The Nostalgia of Depression

canstockphoto8316983There are mornings when I wake up and I feel low. Something rotten I did years ago pops in my head and I cringe. Or I get a birds-eye view of my life and it looks less like happy mediocrity and more like grist for the mill of humanity. Small, unimportant, irrelevant, pointless. I remember news stories that illustrate how awful the world is and imagine all the cruelties happening at this very minute.

This is what depression looks like for me. It’s not debilitating. I recognize it for what it is, just a familiar shadow that darkens my doorstep on occasion. It’s the not-so-secret secret I’ve lived with my whole life.

As I’ve aged, my depression is less something I fight, get over, work through or fix. I lay down with it. I settle in. I ride it out. I end sentences in prepositions, smile slightly at my moroseness, eat comfort food and talk to friends.

Even in my depression, I recognize my good fortune. I know in the present that it will end. I know at my core that the next morning or the next or the next, I’ll wake up, the veil lifted from my eyes, the fog from my brain – everything will be okay.

I come from a family where everyone is officially and unofficially diagnosed with something. We talk about it openly, with an odd note of pride that we have a solid grasp of who we are.  We nurture twisted humor, a buffer against the realities of mental illnesses.

We speak of “funks” and moods, of OCD and bipolar as if talking about vacation plans. Some of us have tried medications, rehab, old-school sanitariums. We know the twelve steps, tough love, interventions and rock bottom. Many of us drank, did drugs, ate too much, gambled, slept around, lost jobs, lost children. Some of us died.

Dysfunctions, addictions, dcanstockphoto5275349isorders – this is the language we know each other by. We were ahead of the cultural shift, talking about things that other people were masking behind tight smiles. Sometimes I feel that my depression is all that binds me to my family history.

My father committed suicide. I didn’t know him well. He left when I was 5. I found him years later, but it was too late for a relationship. I was embittered by abandonment to an abusive stepfather. My nervous smile when meeting him masked a simmering rage.

A few months after seeing me for the first time since my childhood, he killed himself. It left an indelible scar. The 5-year-old in me saw causation, correlation. I was unlovable when he left and unlovable when I found him again. I learned years later that this hadn’t been his first attempt. It wasn’t about me… it wasn’t about me…

For the first decade and a half of my adult life, I drank a lot. I smoked. I took risks. I did not care for myself. I survived because I am a gritty soul, finding humor in the darkest corners and with a self-perception that was eventually my saving grace. I found friends along the way – crutches, muses, bandages, lost souls like me. I learned that whatever lurked in my mind, it was survivable.

History. Depression opens it wide. Every loss, every bad relationship, every thing I’ve ever done that was unkind, dishonest or thoughtless, rises to the surface. I’ve never found a way to settle those ghosts once and for all. Some of them, I just think wryly “hello, there old friends”. Others make me foul-tempered. Enough already.

It used to be that when I felt like this, I’d fix myself a hot cup of coffee and have a smoke. It soothed me, this ritual of caffeine and nicotine. The long, slow draw made me breathe, sighing smoke and sinking into thought.

canstockphoto23114415I gave up smoking years ago. I gave up regular booze about the same time. Then I couldn’t sleep and had to cut back on caffeine. I focus on getting exercise. I write the rawness away. I indulge myself with comfort food and entertainment until I can no longer sit still. Until the fog is burned off by the sunlight.

My depression isn’t what it used to be. Binge watching Burn Notice with a plate of mashed potatoes, is a far stretch from the good ole’ days of waking up hungover and wondering where I’m at or where I’ve been. These days, I know where I’ve been and I know the shadow that sits comfortably beside me. It won’t always be there, but it will likely always come back. I’ve traded in destructive coping for active self-care.

I’ve lived long enough so that this trickster of the mind, this misstep of synapses and neurotransmitters, has mellowed with age. I’m one of the lucky ones.

 

National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline:
1 (800) 950-6264

National Suicide Prevention Hotline
1-800-273-8255

45 Comments on “The Nostalgia of Depression

    • It is normalcy for so many people. For me, it’s such a part of my life and has always been part of the landscape. Recognizing it, getting whatever help I needed and moving beyond self-destruction makes me tremendously grateful to be where I am today.

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  1. Bravo! Very well-written. I’ve never gotten sucked into the vortex of alcohol or drugs but I’ve battled the same addictive pattern with food. Like eating chocolate and potato chips for breakfast. Now that I have a family, small kids, I make more of an effort to set a good example. I’m pleased to read that with keen awareness of your patterns you’re taking better care of yourself. I think self-awareness is the first step, before one can implement a strong self-care regimen.

