Yeats, sunlight, and Big Apple Red

Last week was bad. Really bad. My depression monster would not shut up, and I was basically white-knuckling it the whole time while I waited for my meds to kick in. I slept a ton, I cried a ton, and I thought about dying a ton. At work on Thursday morning I was thinking such dark thoughts that I made a pact with myself that if I still felt that bad when I got home, I would call my therapist and have her meet me at the ER (which is the plan she and I have discussed and agreed to). I didn’t feel safe with myself. Have you ever felt that way? It’s the strangest sensation. I had sunk down in to the deepest part of depression where you don’t feel much of anything. You aren’t sad, you aren’t angry, you aren’t really anything. You’re just numb, and that, for me, is the nightmarish point where it’s possible to hear my own brain telling me that dying is a completely reasonable option. In fact, maybe it’s the only one. The weirdest thing about it is I can think those thoughts in one part of my mind, but another part is saying, “GIRL. NOT COOL. Look at what your brains are doing. This is not okay and you are not safe and you have to do something.” That voice is not as loud as the depression monster’s, but it speaks with a gravity that I haven’t yet been able to ignore. And this time, that voice worked really hard. That voice busted its ass. That voice said, “Listen. You are a person who thinks the world is so beautiful that it hurts sometimes. Sometimes you cry because the universe is so amazing that you’re overcome with gratitude that you get to be here to see it and be a part of it. That girl, the one who gets goosebumps every time she hears ‘What a Wonderful World’ and could write ten pages about how nice it is to hold hands with someone, is still in here somewhere, and she wants to live. That girl doesn’t think everything is awful and pointless. She sees bad things sometimes, but she does her best to do something about them. That girl gives freely of her time and money and inner resources to stand up for what is right and support people who are in a time of fear and uncertainty and great need. That girl has more work to do. She’s not done. She wants to read more books and hear more music and look into more people’s eyes. She wants to get more tattoos and sing more ridiculous songs to her cats. She wants to drink champagne and learn how to crotchet and watch her niece and nephew grow up. SO, that voice says, you need to tell the depression monster to sit down and shut up.

I had a major shift in the afternoon and was actually feeling fairly okay later on in the day. I came home and had dinner and relaxed and didn’t cry and went to bed. I had a nice restful weekend (cannot stop sleeping, could sleep for a year if you let me) and got out of bed this morning feeling decent. (I know these adjectives are underwhelming, but it’s important to remember that after spending two weeks in a waking nightmare, “fairly okay” is something to celebrate.) My new dosage of meds has me feeling kind of puke-y most of the time, but I had a reasonable amount of energy all day, felt pretty steady while dealing with some stress, laughed with my coworkers and caught a few glimpses of my normal fun self. I decided to try to keep up that momentum and made myself an appointment for a mani-pedi after work. I had some time to kill before my appointment, so I stopped by the used bookstore near the salon. I spent half an hour drifting around and filling my arms with books. I picked up an old copy of The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, started to put it back, then opened it and took a deep breath. It smelled so good that I instantly smiled, and I thought, “There’s one. There’s a thing I would be so sad if I never got to do it again.” I paid for my books and wandered out into the street, where the sun was getting low and casting a really lovely golden light over everything, and I thought, “There’s another.” A couple of hours later, I looked down at my shiny, cherry-red (“Big Apple Red,” to be exact) toes and fingers and thought, “And another.”

I have to remember these things, and I will. As long as there’s still a part of me that the depression monster can’t get to, the part that thinks the world is terrible and beautiful all at once and that’s why it’s such a mind-boggling place to be, the part that likes being mind-boggled, the part that will never get tired of saying, “Well isn’t this nice?”…as long as that part is still there, I will remember the reasons why I want to be here, why I love being here. And I think that part will always be there. Parts of my brain are sick, or have faulty wiring, or however you want to describe it…but other parts, really important parts, are just fine, and they’re not interested in closing up shop. So when things get dark in here again, as they inevitably will, I know that I just have to hold on tight and remember.

Nail polish.

Old-book smell.

Champagne.

The sun in the Midwest at 6:00 in the evening on the first of June.

Remember.

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Stand up eight

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It’s been a busy winter and spring. I started a new job and have been doing lots of volunteering and other cool things, and a couple of weeks ago, I moved for the first time in six years. The new job is really good, and my new home is better than I’d even hoped. I’ve been feeling great and have only been going to therapy every four to six weeks or so and that’s been working fine. With all these positive things happening, I figured, why not start the process of weaning off my antidepressant? What need do I have for it when my life’s in great shape and I’m feeling so awesome and strong and optimistic? A little over a month ago, I saw my doctor and he cut my dosage by 30%. The plan was to stay there for a couple of months to let my body adjust, then cut the dose again, and so on. The couple of weeks were tough…nausea, dizziness, and that generally lousy hungover feeling that I remember well from prior experiences with antidepressants. Work was stressful during those same couple of weeks and I noticed that I felt more irritable and easily frustrated, but that’s to be expected. It takes time for your brain to remember how to handle things without the drugs, or with less of them. No big deal. Then I had to pack for my move, and hey, moving is stressful! Nobody likes packing their entire life into boxes and then promptly emptying them someplace else. Yuck. So, I mean, not a big deal that was crying kind of a lot during that time. And my anxiety was skyrocketing and I was self-medicating by drinking a lot. And wanting to do nothing but sleep 24 hours a day. And thinking dark panicky thoughts about how nothing was going to be okay and somehow the bottom was about to drop out of my life and I’d end up sleeping at the nearest bus stop.

