Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Dark Hole of My Depression

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As someone with a mental illness, I feel qualified to talk about this subject. But, as I often do, let me start with a couple of disclaimers: First, everyone's mental illness or mental health is very personal and will likely be different from one person to another. When I talk about my mental illness, I don't pretend to speak for anyone but myself. Second, I prefer to use the phrase "living with depression" rather than "suffering" or "struggling with depression." While any illness is a struggle a lot of the time, I think life in general is a struggle a lot of the time. So why pretend that my struggle is somehow more than someone else's struggle. We're all trying to live as best we can, aren't we? Maybe I'm just nitpicking at semantics, but that's where I'm at.

Depression is a hard disease to describe to others, because all of us feel depressed at times, right? But for me, depression isn't like that feeling all the time--sad about specific things. It's more like being unglued from the rest of the world. I've described it before as living in a deep, dark hole, knowing that everyone else is out there in the light and you have no way to get out of the hole. I spent most of my life clawing to get out of that hole, scrambling, screaming, leaping, but to no avail. You cannot simply paste on a smile, do some self talk about how good you have it, and magically rise from the hole.

I'm sure it is different for everyone, but for me, medications and counseling were the first step out of the dark. But only the first step. They allowed me to function in my daily life, but did not erase my disease or the hole. They just provided a foothold on the wall.

People who meet me for the first time are surprised when they eventually learn I live with depression, because I seem happy most of the time. And I am happy. Happy is not the opposite of the disease known as depression. I have much that makes me happy--a great family, a supportive and patient husband, kids that do me proud, talents that I enjoy and share, three silly dogs, a miraculous natural world.

Depression is that invisible. Truly. You don't see the hole where I live. When you see me, you see a person actively engaged in the world around her. The hole is my reality, but not yours. If you know me, you know about the hole because I talk about it, but you never see it or experience it. It is my own personal hell. It's not a choice. It's a part of me that is permanently attached.

It took me a long time to realize this as a permanent state. It's hard to accept. I spent so much of my life wanting it to go away--and I think that might be a reason for the high rate of suicides in mentally ill people, the wish for it to go away. There is no other way to escape it. There is only living with it.

I have found living with depression to be worth it. While painful, it's not impossible. And this is a message I try to share as often as possible.

After all these years of treating my depression with an ever-increasing arsenal of knowledge about the disease and about myself, I don't feel like I am living in the dark hole anymore. It's still there, calling for me all the time, though. It tells me that everything is useless. All my efforts don't amount to anything being better. There is no point. The darkness of the world is so immense and powerful that no matter what I do, the world is doomed. Not only that, I have personally contributed to the problems, so I am to blame--I am guilty of hatred, waste, pollution, fear, apathy, and pride. I might as well jump back into the hole, wallow there at the bottom, and waste away.

I'm nothing if not a rebel, so I resist the call. Do you know how much energy that takes? I fight it every minute of the day. Even on meds, even after years of counseling. These have given me tools, but it still requires constant effort. So I have learned to give myself plenty of rest to combat this exhaustion. I sleep a lot, more than most people anyway. Not only does it help refresh me, it is also an escape; when I am asleep, I can't hear the dark hole's call.

Another escape for me is to be outside--my back yard is fine, but even better is to be out on the trails, or even better in the mountains and trees with no other humans around. Seeing the stars light up the night is, ironically, a balm of darkness and light mixed. Listening to the roar of a river does more than just drown out the call of the dark hole; it is the voice of a better place. A hawk's screech. A campfire's crackle. Waves lapping over rocks. These are voices of a different sort that speak of peace to a troubled mind.

But there is more to living with depression that trying to escape it. I want to be part of the world outside of the dark hole, which is even more difficult to me than being in the hole. See what a battle of the mind this is? There is always a niggling sensation that I'm doing it all wrong, that I will be revealed any minute as a horrible hypocrite and fake, that life is nothing but a wobbly house of cards and it is about to crumble any minute now.

And why do I tell you all this? It's not because I want your sympathy. I don't need you to pity me, console me, or try to fix me. This is my disease and I can handle it. However, I do want your understanding. This quest for understanding is reciprocal--my wish to be understood motivates me to try to understand others, and compels me to help others, because of our shared humanity and pain. As introverted as I am, I cannot manage without this human connection. My efforts are an expression of love and peace, which, while aimed at others, also finds its way back to me. And I guess that's where this all circles back to--loving and honoring myself through this expression of my truth.