Living with Depression

I imagine when all is black that I’ll write something brilliant that justifies the darkness within.
But when I’m black like this, all I usually produce are rants.

Not this time. But it’s not going to be brilliant, either. This post is simply on depression, living with it in a world that wears masks, puts on facades online and in-person, because we’re not allowed to feel bad, or at least show it. We’re allowed to feel frustrated, annoyed, disappointed, in moments, but they better not last too long, or be too intense, like when feeling mad translates into yelling. Even in anger, we’re supposed to retain our composure.

I suck at pretending. I can’t pull off that I’m OK Buddy, when I’m not. Most of you reading this are much better at wearing faces. Most people are. But depression, that feeling there is something stuck in your throat that you just can’t swallow, that with every breath it feels as if you’re sighing— trying to shed the weight in your chest— makes putting on a mask particularly difficult because you’re spending so much energy just trying to breathe.

Commercials for drugs to combat depression are all over the media. They come with a list like: Use this product and you may get dizzy; nauseous; stop breathing; feel even more depressed; become suicidal even if you didn’t feel that way before the drug; die. Wow. Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t really need to take Lexapro to help motivate me to kill myself.

I’ve tried Prozac, a long time ago. I was allergic. It almost killed me. I’ve tried Xanex, which is by far the most popular drug for depression. All it did was make me sleepy. I’m already tired all the time.

Therapists like to talk, or for me to talk. And talk. And talk. Business 101— you make more money with continuing clients than having to find new ones. I want ACTIONABLE things to do, other than taking drugs or talking to a shrink 3 times a week, making me poorer, which makes me even more depressed.

What is “depression,” anyway? I mean, everyone gets depressed occasionally, regardless of the masks we wear. Technically, and absurdly simply, depression lies in our chemistry—dopamine, serotonin…etc, not supplying the pleasure centers of our brain adequately. It is commonly accepted that some are born with inadequate levels of these hormones, or there is a problem with their release inside the brain. Manic depression apparently has a genetic component, but this has yet to be proven as hard fact.

Episodes of depression effect most people when events in our life hurt us. For most, the length and severity of feeling sad is usually consummate with the event itself. Losing a loved one, or loosing the lottery generally solicits dramatically different responses. As it should. Most let their feelings of sadness dissipate, often forget them entirely over time. I’ve spent a lifetime envying these folks.

Those of us suffering from depression internalize pain. It resides in us, like a cut, or injury that just won’t heal. We hang on to our hurts, from minor slights to major loss. And whether born with an imbalance, or too many painful life events, when sadness sticks, builds up and gets thick, every day feels like wading through molasses. If depression festers long enough it will eventually kill you. It strips us of the single motivating factor that keeps us all alive through dark times… hope.

Curing clinical depression for those who experience it, and those who have to live with people who do, is paramount. Over 90% of those who attempt or commit suicide are clinically depressed. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death worldwide, which is a shame, because so often emotionally wired people are the creators, writers, artists, builders of thriving societies. It is believed Abraham Lincoln suffered from Depression.

The only way to help reverse, or at least halt the chemical cascade into darkness is to actualize pleasure. I realize that an effect of depression is finding no joy in anything, but that’s not true, and those of you reading this that are living with that weight in your chest with most every breath, KNOW it’s not true. It is that ugly voice in our heads meant to perpetuate depression, and a LIE. A rainbow is still beautiful. A double-rainbow extraordinary. The taste of your favorite foods; a hug when we’re scared, or lonely; backrubs; creating something—these things are still good. The Pacific cresting at 40ft is still awe striking; a field of blooming flowers still visually stunning…etc..;-}.

Living, existing as human, is all about FEELING. The good, the bad, the ugly, the wonderous, the awesome, the magnificant empowerment of feeling loved, respected, valued. The charge that comes with creation. The suffocating black hole with loss.

Are you living with Depression?

If so, SEEK and FIND JOY, not self-destructive behavior, like drinking or using cuz it’s fun, as this will increase depression. Do things, stuff that turns you on, makes you feel—if not good—at least glad you get to see it, taste it, experience it—without regret later!! ACCOMPLISHING TASKS also lights up your brain’s pleasure centers. String enough joy and accomplishments together, even simple things, and, over time, continually reminding your brain why you are choosing to live will reinforce your desire to do so. 

