Darkness is definitely familiar.
Depressive episodes usually have a trigger. They usually have a setup.
In my case, this recent one was brewing for the last two years.
Last month, my second mother, who was my constant, that one person who believed in me even though she knew everything about me, and who had seen me at my worst more than once and loved me through it every time, died before I could get there, after there'd been a strange distance between us for a little over a year... And I tumbled off the cliff I'd precariously walked myself out to, and plunged into a familiar well of despair.
There are a lot of metaphors, cartoons, and essays out there that describe accurately what it's like to feel depressed, or what it's like having to deal with chronic depression or anxiety, but not many about what it's like to be suicidal and in the middle of a major episode. People don't talk about these kinds of things very often. Like people don't talk about abortion, rape, STDs, or domestic abuse. But these things shouldn't be off limits. It hurts those affected so much more if silence is expected, if the only reaction allowed is stoicism and burying these experiences. It perpetuates a culture of fear and separation from one other, and worst, of judgment and blaming towards those who suffer the effects of these things, things all of us either have experienced personally or that someone very close to us who has, even if we aren't aware of it.
Since I've now made it through two major depressive episodes, with a smattering of minor ones interjected throughout the last 30-odd years, I felt it might be helpful to others to hear something of what it's like, at least for me. It is hard to go through it, but it's also terrible for anyone wanting to help.
I can see ways I contribute to these episodes, with stuck or unquestioned beliefs that are unhelpful, with choices that end up being painful lessons, blind spots I have that are not quite illuminated... but mostly it's a combination of brain chemistry I inherited, timing of life events, unconscious habits I haven't decoded yet, and combinations of others' choices that are unskillful that affect me (perhaps more than average) due to all of the above.
I know I'm not special in this, despite the self-absorption that comes with severe depression, and I know I'm very very lucky to still be alive and to have the privilege to ruminate and write about these experiences.
For those of you who don't have your own issues totally figured out (how many people do, really?) and might be scared and upset and hurt by someone saying they think you are better off without them, or by them not telling you what's going on, or telling you they're 'fine' while acting differently towards you... and of course for those of us whose dark thoughts overwhelm us sometimes, I'm writing this for all of us. Especially since I'm not totally out of the woods yet, I thought it might help to shine a little light.
On many days in my regular life, I have voices in my head. We all do. They are all 'my' voice, phrases and attitudes and snap judgments and emotionally tied thoughts I have had in the past, or things I heard as a child and internalized, repeated familiar and comfortable thoughts, dark ones and light ones and all the grey areas in between.
Some are ridiculous, justifying indulgent first-world things like eating too much or buying something on a whim. Some are introvert voices, convinced that staying in and reading is preferable to almost any other activity. Some are immediate knee-jerk reactions to events or people that are negative or positive or neutral, most not actually true. Some are positive and optimistic, saying everything will work out, that new activity will be fun to try, go ahead and apply for that new job, go to that party- great people will be there and it will be really enjoyable.
Many of these I have trained myself to slow down and evaluate before acting on or allowing to continue, after 20 years of meditation and philosophy study. Many of these respond well to compassionate treatment.
But some thoughts argue against trying a new activity because it's too late in life and there's no way to excel now and it's too dangerous for someone who is out of shape... stop eating that because it will put on weight... go ahead and eat that because it doesn't matter at this point... There's no reason to go out and try to be social, it's exhausting and will add to the list of failures...
It's the insidiousness of this last type of voices that keeps them going, because they're not completely wrong, they can argue in circles, and they're constant so I've become used to them. The small, "typical, idiot" when I am clumsy or say the wrong thing. The quiet, "just leave, no one wants you here" when an interaction with an acquaintance or friend is uncomfortable.
Even when things are going well, there are days where the angry and hurtful thoughts are louder and harder to ignore or replace. Add in hormones, poor food choices, or alcohol, and the most unpleasant kinds of thoughts become more ferocious and insistent.