    All the very best to you

    Saludos,
    La Panzona {Pahn.So.Nuh}

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    • I think, too, that the degree to which I’ve experienced depression makes a huge difference. I know mental illness affects people differently and so I don’t want to seem too Pollyanna or like this is some sort of bootstrap story. If you’re severely depressed, self-care sometimes does not even make it on the radar. Still, talking about the degrees, the range of experiences, the family morbidity contributes to a much-needed conversation in this country – and not just when shootings are involved.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and share your experience!

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      • You’re welcome. But even to have “graduated” in a sense from extreme self-destruction to only minor self-destruction and more active self-care, that’s an impressive feat.

        Thank you for talking about the “ranges of experiences”. I agree about the shootings and that the conversation about mental illness needs to be ongoing.

        I hope you’re having a lovely day 🙂

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  2. This was amazingly written. I can easily relate, and your account is inspirational. Thank you for sharing this.

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting!

      With 350 million people suffering globally from depression (according to the World Health Organization), it’s not surprising that this would be something people can relate to. So often I read very dramatic stories about mental illness, but I know that there’s a lot of us in the gray area, getting by, and figuring it out as we go.

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  3. Until the fog is burned off by the sunlight.

    It’s what running and hiking did for me, it was my way of coping with much the same things you wrote about. My mother “left” when I was two. These days they call it “severe postpartum depression”, then they had no idea what it was.

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    • Exercise is a lifesaver, as is spending time outdoors – really for any improvement of mental health. Thanks for sharing your own experience.
      It’s amazing how quickly the conversations have changed over the last few decades. It actually makes me feel hopeful. I have family stories about state mental hospitals, how people used to deal with the “oddballs” in their families. Many stories are not mine to tell, as they would still be of the living.
      Postpartum depression is relatively new in terms of diagnosis, but with 11-42% of new mothers experiencing it around the world, screening and intervention can make a big difference.

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  4. Beautifully written. I can relate to learning to have a better relationship with all my emotions as I get older.

    Light to you,

    Alex

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  5. Being uplifted while reading about someone’s unhappiness, riding smoothly along feeling actual delight–I’m sorry, Michelle, but it’s true–thanks to your eloquence. An odd and interesting experience.

    I am personally grateful you added, in a reply, that “self-care sometimes does not even make it on the radar” in severe depression. I was there for a too-long while, and am proud that although I will likely orbit that drain all my days, thanks to the events of my life, I can now stay at the outermost ring without help of medication.

    The way my life runs, I pat myself on the back daily for that. Which pat gets added to the days tools for staying in that outermost ring : )

    Another beautiful post, Michelle. I am so sorry that the man who contributed the DNA which resulted in the staggeringly-gifted writer Michelle was not even a father to you, much less a Dad, and that young Michelle suffered under that awful misapprehension re: his death. You deserved better.

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    • I did think it was important to recognize that there are certainly degrees of depression. I’ve read too many stories about depression or autism or anything on the spectrum where the writer has a “I did this, so you can too” attitude. It’s just wrong.

      We have to find our own ways and sometimes we’re stuck in the mud and need a hand out. Some people aren’t even able to reach for that hand, so lost in the labyrinth of their trickster mind. Telling our stories is a way of saying “you’re not alone and maybe you can get an idea or two from me that will help you.”

      And really, I’m not that high-minded. Telling my story gets it out of my head and makes it have some rhythm and order when it starts feeling like inescapable mud.
      Thanks for your kind words. I remind myself that all the players in my family history did the best they could do with the tools at their disposal. As we all do.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Michelle, You do write eloquently about your struggle with depression. I couldn’t write about it; it was always so dark in there. Just in case you might be ready for change, here’s a link about Low Dose Naltrexone. It’s a tiny dose of a medicine that causes the body to make serotonin, something people with depression are short of, but it helps with SO MANY illnesses. I’m not taking strong anti-depressants anymore and feel wonderful, truly wonderful, for the first time in my life. It’s worth checking out anyway…Blessings sent to you for 2015!http://www.lowdosenaltrexone.org/index.htm#What_diseases_has_it_been_useful_for

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    • Thanks, Pam for the information and for sharing your experience. I have found that exercise, for me, serves a similar purpose. My experience with practically any medication has not been positive, but drug therapy, like any other kind of palliative care is so dependent on the individual. I know many people for whom medication has made a positive difference. Thank you for including the link and I wish you a wonderful 2015 as well!

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  7. Thank you for sharing some very personal thoughts. I think a lot of us can relate. I know myself, although never “officially diagnosed” suffers from occasional bouts of depression and anxiety. Is it debilitating, no, but its there and it comes and goes. Like you I know how to ride it out or mask it under writing or a few drinks or tell myself to “pull up my bootstraps” or whatever works at the time.

