In one of my earliest childhood memories, I walk into my dad’s study to find him sitting at his desk. The room is dark, lit only by a small lamp that casts a soft rectangle of light across his body. He is hunched over, resting face down in the crook of one elbow, his other arm flung across the back of his head. I stand there for a moment, watching dust particles drift back and forth through the lamp light like fireflies blinking in and out of sight. I wait for him to notice me, and when he doesn’t I quietly ask, “Are you okay, Daddy?” My voice is barely above a whisper, but it breaks through the quiet like a crack of thunder and my dad’s shoulders tense from the startle. He does not lift his head, though, but rather drops his top arm and rolls his head over to face me. Half of his face remains hidden in the flesh of his forearm, but I can see the edge of his lips pull up into a strained smile. “Yeah, baby,” his voice sounds dry, scratchy. “I’m okay.” He sighs deeply, sending the dust particles whirling through the air around him. “I’m just a little sad today,” he tells me.
“Me too,” I say. I walk over to him and lean my tiny forehead against the soft, but sturdy side of his body. “I’m a little sad today too.”
I have been a little sad for my entire life. By the time I was 13 years old, my sadness had a name–depression–but looking back, I can tell that it was always with me, growing around me like a second skin. Living inside me like the ghost of a different self, haunting me with a voice so similar to my own, but beyond my ability to control. It whispered in my ear, telling me I would never be good enough, that I was unhappy because I was unloveable, that everyone around me was sick of the sight of me, made miserable by my mere existence. Whenever I laughed, freely and happily, the sadness would rise up to silence me. You’re being too loud, it would tell me. Everyone hates the sound of your laugh. When I played, felt joyful and at ease, the sadness would force its way into the pit of my stomach, roll itself up into a tight, hard rock and sit heavy in the center of my being, dragging me down with its weight, leaving me sick and exhausted, unable and unwilling to keep up with my friends. “You’re no fun,” my friends would say to me. Or, “fine, we’ll go on without you,” whenever I became suddenly, inexplicably teary-eyed, and needed to go back home. See, the sadness would say, I told you they were only pretending to like you.
Sadness has been my lifelong companion. It’s as much a part of me as my one crooked tooth that never fully straightened even after years of braces. It’s as ever-present as my big, solid thighs that refuse to slim down no matter how much weight I lose, or how often I exercise. No amount of work or corrective effort has ever fully banished my sorrow. It has been with me, unyielding, for so long that I sometimes wonder if it is the real me, and the person I think I am is just an affectation, a mask I pull on whenever I need to convince the world, convince myself, that I am capable, together, valuable and worthy of existence.
It is tiring to hate yourself, to be so routinely agonized by your own presence. The internal tug-o-war, the constant push and pull between sad self and other self, the social acrobatics of appearing fine when inside you feel like a cliff’s edge that is being repeatedly, endlessly pummeled by crashing, violent waves. It is physically exhausting. I am 31 years old and I cannot remember a single day when I felt fully, wholly rested. New parents are always saying that the kind of exhaustion you feel when you have a newborn cannot be properly described. You have to experience it to understand it. I think the same is true about depression. Unless you feel it, there’s no way to know what it’s like when your nerve endings feel drained of energy. There’s no good way to describe the kind of ache that exists all the way down into the calcium in your bones. How can a body be worn down by sleeping for 16 hours straight? How can you be tired to the point of tears, but still stay up for three days in a row, your mind buzzing and humming and refusing to let up from its convincing diatribe that you are a worthless waste of space?
Sometimes it feels like the sadness grows from within me, like an invasive fungus that sprouts in the dark, murky depths of my core and slowly spreads through my body, filling me with a blackness that seeps through every pore. My edges blur and fade into the darkness until I exist only in negative space, a shadow, an outline, an impression of the person I might have been if I had been able to fight the depression, to keep the dark spores from multiplying and killing off all that is bright and light, and good about me.
Other times it is like a wave. I stare out into the ocean in front of me and I can see it building, gathering strength and speed as it nears my shore. I watch it crest, feel the first cold drops of its spray against my face, and then I catch my breath and slam my eyes shut as it crashes over me, drowning out the rest of the world. It lifts me off my feet, and pulls me under, sending me flailing and churning, kicking wildly, desperate to scrape my toe against solid ground, or to thrust my face above water for just a second, an instant, long enough to gasp for breath. Just a brief moment is all I need, a quick reminder of which way is up.