The move went as well as those things ever go. I’m in my new place and it’s beautiful and just feels like me. So with that ordeal out of the way and things calming down at the office, I was all set to get back to feeling awesome because the stressors were gone.

But I didn’t.

Last Sunday, I felt exhausted and numb. Totally fine, I thought. My parents were here that weekend and we were really busy putting the finishing touches on my place, hanging curtains and such. I drank a bottle of wine while watching Sunday night TV and had a crying jag that lasted about an hour, but whatever, sometimes a girl’s gotta cry it out for a minute or sixty.

Monday, I rolled out of bed. Literally rolled. Then I sat on my bedroom floor in the dark for a solid ten minutes willing myself to get up. Cried a little more. Made it to the shower. Somehow got to work and clocked my eight hours even though I felt like I was going to burst into tears at any moment and my attention span was so shot that it took me all day to do about 30 minutes’ worth of work because I couldn’t hold a thought in my head. I went home and got straight into my pajamas and laid motionless on the couch, feeling like my head and arms weighed a thousand pounds and doing anything but lying there was simply too much. At bedtime, I started crying again because the prospect of washing my face and brushing my teeth was so overwhelming. So I brushed my teeth but left the makeup (I’d cried most of it off anyway).

I woke up Tuesday morning and I pried open my mascara-gummed eyelids and discovered that I physically couldn’t get out of bed. If you’ve never been depressed, this sounds like a bunch of lazy bullshit, but I swear to whatever gods there may be that this is an actual thing. When you’re depressed, there is something about first thing in the morning that is absolutely hellish. You swim up out of sleep and open your eyes and your brain starts working and you remember how you hate yourself and your life and how everyone else hates you too, and getting up and going out into the world is only going to reinforce that knowledge, so just stay the hell in bed. Nope, your body says. We’re staying here. Go back to sleep, asshole, because YOUR nightmare begins when you wake UP. And your limbs and your head throb and ache and weigh six tons a piece anyway so bitch, please, like you’re EVEN leaving the house today.

I called in sick. I slept until 10 am and then got up and trudged to the couch and proceeded to lie there instead for a couple of hours, staring at the TV. Then I fell asleep for another 4 or 5 hours. Woke up and cried for a while and thought about how I wished I were dead. Slept some more. Woke up and made myself eat something that I normally love but tasted like sand to me. Then I went to bed.

The funny thing is, it wasn’t until Monday that it even occurred to me that I might be relapsing. I know perfectly well what my triggers and symptoms are, and I brushed them off for a solid month. How could I be relapsing when I hadn’t even stopped my medication, but only reduced it? Don’t be ridiculous.

I didn’t feel better yesterday but pure guilt made me drag myself to work. I spent the whole day in near-tears again (and in actual tears a few times, in the bathroom) and barely got anything done. By this point, my depression monster was roaring in my head. I’m back, motherfucker! Miss me? (My depression monster is a smug son of a bitch.) You are horrible and your life is horrible and you really should just die already. You’ve got twenty Vicodin and a bottle of vodka at home–don’t act like you aren’t thinking about it, you useless, sniveling twat.

Perhaps, I thought, I should put in a call to my psychiatrist.

So here I am, about to go to bed, and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and take my full dosage of Cymbalta. And I’ll probably cry, because why wouldn’t I at this point, and I’ll feel like an epic failure even though I know that’s nonsense. My brain needs what my brain needs and I don’t control that. My life is still positive and good and the work I’ve done to make it that way wasn’t in vain. Maybe I pushed too soon to start tapering off my meds. Neither of my mental health professionals thought so, though. I feel tempted to wallow, and quite honestly, I’ve been hard-core wallowing all week, because at this point it’s basically impossible to imagine a point in my future when I’m not going to be terrified of relapse. The sinister thing about depression is that the more episodes you have in the course of your life, the more likely you are to keep having more. So at this point, statistically it’s far more likely that I will relapse than that I won’t. I don’t know how to live with that. I don’t know how to live with the fear that, unless I resign myself to being on medication for the rest of my life, someday I will relapse and maybe there will be a day that I’m just a tiny bit more worn down, just a tiny bit more tired and fed up with this thing, and my depression monster will be just a tiny bit louder than it’s ever been so far, and then it’s lights out. I don’t have words for that particular fear. If it scares you just to read it, take a minute to think about what it’s like to carry it around.

Depression Me sucks and says scary things. I’m sorry about that. A very kind person told me today that I’m a bright light in her life. And I hate feeling like that light is out, so tomorrow I take the damn pills and get myself back on track. If I need pharmaceuticals to keep myself functioning in the world, then I’m going to take them. I’m an adult and I have this problem and it’s my job to address it, so I will. And maybe when I’m feeling better I’ll be grossed-out by these dramatics and not feel as scared as I do now. Maybe. But let’s get me there first.

