come to grips with the experience, and the person I’ve become. I’ve spent the past year trying to fathom the experience – what it was, how to describe it, and what happened.
The experience of depression is like the inverse of a profound, mystical experience. Instead of being immersed in an impenetrable light, reaching towards and touching the divine, you are plunged into complete darkness. You are buried underground, deep within some unknown part of yourself. Extreme depression is like a possession – something dark and infinitely alien takes hold of you; some mysterious part of your brain holds the rest of your being hostage. All the questions, though, evade answers – the what, the how, the why. What was it, exactly, that happened to me? Why did my brain respond to stress the way it did? Depression is often as mysterious as it is appalling. The more I try to look at the details of my experience last year, the foggier it becomes. Through all of the fog, though, one thing is brilliantly clear: it was the precipitation of a lifetime of internalized homophobia and anguish. My sudden and total collapse came when the structures of my psyche could no longer endure the weight.
For me, depression and anxiety go hand in hand. First, it was just horrible depression that fell over me, like a deep winter with no Christmas – a winter that forces all the world into colorlessness and stillness and hiding. But then the anxiety came. The pain became so intense, I would lay in bed, covers over my head, and scream, and scream, and scream. The pain was there for no reason: an explosive, lightning-hot fire in my mind. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t function. My heart was constantly racing, my body felt like it was constantly falling. I often felt like I was dying, or as if I was on a plane that was hurdling towards the ground. So often I wished that someone could just tranquilize me, put me out of my misery, out of this horrible fever. I cried often. I was reduced to a tiny, shivering sliver of myself.
And then … I always come to a dead end, a point at which I simply run out of words and metaphors, where I reach the end of language, and cannot describe what it was like. All that’s left is the indescribable mystery and horror of deep depression.
The depression put an enormous strain on my 2 month old relationship with my partner. Anxiety and depression blind us to love, affection, and beauty. I would panic over being in a relationship, and as a result I couldn’t see any beauty or feel love for him, and then I would panic even more, and I would plummet down a death spiral. Jonathan held on to me as tight as he could – he helped me go to therapy, encouraged me to go to meetings, he would hold me as I cried, he would soothe me when I woke up screaming. My relationship with him was the catalyst for this nightmare: the dissonance between my upbringing and my relationship threatened to undo me. He was also my greatest medicine: a channel for God’s healing and grace. Young as our relationship was, he was not willing to leave me for the darkness, and he carried me through.
The first flickers of recovery might stand out in my memory forever. That first afternoon when I was able to sit on the couch – just sit – drinking tea and reading a book. That first evening playing a videogame and not being tortured by the anxiety or invasive thoughts and darkness. I would feel calm and present, there on the couch on a still evening, and almost bursting with tears of relief. I could just be there. Never again – never, ever – will I take the present moment for granted. Never again in my life will I take feeling and being for granted.
The simplest things are now the greatest pleasures. Any day that I don’t wake up into such hellish torture is a good day. Reading a book, or doing yoga, or playing a game, or being with friends, and even staying focused while at work – these are the stuff of life now. A missionary friend of mine once said to me, “After all the places I’ve been in the world, I’m now completely convinced that the two greatest luxuries in the world are a hot shower and a cold glass of water.” She’s right. And depression, if survived, has a similar re-framing of life – it has a way of making the smallest things the most beautiful. What I unearth, as I meditate on the horror of last year, is an enormous gratitude. Gratitude for my partner, my therapist, my friends. Gratitude that I am able to get up and work, and pay rent, and have a home. Gratitude for hot showers, and cold glasses of water.
In the aftermath, I’ve discovered different layers of myself. If I’ve discovered gratitude, I’ve also discovered a great deal stubbornness and meanness as well. I’m more prone to irritation now, and less willing to put up with people’s bullshit. I have to watch my boundaries and limits very closely. I am more sensitive to stress, crowds, and lack of sleep. I am more of a recluse now. My faith was also changed by depression – I have more questions. The edges of my faith are not so clearly defined as they once were. I look on my former faith, and find it shallow and certain. Life is less clear, less obvious in the aftermath of my rendezvous with hell.
But, I am alive. And for that I am immensely thankful.