Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I Walk the Line

Since being diagnosed with chronic depression, I feel like much of my life is spent walking a fine line. The line between light and dark. This is a line that I’ve straddled for a very long time, but it’s only recently that I had a medical term to associate with it.

Thankfully, because of a medication that works for me and my own efforts to improve my daily life, I’ve been pretty firmly planted on the light side of the line for a few months. I haven’t had even more than a dark day since the new year began. I’m extremely grateful to the people in my life who have supported me during this time. I’m grateful to me, too. To the part of myself that is well enough to recognize when to ask for help in getting through a difficult few hours or difficult few days. I’m not embarrassed to ask for help. I’m not ashamed that I need medication to help my brain cope with life. I know that the stigma of mental illness has lifted considerably in the last few years, but it’s not gone. But, I’d rather be alive with the assistance of medication and talk therapy than having succumbed to my depression without it.

Since I am so open to talking about my experience and my current state of wellness, certain members of my family have judged my decision to accept the help of medication. I often ask if they were diagnosed with a serious illness that required daily doses of chemicals to be well – diabetes, for example – would they refuse it? Probably not. So, in my opinion, why should I suffer because of my brain chemistry?

Walking the line can feel like taking on a balance beam or navigating a wide river. Lately, I can do it with ease most days. Other days, it’s impossible not to feel like I am going to fall at any moment.

Often the hardest part of walking the line is getting out of bed in the morning. I still have nightmares frequently – sometimes several nights per week – that force me to relive some of the experiences and emotions that got me to my lowest point last fall. Those nightmares can be so fresh in the morning that I’m afraid to put my feet on the floor for fear that I will walk back into those months of paralyzing emotional and physical pain. So I have a choice to make – allow the darkness to take hold or fight it off. Some mornings it is as easy of a choice as it seems to be. I have the ability to make the positive, healthy decision to remind myself that it was just a nightmare and that time is over now. Other mornings, though, it does not feel like a choice. As much as the healthy part of me wants to fight it, it can consume me and I live the day as I would have months ago. Scared. Sad. Dejected.

One of the most interesting aspects of coping with walking this line is that, very often, when I am standing on one side of the line, I find it difficult to remember being on the other side. When I’m in the light, I can feel so good, so positive, and so content that my brain will not allow me to remember anything else. The flip side of that, of course, is that when I am in the dark, I am consumed, too. And not being able to remember what its like to feel good can only make the slip into depression last longer.

But now that I have had such a positive experience over the last few months, why would I want to remember feeling the weight of my depression? Sometimes I don’t. But occasionally, I have a strange, overwhelming desire to recall how I completed even the most basic tasks of the day. At this moment, I don’t remember how I got myself up, dressed and to work for much of last summer and fall. I had refused medication and spent nearly all of my non-work hours alone in my apartment crying. I remember the crying. Always with the crying. I also remember watching a lot of House as a method of escape. Hugh Laurie was oddly comforting. But I really don’t know how I physically went to work and completed any assignments. I was on autopilot. More than just wanting to satisfy my own curiosity, I think being able to remember how I accomplished these things could be beneficial to me next time I backslide.

Of course, I had been depressed several times before my most recent episode. And, actually, I think that the reason my last was so severe and last for so long was because I had nothing and no one to focus on but myself. In my case, misery certainly loves company. For three years, I lived with someone—someone who had the capacity to be wonderful, caring and giving—who spent many years very depressed with little to no relief. And instead of me feeling consumed with my own depression during that time, I usually focused on his. I tried to make light of it at times – everything’s always harder for you, isn’t it? – but I usually felt that question to be true. And, for a while, my capacity to put him and his condition first probably saved us both from being committed or worse.

It wasn’t until my father was sent into a war zone and I prayed – I actually prayed even though I didn’t know who or what I was praying to – for him to come home safely that I began to resent his depression usurping mine. Even though our relationship went on for years after my father returned home in relatively good health, hindsight tells me that was my breaking point. I would be able to overlook most of the other girls and the silly arguments and “wanting different things,” but I would always remember how alone and helpless I felt when my father was fighting a war. He was walking a line in one of the most dangerous places in the world, and I was afraid to step outside.

I’ve learned so much about what I need from a partner and a relationship from that experience. I wish, though, I had learned to forgive. That may always hold me back from being vulnerable, particularly when I’m experiencing an episode of depression, to someone I love again.

But I certainly do not underestimate how crucial it is to have supportive people around me when I am in the dark and even just walking the line. Everyone from my closet friends to the person who smiled at me crossing Sixth Avenue to my coworker/friend who was the only one who remembered the day that could have been my darkest. I am standing on the bright side of the line now.


Ed. Note: The above post is the first of a series of personal essays about depression that I've been working on. I'd love to hear any and all feedback you have to share. Really! You can even tell me I'm an asshole. Although I'd appreciate something a bit more constructive than that.

No comments: