Disclaimer: I’m no doctor, therapist, counselor, or genius. If this post about hope in the midst of depression and anxiety and related mental-health experiences is in any way true for you, know that it might be uncomfortable to read in the first place, but much more importantly, that reading it will not, cannot save you from your troubles. What you need is not a word of empathetic support from a fellow mortal with related experiences but genuine professional help, just as it‘s what I needed first. Come back and visit me if and when you’re ready. If you don’t have any such problems, hurray for you! And read on anyway, because you might be able to help another person if you know better how she or he is living. Everyone’s truth matters, even when we don’t agree with or share it.
I’ve recently met a new friend who is dealing with levels of anxiety and depression that sound like where I stood about a decade ago. It makes me both sorry for her struggles and incredibly glad I don’t have that same weight to carry consistently anymore myself. Depression and anxiety, especially the kind of chronic or recurring stuff, both work differently for everybody I know who deals with them, but one characteristic that I see pretty universally is that they can’t be cured or solved purely by smart practices. Real anxiety and clinical depression are inherently opposed to logic. They flatly refuse to listen to reason, and that is what makes us feel afraid, angry, useless, and without options.
It doesn’t help that some people who have never dealt with similar things can be ignorantly dismissive and believe that if we just shut up, pull up our socks, and get over ourselves all will be right in the world. I may know a perfect solution to my mental health problems, or a whole slew of solutions, and be able to imagine myself accomplishing the rescue flawlessly in my mind, but even if the means to that end is sitting less than an arm’s length from me I don’t have the clarity, will, or energy to make like a Nike commercial and Just Do It, not even if I sit staring at the conveniently available means all week long. Another classic and frustrating aspect of deep depression is that it saps us of energy, strength, and will to such a degree that we’re robbed of both clarity and the drive to do what we long most to do, even for the sake of those we love most dearly. It’s no wonder depressed people feel useless—they have been robbed of all of their power and hope, and worst of all, the culprit lurks right inside and can’t seem to be evicted.
When one’s brain or biochemistry can’t process the facts of the situation in sensible ways, the natural instinct is to curl up in a fetal position and hide from everything/one, including oneself. For me, when I’m in the middle of an acute anxiety attack or even a period of general anxiety, my rational brain can still assess the present situation quite neatly and spell out all of the logical explanations—what I could do to solve what’s making me anxious, and why I would be perfectly safe to just let go all of that discomfort—but I’m immobilized by anxiety instead and only feel more afraid, sick, confused, and as a bonus, tremendously guilty for “not taking my own good advice.”
It sounds, frankly, ridiculous to anyone who’s never experienced it, and even to me when I’m not stuck in an attack. But it’s the reality, and it’s awful. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether your life is good, with whether you’re smart, lovable, or desirable, or are surrounded by supportive people or wealth or any other grand resource you can imagine; you can have all of those things in abundance and still fight depression and anxiety. I have had a great life, with very few major causes for even normal kinds of sadness (you know, those well-known major stressors like the death of a loved one, changing jobs, moving to a new home, and so forth), yet when I finally ‘crashed’ with clinical depression in my 40s, I learned that I had probably had not only previous periods of severe depression in my life but also chronic anxiety all of my life. The lack of obvious causes or catalysts for the existing state in an otherwise pretty charmed life only further confirmed my doctor and therapist’s diagnoses—in my case, of an inherent chemical imbalance that various “triggers” simply helped bring to the surface periodically and that, over time, became harder to manage without both counseling and medication.
This may all be TMI for a non-sufferer or casual passerby, but I think it helps explain a few rather useful things. Again, these are my own thoughts and experiences, not yours. Only you can find your way through them.
Those who do experience various forms of mental illness are far from alone. I happen to believe that mental health, along with all sorts of other aspects of personal health and identity, is not merely a ‘spectrum’ of states or conditions, but a cloud of them, a thick and rich matrix in which each of us is created. That in any one person, his, her, or my place in all of the matrices of physical and mental health, skills and interests, sex identification, attitudes and beliefs, and the many other aspects of humanity that make us our individual selves shifts gradually but constantly, however the pace may vary from one time or characteristic to another. If I multiply all of the changes within one such self-identity matrix by how many different matrices of personality can make up the whole and how much they are likely to shift their Me point of intersection over a lifespan, it seems entirely probable that everybody hits the occasional crossroads of whatever for them qualifies as less than prime mental health and well-being.