Fall down seven times, the saying goes. Stand up eight.

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People You May Know

I could write an entire book about my ongoing love-hate relationship with social media, particularly Facebook. It makes amazing and wonderful things possible that we couldn’t even dream of 15 years ago, but sometimes it’s also a weapon we use to inflict injury on each other and ourselves. We’ve all seen a post (or 50) that made us feel inadequate, insecure, envious, lonely, angry, or betrayed. It’s hard to be on a website that many people use as a way to showcase a highlight reel of their lives and not compare it to the humdrum minutiae of our own and feel less-than. You yourself may have a carefully-curated Facebook page that makes your life look far more interesting/fun/busy/fulfilling than it actually is, and it’s still possible (and common) to see other people’s posts, knowing they’re doing the same thing, and feel bad about yourself. Facebook makes it incredibly easy to find information about people that would’ve required tons of work before – in a few clicks you can find that guy who dumped you in college and find out what he’s up to. Oh look, he finished school, moved to Seattle for a marketing job, and took up running. He still listens to My Chemical Romance and practically lives at Buffalo Wild Wings during March Madness. He married a pretty redhead in 2011 and they have a satisfyingly funny-looking toddler. It takes you 90 seconds to obtain all of this information, and once you have it, you don’t know what to do with it, much less why you sought it out to begin with. And yet you couldn’t stop yourself from clicking on him when he popped up in that goddamn “People You May Know” section, could you?

I hate the “People You May Know” section.

For those of you who don’t use Facebook, there’s a section that pops up occasionally and presents a list of people who are friends with one or more of your friends. In most cases, they’re total strangers or people I’ve only met in passing and have no desire to connect with. Every once in a while it’s an old high school friend who recently joined Facebook or someone I met at a party recently who I had a good laugh with, and I’ll send him or her a request.

Sometimes it’s my ex-boyfriend.

Several years of experience on social media has trained me to be highly resistant to seeking out information that I know will just upset me. I get the urge sometimes just like everyone else, but I’ve gotten really good at not giving in to it. Why intentionally expose myself to something that I know perfectly well is going to make me feel weird or angry or sad? I have absolutely no need for this information and the only thing to come from seeing it will be negative feelings, so it makes no sense to deliberately stick my hand in that fire.

But I had a weak moment today.

It’s been a really long week and I’m exhausted, and history has proven that I don’t take care of myself and tend to make lousy decisions when I get this tired. So when my ex popped up in “People You May Know,” I stuck my hand in the fire, and I clicked.

I can’t say this is the first time I’ve ever been to his page. Over the years I’ve been there a few times…enough to know when he was or wasn’t seeing someone. But honestly, my main curiosity isn’t his love life. I heard through the grapevine a few years ago that he was back living with his parents, and I checked up on him to see if that was still the case. He is smart (so, so smart) but always worked low-paying, unchallenging jobs because he couldn’t manage to get his shit together and finish school and move on to something better. I’ve always been curious to know if he finally managed to do that, because in spite of everything, I still want that for him. It would give me great satisfaction to know that he got his degree and was doing something cool with it. He doesn’t really use his Facebook account, though, except to occasionally update his profile picture. Most of what I can glean is from the photos and statuses that other people sporadically tag him in (usually his social-media-obsessed girlfriends).

He’s still with the person he was with last time I looked in on him. She is younger and very cute and they look good together. They’ve been together for over a year now, and the new development is that they appear to be living together.

This is the information that threw me for a loop this morning. Not out of any prosaic, predictable feeling of jealousy or anger – I feel virtually nothing when I look at a picture of them together, as if he’s as much of a stranger to me as she is…because it’s been long enough now that in a lot of ways, he is a stranger to me. I don’t know what he’s like anymore…chances are good that he’s as charming and funny as ever, and as smart and perceptive as he always was.

The thing I wonder about the most, though, is if he’s still an abuser.

He and I dated for several years before we moved in together. The relationship was far from perfect before that, but things changed considerably once we both lived under the same roof. We lasted for two more years (what I really mean is I hung on and tried to save the relationship while he dated other women without my knowledge) before it was all over. And in those two years, he systematically and very efficiently crushed me. He knew me better than anyone has ever known me, and he used this knowledge to very skillfully manipulate, control, and abuse me. He knew exactly how to provoke me and then exert control so that I reacted the way he wanted me to. He knew exactly what to say to terrorize me into complying with whatever he wanted, to win every argument and be in charge of every decision about our lives. I loved him, but I have also never been so afraid of another human being. Sometimes he’d call me at work and I’d make a desperate grab for my wastebasket, because just seeing his name on my caller ID made me so anxious I thought I’d throw up.

