For those who live with depression, this is not just an invisible illness, it is a life only lived by the grace of invisible courage.
I remember staring up at the seagulls printed on my bedroom curtains when I was seven years old.
The gulls were simple black outlines, alight on an invisible breeze. They drifted above the artist’s hint of an ocean, a solid deep blue mass of color below. I stared at this and pondered life, why I was here—on this earth, in this reality. It was an uneasy question and one that would come up repeatedly throughout my childhood, usually leading to anxiety and tears. I’ve since wondered if existential pondering might be one early symptom of a lifetime of depression.
The first unmistakeable depressive episode I had was when I was 20. A friend of mine, 23, had died in his sleep, with no apparent medical cause, and I was faced with the subject of my existence again—and what I determined to be the utter meaninglessness of it. Not long after this, I miscalculated the position of a 20 lb weight in the gym, and it fell on my foot, smashing into half my toes and splitting the bone of my big toe. The pain of this was like the worst toe stubbing I’d ever known–only it did not go away after a few minutes. It lasted weeks. I ended up on heavy pain killers and still could not sleep because of the pain. I was at college, far from home and the friends I thought I had made turned out not to be there when I needed them most.
My stress pushed me into a place of hopelessness. I felt utterly alone, worthless, and in so much pain that I just wanted to escape. Possibly if I took all the Vicodin at once? So tempting. The pain would be gone. I could be free. But my fear of it not working held me back and was too disabled from my injury to try anything else, so my suicide did not happen.
I wavered in that sickening feeling of overlapping physical and emotional pain for months before it passed, with the return of the longer days of spring and summer.
Time Spent Holding Depression Changes It
The following years were not easy, but I don’t recall having any other severe episodes until I was almost 30. As the years passed, my depression would come and go, mostly mild to moderate. I began to think of my depression as an ever-present thing that comes in waves, some of them closer together than others and some of them deeper or more intense than others. Over time, I saw patterns: The depression was reliable in showing up as the days got shorter and I could expect it to show up by mid-October every year. I began to wonder if I was ever really NOT depressed. My baseline was to be mildly depressed the majority of the time—with a small spattering of “normal” mood. This baseline, of course, was the shallow end of my depression. When the big waves hit, my mood and my energy would plummet.
As an adult, I have the perspective of being able to look back over my life and see the factors that have influenced my mood disorder. When I was 20, I had no concept that having a severe episode of depression could be indicative of a lifetime of recurring depression. I did not know that depressive episodes would become worse the older I got and the more they happened. Naively, I had times where I thought that all it would take to manage my depression was good nutrition and exercise—and I did not proactively weed the stressors from my life that were slowly wearing down my resilience.
I am now old enough to understand and accept that depression will be a part of me for a lifetime. It may not always be at the forefront, dominating my emotions and my ability to function, but I am well aware that I am vulnerable to stressors and I need to closely guard my sleep, my exercise, and the consistency of my surroundings. I also need to set firm boundaries on relationships, only keeping those that uplift me and steadily weed out those which are toxic.
I am not the ocean. I am not the bird. I am the breeze that lies between.
I must acknowledge that the presence of depression in my life has long taken root in my basic structure of reality. The existential crisis inherent in my depression is a heavy, dark and life-altering perspective—the aftermath of which has permeated my sense of self and my purpose here. Though I did not know it at seven, my years of living have allowed me to peel back layers of awareness of this life. There is something satisfying about that, but I have only had the fortune of feeling that way about it when the depression waves have slowed and the tide has gone down.
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