March has been a pretty good month in our household. The critters are all doing well in terms of their health and quality of life, something that we value with 3 very elderly animals. We’ve had some fun and exciting experiences socially. Both of our work lives have been fine. I heard that a grant application was approved and I can submit a full proposal. I even learned that I was mentioned in a book by Michelangelo Signorile.
Still … I don’t *feel* it. While I can intellectually acknowledge the value and merits of these experiences, I don’t feel them. I don’t feel any joy or pleasure or happiness, just the lack of sadness. I don’t enjoy the taste of my favorite foods, I don’t appreciate a good cup of coffee and I don’t look forward to anything. I’m going through the motions.
This is depression. It is quite literally the dawn of spring and I do not share your joy. While I look forward to warm weather and the pleasures of summer, I don’t feel it – I think it. And I’m acutely aware of the difference.
For more of my life, I’ve been plagued by “reverse seasonal” mood disorders – my mood is elevated in the fall and depressed in the spring and sometime into the summer. I didn’t know this until I was in my mid-thirties, but I can look back and see that pattern. I grew up in an extended family plagued by secret-keeping associated with addiction, abuse, and shame as well as sexual predators. There was zero chance someone would recognize I was not just a moody kid and get me some help. So while I was waiting to grow up and get my own help, these patterns became so familiar that it is hard to understand “normal” moods.
I do what is recommended. I take medication, see a therapist and track my symptoms. I talk about my diagnosis and my experiences to fight the isolation of stigma. Many doctors recommend that people with SAD get outside early in the morning to get more natural light – I go outside every morning to drive Laura to the T (our subway) which seems to make a huge difference. Most importantly, I talk about how I feel instead of just speaking emotionally. I’m not upset, I’m depressed and anxious. I’m not going to cry incoherently into our conversation, but I am going to tell you how I am feeling (or not feeling, really.)
But still … here I am, on the couch and apprehensive about the hours that stretch ahead of me. I know that in a sense I have to just ride it out and keep taking care of daily tasks. I’m not going to enjoy whatever we have for dinner tonight, but I have to eat dinner regardless. If I go with Ledcat to run errands and walk around the stores, I’ll sleep better than if I stay at home where I feel safe and comfortable. If I eat and sleep better, that gets me to the point of actually feeling better a little sooner. So I’ll do those things today. Maybe that is all that I’ll do – define a successful day by eating 2 meals and going to the mall for an hour.
Maybe I’ll get to the mall, realize I might possibly die if I get out of the car and opt to sit in the passenger seat playing with my phone while Ledcat shops. Maybe I’ll get really brave and opt to have dinner that would otherwise make me anxious as all get out. Or not. Again, I intellectually know that I’m not going to die in the mall. But the feeling is very real.
The point is that I will try to do something because I know that at some point those somethings will add up to a breakthrough. I can’t shake it off, I can’t ignore it. I can’t smile my way through the pain – I have to do a lot of work to get better. I’m fortunate that I can do that work – because I have good medication, a treatment team, a very supportive partner and because I talk about it. No secrets, no shame, no stigma.
But I want to emphasize that depression and anxiety are not about being weak or strong, good or bad. They are medical conditions, not character flaws. There are hundreds of factors that come into play when we experience symptoms – everything from our financial stability to our physical health – that determine how we’ll muster through. You don’t have to be stronger than your illness and there’s no failure. There’s no litmus test to determine if you are pulling through appropriately. You are here, reading this. You are doing good. That’s enough for right now. Don’t be hard on yourself.
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, help is out there. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a robust website with resources, links and contact information for individuals and people who love them. The National Suicide Lifeline has a toll-free number and online chat supports.
In Pittsburgh, you can call Persad Center (412) 441-9786 which is not an emergency number.