So when I see him with someone else, especially knowing that they live together now, I really wonder. I stare at her smiling face and see nothing but genuine joy. His face next to hers is smiling too. I think about what goes on behind the closed door of their home. Does she feel a knot of dread in her stomach every time she opens that door? Does he ever scream at her while she cowers against a wall? When she argues against something he’s said or done, does he swiftly and completely eviscerate her with his words? Does he punish her by breaking gifts she’s given him? When she retreats to the bedroom to be alone after a fight, does he put his fist through the door? Has he ever kicked in the bathroom door and ripped down the shower curtain while she was showering because she sent him a text he didn’t like and he sped home to scream at her? When he storms out of the apartment after a fight and goes down to his car, does he call her to tell her to stop crying so loud because the windows are open and he can hear her from the parking lot?

Or were those things only for me?

In spite of surviving quite a bit of it, I don’t know everything about how abuse works. Once an abuser, always an abuser? If you’re like that in one relationship, are you destined to be like that in all of your future ones? I hope that isn’t true. I look at his girlfriend’s sunny smile and hope that there’s something different about their particular relationship, or that maybe he’s grown and changed as a person, so that things are different this time. She tagged him in a post where she calls him the love of her life. I stare at his face next to hers, stare at those eyes I’ve looked into thousands of times, at that mouth that used to be as familiar to me as my own, and I hope that she is the love of his, and I hope that means he’s good to her.

Then I pull my hand out of the fire, take a deep breath, and get on with my day. It’s beyond my control. I got away from him, learned how to heal (mostly), and have a life filled with people I feel lucky to know. And I’m going to remember this the next time Facebook strikes a match.

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2014: A Brain Renovation

New Year’s Eve is my least favorite holiday. I can’t think of a single new year that I’ve rung in without wanting to smile and cry at the same time during the countdown. I’m always so wrapped up in the bittersweet feeling of another year gone conflicting with the hope and optimism of a new one beginning, and I can’t stop pondering What It All Means. This happens regardless of whether it was a good or bad year overall. This year, though, I have slightly more positive feelings toward New Year’s than I usually do, because 2014 was the worst. Just the worst. And I’m happy to be kissing it goodbye and starting over with a brand spankin’ new year.

I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’ve decided that this is the perfect summary of my year:

Emma stone ice cream

My depression battle has been chronicled at length; I won’t go on about it here. But it’s been a real bitch. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my job was my own personal version of Hell and I had to spend 40 hours a week in a toxic environment that made me completely miserable. I made a lot of jokes about it because that’s how I prefer to handle lousy situations I can’t control, but the fact of the matter is that working there was extremely detrimental to my depression recovery. This became even more abundantly clear to me when I got laid off right before Thanksgiving and about two weeks into unemployment, I realized that I felt calmer and more relaxed and stable than I had in years, and it was because I wasn’t going to that nightmarish place every day. I couldn’t even find the will to be too stressed about the job search because I was too busy enjoying how good it felt to be free of that knot of anxiety and anger that I’d been carrying around in my stomach for four years. The universe smiled upon me and I accepted a new job exactly a month after losing my old one. And let me tell you, this job is awesome. I feel so fortunate not just to have found something so quickly, but that I found something great. The job is interesting and challenging, the company offers insanely good benefits, the people there are nice…it seems almost too good to be true. I’m honestly a little afraid I’m going to show up on my first day and learn that it’s all a front for an organ-harvesting ring and I’m going to spend the rest of my short life in some kind of human-size Habitrail.

habitrail

The least they could do is give me one with a slide.

My therapy has been working wonders since I started in March, and the addition of escaping my detested old job and finding this rad new one has had an immeasurably positive effect on my overall well-being. I feel hopeful and optimistic and excited about life again, and it goes without saying that it’s been a minute or two since I felt that way. So at long last, without a moment to spare, I’m able to look back on this year and see that while it was really hard and had a lot of dark days, many of those days were spent building a ladder out of the pit I was in.

My therapist is a rockstar. I can picture her smiling and shifting uncomfortably in her chair and saying no, I’m doing so much better because I did a lot of work this year, which is true, but it’s also true that her endless patience and gentleness and quiet but unshakeable support have changed me in a way I could never have imagined the first time I sat down in her office. Therapy was not what I imagined. It’s not like in the movies. I don’t recall many “OH MY GOD, I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT” epiphanies in the 9 months I’ve been seeing her. The changes happened a little bit at a time, sometimes so slowly that I didn’t notice them until I suddenly observed myself saying something or handling a situation in a way that was markedly different than what I would’ve said or done a year ago.  Those moments are awesome, because they’re where I see the work paying off and realize how much better I’m doing. And it’s not just “Oh good, I’m back to acting the way I did before I was depressed.” Not at all. It’s “Wow, I’m thinking and acting in a way I never have before because I’ve learned an entirely new, healthier way to be.”

