TRIGGER WARNING – This post contains references to suicide which may be upsetting to some people.
It’s the first morning after the holiday ‘hoopla’, or at least, as close to hoopla as we could get this year. I should still be in my jammies, working on a puzzle and catching up on calls with family and friends. But instead, I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go. A weird habit that I never thought I’d hold on to through this pandemic. I try to get myself dressed and ready to go (nowhere) first thing in the morning despite the fact I won’t be seeing anyone throughout the day. This morning it was a deliberate decision to rally and not let myself bake out on the couch. Last night I was slammed by a full-on case of the post-holiday blues. I couldn’t shake it and it scared me when I woke up this morning feeling the same way.
I suffered a deep depression in my early twenties – and yes, I choose the word ‘suffered’ intentionally because it felt like suffering. I wasn’t sad and it wasn’t just anxiety (because there was definitely that too). It was two or three years of living in a deep, dark, pit. Scratch that.. I wasn’t living. I was merely existing. I was numb to the world and life was passing me by while I slept it away. I couldn’t rouse myself up for anything or anyone. I don’t remember feeling anything; joy – when mustered-up, was really an act for other people’s benefit; sadness was something I had to dig deep for because I knew it was in me, but it took too much energy to feel. So instead, I cocooned and I slept. Two years of university have some memories of adventures and friendships, but are mostly remembered by the view from my bed. I somehow managed to get through an entire semester while staying in bed and only rising to write the occasional essay and rallying to walk on to the campus to write some exams. My profs knew what I was going through and gave me the pass from attending class as long as I could keep up with the work. Somehow I pulled it off. But did I learn anything? I remember nothing.
I have two distinct memories that I draw from when I’m self-assessing my mental state; they serve as my baseline to know if I’m heading back into the dark, or if I’m just struggling through a stressful time. Third year university I remember my sleeps were filled with dreams. I remember waking up in a cold sweat, sobbing in a panic because in my dream, I could no longer walk. My legs would no longer work – they were dead weight and forced me to drop like a sack of potatoes. I had to use my weak upper body to pull and drag myself everywhere if I wanted to move. The dreams weren’t focused on my loss of function, it was just a matter of fact. From that day forward, I no longer walked in any of my dreams. Even in my foggy state, I knew enough to realize that it was a symbol for my current state of being. I was stuck. Dreams of suffering the slow death of drowning in quicksand would have been as equally representative of where I was in my life. A second memory that still makes me cringe twenty-five years later, is in my fourth year of university. J, my sister Steph and I all lived together in a gross basement apartment. J and I had a bedroom in the deepest level of the basement and it had no windows. I loved it. I would sleep all day in that dark room. One afternoon we had visitors – I can’t even remember who they were now. But I do remember that they had driven all the way from Scarborough to surprise us in Waterloo. I remember being in that bed and hearing Steph and J greet people upstairs at the door. I remember the sound of happy and I remember how they kept calling to me to come upstairs. J came down more than once to try to convince me to come up; we hadn’t seen these friends in months and they had made the special trip to surprise us. They wanted to take us out for dinner. But I refused to get out of bed. I just couldn’t. I remember the shame I felt knowing what they would think of my rudeness and I remember the voice in my head that convinced me that the comfort of the dark and my own bed was what I needed more than whatever those friends were offering. That ugly voice convinced me that life wasn’t worth getting up for.
Medication then some talk therapy (not enough) finally brought me out of it, but the memory of that dark place has always pawed at the edges of my life, almost as if that dark voice wants to remind me that if I am not careful, it will pull me back in. Since then, I have held on to a private little sense of pride that I have managed to keep it at bay, as if it was something I had control over.
Because through life’s most intense periods of stress, pain or chaos, I have seen the signs when it’s getting too close. When my bed calls to me in the middle of the day, or when my alarm goes off and my head and body beg me to ignore it. Or when I walk through a whole day feeling inflamed with sadness and self-pity – a lump in my throat and tears under my lids, I can’t speak even the simplest words because I know only sobs will come out. My family doctor asks with almost every visit if I need to discuss the option of medication and I always decline, because I believe that though I might be teetering on the edge, I’ve still got a handle on this.
