Updated: Jul 23, 2019
It was a hot July afternoon. I sat on my front porch, watching the cars driving up my one-way street. I didn’t really see them. My focus drifted aimlessly as my thoughts spiraled inward. My mind was a rollercoaster trapped in an infinite loop, caught in an endless barrage of soul-crushing thoughts. I was alone. I’d always be alone. I deserved to be alone. If I were gone, everyone would be better off.
“Are you okay?”
The voice came from outside my thoughts, pulling me out of my head. One of my roommates stood next to me, on his way towards his car. I realized we’d been talking. I have no idea what he said or what I said back. Autopilot had taken control like it often did these days. But now I was back in manual, and I had no answer to his question. That wasn’t true. I did have an answer.
“Something’s wrong with me,” I replied, then the sobbing started.
My ears still grow hot with embarrassment when I think about that day. When I see it from the perspective of my hapless roommate as he stumbled into the middle of my breakdown. Two years later, I’ve come a long way, but I still am locked in the same fight, the fight against clinical depression, one of been fighting for most of my life.
Depression is a word that means many different things to different people, obscuring its significance. People call apathy or sadness depression. It’s often used as a synonym for grief or dissatisfaction with life. The depression I’m writing about is something different. Grief, anger, tragedy, they can all exacerbate the issue, but they aren’t the cause.
When I’m low, as I usually call it, I’m not sad, I’m empty. I wake up and can’t think of a reason to get out of bed. I can’t focus. I can’t sleep. I can’t stay awake. Colors lose their vibrancy. Sounds become muffled. It’s as if life has a dimmer switch and everything’s been turned down to a low, dull glow.
The most unhelpful question I get when I’m low is, “What are you sad about?” I’m not sad. Okay. Sometimes I am but not for any real reason. If work is rough or relationships are falling apart, yes, that will make it worse, but depression hits in the good times too. Often, that’s the case with me. I’ll be consumed with the thought that my life will fall apart at any moment. It will spiral and pull me in until I can’t see anything but the disaster that I’m sure is on its way. If I let it keep pulling me down, eventually I can only see one way out. It starts with one thought: everyone would be better off without me.
When I tell that to people, nearly everyone’s instinct is to refute that thought. They’ll remind me of things I’ve done or people I’ve helped. It’s well-meaning, and I appreciate it, but it doesn’t help.
There’s a concept in psychology called “l’appel du vide” or “call of the void.” If you’ve ever stood at the edge of something tall and had the sudden need to jump back, then you’ve experienced this in part. It’s a subconscious mechanism that tests your mind’s self-preservation reflex. Depression dulls that reflex. Those little subconscious things that keep us going start to fail. That’s why encouragement doesn’t help. Those things wired into us to keep us going stop working.
What does help? That’s complicated. For me, it’s been several things, counseling being at the top of the list. After my breakdown on the front porch, I emailed someone to get into counseling right away. The second thing I did was find someone to watch Game of Thrones with. That might seem out of left-field, but I can’t tell you how much this helped. It forced me out of my house once a week. It turned a solitary activity into a communal one. And since the people I started watching it with weren’t people I knew well, it forced me to start rebuilding my social skills.
Since then, I’ve built up a support system and developed habits to combat the spiral. Some habits are simple, like making my bed every morning or having a consistent sleep schedule. I’ve learned to be honest with a few close friends so they can step in early when the warning signs show up. I have a mentor that checks in on me as well. Also, medication. For me, I don’t always have to be on medication, but when it’s needed, I take it. It helps. A lot. Talking with other people that struggle with clinical depression has also been incredibly cathartic. It’s impossible to adequately describe what this is like, and talking with someone else that knows it from the inside helps me feel less alone.
“Are you okay?”
Yes. I’m okay. I’ve never been exactly the same since that spiral two years ago. I have a low level of social anxiety that I never had before. I lost interest in almost everything I was passionate about during that time, and while I’ve mostly overcome that, some of it still lingers. I no longer enjoy cooking, and I’m far less extroverted than I used to be.
Why am I writing this? Well, here’s the thing. Most people that know me don’t know any of this. I’m skilled at hiding it. I think many of us that fight depression are skilled at hiding it. When we don’t, we get the same questions and unhelpful advice, so it’s easier to put on a show. My hope is that this, in a small way, can help those of you that don’t understand, that haven’t had to fight to find a reason to get out of bed. Many times, the best thing you can do for someone fighting depression is to just be with them. Find something to do to pull them out of themselves. It’s good to feel normal even if it’s only for an hour. Getting out of the thought spiral is difficult, distraction helps.
Also, listen. When they’re ready to talk, don’t give advice unless they want it. Sometimes we just need to talk. If things are bad, encourage them to get help. Help them find a counselor or a doctor. If you’re in a relationship with someone fighting this, maybe find help yourself. Talking with a professional can help you cope as well. They’ll have better advice than I can give.
Today I woke up at the same time I try to wake up every morning. I got out of bed. I made my bed. I sent a quick text, telling a friend that I’d gotten out of bed. I went to the gym. Soon I’ll be at work. It’s a little hard to focus. Colors aren’t quite as vibrant as they should be. But it won’t stay that way. I’ll keep fighting and pushing forward. I’m not alone in this. I’m okay.