I’m a firm believer in daring to ask for help, whenever/wherever you possibly can, starting with your counselor and/or doctor; find better suited ones, if the ones you have aren’t helpful! I know as well as anybody how near-to-impossible it is to ask for help, and it doesn’t matter if the reason is insecurity or lack of self-worth or sheer tiredness. It’s just that I also know that my life and sanity have been saved more than once by those little moments of supreme effort it took for me to humble myself and crawl toward help. I could sit around singing infinite maudlin verses of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen‘ or, as I always tended to do, wear a mask of pretension that everything was just spiffy, but no matter how much anybody else loved or cared about me, they couldn’t read my mind—how I expected them to when I couldn’t read it myself, I don’t know—so nothing would have happened if I hadn’t just let go of all my ‘should’ ideas and asked.
Treatments vary just as much as bodies’ and minds’ uniqueness differentiates us. It’s hard work to find strategies that help us individually, but it’s the only path I’ve seen whose light at the end of the tunnel isn’t that of an oncoming train. Somebody else’s quick fix or longterm “cure” isn’t necessarily what will serve my needs. I love life in a whole different way nowadays than in my earlier years, thanks to stumbling into and muddling through the process of finding what was best for my situation.
It is a lifelong process, make no mistake. For me, it means I will probably always be on medications in addition to checking in with my doctors occasionally. One of my doctors opened my eyes about this, first overcoming my resistance to medicinal intervention by explaining to me how much the current varieties differ from earlier forms of antidepressants and their ilk in terms of long-term safety and efficacy, and then keeping close watch to insure a good ‘fit’ for me.
On one visit, I asked the doctor whether, feeling so much healthier and better, I should start weaning myself from the medication. “How do you feel?” she asked. “Great!” “Do you want to feel different from ‘great’?” [Me, grinning and shaking my head NO.] “Then why would you stop taking your medication?” Duh. “Come and see me if things change for the worse.” Ten years later, I noticed I was slipping and feeling the old, familiarly dark fears and discomforts creeping in on me and suffusing my sense of self. My current doctor—we’d moved to another state, meanwhile—agreed I could add incrementally to my current dose. Barely ten days later, back to my New Normal. My sense is that depression and anxiety, like alcoholism, are states of imbalance that aren’t curable but can and may be managed over time with consistent care.
I understand very well the resistance to meds that comes from feeling like one has lost a certain amount of emotional depth or dulled some personal distinction when medicated. Yes, I have experienced deep, and superb, lasting joys from my earliest years when not in the abyss, and sometimes I do think that my emotions since ‘entering recovery’ might be slightly duller in general than before, but I would not trade a single second of what I have now as a healthier person for that tiny, shiny bit of edge, if it really is gone. Once the right meds kicked in for me, and it wasn’t instantaneous, I knew that I was my REAL self in ways that I had never, ever experienced before: able to feel normal pain, fear, sadness, or worry without the absolutely constant sense that they would never pass or that each one meant sure disaster.
I could ride in a car without the conviction that every other car approaching mine was aimed directly for me. I’d always known, objectively, that they weren’t, but I couldn’t stop that irrational inner sense from warning me endlessly that they were. I could now plan to meet a new person and not have to spend a number of days before it feeling physically ill and crying and being sulky and short-tempered because I was so terrified of meeting her. If I tried to learn or do a new thing and didn’t get it perfectly on the first try, it wasn’t an indictment of me as a human but a teachable moment of setback.
Now, when I shed tears, they’re not in the uncontrollable flow of incurable grief but born of a sadness that even in its midst I know will abate in time. Or, thank goodness, they’re sometimes tears of joy. Because not only is my life still good, now I can genuinely feel it. I wish the same for all people. It’s why, as an avowed non-expert, I still feel responsible, compelled, to answer when asked out of the darkness, ‘Is there anyone who knows me?‘
More tomorrow, friends…