Demystifying Depression

It’s still light out, the overcast kind of day where indigo lines the clouds.  Birds chirp.  Children play.  My next door neighbor sits on his front porch, too.  It’s the kind of Hampton summer night with that dip in temperature that invites the average person outside to enjoy it.  I’m not average though.  I wrote half this post inside because going outside didn’t match my writing mood.

I still Google depression in varied search terms about once a day, figuring that someone out there must have found an effective, immediate cure for the abstract mental illness that’s found its home on me.  The causes seem logical.  My mother would name disillusionment and mourning as two potential culprits.  I’m mourning my old career at Kecoughtan and a relationship gone wrong, so disillusionment follows as two primary pillars of my life are in disarray, both being a part of a school community where I loved going to work every day and being a part of a marriage that would have likely led to a family.

But identifying the root causes hasn’t produced a cure, hasn’t snapped me out of this funk.  My searches have focused on unearthing coping strategies, always hoping I’ll find something I haven’t already read in another article or blog post.  Advice bears some commonality.  Exercise.  Eat right.  Go to social activities.  Engage in a hobby.  Talk to a cognitive behavioral therapist.  Write in a journal.  They’re all good suggestions.  I try them all, to some degree.  Nevertheless, I’m still not back to being me.

I can only guess that writing a blog post can’t hurt, if it does anything to help.  The problem is that I always write about what’s on my mind.  That’s the authenticity of blogging night.  And if I write about what’s on my mind, this channel is going to be all me, all the time, because that’s what depression is.  School’s out.  The days are long.  I think a lot.  And it’s always about depression.  I don’t know that I’ve come across anything published online by someone written while battling this illness.  There are plenty of survivors who over hopeful tips, but I imagine, like me, during the darkness, who wants to do anything, much less write about it on the internet.  Unfortunately, tonight that’s what’s on my mind.

School let out at a half day on Friday, a welcomed gift to most teachers.  I, however, didn’t know how I would use up the extra time.  I eventually landed at the beach.  It was one moment that, for me, defined depression.  If I wanted to explain what depression was like to someone who hadn’t experienced it before, I’d use my experiences – like this one, at Fort Monroe beach after school let out, to the spot I would have typically called my favorite place.

Depression is sunbathing at the beach, being aware of the way the skin warms even as the insides chill when subjected to prolonged cerebral conversation.  It’s hearing nearby children laughing while building a sand castle then reciting the pledge of allegiance that they’d probably just learned in school, now out for the summer, and it’s finding all of that is somehow absurd.  All the while, you tell yourself that that is normal, combating those negative thoughts, simultaneously only reminding yourself you’re still not normal.

Depression is plotting to fill all the empty hours between rising and sleeping again, searching for tasks to occupy those waking moments at a functional level and for purpose and worth at a spiritual one. It’s doing those things even though you don’t feel like doing them because you secretly hope that doing them will bring you out of the darkness. It’s knowing that just because you can’t feel God’s presence doesn’t mean He’s not real – in reality, you don’t feel anything anyway.

Depression is failing to see a photograph worth taking, browsing through the camera roll to discover what used to be worth capturing in digital, and wondering if you’ll ever see beauty in the horizon again.  And when you realize that, you force yourself to stop and snap a selfie, then frown at the image on your screen.  Depression is watching family home videos and trying to remember what all that joy and inspiration once felt like.  It’s questioning why, when you want it so badly, you can’t just be that person again.

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Depression is clicking “Delete” on every piece of junk mail in the inbox, instantaneously resisting any possible temptation, unable to fathom how one could possibly need anything at all.  More things would just require more to maintain and take care of and more locations and organizational systems to store them.  The muchness and abundance of life overwhelms you.

For years, I found comfort perched on my front porch in this white wicker love seat.  I long to feel that again.  I don’t know if I’ll write again next week, but I gathered the gumption to try and contribute something to the online community that might be beneficial to another human being that’s out there Google-ing the same search terms as I am.  I may have started this post inside, but I came out into the light when I realized what I was doing in avoiding the brighter mood.  Shouldn’t that be another sign of progress?

Doing Things Anyway

It wouldn’t matter if my street were alive or silent.  No outside factors could set the tone for writing night to be uplifting or chaotic.  I don’t feel like writing.  I don’t feel like doing anything these days.  Sitting down to put metaphorical pen to paper requires something inside me to generate content, and I’m not sure anything of value rests below the surface of my skin.

