Depression often comes with a variety of side effects, none of which are consistent across sufferers, or even across depressive bouts experienced by the same person. Depression might manifest this time with a large helping of anger and frustration, while next time it could come with a side of inconsolable crying, and the time after that might be fraught with indifference so flat that you actually forget what it feels like to feel.
Sometimes you cycle between all of those, with stops in between at places like inexplicably exuberant gratitude for life and the world and relationships and everything beautiful shining all around, or compulsive eating, or any variety of human emotions. Being depressed rarely means being a sad sack one hundred percent of the time. Even the most severely depressed can usually find a reason to smile and laugh here and there. But when the thick sadness or the colorless apathy takes hold and you live inside that cloud, it can be nearly impossible to get out of it. Like a heavy fog, you cannot see things until you are right upon them, and then perhaps you dwell there for a while, but you quickly move on, back into the vapor, dazed, your thoughts fuzzy.
Very reasonable people become depressed and do very unreasonable things. Feelings and rationale do not always coexist well.
In some ways, grief is like acute depression. People who battle depression and experience loss are at a disadvantage in that their burden becomes that much heavier, but they are at an advantage in that they know this territory. They have wandered these woods. They know how frightening it is. They understand that it’s likely that they will find their way out, or at least become so familiar with the timber that they’re able to live comfortably there. With grief, there is a known culprit that can be pointed to, a tangible source of anguish.
Someone reading this blog who does not understand grief and depression may think that I am a slovenly three-dimensional puddle of angry tears, wandering miserably from place to place, contributing little to society. This is untrue. I am a highly functional human being with a career, a home that I keep clean and free of clutter, a dog that I care for, a family that I’ve made laugh most of my life, a handful of good friends with whom I share lunches and dinners and happy hours. I belong to organizations, and when I’m not too busy with work I volunteer, go hiking and camping, enjoy books and movies and live music and all the other normal activities that someone my age in the Midwest might do.
I experience joy, love, hope, excitement. And sometimes those feelings are blunted, or even blotted out entirely, by an inescapable melancholy or apathy, a passive desire to just no longer be.
I am more functional at some times than at other times. Some days I am productive and hopeful and even bubbly. On other days, bathing myself seems an insurmountable task. There are days when I wake up with eyes so raw and swollen from a night of weeping from what feels like a bottomless pit of sadness that I must put an ice pack on them before I can slather on some makeup and brave the outside world. And there are days when I wake up completely certain of myself, feeling strong and capable.
But I am always functional – some degree of functional, anyway. This is what can be tricky, and I find that it is true of grief just as it is true of depression.
The first time I ever sought real help for my depression was when I was twenty-two years old and had recently moved back in to the farm house where my family had lived when I left at seventeen. At least one family member had stayed living in that house over the previous five years, rotating in and out, but someone was always there. I had even stopped in briefly for a few weeks here and there between cities. It was never totally vacant. But none of us ever felt fully at ease in that small town, at least not back then. So we would cycle in, and leave again to pursue dreams or boyfriends or just life somewhere else, always coming full circle.
Moving back there meant confronting dark memories of a suicidal adolescence, a time of protracted loneliness and despondency. It felt like giving up on running away from a bleakness that had pursued me for years, surrendering to icy hands that would pull me in and surely snuff out the barely-visible flame I had managed to keep burning. The farmhouse sat atop the only hill for miles. In the summer, the view was dazzling, stretching from horizon to horizon – three hundred and sixty degrees of bright blue sky with huge cotton ball clouds and dancing fields of corn and beans. A small patch of timber sat to the southwest, a moraine to the far north, a small valley off to northwest. Illinois is thought to be a flat and boring state. Yet, if you look closely enough, even in its most treeless places, there is charm and subtle beauty here.
But winter is unforgiving, bitter cold, barren, especially in the country. By the time late autumn rolls around, the fields have been stripped mostly bare aside from the carcasses of corn stalks, the trees have lost their leaves, and the sky has turned cloudless and pewter. The aluminum of the grain bins becomes hardly distinguishable from the silvery gray of the sky, and the only growth is a burgeoning malaise and sense of unrest. By the time winter rolls around, the ice and snow rage hard, the wind blowing so relentlessly that the doors freeze shut and we are trapped.
