Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Here you go, depression, have a cup of tea."

The other day I read a blog post by Wil Wheaton about his battles with depression. And a few months ago  Allie from hyperbole and a half posted this. Both are powerful posts that really capture the insidious nature of depression.

I'm not famous -- internet or otherwise -- and it's quite unlikely that my post will have anywhere near the reach of Wil's or Allie's, but writing things out is how I make sense of the morass of my feelings. So lucky you, dear reader, you get the whole hot mess.

So. Depression. 

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

--Lyrics from Simon and Garfunkle's The Sound of Silence

It's been an unwelcome guest in my head for a long time, probably from before I had the words to understand what that bleak, gnawing feeling inside of me was. Certainly I spent most of my childhood feeling bewildered and out of phase with the world around me. Is that the beginning of anxiety? Suddenly, you're old enough to notice things you just don't understand. But you don't know enough to articulate what you feel, so there's this big ball of fear/worry/frustration growing inside you.

And if you (and by you, I mean me) do try to spit it out in words, the adults in your life will offer you platitudes: "Oh, everyone feels like that." and "Oh, you're so dramatic." 

The thing is, both those things may be true, and the adults are trying to be helpful when they say them, but they absolutely positively don't help in the moment. Because what you need right then is acknowledgement that what you're feeling is scary and big and it's okay to feel it. 

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

--Lyrics from Simon and Garfunkle's The Sound of Silence

The irony, of course, is you end up feeling so damned alone when the truth is so damned many of us are locked into feeling the same damned terrible things. So we grow and learn to swallow the strong feelings to try to make them something outside ourselves. And we get supremely good at wearing a false face and coping. Oh, how aggressively, how intensely we cope. Sometimes, we're even able to convince ourselves that everything is A-OK.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
--Lyrics from Simon and Garfunkle's The Sound of Silence
But just like putting off paying a credit card bill, there's a price looming, and it comes with compound interest. When you spend all your resources coping all the time, you're always working at your limit just to deal with the most basic elements of your life. It's exhausting. And because you're doing such a great job at covering up just how hard you're working, the inevitable collapse comes as a surprise to everyone around you.

To use another metaphor:  Having depression (as opposed to being situationally depressed, which is different, but remember, there *is* double jeopardy - if you have depression as a baseline, than situational depression will hit you even harder. Lucky you.) is a lot like being an insulin-dependent diabetic. It's chronic. It takes forethought and planning to manage daily life. You have to be aware of your activities. Medication can help, but it can't fix the problem. Untreated, it leads to life-threatening complications.

In our community in the past two weeks, two young women, one a High School sophomore and one a High School senior, both committed suicide. Both struggled with depression. Both lost their lives to it. 

Six months ago, a family member attempted suicide. It hit us like the proverbial bolt out of the blue, even though we knew he had struggled with depression for many years. We knew and we were still blind-sided.

It's not like depression is a rare thing. It's just still that-which-shall-not-be-named. And in surrounding depression with shame and fear, we give it that much more power.

So here I am, raising my hand to say, yes, I live with depression. Depression and anxiety. And I have since childhood. 

It doesn't matter that I don't have any objective reasons to be depressed: I am doing work that I love. I have a wonderful husband. My children are growing into amazing adults. I live in a nice house. But the thing is depression isn't about reason. You can't magically pep-talk yourself out of depression any more than you can convince your ilets of langerhans to magically start making insulin if you're a diabetic.

What helps me

What has helped was acknowledging what I am feeling. So if I feel depressed, I name it. And I try to do this without a value judgement. Feelings just are. There is no right and wrong about having feelings. "Oh look, that's sadness, that's hopelessness."  I look the feelings straight in the eyes and set a table for two in my head.  

"Here you go, depression, have a cup of tea."  

If it sounds like I'm being flippant here, I swear to you, I'm not. It's very much like what I learned from meditation: When stray thoughts and feelings distract you, name them rather than trying to push them aside.

What else has helped me? Medication. Years ago, I was put on a micro dose of a medication called zoloft for chronic migraines that no longer responded to anything else. It was nothing short of a miracle. A double miracle, actually. Not only did it cut down the frequency of my migraines to a few a year from several a month, but it softened the edges of my lifelong, chronic anxiety.

One other helpful practice: rather than making endless to-do lists that I then beat myself up about for not completing, I try to make 'done' lists. If I can write down everything I accomplished in a day, then I get to feel positive about what I did instead of negative about what I didn't do. There's a great TED talk by Jane McGonigal about using video game language to deal with depression. So in my head, when I get something done, I hear the bells of a pinball machine and watch my score boost, or gain a power up.

Perspective, or what I which I could tell my younger self:

I turned 50 this year and I'm still here. My heart is heavy for the families and friends of the two young girls who didn't make it. That could have easily have been me.

  • I wish I had understood that fighting against depression is like smothering darkness with more darkness.
  • I wish I could have learned to name what I was feeling instead of giving it more power and letting shame me keep me silent.
  • I wish I could have understood that I wasn't alone and that I could both offer and receive help and neither made me stronger or weaker than those around me.

And I would like to remind myself, and any of you intrepid readers who are still with me: No matter who you are or what your particular demons are, this life is difficult. We are all struggling, so be gentle with yourself and be gentle with one another. Okay?


  1. Depression is caused by external suppression, not internal. By being trained on those external sources, you can free yourself completely from depression. Drugs might temporarily alleviatethe symptoms for a few, but the side effects are violent behavior, weight gain and suicide. I would bet that the 2 young girls you mentioned were both on prescription anti-depressants and that is the reason for their suicides, not depression.

    1. I don't believe that you KNOW what you are talking about. This sounds just like all the "oh-poo-poo. Count your blessings and knock it off!" crap I've been hearing all my life. Make all the bets you would like but you are doing a disservice to those young girls and to Lisa Cohen. I hope you have a wonderful evening full of Joy.

  2. Lisa,
    I feel this. Thank you for writing this. I have a "book of pain" (notice the lack of caps). When I can't find my way out of the "swallowing darkness" I put the darkness in the book. This helps me. I'm sorry that you are fighting this battle. I am with you.