I long for one thing only: to feel like myself again.  I want this depression to lift and free me to experience joy and inspiration.  I want my thoughts to flow onto the page the way they used to every Tuesday night in a manner by which I could set my watch, so constant and dependable.  But you can’t fast-forward your way out of depression.  I’m learning that the hard way.  The only way out of it is through it, it seems, continuing to hope the next day is better than the one before.

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Every time I Google how to get out of depression, I find a blog post or article reminding me of the importance of physical activity.  I still go to the gym nearly every day, and while my workouts aren’t legendary, I put in my time on the elliptical and sometimes muster the energy to hit some machines.  During this period of my life, my time at Planet Fitness is what I look forward to most, not because of the exercise that’s supposed to boost my endorphins and give me natural good feelings, but because of Chuck, my gym mentor.  I don’t really need a paid therapist when I have Chuck to listen and advise roughly five days a week.  While I don’t doubt there are mental benefits to physical exercise, the relationship I have with Chuck is a more important constant to me.  While my own internal dialogue is more like a monologue in recent weeks, I find hope in his council.  He greets me with a smile and a hug, and he challenges me to take more steps… like writing this blog post.

In the last week, I’ve focused on completing tasks I assigned myself as actionable steps I could take out of this season of depression.  Some goals are physical like eating right with cheat days and drinking water.  Others are personal or mental like reading certain books.  Since I lack the internal motivation to do things, I’ve simply started filling empty blocks of time with these tasks, figuring the least I can do is try and make myself a better person while I’m fighting my way back to happy and healthy.  I committed myself to texting a friend every day, and after a few days, she sent me a text before I reached out.  The intentionality of making contact with her, a focus on someone other than myself, resulted in building a relationship.

Not every adventure has been successful.  My nieces graduated from pre-school last week, and while I sat with a smile, I didn’t feel the joy of the occasion like the others in attendance.  I smiled and hugged them but couldn’t name pride or excitement.  Last weekend, I went to Water Country, one of my favorite places.  I thought that surely I would laugh and scream with glee when dropped from the top of Vanish Point, but even the thrills of the rides couldn’t stir any genuine emotions.  At this stage, I’m not sure if it’s the depression or the anti-depressant medication that makes me largely numb, which is not a good set-up to try and write an inspiring post.  Instead, I’m writing about this very thing: not being able to feel the good or the bad of everyday life.  It’s like I’m perpetually bored from the inside out, and though I keep looking for fulfillment in external things, ultimately until what’s inside is right, I’m not going to find the emotional connections I’m looking for out there.

On Monday, I tackled a more difficult relational task.  I met with someone with whom I used to be very close, someone who I wronged deeply.  My actions led to the end of that relationship, and even on a good day, it’s hard to face someone you’ve hurt.  I pushed aside the numbness and hoped my apology would be sincere despite the emptiness I sensed at my core.  To my surprise, when sitting face to face with him, I felt the full weight of being sorry, and although it was painful, I realized what a gift he’d given me.  I didn’t know how much I needed his forgiveness.

Feelings are tricky when you’re battling depression.  You can’t trust them, and often they don’t come at all.  Rather, life becomes a mental battlefield.  I decide to wake up and go to work.  I decide to drive two hours to meet an old friend and be forgiven.  I decide to go to the gym and see Chuck.  I decide to send a text message and check on a girlfriend.  I don’t feel joy, but my feelings can’t be trusted.  I don’t want to write, but maybe this boring journey through depression will mean something to a reader.  I don’t feel like doing anything, but I do things anyway, and the results make life better to varied degrees.  And maybe when I’m finally out of this depression, I’ll be a better person for it.

When You Start to Notice

Though it’s after eight, the street is still buzzing with barking dogs and laughing children.  It’s hard to believe it’s been more than half a year since I sat at my writing perch and typed my way to sanity.  For nearly one hundred and ninety Tuesday nights, I protected my blogging binges at all costs.  That changed as I entered a particularly dark season of my life, one I’m still finding my way through.

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This morning while crossing the Hampton Roads Harbor, I noticed that the sun was shining, glistening off the surface of the water.  It didn’t make me smile or warm inside, but I noticed that I noticed.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had been aware of the sun.  For too long I’ve been going through the motions, driving to and from work, hitting the gym without enthusiasm, feeling time passing slowly like an hourglass that’s been jammed by grains of sand.  Winter’s always cold and dark, and I hoped my moods would lift with the arrival of spring.  The sun came, and with it warmth, but my world still felt cold and dark.