There are so many metaphors and not a single one is apt. There is no way to explain a phenomenon that is both the core of who you are, but exists entirely outside yourself. To know me, to love me, is to be routinely lied to. “I’m fine,” I’ll tell you. But I’m not. “Oh I’m battling a cold,” I’ll often say, but what I really mean is that I’m battling a piece of myself. You cannot simply tell people that you are depressed in the same manner in which you might tell them that your allergies have been acting up. “There’s a demonic version of myself that turns the blood running through my veins into a billion little pin pricks through my entire body, and tells me that I’m a garbage human and not worth the air that I breathe,” isn’t quite as easy for others to digest as something like “the pollen count must be really high right now.” I lie to protect you. I lie to protect me. I lie because it is easier than telling the truth, and I’m too tired to deal with any additional difficulties. I lie because you cannot say “I’m depressed,” without someone inevitably following up with “why?” How do you respond to a question that has both every answer imaginable, and no answer at all?
To live with depression is to live with two selves. They ebb and flow together, moving you in and out of darkness and light. Sometimes I feel so lost that all I can do is wrap my arms tightly around my husband’s middle, smash my face into his chest and let his body be the anchor that holds me steady in the rocking sea of my own mind. Other times I am strong and capable. Fully present in myself, and my body. It’s like returning home time and time again. Ah yes, here I am. Just as I left me. I feel confident. Healthy. Happy. More and more, thankfully, that’s how I feel most of the time. But I always know that my second self is still there, waiting in the wings. I can feel it settling behind my ribs, slowly expanding, gradually filling the space between my ribs and lungs. My breathing becomes increasingly shallow and labored. I can feel it rising up into my throat, turning my mouth sour and acidic. My body tenses and tightens as I brace myself for its arrival, as I prepare myself, yet again for the agony of living day-to-day with my depression.
In the winter of 2014, I was diagnosed with shingles. I didn’t know that people in their twenties could get shingles. I had been in a car accident a month earlier that had totaled my car, and while it had left me physically unscathed, it took an emotional toll. I had trouble sleeping. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the headlights of the other car coming at me. I was terrified of driving, and would occasionally hallucinate phantom cars darting out into intersections. That winter was one with frigid polar vortex temperatures. I couldn’t get outside and run regularly, which had always helped me get through my periods of depression. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t running. I was positively miserable from the cold and the stress kept building up in my body until the point where my body said enough, and I ended up with shingles. When you are already at an emotional and physical low, shingles is the worst kind of insult to add to your injury. It can be incredibly painful. It was always the worst at night. I was given a prescription for Vicodin, but I never filled it, because I find that drugs don’t mix well with my particular mind. So I subsisted on some extra strength ibuprofen and a terrible lack of sleep. By the end of a few weeks, finally cured of my shingles misery, I found myself sitting in my doctor’s office for a routine physical, absolutely incapable of keeping tears from welling up in my eyes. I burst into tears in front of her, completely unprovoked. It had been a very long time since I broke down in front of someone I barely knew, and it was humiliating, as unintended vulnerability so often is. We talked about my history of depression. She wanted to write me a prescription for antidepressants, but I resisted (again, I don’t like the way I feel on drugs of any kind). I explained that it had been a particularly bad couple of months, and that I had been unable to perform even my most basic depression management activities. I promised her that if I couldn’t get it together in the next two weeks, I would come back and let her write me a prescription. She said she felt worried that I would let things get further out of hand, and made me assure her that I had no thoughts of injuring myself. I think when people know you have depression, they’re all secretly wondering if you routinely want to kill yourself. It’s a valid concern, but one that can grow tiresome after a lifetime of living with this condition. No one ever celebrates you for being your own biggest warrior; they’re more fixated on whether or not you’re a threat.
I went home that day and I sat out on my back porch. It was frigidly cold. I wore two pairs of pants, multiple layers under my big winter coat. I wrapped myself in the comforter from my bed and with my dog at my side (a dog will always love you, even when you think you’re impossible to love), I sat for an hour out in the cold, my face turned toward the sunshine. Again and again in my life, this is what I have done. I have dragged myself out of the darkness. I have carried my body, heavy with depression, weighed down by self loathing and unimaginable despair. I have climbed my way out of impossible depths, clawing, clinging desperately to nearly invisible footholds.
For me, this has been the repeated struggle of living with depression. This is the cycle of a life that is lived on the edge of sadness. Sometimes I slip over that edge. Nothing I have done in my life has ever kept me from having to toe that line. It is simply who I am. I wish that I were tough enough to keep myself away from that edge. But I am not tough. I am fragile. More fragile than I care to admit. My emotional armor is like a fresh scab, so easily scraped away. I am a deep wound that is constantly being reopened. I ache too easily. For myself, for others, for hardships and heartaches both real and imagined. I am not tough, but I am resilient. I am like a thin, wispy weed. Small and pathetic, and so easily crushed. But my roots run deep down into the muck and grime of the earth. I can live on in the darkness. Growing, returning, pulling myself up again and again, in search of the sunlight.