My depression isn’t what you think depression looks like.
A WebMD Symptom checker tells me that I suffer from depression and anxiety, but my ability to accomplish tasks does not. My depression gets up in the morning, goes to work, calls friends, and posts on Facebook. My depression is able to cook, clean, and smile. But it suffocates the life out of all of these activities. I’m like a stunted version of everything that I could be when it takes over my mind, my thoughts, and my self-worth. My deepest desire is crawl under the covers, turn out the lights, and sleep for weeks on end.
But my Type A side won’t let me do that. Too much judgment, too much fear (mostly that I would never be rescued from myself), and too much to do. Type A Christina pushes through each and every day, careful to never fall apart.
Look for these people in your life. They are the ones who are quietly dying inside.
Depression takes simple, passing negative thoughts that we all have and turns them into dictators that run the entire operation. The operation is your life. Depression started with irritability and resentment toward my first born son.
Why does he always cry? Why is he so needy? Why won’t he shut up?
It told me that these were thoughts only bad mothers have. It told me that if I stopped breastfeeding I was a bad mother. It came into my room during late night feedings and told me to hate my son. It told me that my son was sucking the life out of me and he was a burden. It told me that I had made a terrible mistake, and that I was never meant to be a mother at all. It told me that now I have to suffer for the rest of my life for this terrible choice I had made. Once it had fully convinced me that I was a bad mother, ill fitted for the position I had chosen, and that my son was here to ruin my life – it sat with me and waited. I had drank the proverbial Kool-Aid and now depression was inside of me, it WAS me. There was no distinction between the two of us. My thoughts became ME. Positivity, hope, and optimism were not options in this new skin. I used to have a fight in me to thwart the thoughts, tears, and hopelessness. I would still kick my legs and flail my arms desperately to keep my head above water. But that gentle lull of negativity caught me in the eye of storm and became the calm waves that rocked me to sleep each night. I became comfortable and justified in my resentment and anger. My legs, arms, and mind were able to seek solace in those waves. I didn’t have to fight so much, I knew now I was a bad mother and not worthy of happiness. I allowed my body to roll onto my back and just floated in the waves of this new-found, so-called truth.
I was a horrible person, a terrible mother, and worst of all, my 3 month old son certainly knew it.
But I didn’t have to fight anymore. So I just floated; gently, calmly, and immobile in the wave of sadness. Then something grabbed my legs and yanked me down into the next level of Hell.
My next level of depression was guilt. I had adopted and accepted this new definition of myself but suddenly something was telling me that to think these things was even worse than being these things. I was so confused. I’d been indoctrinated into this new belief system and way of being but now I was feeling guilty about it. What most people don’t tell you is that depression is confusing that way – you believe the world is a cold, dark, demonic place but some days, out of nowhere, something inside of you challenges those thoughts and then you are submerged in guilt.
I couldn’t focus or concentrate. I couldn’t make basic daily decisions. Every choice felt like life or death – peanut butter or turkey? White rice or brown? Breastmilk or formula? One wrong move and it would prove what I had already accepted – that I was a bad mother. This was grueling. It was like fighting all over again. I knew I was terrible so why was I hell bent on feeling guilty about it?
Medicine only made the drowning more bearable. It was like sending me scuba gear as I sunk down deeper and deeper under water. Yes I could breathe, yes I was surviving but everything was muted. I just slowly sank into a sea of grey. I didn’t feel suffocated but I didn’t feel alive. I could smile but I couldn’t laugh. I didn’t feel despair but I didn’t feel joy. What felt even worse was knowing that like oxygen, once the medications are stopped you still can’t breathe under water. So I stayed linked to the medications for a while until I felt strong enough to push through and swim up on my own. I unhooked my oxygen tank and swam up to try something new: therapy. It was there that I learned my habits of swimming, being sucked in and down, building myself back up, then diving back in by choice.
While medicine kept me breathing, it didn’t bring me back to life. Only therapy did that for me.
I have contemplated suicide once in my life; at age 16. I looked at a bottle of pills and for a brief moment, thought it would be much easier to swallow them and be done with it. But then my perfectionist side kicked in and decided that if I was going to do it, if I was really going to end it all, taking a bottle of pills would be too risky. I’d need a gun or a rope. My heart stopped my head right at that thought. And though depression has since taken me for a ride on its waves many times over, it’s never pulled me back down to that horrifying level. The deepest, most convincing so-called truths that I adopted and accepted while suffering from depression are things that I still can’t handle sharing with other people. They are like battle scars on my heart that are meant only for me; reminders of a time at war that I can never forget.
My experience with depression taught me that it latches on to every negative thought that floats by in my mind and builds an ark out of it. The ark appears safe at first because it protects your body from the waves but soon you’ve built an entire belief system on your inherent unworthiness. Therapy taught me to accept that my life is the ocean and the waves will always come.
Every day as they wash over me, I must recognize which to fight and which to lean into. I don’t just have to learn how to swim, I also have to learn when to stop swimming. When your own mind tricks you into believing lies and you subsequently build your life on those so-called truths, you fear the waves. Depression doesn’t want anything to rock the boat its built on false thoughts.
You don’t know which waves to trust; which ones are there to pull you under or to push you in the right direction. I spent most of my life swimming and not knowing why. Just spinning my arms and thrusting my legs back and forth, no rhyme or reason. I’m convinced now that when I go back to that habit of mine, the waves become more ominous and rough. If I stay calm and still, treading lightly and keeping my head facing the sun, the waves are not so powerful. If I stay aware of the thoughts that pass through my mind and don’t try to build magnificent ships out of them, I can resist being pulled under completely. If I accept that my arms, legs, heart, and mind will get tired on occasion and I will indeed slip under, I must also have faith that my stillness will quietly lift me back above for air. And that’s what the rest of my life may be – compassionate acceptance that so-called truths are part of this ocean.
As I sit here eight years later I have come to understand that the light of my soul is stronger than the darkness of depression. Yes, there was a time that the sun was beaming in a cloudless sky over the infinite ocean but depression kept me trapped and anchored to the bottom of the sea. Yes, I built a life around that pit.
But take heart, dear friends. For it was my treading, not my swimming that saved me. And it will save you too.