When Jen and I talked about this blog post earlier this week, I planned to write about something else. But now it feels like the most important thing I can talk about is my experience with depression.
I was surprised to hear about Kate Spade. I was stunned to hear about Anthony Bourdain. I don’t know much about either of them, and the main reason I found Bourdain’s suicide more shocking was because he’s male. It somehow made sense to me, as awful and unexpected as it was, that a woman could hide that level of despair behind an upbeat, successful public persona. It didn’t occur to me that a man could do it just as well.
Which goes to show that after more than two decades of my own struggle with depression, I still have a lot to learn. It’s a complicated and often hidden illness, and I am not going to try to get to the bottom of it in short essay. But, from the many accounts that I’ve read from fellow sufferers – including some beautiful ones this week from writers trying to come to grips with these two terrible losses – I think my experience shares some universal elements. I hope I can shed some light into the particularly dark hole into which so many of us, it seems, fall from time to time.
I am extremely fortunate in that I have never felt suicidal. What I mean by that is I have never gotten to the point where I have started to formulate a plan about how to end things. That said, I have on occasion felt despairing enough that my therapist felt compelled to ask if I felt suicidal. The last time this happened was less than a month ago. What I remember saying right before she asked the question was, “What’s the point? What’s the point? I don’t the point.”
Here’s how the most recent episode went down. I felt fine on Saturday, as I do the majority of the time. Then on Sunday morning, I woke up to discover that I had bed bugs. BED BUGS. (Side note: I have now copped to severe depression and bed bugs in one essay, and I want a prize. Maybe a Pulitzer?) The bed bugs, and the feelings of violation and shame that they summoned, triggered the episode. I flew out of bed and immediately found an exterminator online. Their office was closed on Sunday, so I emailed them begging for the earliest possible appointment. Then I left my house for a pre-planned 8:30 a.m. ocean swim with friends in Long Beach. I usually feel exhilarated after an ocean swim, but that morning I didn’t. I felt kind of blah, which I attributed to the overcast weather and the fact that the water we’d swum in was murky and kind of disgusting. My friends and I followed up our swim with a lovely breakfast and I perked up a little. Then we headed off to cheer on some friends in the Long Beach Pride Parade. The parade was fantastic and the overall mood was joyous and celebratory, but my own mood was sinking fast. By the time we headed back to our cars, I started to think one of my friends was annoyed with me. I had planned this whole expedition after all, and maybe it hadn’t been enough fun. I had picked a beach with gross water for the swim and maybe we’d stayed too long at the parade. I started to convince myself that my friend was dying to get home so she could get me out of her hair. It’s important to note here that all of this was completely untrue. My friend, who had no idea that I was thinking any of these things, has since told me what a great time she had that day. I didn’t realize it then, but my perspective was warping. Depression had begun to take hold.
When I got home, I had to face the bed bugs. I decided I couldn’t stay in my house that night. I could’ve gotten a hotel room but I realized that I didn’t want to be alone, so I sent out an SOS via text to a few friends to see if they were willing to take me in. I didn’t hear back for a little while – maybe an hour? – and concluded that none of my friends was willing to help me. Which led to the thought that humanity is essentially selfish. Which led to the thought that all of us, in the end, journey through Life alone. Then I got texts back from all of my wonderful friends saying that they would gladly take me in, which made me feel very loved. But the negative thought process had already taken hold and couldn’t be reversed, even by factual contradiction. I was sinking further into the hole.
I stayed with my friend Sherry that night and her company was enormously helpful. I didn’t tell her I was sliding into an episode – I wasn’t sure of it myself – and I’m confident that my behavior provided no clues. Just being with her made me feel lighter. We had a delightful dinner together and laughed our way through three episodes of “Miranda” on Hulu. Sherry made me breakfast the next morning and, while she was there, I really felt OK. As soon as she left for work, though, the heaviness returned. Depression thrives in isolation, and isolation is sometimes unavoidable. I headed home to meet the exterminator and, by the time I got there, I felt low enough that I texted my therapist to schedule an emergency phone appointment for that evening. Meanwhile, the exterminator did an inspection and confirmed the bed bugs and I pulled out the clothes I would need for the week and washed them and I arranged to stay another night with Sherry. I don’t think anyone observing me taking care of all this business would have suspected how profoundly sad I felt. But as soon as I stopped moving and got on the phone with my therapist, I completely broke down. And through tears I asked her what was the point? Because I just didn’t see the point.
The incredibly good news about this terrible episode was how quickly I came out of it. My emergency phone session took place at 6:00 p.m. on Monday evening, and by Tuesday morning, I felt a thousand times lighter. This was partly due to the fact that I got my period Tuesday morning (and here I’d like to say a hearty “Fuck You” to PMS in the late forties, both for its particular intensity and for the fact that, due to inconsistent periods, it ambushes you.) It was partly due to the fact my depression is simply not as severe as some people’s. Everyone is different. But I believe that my swift recovery was also due to the fact that I was prepared. I had a therapist to call, one with whom I’ve had a years-long relationship, who knows me well and had helped me through this kind of despair before. I also knew enough about the progress of depression to realize by Monday afternoon that I needed to talk to her ASAP. In addition, not only am I on anti-depressants, but my psychiatrist, with whom I’ve also had a years-long relationship, had recently upped my dosage. And on Sunday night, even before I was fully aware of how bad things were getting, I had the instinct to call on friends so that I would not have to spend the night alone in an unfamiliar place (not to mention a group of wonderful friends to call on who constantly come through for me.) While none of these things prevented this nasty episode from pulling me under, each and every one of them helped me to pop back up to the surface so quickly.
I believe that the most important thing that those of us who suffer from depression can have is a well-stocked tool kit. Because the fight against depression is first and foremost our fight, and it’s a bruiser. Supportive friends and family are vital tools, but they may not be the ones, or the only ones, we need on a given day. They aren’t professionals and we shouldn’t ask them to play that role. If my friend breaks a leg, she can count on me to drive her to the hospital but she knows that I can’t set the bone. Also, in my experience, depression can undermine the support of the people who love you most by convincing you that they don’t care about you at all. So other tools are crucial – a good therapist; medication if we need it; a psychiatrist to prescribe medication and help us manage dosages; education about depression, which helps us better understand what’s happening to us. Diet, exercise, a yoga and/or meditation practice – these are all good tools to have in our kits. The more tools we have, the better prepared we are to fight our nasty demon when It reaches out of its hole and tries to drag us in.
I’ve assembled a strong tool kit and have years of experience using it, and as a result I’ve gotten more successful at managing my depression and fighting through the really bad episodes when they come. Do I wish I didn’t have to? Yes. And no. This is probably a topic for another essay, but the reality is that this ongoing fight of mine, like most fights that don’t kill us, has made me much, much stronger.