For a long time an essay has simmered on my brain, bubbling up to the surface and when I put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper I freeze. Who am I to write this, I think? Who am I to feel the way I do? Seriously, there are far worse things in this world than the latest thing that set off my current round of depression.
Yes. I have depression. I’ve had it for years; perhaps for always. I don’t know because I do know that when I was old enough and bold enough to go seek help as a teenager I was told I couldn’t feel that and really, if they could just take everyone that they heard saying these things and put them all in the gymnasium you’d be so surprized who is there! But no, I couldn’t be depressed, I was too young for that. Precocious. That’s what I was. Too smart for my own good. Feeling sorry for myself. Yeah. And I think one of those people who would have filled that gymnasium would be my friend Heather with the curly blonde hair and those cool shaggy boots whose feeling sorry for herself led her to a hospital bed and never coming back to the school again. To this day I hope she came out okay. I don’t know. I may have been afraid to ask.
I have an antidote that if I’m not so far down that I just want to curl up on the couch and not think does help deal with the turmoil. I write stories. I pour those feelings into characters few people will read but I don’t care. I like to breathe life into those people the golems of my soul and if even one person likes them then it’s good. Or I play the guitar and sing but I don’t do that much – I did when living alone but not living alone means somebody will get bugged even if they say it doesn’t. So in peopleful state I sing quietly and quickly. I don’t write songs like I used to; that takes noise, quiet and much repetition without interruption.
I paint. I like painting because of the concentration it takes to find just the right colour in just the right spot and I have it do what my mind’s eye sees. But just as often the effort of thinking about putting pencil on canvas and canvas on easel and paint mixed onto just the right paintbrush and then find a safe place to dry and to clean up is too much. It’s a lot when the couch is quicksand and my legs are made of stone.
Anyone who knows me knows I love to laugh. I love to watch things that make me laugh, or read them, or write them though that’s a certain magic in itself that doesn’t happen every day. I pride myself in that I’m not a crier. And I not. Usually. I know I’ve crossed that razor thin line between maintaining and depression when I feel like crying and if I start and then I can’t stop. The last one and half days have been a torture at work for me because of that. So you see, this is what has led me to writing this essay right now. If I can’t stop crying for long at least I can take a deep breath and with kleenex close by let words flood instead.
I often don’t know exactly what started it but this time I do sort of. I’m tired, physically tired from a very busy time of year for me. What set me off though was learning I couldn’t have a day off to make a long weekend on a day I wanted because other people are going to be off and I could if I asked someone to switch their regular day off otherwise no. Not wanting to beg someone to have some time off and owe them a favour to me quite simply is a no. So I spent the rest of that day holding it back until I got in the car. I barely kept it together today; people asked me if I was alright. I’m not.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in my car. There’s been times when I would feel like crying when I got to a certain spot on the road; most recently was on the 417 towards Kanata. In Toronto it was the Yonge St. exit sign on the 401 collector lanes. Here it’s a new set of lights they just put in. Knowing where the stress switch flips doesn’t help solve anything.
What solved things before was leaving. I can’t do that right now, I have nothing but my salary to fall back on and it isn’t enough. I also know I’m likely never to get a real promotion ever so I have to do what it takes to get extra money and that means not rocking the boat and just taking it. I don’t want to have a part time job again; I honestly don’t have the energy for that but I may need to. It saddens me. Then my mind goes into that twist of why I am always the one looking after others and nobody doing for me? Which isn’t true really but you see where a mind can go when your particular mental ship is sinking on that day.
I find it ironic that when I start slipping down that slope it’s usually precipitated by feeling like I’ve been doing it all for nothing and what’s the point really? Then it leads to: if no one cares why should I? Then I remember an overdue bill or the squeaky brakes on the only working car and I’m feeling helpless. Because who do you turn to when you are the one people turn to? You don’t. So I either find something within myself to carry on or I become a shaking human blood sack of tears. Not pretty.
Okay so maybe I haven’t entirely lost my sense of humour yet. Actually though, humour for me (and from what I hear a good many real comedians) is that double sided coin of laughter or tears. It’s sometimes the only emotion that saves me from getting down so deep I can’t see the tiny white circle of light at the top of that well of empty I’ve fallen into.
I’ve gotten good over the years of finding ways of not tipping over the edge but when I do, getting myself back up. There’s been a couple of times it took time off (in two cases serious enough I quit, once on doctor’s orders) but it honestly depends on the situation, how long it’s been going on for and how trapped I feel. That’s an important distinction – if it’s a situation I can resolve I can start feeling hopeful again and plan something to fix things. If not, well, I have to live with the situation until I can and sometimes that is so so hard. The Toronto 401 days I was depressed for what I figure was two years at least. There are pictures of me curled up on the couch, exhausted and sad and having to be there for my kids.
Your mind goes to strange places when it’s gone on long enough. I remember thinking that on the 417 if I just kept going straight where the road bends hey, those bills would be paid. In Toronto I just prayed because I was a mom of young children and they were my inspiration for keeping one eyebrow up above the water enough to function in at least an autonomic way. The deepest I’ve ever been though was where I learned an important lesson.
