While my family was in a discussion about depression (that I was trying to listen to, of course), my sons were whipping around my parents’ driveway on a Plasma Car and a scooter, then my iPhone beeped with a new email, and while I was trying to understand why my son desperately needed me to move my mother’s car to the bottom of the driveway right this minute, my phone rang and it was my husband updating me on the paperwork about the sale of our house. I’m not the only one with this experience. We likely all do this all day long.
By the time I’d moved my mother’s car, snapped at my husband over the phone, ignored two new text messages that were urgent (read: not urgent at all), and totally missed a conversation that I so wanted to be a part of, I was cranky.
I am chronically anxious.
What I wanted to say during the conversation about depression that I missed out on was this: Yes, we are all varying degrees of sad at different stages of our lives. We all get tired and overwhelmed and lost. But for some of us, it doesn’t end there. For some of us, it goes to a whole different place, and how we deal with that place is unique to each of us. And I say “us” not as someone on the outside, but as someone who has dealt with alternating depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, though also as someone who’s learned enough to live fully with it, and still needs help to learn better.
I had a friend who wrote me a suicide letter when she was twelve. She was angry when I told her mother. And then I lost her forever after that though she’s alive today. How could I have known that telling her mother was such an offense that I would be kicked out of her life?
I had a student whose plea for help I missed. I read her poems awkwardly–not knowing how to behave. Some were not poems at all, but paragraphs of emotional outpouring. Some of what she wrote seemed eerily similar to my friend’s letter. She committed suicide the next semester. What was the difference between the me I was when I was twelve and the me I was last fall?
I remember my friend’s suicide note vividly. I remember how she made the letter ‘s’ with a curved bottom and a slanted line on the top. I remember how once she stashed an orange in the cedar chest in her bedroom and we found it, hard as a baseball, crumpled in a mass of 70s dresses we used to dress up in. We used to dance around her house to “The Nutcracker Suite.” We spent hours telling ghost stories and holding seances. We picked our scabs and put the wounds together so we could be blood sisters.
Have I become jaded? Am I skeptical? Did I judge my student as seeking attention or as not serious or as melodramatic? Did I just get distracted? Did everyone in her life get distracted by something else? Was I looking for something to distract me?
I’ve been on many meds. I’ve been on high doses and low doses and have seen counselors and therapists and sometimes wonder, why? I’m familiar with wanting to believe I’m cured and then stopping meds. I’m familiar with the despair that comes after. I’m familiar with going off meds during college and self-medicating with vodka. I know not all meds are helpful and that some, in fact, make you worse.
I also understand that I can control my situation to an extent. For me, I’ve learned that if I stay busy–super busy–I will not be depressed, so I choose anxiety that keeps me up at night over a depression that makes me wonder if the people who commit suicide are braver than I am. I still need meds, but this constant work keeps me stable.
I’ve learned this: that I cannot play roulette, guessing if someone else who’s depressed wants attention or is serious. I cannot judge another person’s despair or state of mind. Their mind is as much theirs as their fingerprint–it’s exactly why copycatting doesn’t work, and sometimes why I think my therapists are bogus. How can you really ever “get” anyone? All any of us need is to be “figured out.”
Once, when I was anxious to the point of sobbing and shaking, a friend shared this Natalie Goldberg quote with me: “Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down.”
I keep this on my bulletin board because ‘ignorant’ is a dirty word for me and I’d rather be anything before I’d be ignorant. Sometimes, I still live my life as though everything is an emergency. My son needs a drink. The dog needs to go out. Responding to a work email. Listening to what’s going on around me. Paying the bills. Multi-tasking is fine for the hands but tough on the brain. Sometimes I can’t prioritize, so I do it all at once.
I don’t know when this started. I find myself going to the worst places when any threat presents itself.
I am thirty-one. When I was 27, I taught a night class for a friend. Flakes were flying hard, and by the time class was over, my mother had driven to campus and cleaned off my car. She didn’t want me alone, at 9 pm, cleaning my car off on campus.
The thought that prompted my mother’s action was probably a worst-case scenario: Me, alone, cleaning off my car, a gloved arm grabbing me from behind, putting me in a strange vehicle that I would not emerge from alive. Or maybe this: I, not cleaning off my car properly because I was cold and in a hurry, pull out of the lot and into an oncoming truck. Or it was both.
I believe this is where my mind is at all times, too. But if it were at this place last fall, would I have missed my student’s plea?
In an article I found on a friend’s Facebook wall last week, The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric, it explains some of why some minds are more emotional, overstimulated, and goes on to explain why the creative mind leads to “strangeness.”
Part of the reason people with depression and anxiety are viewed as “strange” is because those who are rational or logical-minded don’t understand why the emotions can’t be reasoned with, can’t be “handled” or “controlled.” These are the people, likely, who have vague memories, who don’t remember mundane moments of their childhood with the vividness of milestones.
My son will recall any little afternoon outing with such specificity that it stuns me. He is sensitive. He is perceptive. I’ve joked that he will be my writer.
Sometimes, my husband says to me, “God. How do you remember that?” when I recall one weeknight three years ago when such and such happened, and the article helped me understand that it’s the same part of him that wonders why I can’t just turn my mind off at the end of the night to go to sleep even though I’m tired, or why I insist there are ghosts all around us.
When I tucked my son in tonight, I said to him, “I’m sorry I was upset earlier, I just have all this stuff on my mind, all this chattering from this person and that person and things I know I need to be doing that I’m not, and when you said the same sentence for the third time, I just couldn’t listen any more.”
And sometimes, all it is, is that I don’t know how to stop listening.