self five

I’ve learned not to bail on myself the second someone questions my choices. I’m a grown-ass woman who’s running her own life and is capable of making good decisions. People can have their opinions about me, but I’ve learned to file those away in their proper place instead of letting them worm their way into my brain and undermine what I think is right for me. What matters first and foremost is what I think of me, and honestly, I think I’m pretty awesome most of the time. I screw up sometimes, but who the hell doesn’t? That doesn’t mean that I’m a screw-up or a disappointment or not as good as everyone else. It means I’m a human being. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to finally accept that I’m just a person, and people have flaws, and that is 100% okay. Everything I feel is okay. There’s nothing I’m not “allowed” to feel. That, too, was incredibly liberating. I think a solid 70% of my therapy experience this year has been letting myself off one hook or another. I look back on how unrelentingly critical I’ve been of myself, how ruthlessly harsh and unfair, and I feel sad that I spent so many years treating myself that way. And I’ve learned that it’s why I’ve allowed other people to treat me badly – I was accustomed to feeling inferior and undeserving, so when someone else treated me that way, it didn’t feel wrong. That makes me sad too. But I don’t dwell on it, because the good news is that I don’t have to live even one more day like that. It’s over. And that feels so amazing – to know that I’ve learned all this great stuff and I’ve got nothing ahead of me but minutes and hours and days in which to practice living a happier, healthier, gentler life. It won’t always be easy. I’m not prepared to say my depression’s in remission and I can throw away my drugs and go skipping off into the sunset. I still have hours and days when the world is dark and hopeless and I just can’t deal.

I want a donutBut they’re fewer and farther between lately, and I’m prepared to call that a victory.

I’ve decided that New Year’s resolutions are dumb, but I’ve picked one thing that I do want to work on in 2015: Not comparing myself to other people so much. It’s a completely human thing to do, but I think a lot of us spend way too much time doing it. I know that I’ve spent many a moment worrying about the fact that my life doesn’t look much likes the lives of some of my friends. But I’ve come to realize that this falls into the “unfair and unreasonable” category I was talking about a minute ago. Everybody’s different, and so everybody’s life is different. I learned ages ago that my life is just not going to pan out the way I always thought it would, and you know what? That is totally fine. I mean, how boring would life be if everything always went according to plan? *YAWN.* I am on a different path than I expected, and it’s a different path than a lot of people I know, and one of the major things I learned this year is how to be cool with that. But it’s a skill that takes near-constant practice, so I want to keep working on it in 2015. All I know is it became much easier to be happy with myself and my circumstances when I stopped caring about what other people are doing. It doesn’t matter. They’re not on the same journey that I’m on. There are things that I want out of life that I don’t have right now, and that’s all right – if I really want them, I will get them in due time, when it’s right for me. I’ve come to understand that sometimes not getting what you want when you expect to is a blessing in disguise. So hey everyone – I’ll do me, and you do you, and it’ll all be wonderful, and when it’s time to celebrate your exciting life events, I will always be there. Probably by the cake table.

marnie cake face

I think that’s enough rambling for now. Just wanted to do a little review of the year, because it was a doozy for me. I feel proud of myself for making it through such a difficult time and emerging on the other side with something to show for it. A lot to show for it, actually. So I think that tomorrow night when I’m counting down with champagne in hand, I’ll be less wrapped up in pondering What It All Means because I know one thing for sure: Come what may, I’m going to be just fine.

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The hero of the story

There’s a Regina Spektor song that has one of my favorite lines in all of music and poetry.

The line is: “I’m the hero of the story / Don’t need to be saved.”

I have clung to this line like a talisman for years.

This year in particular.

This year has been my hardest. I’ve had previous years that I thought were worthy of the title, but this one put them to shame.

This has been The Year My Depression Almost Killed Me. For once, I am not being hyperbolic for the sake of deflection or humor. I can say, in all seriousness, that if I hadn’t sought help and started therapy and medication this past spring, I would most likely be dead. This was not simply the moodiness and sensitivity and ennui that have been my trademarks all my life; this year, I got well and truly sick. My brain told me lies that put me in so much pain that I sincerely wanted to die. Some of it is purely chemical. Some of it is simply needing to un-fuck my way of thinking about myself and other people. I say “simply” with a bit of a sarcastic sneer, because there’s nothing simple about reframing the way you see yourself, your life, the world around you. There’s nothing simple about coming to terms with the fact that parts of you are broken and need to be re-built a different way. Seeking help was a relief, but it also was the beginning of a lot of really, really hard work. Things got worse before they got better. I thought I could get through this without medication but quickly came to realize that I couldn’t. That was a blow to the old ego, but I don’t regret making that decision. I’m sick, and sometimes sick people need to take medicine. I got over it. I took the meds, and then I took a little bit more. And then added a second. And I started feeling pretty good.

Then I lost my job.

I’ve never been out of work. It’s a very strange feeling. It’s been almost a month now, and for the most part it’s been okay. My former employer gave me a pretty generous severance package so I don’t have to panic about money or insurance for a little while. For the first couple of weeks, it felt like vacation. It’s getting a little bit harder now because it’s Christmastime and I feel a little cut off from society and am finding it harder to get in the spirit than usual. I bought people presents, and I’ve seen the lights and the Macy’s windows downtown. But I’m not feeling it so much. Maybe it’ll get better when I go down to my parents’ place next week and it’s officially Christmas. I hope so.