My therapist recently suggested that I do have a handle on it. That because I continue to talk through it and share, my words are releasing the pressure valve. Writing also helps me sort out the feelings to make sense of it all. When I talk or write and tap into the true source of my feelings, I am then able to match actions to counter it into purpose. Sadness and fear don’t go away, but with purpose and goals, I can channel that energy into dreams.
I won’t say that this applies to everyone, but I believe it’s my truth; I believe that depression is a choice I can make and I know it definitely isn’t the same for everyone. Now that I have been through it, I know how it reveals itself, I know the triggers, the signs and the symptoms as they appear for me. For me, it means that when I see and acknowledge those signs, I can choose. I can choose the dark and delicious comfort of a heavy sleep sheltering me from life’s pain. The disassociation from stressful thoughts, traumatic memories or difficult feelings is an alluring option when life is so damn hard. But I also have the memory of being paralyzed in my dreams. Of the shame I felt from hiding from loved ones. From the pain that came from knowing I was one decision away from ending it all. It’s true that I’m a fierce Mama-bear who would never leave my kids and that should be my motivation to keep choosing the fight. But I’d be lying if that was my only motivation.
Obligation, responsibility, people-pleasing – these are all motivators that have kept me on track for the last 25+ years. I am grateful in many ways to have had those hecklers at my side for all of these years. But they haven’t always served me well and my life has recently taken a shift. One of the catch-words to have emerged from this pandemic is the “pivot” and I can add myself to the list of those whose lives have done just that to adapt to this crazy world we find ourselves in.
Because while my Willowjak boys are my heart, my motivation has pivoted. It’s for me.
Rising out of the dark, getting those legs to keep working and keeping my eyes looking forward – it’s all for me. As new-age, hokey, or yogi as it sounds, I’ve found a new love and it’s me.
I’m not a martyr. I’ve been selfish plenty of times in my life. But I had also resigned myself to the fact that it must be my ‘lot in life’ to come second while caring for others and somewhere along the way I guess I didn’t think I deserved to care for myself. I had accepted it, though not without some bitterness and longing. So just as I have determined that I have the choice to ward off depression and not succumb to its comfort, I have the choice to live for me.
With that being said, I choose to get dressed in the morning, ready to face the day ahead, even if I’m only facing my kiddos during a lockdown. I choose to feed my soul with meaningful relationships and conversation and not waste it on insincerity. When I’m feeling something intense, I’m going to face it head on and work through it. I have my list of wellness practices that I have committed to working on in my journey to wellness. And I’ll remain vigilant for those warning signs that tell me I need some extra help to stay healthy. Some red flags that I need to watch for that could mean I am slipping back into depression:
Red Flags/Symptoms of Depression:
- Feeling mentally ‘checked out’
- Feeling tired all the time, wanting to sleep more than usual
- Withdrawing from social outings and activities, even with friends and family
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Lack of care for my own physical appearance or personal hygiene
- Feelings of despair, hopelessness or worthlessness
- Irritability, increased impatience
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear cause
- Crying easily, or feeling like crying but not being able to
- Changes in appetite or eating habits
- Thoughts of suicide (which should always be taken seriously)
If you have concerns that you might be experiencing symptoms of depression, please reach out to your doctor.
CAMH Digital Toolkit for Depression Overview. https://youtu.be/FHTS8yyeMXk
Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) – a self-assessment tool for diagnosing depression: https://tools.camh.ca/phq9/
I’m trying my best to pay it forward by dealing hope and sharing stories & tips on caregiving and how to survive hard things. I blog a lot about single parenting my adult twin sons who both have autism, and the challenges we face in surviving the everyday challenges and planning for a future full of unknowns.