The past two weeks have been rough. About mid week for two weeks in a row I’ve been met with astonishingly huge, debilitating depression. The sort of depression that feels like a drug withdrawal, or like grief for the death of a close family member.
Every time the black dog comes, I have a complicated mix of emotions: I’ve lived with this for so long that I’m confident in my skills and resources to overcome it again. It didn’t kill me in 2015 when I had a psychotic break and became terrified of ceiling fans, it won’t kill me now. On the other hand, I know just how ferocious a monster depression is. I know that it very well could kill me. I may be a tiger trainer, and I may be adept at knowing how to not let the beasts kill me. That doesn’t mean they are any less dangerous.
These past two weeks have been particularly scary for me. In an attempt to put the experience to words, I started writing single sentences in my journal:
The sunlight changes. It’s no longer warm and comforting but cold, bleak, penetrating.
I retreat into myself, deep into my flesh, as into a mountain. My body no longer feels like a live, vital thing, but like a dead mound of flesh. Within that mound, I curl up and find quiet, and safety.
What do others think? Friends and strangers all suddenly feel disproportionately threatening, seeming to harbor secret resentments, dislikes, anger. Isolation feels like the safest route.
My eyelids feel like gummy worms – rubbery, sticky, heavy. It’s a labor to keep them open.
Those sentences were from last week, and when the horror abated of its own accord I was deeply relieved. I thought it was just a blip, and I decided to think nothing of it. But then, for a single hellish Wednesday this week, the devils visited me again. The first warning sign was that I couldn’t wake up. Vivid dreams plagued me, and then I woke up feeling immobile. For the rest of the day, I felt sluggish and doused in gasoline simultaneously. My body tingled with anxiety, and yet I was too sluggish to smile, emote, or move. Having to push oneself through a regular work day while suffering depression ought to be an Olympic sport.
The worst part of depression – for me at least – is how it creates a reality distortion field. Up is down, left is right. People around me suddenly feel like monsters. I was convinced I was going to be fired from my job, for no reason. My body started responding in kind. A runaway-train chain reaction started in my body, and I couldn’t stop it. I was sure – absolutely sure – that my beloved work community hated me, that my boss was secretly regarding me with loathing. My nervous system responded as if I was in a pit of lions.
Finally, I got home. I collapsed in bed. My partner sat next to me and, in his disarmingly gentle way, asked me what was going on. I told him everything that had happened in my head that day. He easily talked me through it, helped me see objectively, and then said, “I think you’re catastrophizing, Stephen.”
I reached out to my boss, and asked her if we were ok. She reassured me that she loved me and valued me, and that she understood what I was going through. I’d sent out a distress signal via text to all my close friends earlier that day, and they started to return my calls and texts with loving presence.
I awoke the next day feeling as if I had run a marathon – I was fatigued and shaky from a day of being hounded by neurological tigers – but the darkness had lifted. I was myself again.
I’m convinced that what saved me was my swift reaction – my willingness to connect with other friends, coworkers, and my partner. Yes, it always feels a bit awkward and humiliating. It’s humiliating to feel like a farcical shadow of yourself, to let others see a side of you that is twitchy, weak, irrational, paranoid. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for them, too.
I push through that discomfort, though, because I know that such communication saves me. I know that I have to communicate swiftly, before the depression sews up my lips and stupefies my tongue. I communicate, even when it is uncomfortable, because I want to create a world in which I can talk as freely about my mental health as I would about bad knees, a herniated disc, or an injured rotator cuff. It is a physical malady that has real, physical consequences. Resistance to that reality is how I generate more suffering.
Now, as I write this, I’m on the other side of the darkness. I know it will come again soon, but I am less afraid. Asking for help is hard, but infinitely worth it.