And when those thoughts are at their loudest, like the past 6 weeks for me, it is like being in a black metal box, cold, dark, and full of echoes of only the worst things bouncing around my mind. I can't see out, and I can't hear well, except sometimes very simple messages and actions, like morse code for my sprained brain. Despite my meditation training, my counseling experience, my medical knowledge, my scientific and logical brain, I feel exactly like a panicked child, overwhelmed by the darkest emotions.
If someone walks away, or gets mad at me, or is offended by something negative I say, or listens to my horrible trains of thought and believes it, it reinforces the awful things I'm telling myself over and over.
If, in a lucid moment I ask for help, for reassurance, for time and patience, a day later I might be back in a spiral of despair and unable to hear anything except, maybe, 'I am still here and will be here when you come out of this.'
Those are the types of things few people are able to say truthfully. It is hard to stand next to me.
I was 4 when I heard the first thought that now I would never say to someone I cared about. I thought then, looking in our bathroom mirror, simply and forcefully, that the reason I was lonely and felt terrible was because I was ugly with my face covered in chicken pox, and no one could love me. It didn't occur to me that I was just sick, crabby because of my fever and itchy skin, upset that my mom was on a trip and not there to take care of me, and, most importantly, I didn't realize it was temporary. And there was no one there to tell me different. I catastrophized and repeated to myself a version of reality I had heard my mother say regarding herself when she didn't know I was listening. That particular brand of thought is still one of my most frequent and loudest.
Growing up, and even sometimes as an adult, events and unkind people reinforced and added to the negative script that for whatever reason I am prone to repeating and dwelling on.
Through several trials of medications, multiple types of therapy, multiple kinds of meditation, exercise, travel, holistic therapies, and of course the steadfastness of loving friends and chosen family, many tenacious little ideas have stayed stuck to their steep handholds or broken bridges and rebuilt their impressive overpasses again every time an earthquake of positivity or love knocked them back and quieted their insistence.
Over the years they have grown more drastic, louder, and the repetition makes them easier to believe when I'm at my lowest points, especially if I'm lacking external support at the time.
"No one can deal with me, I'm not worth it to anyone... No one should even have to be in the same room with me most of the time I'm so terrible and negative... My friends still love me because they are unusually wonderful kind generous people, not because I'm worth their time and energy... I should take myself out of everyone's lives forever because I have nothing to offer... I only take from people and ruin their days... After failing so many times there is no way to improve... I am incapable of working, of making a difference, of having a successful relationship... I can't trust my own perception, my intuition, my choices... I can off myself in a hotel bathtub when no one knows where I am, and put a note on the bathroom door so the housekeeper won't have to see me... I can just drive off into that ravine or that big tree or that metal post and it will be quick and I won't hurt anyone else..."
In my case, luckily, I usually let the thoughts continue forward a bit. So most of the worst thought trains end in, 'but you'll probably fail at that too,' 'but what if someone brought you back', 'but what if someone else found you and they had PTSD afterwards', 'but what if reincarnation is real and you are born into a worse scenario that is much much harder'... and I generally talk myself into inaction, which requires less energy, and most importantly for me, seems to be less hurtful to others than the alternative.
I grit my teeth, listening to these thoughts but not doing the drastic things I agree in the moment are best. I avoid talking to people, I let myself sit in the darkness. I secretly hope to be saved. I hold onto a tiny bit of hope it will pass and I will see light again.
This time, when things were at their worst, alone in a hotel room (without a bathtub), after my partner had left me officially via text, on my birthday, as I flew across the country to go to the funeral... I silently begged the universe or myself or any being listening, for help. I didn't expect it, I never do. If help comes, it often doesn't arrive in any time frame or way I can connect with the asking. But this time, I got a text within a few minutes, asking me to dinner, the night before the funeral. A few minutes later, another text and invitation. I declined both, but I did respond. Then I responded to an incoming birthday text. And another. And a birthday email. And I managed to tell a few friends I wasn't doing well and to accept and thank a few people for their sweet messages and positive energy. Then, my second mom's husband, who is of course distraught beyond anything I can possibly imagine, called and asked me to dinner. So I had to go. Even though it was a full house of people I wasn't sure I had the ability to interact with in the state I was in. I was gently brought back into conversations within the circle of family. The next day I had to go to the memorial. And I was warmly enveloped into family and friend life, despite everything, despite myself, despite that I'm not actually family and have no right to the comfort and love I'm shown, and despite the fact I'm not all that supportive in return at the moment.
