A friend recently posted on Facebook “My best friend lost his battle with mental illness today.” He committed suicide, and this revelation cut me to my core. I didn’t know the man, never even knew of him until I found out he was no longer living. Still, my heart ached (and aches) for him. I’m certain he was in great pain, a kind and intensity of pain with which I’m intimately familiar. I don’t blame him for what he did. He was tired.
And I know this weariness well.
I had my first “encounter” with depression my sophomore year of college. I remember the time and place of it like it was yesterday – and even still today as I reflect on it I can feel those first moments – the emptiness, the confusion, the loneliness and desperation. Sadness swept over me like a wave, and the lights went out all around me. And, more painfully, the lights went out inside of me. I had no idea what was happening, and I certainly didn’t know what to do about it.
My official “diagnosis” followed shortly. A doctor, upon first meeting and talking with me for less than an hour, told me I was suffering from depression. She didn’t need to tell me I was suffering (I was acutely aware of that), but the label was new to me. She explained that “the condition” and its symptoms result from chemical imbalance and prescribed medicine to treat it. I later questioned the diagnosis, insisting I should be tested for said “imbalance.” I couldn’t believe the pain I felt was really rooted in my chemistry. I thought it must be something I was doing wrong, something I needed to work at, a challenge for me to overcome. And I set about doing that.
(A spinal tap is the procedure the doctor might have recommended, if this were medically advisable. I’ve since learned that the medical community doesn’t know what “normal” brain chemistry looks like. There’s no magic measure. Doctors medicate symptoms of the imbalance they’ve identified through research and observation. This bothers me. I want facts, figures, measures – tangibles. I want experts who understand exactly what’s going on because I can’t. When I hear “we treat symptoms,” I hear “we’re not sure.” Sometimes, what I crave the most – what feels like my only hope – is certainty. Apparently, this isn’t realistic. And I really hate that.)
Since the first wave knocked me down when I was 19, I’ve experienced a number of extended periods of great sadness which I’ve come to label “my bad times” or “my bad place.” Close friends know what I mean when I tell them I’m in this state: it means I’m not available; I can’t make plans; I might not leave my house; and I simply have nothing to give, as I’m using every bit of energy and strength I can muster to piece myself back together in the midst of what feels like a shattering of my whole being. I become solitary, and it’s in this space I fight my battle.
Sometimes the “times” impact me physically (I can’t eat or I eat too much – mostly sugar; my body aches, and I’m so tired). Always the waves grip my emotions, alter my mental state, and mangle my sense of self. I sleep a lot because it’s the only sure way I can escape the torment.
It feels at once like something outside of me taking complete control of who I am and something possessing me from the inside, like a foreign entity has taken up residency in me. I’ve likened the sensation to tendrils or tentacles stemming from my psyche, entangling themselves in my brain, gripping my heart and soul, and twisting my gut into knots. It feels like a cancer growing and out of control, and I want to reach in and tear it out. Other times, it’s more like I’m being blended with a hand mixer: my head is mixed up, my heart is mushy, and my stomach churns. Sometimes my thoughts race, my chest feels tight, and nausea overwhelms me. This is the “panic” portion of the condition, another byproduct of the presumed chemical “imbalance.”
In the worst of times, it feels like I’m lying face down under a big, heavy blanket. Folks might say “Get out from under it; just push it off of you and stand up. Shake it off already.” Oh, that it were that easy! I’m suffocating, and I want more than anything else to feel relief, to just find my breath…but the blanket is bigger than me; it crushes me, and I feel powerless underneath of it.
Usually, it’s loss of some kind that triggers my struggle – loss of status, loss of routine, loss of relationship. The pain and upset I feel related to the loss become greater than they could be, should be, or would be to someone else. This baffles me, and I hate the weakness I feel in it.
Rarely are my bad times unprovoked by some outside factor or circumstance, which is why I’ve taken much of the sadness and turned it inward, blaming myself for my reaction to life’s inevitable ups and downs. If only I were stronger; if only I were more realistic. Life challenges all of us, after all, and my struggles are no greater or more relevant than anyone else’s. Why do they overwhelm me? I want to be stronger, more capable, more resilient. I wish for more grit. Other times, I wish to be less – less sensitive, less emotional, less feeling. In her song “10,000 Stones,” Adrianne sings “Some people don’t feel a thing, some kind of blissful dream; I wish I could live that now.” I wish for that often, some middle place where I know I’d feel less joy but I’d be so relieved to feel less sorrow. I long to be…just medium, not too much and not too little.
I feel tormented, tortured. I feel like I’ve lost my mind because I’ve lost all control of my thoughts and feelings. It’s like they’re not even mine anymore. It’s terrifying and debilitating.
It’s exhausting, and I fear it will never get better, like the pain may never go away. Sometimes this feeling lasts a few days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes it goes on and on for months. It’s during these periods that I feel so far away from myself that I can’t remember who I really am. I don’t know how to get back to “normal,” and the longer the feelings last, the more terrified I become that they’ll never go away, that I’ll never really be me again. I’m tired. So very tired.
A friend tells me she misses me. Not nearly as much as I miss me, I tell her.
Over the years, I’ve lost friends (it’s too much; I’m too much; I’ve cancelled too many plans); I’ve missed opportunities; and it’s a wonder I’ve never lost a job. I’ve always exhausted my sick bank and rarely not tapped into vacation time for staying home, hiding out, resting to recover. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with knowing and sometimes unknowingly supportive managers.
In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown points out that in our culture, we often celebrate stories of overcoming challenge but we do very little talking about hurt and failure and loss and what those states of being feel like when we’re in the thick of them….and this can make it hard for us to feel a sense of connection in our most difficult seasons. If no one’s talking about the “face-down times,” as she calls them, how’s anyone to know that other people experience them at all? Indeed, it’s easier to talk about the bad times as a “blip on the radar,” a past set of circumstances we muddled through and overcame, hopefully emerging stronger from the struggle of it. Still, maybe there’s something to be said about the sharing, as tough as that may be.
This isn’t hard for me to write; it’s cathartic (I journal incessantly during bad times because I’m desperate to sort things out, make sense of things, try to understand where my devastation is coming from and work toward resolution), but it’s extremely difficult for me to share. It’s raw and intimate, gritty, and it feels rather like a confessional (in some sense, maybe it is). It exposes a part of me I’m embarrassed about – ashamed of even – and this terrifies me. Still, seeing that post, I felt compelled to share my experience. Elsewhere on Facebook, friends have posted about the Suicide Awareness Movement and urged others to reach out to them in times of need. I know these folks have been affected by the harsh realities of mental illness; they’ve seen people lose their battles. I wonder how they’d respond to someone’s calling out for help. In my experience, folks are rare who respond well (compassionately, patiently, effectively). I called a friend once late at night when the struggle was overwhelming me. She told me she was tired, can we talk about it tomorrow? Ultimately, I know I’m alone in my feelings, no matter who can relate, who reaches out, who sticks in. Still, I’m grateful for the people who stay with me, who try to understand, who listen and care and love me through it. You know who you are.
I’m writing this in hopes it might help someone better understand the struggle we face. For folks who know and love us but can’t understand. And for those who’ve become too tired from it all.