Chemically Sane

This piece is a composite. Though written in first person, it is a true story about a friend…

I haven’t always been mentally ill. I’ve always been on the fringe of the norm, the glass wall between me and humanity kind of thing, but I didn’t feel myself start to fragment until my mid-twenties.

The first time it happened I was working as a bank teller. It was closing and I was counting out the cash drawer and doing my balance sheet. I got this idea to close my checking account, take the $5000 I had to my name, and use it as a down payment for a Mercedes. I knew it was a bad idea. I could hardly afford rent. My job, like most of my others was tenuous at best.

And then I separated.

I stood outside myself and watched me clear out my account.

At the dealership I tried to tell the other me not to sign the purchase agreement, but I did anyway. I gave the guy my five grand and drove off in a new midnight-blue SL450 convertible. The other me sat in the passenger seat, her head thrown back, her short hair blowing around. She laughed and laughed. And I let myself get sucked into her lightness.

Two days later I was stuck in traffic on the 101 and it hit me what a stupid idea it had been to buy the Mercedes. I couldn’t return it and get my money back. It wasn’t a pair of jeans. I couldn’t afford it either. I got so depressed about it I got out of the car, left it on the freeway and walked away.

The car was never found. I’d let my insurance lapse so they wouldn’t compensate me, even with my documented tale of someone carjacking me. I was $50,000 in the hole for a car I didn’t have anymore and no way to pay it back.

And I separated again.

I started taking money from the bank. The customers actually. I’d take a little off the top of deposits over a grand.

I didn’t. The other me did.

Again I stood outside myself watching this other me steal. I tried to stop her with moral and value judgments. She came back at me with justifications.

You get paid shit. You get treated like garbage- bottom of the rung lackey.

I told her I was afraid of getting caught.

She laughed me off. No one will notice. Nobody keeps tight track of their money these days.

But I knew the bank did. Sooner than later they’d discover what I was doing. Three weeks into stealing, and both sides of me finally came together, now joined by raw, unrelenting fear. So I ran away. Two days before the end of the month audits I left the bank at closing and never went back. I walked away from my life with $17,000 in cash in my pocket and became the other side of me—the wild side, for the next month.

There are only brief, fleeting images of that month. The first thing I remember clearly is my mom standing next to my hospital bed staring down at me, her face tear streaked and gaunt. She started crying again the moment our eyes meet, and I got how hurt and scared she was. I wanted to hug her but I couldn’t. I was strapped down.

I spent three days at UCLA Medical Center Psych ward. I was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, given Thorazine and sent home with my mother.

No cure. No hope for a cure. Manageable only with medication—side affects to be expected.

And though the array of antidepressants I now take does keep both sides of me together, it reinforces the glass wall separating me from the rest of the world. I walk around in this thinly veiled haze, which I suppose is okay, given the alterative. But I wonder if sanity is really worth the price. It gets harder and harder to justify feeling sick and tired all the time.

We Are What We Do

In the car with my 10 yr old daughter the other day, she asked me what Ego meant, one of her vocabulary words for the week.

I laughed. “Good question, I replied. What do you think it is?”

“I wouldn’t ask if I knew, mom.”

“Well, use it in a sentence, in context. You’ve heard the word enough to have an inkling what it means. And an inkling is as close as you’re going to get to defining an abstract like Ego.”

Her brows narrowed and I could see her pondering in the rear view mirror.

“My ego got hurt when Ms Brown told me I was singing flat this morning.” She paused. “And she really said that, mom.”

“Sorry. We’ll get back to that. OK? So Ego is feelings then?”

“Well, sorta, I guess. But not exactly. It’s more like how we see ourselves. To me, I’m a good singer. You can hurt my feelings by being mean to me. But you hurt my ego when you tell me I’m not how I think I am.”

“Do you think you were flat this morning in glee?”

“Well, yeah. When I listened I wasn’t hitting the notes sometimes. I guess I’m not such a good singer.”