But I want to be. And that, I think, is the point. Some people remember that even in the worst moments, I never want to hurt anyone, even if I am currently hurting them. Even in my worst moments I want to love and be loved, just like everyone does, even if I push people away out of fear. Even when I'm feeling weak for not having the energy to fight the thoughts that shred my heart. And it's a testament to those in my life that have enough love to share, that they do, even with a crabby, angry, crazy, prickly, scary, messy, porcupine of a woman. I suppose they can remember better than I can the times when I can be silly, enthusiastic, soft, consistent, loyal, and empathetic.
Not all of those of us who struggle with serious depression come out of these episodes. Not all of us have friends or family to remain steadfast and loving despite the swirling clouds of negativity that surround us and end up affecting everyone we interact with. Not all of us have one or even two friends who might be suffering at the same time to distract us, give us a purpose, and keep us going. Not all of us can ask for help. Not all of us have someone respond in time.
If you have a friend or partner or family member who seems to withdraw, who panics, or who acts irrationally, take a moment to imagine what they might be fighting through to simply stay alive. Regardless if their troubles make sense to you or not, if their issues seem logical or serious enough to evoke such drastic emotions or actions, take a moment to step back and give yourself some space. If you love them, if you believe they are intrinsically good, if you want to help, if you have the energy to attempt to help, take a breath. Look at your own capacity and see what you can do. Look for help for yourself so you can become more skilled at helping them. Of course, if it is too difficult and your own life has too many requirements on your energy, it is always necessary to take care of yourself first. There is no way to help someone else if you are struggling and barely on your feet. And pity or duty or obligation won't help as much as true caring and compassion- although there is something to be said for simply showing up, regardless of why.
But if you find you can really show up, strong and resilient when the person you love can't be, your own boundaries and self-compassion in place... Suggest that even if you aren't capable or qualified to be of help at the worst moments, you will assist them in finding more professional help, or if they refuse, that you will take care of yourself but will keep checking in at intervals. That they are important to you and what they do affects you. That you will listen, as much as you can, and will sit next to them while they feel filled with despair. Remind them you are there, that you believe they will make it out of this. Know they likely can't hear your positivity or advice and may take it as a judgment or reinforcement of their insufficiency. And when you see a bit more light in their eyes, when they seem to be able to hear you and resonate a bit more with love or joy or at least neutral emotions, keep up your strength and faith in them until they can fully stand on their own.
Understand that during the worst panic or anxiety or depression, there is no ability to have perspective, realistic self-awareness, or hope for the future.
The most helpful thing, at least in my experience when things are at their worst, is for you to simply show up, as far as you are able, just simply to be there, however you can.
Sometimes there are helpful aids, medication, religion, music, meditation, work, exercise, therapy... and even with those, sometimes for some of us the only way out is all the way down and through. Sometimes, people choose to go all the way down and away from life. I can't blame them, and I can't give them an argument against their decision, except that to say that things are never as they seem, and always change.
In my case, I wonder if somehow I actually want to get to the bottom of it, to understand suffering better, to understand human nature better, to somehow find a way to alleviate my own suffering... I know I have a hope or a belief that if I ever did find a way, that I would want to use that understanding to help alleviate the suffering of others.
Today, I hope that these feelings of being in pieces, of having no control, of failing at 'everything,' of not-knowing, can teach me. I hope the polarities I swing between, of zero possibilities and unlimited possibilities, of alone-ness and complete lack of separation from the suffering of the world, can be balanced and lead me to a middle way. I hope I can learn to live with myself as I am, and practice what work is necessary to improve my ability to participate well. I hope, I truly do hope today, that this isn't the end, that somehow energy will return, and that I will get to learn how to be more skillful at living this human experience. Curiously open, passionately involved, and, most of all, peacefully welcoming.
"You Want It Darker"