I’d been fighting through the darkness in silence, unable to identify its root or power.  I no longer felt interested in personal passions and hobbies.  It was February when I sat through a professional development session entitled “More than Sad”.  It was about understanding mental illness.  It was there, sitting amongst colleagues after school in the media center that I realized I was more than just sad.  I was depressed.  The trainer on the video screen had listed all my symptoms and put a name to them.

Even the sanctity of this white wicker love seat and the established practice of writing as therapy couldn’t inspire me.  For a woman once driven by impulses to find herself void of them was like opening coffers of gold to find the treasure had been stolen.  For a while I did the things I knew to do, but eventually, absent desire, I just stopped doing entirely.  That’s when it started to become a challenge to get dressed for work and wash my hair.  Even at my nephew’s soccer games, I felt disconnected and on the outside of the life happening around me.  Time slowed so much that proctoring a student test for three hours felt like actual torture.

And as I write those words, I know I’ve made progress.  Like noticing the shining sun, there are tiny glimmers of hope that I’m discovering myself again, if not a slightly changed version.  It started with seeking help.  I saw a counselor and then a doctor.  I was put on medication.  I ended the silence at work and confided with an administrator who was very understanding.  I sunk lower somehow and found that, after telling my friends what I was experiencing, they still wanted to be in my company even if I was feeling low.  I didn’t want to do anything, but often they encouraged me to go to the beach or meet for a drink, and those normal outings sometimes held glimmers of hope that things would be better.

One day a couple weeks ago at the gym I was feeling so low that I actually googled “How to get out of depression”.  I scanned some typical articles then landed on some blog posts.  One suggested that the motivation or drive to do something didn’t initiate action, so a person struggling with depression needs to act first instead of waiting for the desire to come.  It was the first piece of advice that altered how I approached life.  Since that day, I’ve scheduled tasks to fill up the empty hours between work and bedtime.  I rarely want to do them, but I have to admit there has been some level of satisfaction in the doing itself.

Another blog mentioned that the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns hadn’t cured her depression, but it had marked a turning point in her way of thinking.  Mostly, it totes itself as the non-medicinal cure, but ultimately, it’s a guide to understanding cognitive behavioral therapy.  Its premise is that there are certain dysfunctional attitudes and types of thinking that are at the root of depression.  In essence, I don’t want to be alone with myself because my brain is a negative space.  I might personalize an unreturned email from a colleague to infer an imagined problem when the email simply was filtered to a spam folder.  After reading this book, I’ve been intentionally trying to change my internal monologue to avoid dysfunctions like that.

With every Tuesday since October, I’ve thought about sitting down to right but always dismissed it for some reason or another.  Until tonight, I didn’t feel I had anything worthwhile to write about.  I don’t have a dream job or a man who loves me.  There’s no princes or weddings or lights at the end of the tunnel.  It was just this weekend while talking with a friend about his life problem’s that I realized my battle with depression is my reality and therefore my subject manner.  Since sharing my struggle with my administrator, I have gained confidence being open about what I’m experiencing.  And I’ve found, more often than not, that the people on the other end of the conversation have fought their own battles and understand.  I’ve mostly imagined the stigma attached to the diagnosis, too.

Perhaps the greatest change I made, inspired by Burns’ book, was to make a list.  It started out as “10 Actionable Personal Challenges”.  I began thinking about things that I could do to change my life circumstances, to make this season without impulse one framed by self-improvement in all areas.  At first, I wasn’t sure I could come up with ten, but the typed list grew and the table expanded until I had thirty things that I could do with all my uninspired time.  Having accepted that the will wouldn’t be there, I chose action.  I went from curling up on the coach after work to having more than enough to do in a day… not mindlessly watching Netflix, but reading books and completing meaningful tasks.

I’m on day four, and like noticing the sun shining, opting to curl up on my front porch on a Tuesday night again shows progress.  That’s the thing about depression.  When you’re in it, you lose all passion for life.  So when you’re coming out it, you get to appreciate the little things again, savoring them one at a time.  The street has quieted around me as I’ve typed, the sun past setting.  Chirping birds replaced the laughing children.  And I notice them, too.