Living With Depression
essay by Claire Taylor
One of my earliest memories is of my father sitting at the desk in his study. The room is dark except for a small lamp casting a soft rectangle of light across his hunched body. He is resting, face pressed into the crook of his elbow, his other arm flung limply across the back of his head. I stand there for a moment and wait for him to notice me. He doesn’t, so I ask, "Are you okay, Daddy" and though my voice is barely above a whisper, it breaks through the quiet like a crack of thunder. His shoulders tense from the startle, but he doesn’t lift his head. He drops his top arm and rolls around to face me. Half of his face remains hidden in the flesh of his forearm, but I can see the edge of his lips pull into a strained smile.
"Yes, baby" He sighs. "I'm okay. Just feeling a little sad today.”
I walk over and lean my tiny forehead against the side of his body. "Me too,” I say. “I feel a little sad today too."
I have been a little sad for my entire life. By age thirteen the sadness had a name, but looking back I can see it was always with me, growing around me like a second skin. Haunting me with a voice identical to my own, but beyond my ability to control. I would never be good enough, it said. I was unhappy because I was unlovable. Everyone around me was sick of me, made miserable by my existence. Whenever I laughed the sadness would rise up to silence me. You're being too loud, it would tell me. Everyone hates the sound of your laugh. When I was effortless and joyful, it would force its way into the pit of my stomach, and roll into a tight, hard rock that dragged me down with its weight. "You're no fun" my friends would say, angrily leaving me behind whenever I became suddenly, inexplicably teary-eyed, and needed to go back home. See, the sadness would whisper, I told you they were only pretending to like you.
Sadness is as much a part of me as my one crooked tooth that never fully straightened even after years of braces. As ever-present as my big, solid thighs that refuse to slim down no matter how much weight I lose, or how often I exercise. No amount of work or corrective effort has ever fully banished my sorrow. It has been with me for so long that I sometimes wonder if it is the real me and the person I think I am is just an affectation, a mask I pull on whenever I need to convince the world that I am capable, valuable, worthy of existence.
It is tiring to hate yourself. To be routinely agonized by your own presence. The internal tug- o-war, the push and pull between sad self and other self, the social acrobatics of appearing fine when inside you’re a cliff's edge, endlessly pummeled by crashing waves. It is physically exhausting. I’m 35 years old and I can’t remember a single day when I felt fully, wholly rested. New parents always say the kind of exhaustion you feel when you have a newborn can’t be properly described. You have to experience it to understand it. The same is true about depression. Unless you feel it, there's no way to know what it's like when your nerve endings feel drained of energy. There's no good way to describe the kind of ache that exists all the way down into the calcium in your bones. How can a body be worn down by sleeping for 16 hours straight? How can you be tired to the point of tears, but still stay up for three days in a row, your mind buzzing and humming, refusing to let up from its convincing diatribe that you are a worthless waste of space?
Sometimes I feel like the sadness grows from within me, an invasive fungus sprouting in the dark, murky depths of my core and slowly spreading outward. My edges blur and fade until I exist only in negative space: a shadow, an outline, an impression of the person I might have been if only I had been able to fight the depression, to keep the dark spores from multiplying.
Other times it is like a wave. I stare out into the ocean in front of me and I can see it building, gathering strength and speed as it nears my shore. I watch it crest, feel the first cold drops of its spray against my face, and then I catch my breath and slam my eyes shut as it crashes over me, drowning out the rest of the world. It lifts me off my feet and pulls me under, sending me flailing wildly, desperate to scrape my toe against solid ground, or thrust my face above water for just a second, just long enough to gasp for breath. A brief moment is all I need. A quick reminder of which way is up.
There are so many metaphors and yet no way to properly explain a phenomenon that is both the essence of who you are, and exists entirely outside yourself. To know me, to love me, is to be routinely lied to. "I'm fine, I'll tell you. But I'm not." Oh I'm battling a cold," I'll often say, but what I really mean is that I'm battling a piece of myself. You cannot simply tell people that you are depressed in the way you might tell them your allergies have been acting up. I lie to protect people. I lie to protect me. I lie because it is easier than telling the truth, and I am too tired to deal with any additional difficulties. I lie because you cannot say "I'm
depressed" without someone inevitably following up with "Why". How do you respond to a question that has both every answer imaginable and no answer at all?
Living with depression is living with two selves. They ebb and flow together, moving in and out of darkness. Sometimes I feel so lost that all I can do is wrap my arms around my husband and let his body be the anchor that holds me steady in the rocking sea of my own mind. Other times I am strong and capable, fully present in my mind and body. It is like returning home again. Ah, here I am. Just as I left me. I feel confident. Healthy. Happy. More and more, thankfully, that is how I feel most of the time, but I always know that my second self is there, waiting in the wings.
In the winter of 2014, I was diagnosed with shingles. The combination of a bad car accident and a polar vortex heightened my anxiety and kept me from getting outside to run regularly, which had always helped me manage my depression. Stress kept building up in my body until my body said enough, and I ended up with shingles. It was incredibly painful, but drugs of any kind don't mix well with my particular mind so I never filled my Vicodin prescription and subsisted on ibuprofen and a terrible lack of sleep. A few weeks later, sitting in my doctor's office for a routine physical, I burst into tears, completely unprovoked. It had been a long time since I broke down in front of someone I barely knew. It was humiliating. We talked about my history of depression. I explained it had been a particularly bad couple of months where I had been unable to perform even my most basic depression management activities.
I went home that day, wrapped myself in blankets and sat out on my back porch in the frigid cold. With my dog at my side, I sat for an hour with my face turned toward the sunshine. Repeatedly in my life this is what I have done: dragged myself out of darkness. Carrying my body, heavy with depression, I have climbed my way out of impossible depths, clinging desperately to nearly invisible footholds.
This is the cycle of a life lived on the edge of sadness. Sometimes I slip over that edge. Nothing I have done in my life has ever kept me from having to toe that line. It’s simply who I am. I am fragile, more than I care to admit. My emotional armor like a fresh scab that is easily scraped away. I am a deep wound constantly being reopened. But I am also resilient. A thin, wispy weed--small and pathetic, so easily crushed--my roots run deep down into the muck and grime of the earth. I can live on in the darkness. Growing, returning. Pulling myself up again and again in search of sunlight.
Claire Taylor (she/her) writes about motherhood and mental health. She is the creator of Little Thoughts, a monthly newsletter of original writing for kids. Claire lives in Baltimore, MD, and online at clairemtaylor.com or Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor.