I remember constantly wishing that I was depressed enough to warrant help. My struggles were just okay enough to make me wonder whether it was all in my head — or worse, all in my depraved heart. They were just okay enough that people (myself included) dismissed them as a bad day, or a bad mood, or a bad cry for attention. They were just okay enough that I could manage on my own, and since I could do it, I thought I should, no matter how much it cost me in mental space, energy, or happiness.
I’ve been torn for years about this: Am I struggling because my problems are too heavy to bear, or am I struggling because I am too weak to bear them? Is it an external problem or an internal problem? Is it a mental issue or a character issue?
My so-called depression morphed along with me. I really can get myself out of slumps now, unlike at other times in my life. I don’t experience bouts of depression that knock me out of commission for months at a time. I’d learned coping skills. I’d learned grace. I’d learned to wait out the insomnia and the negativity. I’d learned that I always felt better after a good night’s sleep, that I could accomplish more if I didn’t kick myself when I was down.
Instead of calling it depression (the shame of which started when a kind, cool girl told me, “I don’t like that word”), I started calling it “bad days.” I’d wake up, and I’d have a bad day. I’d sleep poorly, and have a bad day. I’d bump into anxiety, and I knew I was in for a bad day…followed by a bad night, followed by more bad days, and more poor sleep, and on and on until the anxiety worked itself out in a week or two. If I could just make it to a good night’s sleep, I knew things would be okay again. That wasn’t depression, I didn’t think. I don’t like that word. Too melodramatic.
You should see your doctor, my marriage counselor suggested (multiple times). Sometimes a low dose of medication was all you needed.
You should see if medication might help you out, my friend told me.
I’d support you in getting medication, my medication-suspicious husband repeated.
Yeah, of course; they were right; I agreed; and man, did I feel relieved at the thought of medication doing some heavy lifting for me. But that’s what held me back, I suppose: It seemed like the logical fix…but also the easy fix. The too easy fix.
I don’t know what it is about me, but even though I’m scared of pain and hardship — no, really, everyone who knows me knows I’m a wimp about it — I stupidly soldier through. No epidural for me! No ibuprofen for that headache! No medication for my mental health problems! Even though I know, deep down, that I’m going to end up getting the epidural and popping the pills, I fight it.
That’s the only way I know how to feel strong when I feel so weak: putting up a fight against the inevitable.
It’s insurance for when the critical voices in my head or in my life make a dig about me having “depression”: the suffering proves that I’m not a wimp. The suffering proves that I tried the DIY way first. The suffering proves just how deserving I am of relief because now it’s become demonstrably, unequivocally Not Okay.
It’s difficult for me to believe, but I believe it now: It’s impossible to convince someone to view your suffering with compassion and grace. It’s impossible to prove the legitimacy of your mental health issues — even to yourself.
Having depression is wanting someone to see that you are worth enough on your own to warrant help, but you are not enough on your own. That’s what I wanted, at least: not for someone to see me as strong, but to see me as weak; not for someone to see me as mentally stable, but to see me as all wrapped up in my head; not for someone to see me as capable on my own, but as someone desperately needing help; not for someone to point out all these things and mock about how I should deal with it all on my own since I’m just all wrapped up in my head and too wimpy to admit that, but to notice all these things as evidence that they should do something about it too.
That’s why I didn’t go to the doctor. I didn’t want to hear that mixed message: “This isn’t a big deal, you wimp. You’re strong enough on your own. Get a grip.”
About eight years after my first bout with depression, I went to a doctor. I hedged my problems for fear of exaggerating them like the drama queen I worried I was: things were good, I could go a week or two without any anxiety or insomnia or bad feelings, but it was
torturous, difficult, hard during the bad days.
I braced myself for the diagnosis: “Sorry, kiddo, that’s just life you’re experiencing.”
Instead she diagnosed me with moderate depression and put me on a low dose of an antidepressant. The depression, she figured, was created from a genetic predisposition toward low serotonin. All my anxiety ate up the serotonin I needed for sleep, and when I didn’t sleep, the trap door of depression gaped open, and I fell. The antidepressant would close that trap door, so even if I stumbled into a tunnel of negative feelings, I wouldn’t plummet through the floor.
That’s how I viewed depression, especially after I got on medication: as a trap door at the bottom of a tunnel of negative feelings. There’s rock bottom — the sadness and worry and anger and hopelessness that everybody experiences — and then there’s the trap door, the blackness, the free fall of despair. There’s nothing to grasp onto, nothing to orient me, nothing that moves me, and nothing that I can move. I just want the fall to end. I don’t care how it ends — in my death or in my rescue. It just needs to end.
Fortunately, I always feel the jerk of a safety line before I hit whatever comes at the end of the fall. It’s different at different times — the fear of hell when I was younger, knowing I’m loved, being responsible for the child who’s demanding a snack right now. It snaps me back into reality, back into an orientation and a motivation and a direction. I climb hand over hand to the top.
I’d gotten strong from that climb. I could climb out faster now. I could sometimes grab the safety line as I fell, halving the plummet. But I hadn’t ever succeeded in slamming the trap door shut.
Was it the trap door that was the problem? Or was that just life as everybody experienced it, and I was too prone to fall in, and too slow to climb out, and too wrapped up in my own head to grab onto the safety line?
Like everything I’ve firmly believed and devoutly doubted, I wished I’d gone to the doctor sooner. The antidepressant doesn’t stop me from wandering into the tunnel of negative feelings, or shield me from the consequences of going to bed late, or replace the necessity of mindfulness. It doesn’t stop me from tripping. It doesn’t stop me from overthinking or worrying. It just closes the trap door. When I fall, I’m still in the light, on the ground, in a discernible, orienting space. I can think — a totally different phenomenon from anxiety’s frantic, jumbled “logic” that, in the disoriented free fall, lacks half the pertinent information and all perspective.
Medication is not an “easy fix” to depression and anxiety. It’s a necessary step that enables me to work on my anxiety in a productive way — without a fall risk.
Looking back, I realize that the reason I was “just okay enough” was not because my depression was so minor, but because my safety line was so firmly anchored (thanks, my beautiful loved ones) and because I was strong too. And the reason I wasn’t fully okay on my own was not because I was a wimp, but because, unlike non-depressed people, I had an open trap door at the bottom of my negative feelings.
I write this for all of you with open trap doors. It’s scary and liberating to hear: you are not okay enough to do it on your own, and you’re not supposed to do it on your own. You are not making up your depression or bad days or whatever euphemism you use to mask how not okay you suspect you really are. Please get the help you need and deserve.