It was late fall and I was working some mindless temporary job in a huge corporate office, a sea of cubicles with people eager to “get on full time” with the company while I was eager to find anything at all about which to be eager. The unfairness and meaninglessness of life was impossible to get away from, and it infected me like a high fever. A sickness slow to come on, it had built gradually, until one day I left work and – after smiling and laughing and waving goodbye to all my unsuspecting coworkers – sat waiting for my car to warm up, wondering how I could possibly live one more moment feeling this way. I drove around the city aimlessly in the dark. The sun had set by dinnertime, and the light drizzle of the afternoon had turned to freezing rain post-sundown.
My tin can on wheels sputtered up and down roads that were barely familiar to me. I’d cried so hard that my sobs had turned to choking hiccups, and now I was just empty, save for a screaming desire to drive my car off a cliff. Illinois has no cliffs unless you drive pretty far south, and I had neither gas money nor time to get all the way down there, drive off a cliff, and then be back for work in the morning. My depression-addled brain was trying to come up with an alternative. Then I passed a glowing sign. It was a mental health center. I drove around the block and stared at the brightly burning lights. I couldn’t imagine them being open, given that it was after 5:00. I decided to stop anyway.
I assume because I was well-dressed from my corporate job, they were at first polite and advised me that they could set me up with an appointment, but it wouldn’t be until next week. I’d hoped my swollen, bloodshot eyes and bright red nose might convince them otherwise, but no dice. So I dropped the S-word. I told the receptionist, quietly and plainly, I’m afraid I might hurt myself. Are you sure I can’t talk to someone? Her face stayed perfectly pleasant, detached, and she nodded as she turned away from me and picked up the phone. Her voice was barely audible as she quickly shared my situation with whomever was on the other end. She hung up. Okay, she said. Go ahead and have a seat over there and someone will be with you shortly. Her smile was the kind of weary reserved for people who spend their lives in mental health social service jobs.
The counselor I saw was a slight man, with an office that doubled as a therapy room. I would come to know this as the norm for counselors – a computer and a desk tucked away in a corner, the focal point the couch or chairs where clients are to sit and share their innermost thoughts. He said little, instead letting me talk. I fumbled over words, realizing as the conversation progressed that maybe I sounded like a sniveling idiot, and maybe I shouldn’t be here.
Okay, so you have a job? Yes.
Right. And you’re not in any danger at home? No.
Okay. And your relationship with your parents, it’s decent? Yes.
After several sessions with him, he would finally admit that he did not know how to help me. My misery had not encroached so nefariously on my existence that I was unable to function. I’d recently obtained my GED, made a healthy decision to move closer to family to attend school, gotten into a two-year college where I would complete my prerequisites, had always held down at least one job and made ends meet.
You’re functional, he said, raising his eyebrows and his hands – palms up – in helplessness. I left his office that day and never went back. I wouldn’t see another counselor for almost another two years, and hers would be essentially the same story.
Not until I met my academic advisor at the community college I attended and fell apart in his office would I begin to have real faith in the mental health community. He helped me understand and believe that the word “functional” is highly subjective.
Without question, it is important to be a functional member of society. Sometimes people fail at that part because they can’t or won’t push themselves. I have to believe that in many cases people can be functional, but they choose not to, often because some other force (hello, well-meaning loved ones) enables them not to be. I identify with that desire. There have been numerous phases in my life where I pushed hard to keep going in school or at work just so that I could stay afloat, and it has had interesting effects on the way I process life. During these spells, I spend my down time with the blinds drawn, not answering the phone, vacillating between overeating and barely eating, between sleeping all the time and getting no rest, between wailing from the depths of my soul to being so numb I wonder if I will ever again have the ability to feel, between binge-watching shameful television and lying in bed for hours staring at the nothingness.
This is my humanness. And here in this writing, I crack the door into my humanity. I am (sometimes uncomfortably) candid about the anguish that punctuates my existence because I feel compelled to be. The vulnerability of it sometimes leaves me reeling, and even I cannot believe how willing I am to be stripped so completely bare. I do this in part for myself, but it is also in part to articulate the feelings that I know exist for so many others, people who may not be able to stand so exposed but who may benefit from the expression of feelings they cannot fully name, let alone discuss.
I wrote this “interlude” because I needed to convey that I am, indeed, a person who battles significant depression and anxiety and grief, a person who sometimes wishes to no longer be a person. But to know me outside the confines of my own space is mostly to know a good-humored, self-deprecating person who laughs loudly and often, a person you would never suspect is going to be at home in a couple of hours lying on the floor bawling into a warm dog belly. Because I’m functional.