I’ve been a bit depressed lately, so I haven’t felt like writing. I considered writing about being a bit depressed, but I’ll never do it as well as Hyperbole and a Half so it seemed pointless. Besides, as far as depression goes mine is laughably mild, so why make it a big deal by devoting a blog post to it. That’s just the thing about being a bit depressed though: the very things that might actually help invariably seem pointless.
Undiagnosed, untreated depression runs in my family – it runs in many families. When in my twenties I went through a particularly low year – so low that even my parents found out about it – my mom was shocked.
“What did we do wrong?” – she asked. “Where did those genes come from?”
My mom is an engineer and needs a scientific answer. It’s either a faulty gene or the last domino in a chain set off by some parenting mistake she made many years before.
“Mom? You once threatened to kill yourself because I didn’t clean up my room! You once attempted to jump out of a moving car because we were late for the theatre because I had refused to put on my tights. Wherever do you think those genes came from?”
“Huh. I suppose you might be right” – she said.
Early on I made sure to pin my sadness on handy straw men. If only I found a boyfriend / lost 15 lbs / published a paper / fixed the problems in my marriage / toned my abs / got pregnant / got a job, then I would feel happy. Sure enough, when I started dating someone, lost 15 lbs, published a paper, survived a separation, toned my abs, got pregnant, and got a job, I felt happy for a few days or weeks. At other times I felt happy for months or years with untoned abs.
It’s so tempting and comforting to have someone or something to blame for one’s pain, but it’s dangerous: for example, I did much damage to my first marriage by quietly holding my then-husband responsible for my mood which had little or nothing to do with him. I also considered changing careers a few times, when depression told me I wasn’t smart enough for mathematics. And I’ve written an entire post about the danger and appeal of channelling guilt and sadness into negative body image.
My life now is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. I have dreams that haven’t come true: academic job in Toronto, with a house in the Annex. But I am married to a person I love to the moon and back, who supports me in everything I do. We have the cutest little toddler to ever walk the pavement of Sydney. We live in this gorgeous, lively city. We have interesting, challenging jobs and work with great colleagues. We have enough money to pay for the things that matter. We have loving families and awesome close friends.
Whether I’m having a happy time is related to all that, but not as a direct consequence, and sometimes, the good stuff can be as dangerous as the bad. In my case trouble almost always comes on the heel of big changes, so when I get a fancy new job or have an adorable new baby, I need to start bracing myself for the downpour as soon as I finish my glass of champagne (or unpack my celebratory new KitchenAid, as the case may be). This year, I have started a new job, we moved to a new city, Pink started a new job, and we hired a nanny for Pixie. What’s happening now is surprise to no-one.
This is how it goes: I start feeling tired, like a permanent case of a mild cold. I need more sleep and have less energy. I start exercising less, because it becomes such a chore. My attention span gets shorter, so it takes more and more juggling to get meaningful work done. I overreact to disappointments. I get irrationally sad, frustrated, or anxious over small annoyances, like losing an insurance form I had already filled out, or the babysitter getting sick. I get quieter and more withdrawn as socialising with anyone but the closest of friends becomes draining. Nothing is really worth talking about. Days feel longer and longer, until I can’t function in the evenings any more. I start crying through Pixie’s bedtime stories, which are not really so dramatic as to warrant tears…
“On Saturday, he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one *tear* sausage, one *tear* cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. That night he had a *sob sob* stomachache *sob* *hiccup* *sob*.”
Pixie once picked up a tissue and wiped my nose. As sweet as that was, it made me feel like I’m the worst parent in history ever. My toddler takes care of me!
Fifteen years ago I didn’t know that there was help out there, and even if there was, I was confused about what I needed help with in the first place: landing a boyfriend or toning my abs? I would only start looking up the website of the university counselling centre when I was desperately out of options. I feared I wasn’t troubled enough to deserve their help. They feared I was too far gone for their resources. The first few weeks of my ten-week quota of therapy was spent making sure that “I was safe”. Now I’m better at early intervention, and much better at acting like a “normal person”.
Amongst the people who get depressed sometimes, I am extremely lucky. I have never experienced the descent into complete darkness that Hyperbole and a Half talks about in her second depression story. I have always been able to carry on with my normal life – whatever that means –, and I think most people don’t even notice when it takes all my willpower to do so. Even at the worst of times I have been able to pull off a convincing smile when I must: I have cried in front of my toddler, but not in front of my students.
I’m lucky that Pink doesn’t leave me be, and sometimes, after weeks of monosyllabic evenings, he asks the right question at the right moment and we talk like new lovers, into the night.* I’m lucky that help tends to actually help me. I’m lucky that the vast majority of the time, all the help I need is some exercise, hugs, and the occasional therapist. Sometimes my therapist is this blog, sometimes I upgrade to a real live person. The difficult step is trusting that help will help, enough to seek it out.**
*About 8:45pm, that is.
**If you need help, please reach out. You are not alone. Most universities provide some amount of free counselling to students; if you are a student, that’s a good place to start. Many employers do the same for employees, and it’s always confidential. If you have health insurance that covers dentist appointments or physiotherapy, chances are they cover talk therapy as well. In addition, your family doctor should be able to direct you to local resources. Telephone help lines are a good place to turn to if you need to talk to someone immediately.