I’ve been seeing someone for a couple of months. It was never an ideal situation from my perspective, but I was willing to explore it. I took a risk, because I’m a romantic at heart and believe that many of the best things in life require a leap of faith. But it didn’t work out. There may be a right time for us, but that time is not right now. And I knew that it was going to drag on and on in a painful way unless I took the initiative to end it, and so I did. This morning. It sucked and I’m sad.

So let’s take stock: No job, no love life, and a mental health status that feels a bit shaky lately.

Merry Christmas.

I let myself be down in the dumps for most of the day today. I let myself admit that this sucks and I’m sad and I don’t know when I’ll stop being sad because I have no idea what the next month, or six months, or twelve months of my life are going to look like. Not the foggiest idea. I feel like I’m able to count on way fewer things than I’m used to. I have far fewer givens and far more variables than I usually do, and that lack of stability is not a great thing for someone struggling with her mental health.

But then I decided to be done with my pity party, because I realized that this has also been a year of incredible growth for me. I have learned so much, and I have done an enormous amount of work on myself and come to some truly priceless realizations. The fact that I walked away from this guy this morning is a sign of how far I have come – I could’ve hung around for months and been miserable while lying to myself about why I was doing it. But I didn’t. I realized that I deserve better than what he’s offering right now, and I said goodbye. That seems simple, but it’s a big deal for me. I might not have a lot of certainty about my life at the moment, but I’ve got a far better sense of who I am and what I deserve than I’ve ever had before, and that’s big. I found a cause that I’m passionate about, which is a woman’s right to choose, and I’ve become an activist. Not just someone who talks a lot about being pro-choice, but an actual activist. And that has given me a feeling of autonomy and power and value that I’ve never felt before. It’s making me feel the closest to happiness that I’ve felt in a long time. And I made it happen. I accepted that I was in a bad way and got help and I’m doing the work. I’ve lost a lot of sleep and cried a lot of tears and said a lot of really, really dirty words, but I’m getting it done, because somewhere along the line I realized that I’m a person worth saving, and ultimately the only person who can do that is me. I refuse to buckle under the weight of my illness. I refuse to tap out. I refuse to accept any outcome other than the one I’m working for.

In any story, there’s always a moment when it seems all is lost. But then the hero rises and saves the day.

I’m the hero of the story.

I’ve said the words many times, but this was the year I truly learned what they mean.

I’m the hero of the story. And I don’t need to be saved.

I’m saving myself.

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Out of the Darkness

On Saturday morning, I participated in the Chicagoland Out of the Darkness walk in support of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I promised several people that I’d write a post about the experience, so here I am.

I walked in honor of my struggle with major depression, to stand up and own my illness and the suicidal thoughts that sometimes come along with it. The stigma surrounding mental illness is very real and it causes many people to avoid asking for the help they need. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness, and yet the stigma surrounding suicide is pervasive – because people don’t talk about it enough. The stigma keeps them silent. The AFSP is out to educate the public about mental illness and suicide and remove this stigma. There’s a chapter in every state, and communities all across the U.S. do these Out of the Darkness walks annually to raise money for the AFSP’s activities, which include research, outreach programs for survivors of suicide attempts, suicide prevention training programs for school and university staff, mental illness anti-stigma campaigns, and much more. The Chicagoland walk is the largest in the country, and with 5,207 people registered, this year’s walk was the largest suicide prevention walk in history. As of this morning, we raised over $725,000 for the cause.

The walk started at the southern end of Grant Park, near the Field Museum. The grass was almost invisible because of all the people and tents set up. Some of the largest walk teams had their own tents set up and had gathered to talk and have snacks beforehand. There was a tent to check in, another tent to pick up your shirt if you raised over $125, another tent to pick up your swag bag if you raised over $500, more tents with information tables about volunteer opportunities, another for the makeshift Memorial Wall where people could post a photo of their lost loved one, and a private tent with mental health care professionals on hand if anyone was in need of some support and care – it was an emotionally intense day for a lot of people. Including me.

I was excited that the day of the walk had finally arrived, but when I first got there I had a moment where I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. It was the shirts that got me. Many of the teams, especially the big ones, had made special shirts, usually bearing the name of the person they were there to honor, and sometimes a photo too. When I got in line to check in, I was standing behind a girl with a photo of her brother on the back of her shirt, and looking at that young man’s smiling face as he leaned over his birthday cake made my throat close and my eyes well up. It’s hard to think about the subject of suicide even abstractly, but seeing the names and faces of actual victims is something else altogether. “JB, forever in our hearts.” “Alongside Andrew – for those who suffer, for those who survive.” “Mickey’s Heroes.” “Caitlin’s Rainbow Warriors.” “Brendan Costello, 1987-2006. You promised you’d never leave. Where are you now?”