“Ah, but you could be, if you practiced singing. And not the perpetual humming you do, but really practiced, daily—sing along with your favorites, or sing the notes when you practice piano.” I glimpsed her rolling her eyes at my suggestions in the rear view mirror. “Being a good singer doesn’t happen inside your head. What is the only way to really get good at anything?” (One of my many canonical refrains.)

“Practice, mom.” She sighed.

I sighed. “My beautiful daughter, I think your explanation for Ego is excellent—it’s how we see ourselves. Ego is an idea, even an ideal—who we want to be, but generally are not. We are what we do, my dear” (another of my refrains). “If you want to be a good singer, you’re going to have to practice becoming one.”

“So you don’t think I’m a good singer,” she asked woefully.

“Were still talking about defining Ego here, right?”

“Yeah. And my ego says I’m a good singer now, mom. So is ego always fake, just pretend inside our heads?”

“You tell me. Do you think our ego ever gives us an accurate depiction—paints a real picture of how we operate, how we act, what we do in the real world?”

“Probably not.” She sighed again, deflated. “Just cuz you think you’re good, or talented, or special doesn’t mean you actually are to anyone besides yourself, except if you’re famous. When you’re famous, it’s not just ego, you know you’re good.”

“Really? So, there’s a famous chef, recognized for his delicious creations. As you noted, it’s not just his ego talking that’s telling him he’s a good chef. He has 1.7 million dedicated followers on Instagram. He decides to create a new dish, and serves it to five friends. And all five hate the meal. The combination of flavors tastes just terrible. So, is the guy delusional that he’s a good chef—it’s just his ego talking—or is he really good?

My daughter considered my little tale carefully before answering. “Well, if he thought of himself as a great chef with everything he made, then his delusion was that he could be good all the time, that everything he created would be a masterpiece.”

“So then, is ego ever an accurate depiction of self?”

“I guess not. Just like there is no such thing as smart, mom.” She quoted another of my canonical refrains. Her bright smile in the rear view mirror lit up my world.

My DH and I NEVER tell our kids they’re smart. In fact, when other people do, we smile politely, turn away and snicker. Our kids are consistently at the top of their classes because they work at it. A lot. There is no such thing as smart, we preach. Smart is an abstract, merely an idea, a concept, like democracy, or potential, or ego. Smart is as smart does.

It is not our potential, or what we believe, or believe in that defines us. Our ego guarantees that none of us are who we imagine ourselves to be—good or bad. Regardless of what your ego tells you, you will never be more then the choices you make and the actions those choices lead you take.

We are what we DO.

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Doing Massachusetts

I’m a native Californian, born and raised in paradise. The weather along our more than 3,000 miles of tidal coastline is spectacular practically every day. The Sierra Mountains are our border sentinels, over 14,000 feet at their peaks, stretching 400 miles long of pristine wilderness to world-class resorts. Ski after brunch and be tanning, running, biking on the beach by the afternoon—from mid-October through early June. Ask me my religion, and I’ll say I’m Californian. We are a culture all our own out here; active, progressive, wildly creative—fantastically separate from anywhere else, yet intricately connected to the world.

I was married a little over a year when my husband sold his software to a company in Concord, Massachusetts. A three year, onsite contract was part of the purchase deal. After the blood oath that we’d return to California when the three years were up, I agreed to leave my family, friends, and Bay that I loved, and move to one of the oldest towns in the U.S.

I’ve never been a fan of the east coast. The weather sucks most of the time. Even the young people look older than most old people in California. I’d visited Boston just once, ten years earlier. Mid-August, and it was hot and wet and sticky. The city was dirty, crowded, crumbling, aged, with an excessive number of churches. I don’t remember finding anything I actually liked about the place other than the dim sum in Chinatown.

A decade later and Boston hadn’t changed much, at least from the plane’s view as we flew through the thick air over the dilapidated city into Logan Airport. The sweltering July heat came through the crack where the gangway met the plane and felt like a sizzling brick wall. I hesitated as I stepped onto the walkway, fighting the urge to run back on the plane and beg them to fly me home.