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    • I think a lot of people do. Sometimes the conversation in my head is “what is the least damaging thing I can do to feel better?” I wish it were always something like going for a hike or working on my novel or quality time with my child, but it usually looks more like burritos and Netflix. Still, I think, if that’s the worst thing I do when I’m in a “funk”, then I’m doing okay.

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  8. Wonderfully written and I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is the first post by you that I’m reading and I’m already looking forward to what more you have to say. Props to you for being able to put into words what so many feel, including me!

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    • Thank you for your kind words. This blog is an odd place in terms of topic (no theme, except whatever is in Michelle’s brain that day), but the readers here are quite lovely. Welcome!

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  9. Once again I am amazed by your writing – especially on a subject like this. You offered insight into an area that needs so much more light.

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    • Thank you, Lyle. I’m always a little surprised about the positive response when I go down a more maudlin road. Fortunately, it’s not a road I wish to travel often, but I write from wherever I’m at – it seems better to write through depression rather than around it. It’s useful for me and it seems, something to which a lot of people can relate.

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  10. This, like everything you write, is so well written. I can relate although I’ve only experienced a mild depression once induced by a malaria drug when I was in Africa. I could still function somewhat, but it was like the silent shadow you describe. My young niece is battling a serious, almost debilitating depression right now. She still has to learn to cope with it. I wish I could help.

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    • It is a very difficult position to be in when someone near you is dealing with mental illness. I think the best thing to do is let them know you’re there, you can listen and when they want and need help, just being able to facilitate or support it.

      There is, unfortunately, no magic fix or easy answer and it can be very frustrating and sorrowful for all involved. In the case of depression, compassion seems to be the only real answer when you’re a bystander and I know you have a lot of that, Helen. Hope things get better for your niece.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I really enjoyed this Michelle, thanks (you know I’m not much of a commenter but this resonated with me) – Bill

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  12. Yes, you’re lucky, but we’re lucky too, having you to help us navigate our own darker passages with your wry humor and intelligence and insight. Thanks. K

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  13. This really resonated with me, especially your first paragraph. I wouldn’t even think of putting the tag of depression to those feelings. Maybe that’s because they usually don’t threaten to swamp the boat, they just rock it, ever so gently, yet so very often.

    Seems like just normal life to me. Maybe that’s because there is no such shared history in my family, and it’s a discussion we would never have. It’s hard to know what’s abnormal when all you know is what’s normal for you, hmmm?

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    • Coming from a family where every person is waving a giant red flag makes it a little easier to name the thing. I didn’t want to call it depression for the longest time, but that’s the practical side of aging – you’re able to see patterns and begin to accept yourself, grottiness and all.

      I had swamp-the-boat depression in my early 20s, but it’s definitely gotten better in my 40s. Likely because acceptance has led to better self-care and more life stability. I am so appreciative of my new normal.

      Your post regarding the vicissitudes of life and a toilet are a reminder, too, that sometimes it’s hard to sort out the source of depression. Life is a challenge even without the biochemical brouhaha in the brain.

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  14. You have succinctly written how I feel during my “low” points. Struggling to understand it and learning to (even slowly) cope with mildly-debilitating depression can be difficult. Thank you for allowing us to read and relate with you. In an unexpected way, it eased my mind.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Justin. It is amazing when we say things “out loud” how often others can relate. I had it in my mind that depression is like a fever, a matter of degrees. So often, when we have low grade fevers, we just ride it out rather than take medicine or seek treatment, but it can still be tiring. And of course, we aren’t always good arbiters of our own mental states, but I find writing about it to be helpful.

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  15. Hello,
    I just read this and thought that I just have to say something!
    Since I was thirteen I have suffered from depression, I am now twenty three. I spent my entire childhood depressed and reserved – afraid to live like a normal child should.

    I always felt like it was my fault because I was depressed all the time. I hated it and was confused, after all I was only a child.

    Of October 2013 I was also diagnosed with Panic Disorder – anxiety Disorder to add to my problem. I was beyond gutted but I forced myself to deal with it. I had no choice.

    I just want to say that I know depression is different for everybody but the symptoms forever stay the same! I wish you all the best and hope you stay positive. Easier said than done but it can be achieved!

    Take care!

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    • I’m glad that you are getting some of the help you need. It really is such a trial and error experience, figuring out what works for you. For me, I’ve accepted it as part of who I am because as I said in the post, it is not debilitating and as I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten better. As for staying positive, that would likely make things worse for me. What works for me is cultivating a sense of humor and a compassionate approach to my feelings. I believe strongly that resiliency and self-kindness make good companions during tough times. May yours be few.

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