There was a tent where you could pick up “honor beads,” plastic bead necklaces in colors that indicated who you lost to suicide: White for a son or daughter, red for a spouse, gold for a parent, orange for a sibling, purple for another relative or friend, green to indicate that you’ve struggled personally with mental illness, and blue for “supporting the cause.” Everybody wore a blue one and then added more colors as needed. I think it’s a brilliant idea because it allows you to look around and identify people who have suffered the same kind of loss as you without saying a word. Looking around, it was heartbreaking to see people wearing 3 or 4 necklaces. The saddest ones for me were the parents with their white beads – they were everywhere. I think I saw white more than any other color. When I picked up my gift bag, I was standing next to a lady who was there in memory of her son – she had his photo on the front of her shirt. He was a good-looking teenager with sunglasses, a lifeguard shirt, and a huge smile. She had a tattoo on her wrist – an exact copy of a note he had written her when he was in second grade: “I love you, Mom. Love, Colin,” in his sweet little-boy handwriting. She was kind enough to let me take a photo. I had tears in my eyes and so did she.

Several volunteers, board members, and walk committee members spoke to kick off the event. Cara Levinson, a chapter volunteer, led us in a moment of silence and talked about losing her daughter to suicide. Saturday would’ve been her daughter’s 26th birthday. “But for me, she will be 16 forever.” Needless to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. She gave a very emotional speech about how so many people with mental illness suffer in silence, so we must never be silent until the stigma is gone. While the speakers were talking, there was a slideshow on two big screens on either side of the stage showing photos that families had provided of their loved ones. It was so powerful to see those smiling faces, one after the other – mental illness is so frequently invisible. None of the people in those photos looked sad or haunted. They had big grins as they posed on beaches, held their children, kissed their brides. There were lots of baby and childhood photos too, and I went through my whole packet of Kleenex.

A mom named Sheila Applegate got up to speak, voice shaking as she talked about her son Andrew, who died by suicide 27 months ago. She didn’t say “two years.” She repeatedly said “27 months” instead. It brought the freshness of her loss to the forefront – to count it in months instead of years showed the rawness she still felt, how new and present the grief was for her.

Then it was time to walk. It was a beautiful day for it – sunny, breezy, and warm. The walk itself was leisurely and peaceful – walking under the blue sky along the lake past the harbor with sailboats bobbing quietly in the water, some of the sadness lifted. We walked past the Field Museum and up the lakefront path, past Buckingham Fountain and the Yacht Club, then looped around and walked back to gather again under the big tent. There was a brief closing ceremony, and then it was done.

My account makes it seem like the most depressing day ever, and I will admit that there were parts that were very sad. But I wish you had been there, because the feeling of love that filled that space was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. We were sad, yes, but we were all gathered there in the spirit of hope that more people don’t have to die this way, and more families don’t have to go through this pain, and more people don’t have to suffer from mental illness in silence because of the stigma surrounding it. We were there to honor our own struggles with mental illness, and to honor family and friends who succumbed to it. It wasn’t just a day for mourning. It was a day for love and good memories and transforming grief and suffering into something hopeful and positive.

It’s hard to describe, but when I think about my aunt who passed, when I take a quiet moment to be still and really remember her, I can feel her with me. It’s like she isn’t gone at all. I feel like at any moment I’m going to hear her laugh or smell her perfume. The Out of the Darkness walk was like that times a thousand – so many were gathered to honor so many lost loved ones, and it was like all of those people remembering together put a palpable feeling in the air – as if in addition to the thousands of flesh-and-blood bodies there that day, there were even more people there in spirit. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I hope I’m right – I hope that those people’s lost sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, parents, spouses, and friends could see us there that day. I hope they were watching from a beautiful, peaceful place, and I hope they felt proud.

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Please do not feed the trolls

[Trigger warning: depression]

Over the last few days, there’s been a flurry of news articles about a recent depression study suggesting that it’s possible to diagnose adult depression with a blood test. You can read about it here or in myriad other places, but the gist is that depressed people have different levels of nine RNA blood markers than non-depressed people. Not only that, but the specific combination of these levels in individual patients can predict which kind of treatment will work best for them – medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, or maybe both. This aspect of the test is huge, because it can help doctors get their patients feeling better faster by providing the correct treatment right away instead of having to experiment and see what works for them. Also, three of these RNA markers can also be measured to detect a predisposition to depression in a person who is not currently depressed – levels of these three markers remain different from those of patients without depression, even after a depressed patient achieves remission. So these markers may eventually be used to help identify people who have never been depressed before but should be monitored closely for symptoms.

Isn’t science awesome?

This is just one study and it only involved 64 patients, so there’s a lot more work to be done, but this is exciting news nevertheless. I’ve already been diagnosed with major depression and have found therapy that’s working, but I’m still really excited about the potential social ramifications of this kind of testing. I think that being able to biologically test for depression, to prove the diagnosis with quantifiable data, will strike a huge blow against the stigma surrounding mental illness and silence the hordes of ill-informed critics who insist that clinical depression does not exist and people just need to get a grip and stop wallowing. (It is true that not all people who feel depressed have clinical depression. Some people are just going through a rough patch due to personal circumstances and/or need a bit of a life makeover. But many people do not believe there is a difference.)

Needless to say, I’ve been gobbling up every bit of information I can find about this, because it marks a key moment in mental health care. Currently, the diagnostic process in mental health care consists mainly of compiling the symptoms reported by the patient and seeing what they add up to. There are various tests that can be done on paper, but the field is sorely lacking in biological methods for diagnosis. The other fields of medicine used to operate this same way — a century ago. So at last, the mental health field is beginning to catch up, and this can only mean improved quality of care for patients and therefore improved treatment outcomes.

So I read an article about this on Facebook yesterday, and then I did a terrible thing. I knew better, but I did it anyway.

I did the thing a person should never do.

I started reading the comments.

When you begin reading internet comments, you are stepping right up to the edge of a black hole and peering inside. And eventually, if you keep reading, you’re going to fall in. It’s inevitable. And it’s probably going to ruin your day and make you despair for the human race.

I don’t know why I started reading the comments on this article, because obviously the subject of mental health in general and depression in particular is personal for me and reading other people’s idiotic comments will not do anything except upset me. So I don’t know if it was some sick masochistic impulse that made me start reading or what, but there I was.

Out of the hundreds of comments, there were several from people who saw this as the positive thing that it actually is and were remarking on how marvelous this is and how it’s an important moment in science, etc. Then there were the people who have to criticize everything, even good things, and they were chiming in with scoffing, haughty comments about how the test group was ridiculously small so how does this study mean anything, actual mainstream use of this test is years away so why all the excitement about it, etc. Then there were the anti-establishment zealots who see anything related to health care and immediately begin screaming WAKE UP, SHEEPLE, BIG PHARMA IS OUT TO GET YOU and raving about how all doctors are irresponsible pill-pushers maliciously trying to drug the daylights out of their patients instead of actually helping them. (All doctors? Really?)

And then, of course, there were the trolls.

You see them in comment sections across the internet – those people who simply cannot pass up an opportunity to say something ugly and cruel, who flaunt their willful ignorance like it’s something to be proud of, who feed off other people’s angry responses because that’s exactly why they are there – for the satisfaction of making other people feel as angry and hateful as they do, to force other people to stoop to their level, and because negative attention is better than none at all. People who spend a fair amount of time online are familiar with trolls and know not to feed them by giving them the attention they seek. But it’s hard sometimes. It’s SO hard to see someone being cruel and ignorant and not stand up for the actual truth, to not fight back against a person spreading incorrect, sometimes dangerous information in a public setting.

A few of my favorites that I saw yesterday (and yes, these are verbatim):

“There are already blood tests for depression. They’re called [blood] spatter patterns.”

“Depression is a state of mind, not an illness. Smoke a joint and get over yourselves.”

“Depression is a state of mind. You people are weak and if we didn’t live in such a cushy supportive lifestyle, natural selection would’ve run its course.”

I wish I could say that I’m immune to the words of random strangers on the internet. That would be a great superpower to have. But these comments left me reeling. I’ve watched people being ignorant and wantonly cruel on the internet countless times, but on a sensitive subject such as this, it really got under my skin. It was devastating to see people being so dismissive of something that’s been a major presence in my mind and my life for almost a year now, that’s often rendered me nearly immobile with sadness and self-loathing and pain, that’s left me literally sitting on my hands to keep myself from raking my skin with my fingernails to see if bringing my pain to the outside would relieve some of the agony I felt inside, that recently caused me to spend an entire evening sobbing and thinking obsessively about the bottle of vodka in my fridge and whether I had enough pain pills in the house to chase with it and never wake up again. To be living this experience and see someone reduce it to a bad joke about suicide, to be told that I could fix it by smoking a joint, that I’m suffering because of a character flaw, or that this is just Darwinism trying to weed me out of the gene pool…I don’t have the words for the hurt and anger that makes me feel, and I don’t have words strong enough to explain how wrong those people are in their thinking and how awful and despicable it is to air that kind of garbage anywhere, much less in a space where there are likely to be a lot of people with a personal connection to depression. The impotent rage almost choked me, because I knew I could respond to these people and attempt to correct or discredit them, but I also knew it wouldn’t accomplish anything. They weren’t there to participate in an intelligent discussion about mental health issues – they were there to provoke people, and unfortunately it worked on me.  But I started to feel better later in the day when I remembered that this weekend I’m participating in an event that will accomplish something.

Tomorrow I’m participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness walk. They have a huge national walk every year, but this one is the Chicagoland community walk organized by the AFSP’s Illinois chapter. More than 4,500 people are participating, and together we have raised over $600,000 for research grants, legislative efforts, and community outreach programs to prevent loss of life by suicide and remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. I am so proud to be a part of this amazing event, and I also feel strong and empowered because I’m supporting an organization that stands up against the stigma and ignorance and cruelty that so many people with mental illness face and works tirelessly to help people in crisis get the help and support they need, because their illness is both real and treatable. Responding to individual jerks on the internet might not make a difference, but supporting the AFSP will, and talking openly about my depression will, and I’m doing both of those things.

Crawl back under your bridges, trolls.

I’m sure I will have a lot to say after the event tomorrow, so I’ll probably write a post about the experience.  Stay tuned!

Also, since we’re on the topic of trolls, I’m posting this video that I found yesterday. It’s powerful and emotional and very well-done. Take a few minutes – you won’t be sorry.

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Filed under Depression, Life in general, WTF?