My husband waited for me at the end of the walkway, all smiles. I wanted to slug him. He’d come to Mass. a week before me and found us a rental in Concord, and the entire drive there he chatted it up—how beautiful the historic area was; the one-bedroom with studio house he’d found with its great location just blocks from town center.

What I saw out the passenger window after passing through congested Boston and manicured Cambridge was swampland. Rivulets lined with oak, birch, and pines were all that broke up the tangled shrubs and thorny vines that covered the ground and wrapped the fallen trees. I half-expected to catch a glimpse of the Creature from the Black Lagoon moving through the dark, heavily forested rolling hills.

My mood went from bad to black as we came into Concord’s tiny town center. Culture shock wouldn’t touch what I felt. Graveyards were the front lawns of the churches that stood on every other corner. Old stone and brick buildings lined the main streets of the town. Old meaning 1600 and 1700’s. Art galleries, bakeries, bank branches and real estate offices occupied these crumbling two-story structures, which met at the town circle. Every person I saw was White.

The thick smell of mold and the cloying scent of decay hit me as I got out of the car in front of the ramshackle Colonial Inn, which was used as a hospital during the Revolutionary War, according to their bronze plaque. The air was stifling and still. I could barely breathe. People on the streets milled about as if in slow motion. Three years would be an eternity here.

The oppressive heat was suffocating. I had to find air. My husband suggested we go to the Concord River where he assured me there was always a breeze. We drove to Minuteman Park, walked to the end of a creaky wooden pier and looked out across the river to the old stone bridge where the first battle of our War for Independence was waged. I was immersed in the past and felt the weight of it upon me, but I didn’t feel any breeze. 

The screened porch of our rented one-bedroom house turned out to be a haven, shadowed from the heat and separate from the bugs, except for the hive of wasps in the dormer of the upstairs ‘studio’/attic we spent the afternoon eradicating.

Summer passed to Fall, and the brilliant colors of the foliage was only marred by the attack of the insect population as it moved indoors in search of food and shelter from the impending cold. Autumn lasted about three weeks until the first frost when everything died and became flat gray.

The only season in Massachusetts I looked forward to [back in California] was winter, anticipating the pristine beauty of snow. And its splendor can not be denied while it’s falling. But shoveling the drive, managing the icy roads, and freezing my ass off from early November until mid-April was harsh at best, and within hours of falling, the clean white blanket was speckled brown with road grim from the plows and street traffic.

Spring in Mass. brought allergies from hell. I felt like I had the flu for a straight month when everything was blooming. Then summer set in, and there was no air in the air again. There were excessively heavy rain storms though, that invariably flooded the basement numerous times from mid-July through late-August.

I’d left paradise for purgatory.

There were times of spectacular beauty in MA—those few weeks of fall, or a couple weeks in the spring when gray gave way to vibrant greens and crystal blue skies. But the days of sunlight and life were few and far between. At least through the summer months, every night at sunset was Attack of the Monster Mosquitoes! The other eight months everything was frozen or dead, and it was too snowy and/or cold to go anywhere.

For two and a half years I endured Concord. It got, if not easier, more routine serving my time there. I learned to dress for the weather, especially in layers because restaurants, theaters and clubs were usually blazing hot inside for some unfathomable reason. Other than a few affable store clerks and a couple of business associates, I never made any real friends there. Most of the people were as cold as the place, and prided themselves on their rudeness. By late fall of my third year, after totaling my car while nine months pregnant when a snowplow on the other side of the road dumped fresh snow on my side, I’d had more than enough of Massachusetts.

Two months after our son was born, and four months before his contract with the Concord based company expired, my husband accepted a job offer from a tech startup back in California.

We drove through several blizzards across the northern U.S. in mid-winter because it was the quickest route to get home. The February afternoon we drove onto Alameda Island in the San Francisco Bay it was 70 degrees and sunny. Across the sparkling blue water the sun was setting behind the city. The air was crisp, almost sweet with the fragrance of fog, the wind whipping around with the windows rolled down as we cruised along Shoreline Drive. People were walking, running and cycling along the strand. A few die-hard wind surfers were out on the bay doing their last sail for the day. And I said a silent prayer to hope that we were home to stay.

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