I was fourteen and this was after I gave up on getting help. Things at home weren’t good and I was kind of an afterthought because I was capable of dealing with things but I still needed to be…I don’t know what I needed to be other than out of there. I stopped sleeping. I went I don’t know how long without sleeping a full night, nothing more than a light nap of a few minutes. There was nothing I knew I could take and the doctor didn’t believe me so I didn’t sleep. I got migraines a lot; when the aspirin didn’t work I’d hit my head on the wall to make the pain of the headache less than the pain on the outside of my head. It didn’t work but I think in a strange way it helped. I took to scratching my forearms with glass pieces so that when I felt empty inside I could feel something, anything at all. It came to a head when I got to the point where I couldn’t stop crying behind closed doors and I wondered why I should be using up air others could be breathing. It sounds strange typing this out but it’s true. I honestly thought that and I felt guilty about the breathing of somebody elses’ air.
Guilt plays a huge part of depression. You feel guilty for feeling sorry for yourself when there’s so many people so much worse off than you. You feel guilty for wearing those stupid short pants that you forgot to put in the donation bin after they shrank in the dryer; you feel guilty for saying that one thing to that one person (and it doesn’t matter who or when or what) and that loop plays and plays and the more you try to push the stop button the faster the loop plays and you can bury it but it comes back – sometimes twenty or forty years later and the guilt and embarrassment still feel like it was an hour ago. I’ve come to realize depression for me also stems from anxiety.
The situation when I was 14 culminated after a huge fight with my sister that literally sent me running out the door screaming and crying and her running after me. I was much more athletic than her so she got a workout that night and when I was done crying and running she led me back home. It didn’t change anything though. I realized there was nothing left. So I took a clue from my friend and swallowed all the pills I could find which were mainly aspirins and probably some simple vitamins (remember this was the mid-70s). It could have seriously damaged me but having had so many migraines what it did was make me feel high then I slept for a long time. And when I woke up I thought: shit, I can’t even do this right.
That night I prayed that I just be taken from this and I saw nothing but black. I was enveloped in an inky blackness so deep and tangible that the only comparison I have is a visit I had to a coal mine in Nova Scotia I took where they led us a mile down and turned off the lights. Darkness is tangible. It has substance and I was surrounded by it that night. But oddly enough I was conscious so I thought, wow, if this is what being dead is like it’s awfully lonely. And with that thought I decided then and there that if nobody else gave a damn about me then maybe I’ll give a damn about me. I set my course to getting the hell out of the house and to being on my own as soon as I could. And since I didn’t care, I took up smoking and discovering the joys of weed. I will say one thing: after that I smoked pot every day for a year. I did this because it dulled the pain and made me laugh. And to me, laughter is the spirit of life. So slowly, gradually and obviously surrepticiously, I came back to life.
After a year I got bored of smoking pot and then it became a rare occasion but you know what? It helped me finish high school and get on my feet when no one was willing to help me so in this case self-medication worked. I can say this without fear I hope because that was close to forty years ago, and medical marijuana is starting to be recognized as a helpful thing. I honestly believe that my year of living stoned saved my life. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, just-say-no tub thumpers.
I plotted my escape and eventually I did leave home, not long after I turned 17 and graduated from high school with grade 12 and part of my grade 13. There’s a story there but this isn’t the time for that.
I think the lesson that ‘if it feels like nobody else cares, I have to’ is important. That one twig of reality, of thinking how do I get myself out of this mess is how I’m still here on this plane of existence right now.
In the last two years two people I knew – one a fairly close long time friend – committed suicide. And it breaks my heart because I know how it is to be so far down that you can feel the blood rushing through your veins and you curse the fact that holding your breath only works for so long.
Feel that way long enough and you start to plot your escape and I remember thinking that not being a part of all of this nonsense felt so freeing. I would be freeing my family and friends from the burden of me. That everything it took to keep this bag of bones here wasn’t worth it, how good it would be for the world if I weren’t here. And I tell you – please listen people – that being on the other side of that sudden departure is awful. To lose someone suddenly is hard enough, to lose someone who you wonder what if I had answered that Facebook posting with something other than a joke, or what if I had reached out more when they stopped sending emails or calling…it never goes away. It doesn’t.
As for me right now, I think I feel a little better just writing this. I’m not bothering to put it anywhere other than here because the weirdness of being a writer is that the people closest to me never read what I write unless I scream at them to do it. Right now I’m done screaming; I still just want to cry. I have a long Easter weekend and I am purposely not doing anything or going anywhere. If I’m smart I’ll work on one of my novels or start that painting.
Whatever. There are things I can say and that is that in my family, depression is genetic. In my experience, drugs only dull feelings and don’t really help deal with them; sleeping pills aren’t healthy because you don’t dream on many of them. I don’t have an answer. I wish I did but I don’t. All I can say is hold on and try to smile, tomorrow often has the answer and if it doesn’t, the tomorrow after that could. Please just hold on.
You can come out of it. I promise, and I promise I will somehow straighten my current mess out too ’cause that’s what I do. And in the end, whatever else there’s some ink on paper that didn’t exist before today and that is a good thing.
(c) Catherine M. Harris, 24-03-2016
All rights reserved.