In keeping a promise I made to myself some time ago, I am continuing to write about my struggles with mental health as I see it necessary. The last time I wrote is a more extreme situation. But I'm here to tell you what a duller, more mundane but still important and lived aspect of what mental illness looks like. It's the more common one, the one we don't really address when we think of mental health, the one that doesn't normally make the Facebook status.
I've been going through a mild depressive episode for just over the past week. On the one hand, it's really nothing serious, on the other hand it always has the potential to be. This past week I've faced (continue to face) a lot of professional challenges. It comes with the job of self-employed, contacted arts work. And although I'm not saying it's the cause of my depression, it's definitely not helping. No one really knows what causes depression. Most of the time depression is portrayed as this deep, dramatic melancholy, this Shakespearian style angst to the soundtrack of Dashboard Confessional. I'm here to tell you it's far more subtle and subdued, and that's what makes it far more dangerous.
When bad things happen, being depressed is absolutely valid and logical. The same way it makes sense to feel anxious when coming across anxious situations. But like an anxiety disorder, clinical depression is not directly or just caused by an outside stimulus or event. Depression can occur in a person's brain with absolutely NO stimulus. Because like anxiety, clinical depression is an illogical emotional response.
In my current, as I type, depressive state, I seem perfectly fine to the outside. I've been carrying on business as usual, perky and cheerful and positive. It's my in-between moments that I feel that dark looming cloud of weight. It's a feeling I know too well, and I have abused as a tactic in the past: if I don't stop moving, if I keep pushing through and ignore this feeling, I will be fine. My depression can't catch me. I won't have time to succumb to its twisted, fantasy logic. That is a such a misguided fallacy. Depression really does feel like circling a drain, and sometimes you can fool yourself to stay afloat on the outreaches long enough to pull yourself to safety, though you never really leave the water. But misstep, even with the best of intentions, and the undercurrent takes hold. And once gravity starts to pull, it's a either a clawing struggle to get back, or a muffled decent into the abyss without knowing when you'll see light again. And honestly, the outcome can really feel like a toss-up. It can actually go either way, without warning, without any real signs. Some of my current, at-this-very-moment thoughts include:
I haven't spoken to this person for a while, maybe they don't like me anymore. I must have done something wrong.
The tone in that email seemed harsh. They're angry at me. They don't respect me. I'm worthless.
Your life is good! Why are you always so sorry for yourself. There's something wrong with you and you're bringing everyone else down.
No one is thinking of you. Why would they? They wouldn't miss you if you were gone.
It is a lot of exhaustive mental and emotional power to carry on life day to day when it constantly feels like your own brain is against you. Not unlike my anxiety, I know the thoughts in my head are untrue and not real. Evidence and logic contradict it. But the feelings tied to it are SO strong and visceral, they can defy all evidence and logical thinking. This is why anxiety and depression are often linked. They follow the same thought processes and emotional channels to thrive, they just tap different emotions.
After 20 years of experience, and about 7 years of therapy, I can confidently say I won't be the next surprise suicide (even though there was a long period of my life where I definitely could have been). That doesn't make my struggle with depression any less real, impactful or threatening. I am not exempt from self harm just because I've done to work to get to know my mind and my illnesses. All it really does is better prepare me for the worse, and give me the options, select skills and hope to bounce back. If I were to rate the current threat level out of 10 right now, I would say I currently sit at about a 6: not full blown, but not muted either. My ideal number would be 2. My depression scares me more than my anxiety. With my anxiety I've gotten good at managing it, and really, the process is easier: recognize triggers or potential triggers, avoid. My anxiety I can feel coming. It's like a Mack truck barreling down a highway: if I catch it soon enough I can just step out of the way and all I'll feel is wind. Depression is so much more intelligent and adaptive. It learns as I learn. Just when I find a tactic that works, it slithers through it and licks my skin. It's an evolving mental illness that is so hard to treat because it moves with you, looking for blind spots and weak pillars. It strikes without warning and alters your reality to feed its sorrow. It's consuming, making your limbs and heart heavy without reason or regard. It whispers the most awful thoughts, and twists visions to satisfy its truth. It is the most convincing liar you will ever meet. And it's never going away.
Well, never entirely.
Which is why finding more than one way to mange and cope is so important with a mental illness that's so adaptive. Dancing has always been my primary tool: it forces me to redirect my thinking and get into my body, which gets me out of my head. Plus the endorphins and adrenaline that comes with physical activity helps dame dark thoughts and makes me feel physically better. I have daily affirmations I quietly say to myself as I get ready. I try to talk to people I know will listen and be empathetic and supportive without trying to "fix" a problem that doesn't really have a solution. I continue to see a shrink once a week. And then, and this is the scary part, I schedule time to safely indulge in my depression. In my experience, the irony of all this is that if you don't give that dark monster your time every once in a while, it gets bigger, more aggressive, and more powerful. It's like having a pet zombie: if you keep it chained and unfed, it will become stronger and more violent. But satiate it from a safe distance, and more often than not it's pacified.
Already writing this post has made my head feel more balanced and less blue. I'm seeing my shrink again today and we'll likely talk about why I'm feeling this way and find a couple new coping methods. Then I'll catch up on some work and feel productive, then move my body because it's a guaranteed shot of feel-good. And then tomorrow morning, with the dark cloud of "not good enough" and "nobody loves you" looming over, I'll say my affirmations, force myself to move and battle the monster for another day.
To read more about my experiences with depression, check out THIS POST