If I could just take some time, I could get better.
This is the thought that has repeatedly crept into my brain recently. If I could just take a break, if I could just step out of life, if I could just breathe…I could get better.
I have a bag of pain that I lug around with me from time to time. It weighs down my walk and dulls my surroundings. It turns up the volume on conflict to the point that it becomes necessary to stay home so that a disagreement with a cashier or a driver flipping me off doesn’t consume me. If I don’t answer my phone or come to your party I’m probably home, trying to figure out how to get through the endless minutes of the day.
Seventeen years ago I was sitting on the edge of our bed in the middle of a crisis that would mangle our newlywed years, when I witnessed a break inside. Not in my heart, but in my brain. The operating part of my mind remarked, that damage might be permanent. The damage is called depression.
Dylan was conceived two months later and for two years raising a baby was remedy enough. I didn’t know that pain could burrow like a virus and lay dormant until it saw an opportunity. I don’t remember the trigger on that particular day in our house when Dylan was two but I always remember the places–the dining room, walking between the table and the wood stove when the crying started and couldn’t be stopped.
This began therapy time. Sitting on the phone on hold, leaving messages, hiring and firing therapists who looked overwhelmed by my stories; attempting to drive home afterwards freshly ripped open. I accepted a prescription of antidepressant and the first night there were fireworks in my brain. I lay in bed terrified by a cataclysm of flashing light and color as my brain seemed to break again. No one mentioned this could happen. Then, for a few weeks, I settled into the numb. I watched the news coverage of the anniversary of September 11th with indifference. That was my cue to toss the meds. No empathy meant no life so I looked for a new route of healing.
Quitting talk therapy and meds, I spent the next fourteen years on a self-help bender. If there was a food, herb, cleanse, meditation, spiritual practice, aroma or person who could keep me out of the depths I would be that raw foodist, Buddhist, minimalist, herbalist, hammock-sleeping person.
At first the depression would descend at will on an otherwise normal day. Each morning I would wake up and test the air, and eventually I would wake up and it would be light again. It was never about the original crisis; I had healed from that with the help of EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a technology developed for PTSD. The psychologist who previously offered me nothing more than a sad-eyed expression and a new appointment now sat happily sipping her coffee while I sat hooked up to lights and headphones and buzzers.
None of that had any effect on the depression. It only needed the tiniest of toe-holds to move in and stick around until its own strength waned. There was no reasoning with it, it had no reason.
Eventually the time came when I could say, I’m better, I have my bad days, but I’m better. It was around this time when a person of great influence in my life called to inform me that my depression had become a burden on those close to me and that it was time to get over it. I couldn’t form words at that moment so I listened in paralyzed silence, but instead of outrage, the first feeling was confusion. My brain said, But I’m better, I’m actually good, what are they talking about? I hung up on the assault and instead of being cured by these words of wisdom I was crushed. I began polling friends and family, Am I a burden? Do I bring you down? They assured me that I didn’t–I was better, I seemed good.
And I was good. I became a happy person with bad days. I could be fun and I could feel joy and optimism. I could co-exist with my demons.
On a Sunday in August of this year, the door that was open to life and love and possibilities was kicked shut again and has not fully reopened. It was a bad day that became a bad week and now it’s winter. The self-improvement experiments went into overdrive. Plans and lists dominated my time. Schedules and strategies were needed. I knew how to outsmart and outrun this, I just needed a little time. If I could just take a break, if I could just step out of life, if I could just breathe…I could get better. I started saying no to everything: the parties, the coffees, the meetings, the dinners, the concerts, to anything that required a cheerful facade. At the few events I went to, I was mortified at not being able to laugh with everyone else. Small talk was impossible. I told Iain I felt like I was disappearing.
Then I took the opposite tack and reached out to everyone. I didn’t tell them why but I began texting, emailing, messaging, trying to act like a normal, sociable person who was definitely not being swallowed by loneliness. Apparently reaching out to people and saying, “Hey, what’s new?” is not a great way to communicate the desperate need for emotional support because I got few replies back and ended up deeper in the pit.
My birthday was carefully planned with my favorite foods and a trip to my favorite museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The last time I was there I felt awe and I thought it held enough beauty to heal me, but this time as I walked from room to room I felt confused. Nothing spoke to me, nothing looked beautiful. It was too dark and my eyes struggled to see. I kept telling myself that I hadn’t reached my favorite rooms yet, what were my favorite rooms? By the time we circled back to the lobby the tears started to rise and I spent the ride home trying to spare my family my sobs.
That’s when the thought came. Retreat.
I thought of Elizabeth Gilbert and her solitary travels to heal from divorce; of Cheryl Strayed, who hiked alone to deal with her mother’s death. I couldn’t walk away from my family, but I could pare life down to something I could handle. It was time to let go of my perceived obligations to others and look the demons in the face. The retreat wouldn’t be a place, it would be a time: January. I made a list of to-dos (meditation, books, walks, saunas, music, yard work, writing, drawing) and not-to-dos (social media, socializing in all forms, news, commissions, treats), everything that I use as an escape to kill time until the storm passes. This doesn’t mean that I’ll ignore you if I see you around town so no need to turn the other direction.
I’ve shared a lot on this blog with no second thoughts. These were things that happened to me, blameless things. But depression doesn’t feel blameless, it feels shameful, which is why I talked myself out of writing this many times. For me it’s shameful because of that voice on the phone that said, you’re bringing everyone down, it’s time to get over this. All the years of strength and tranquility were a source of pride. I had overcome, I was a centered, happy person. Now here I was failing again, so I kept it to myself hoping it would blow over on its own. Why should anyone else know?
Here’s why: when I read Eat, Pray, Love and Wild I thought, I know that; when I watched the film “Manchester by the Sea” I didn’t pity Lee Chandler, I thought, I get him–the self-loathing and self-imposed isolation and I wondered if others in the theater did too. I don’t want pity, I want someone else to read this and think, I get this.
For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.
My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.
– May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
I just finished Brene Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) and it’s helped me to understand the shame I have of my depression. Dr. Brown has taught me that sharing is one of the most important steps in healing.Thank you for taking the time to read this and for your compassion. See you on the other side.
[Featured artwork: Amy and Dylan, charcoal on paper]