Anatomy of a Depression

It’s hard to write from a place of depression. Whatever anyone thinks they know about depression, they can really only know their own. Mine comes in many shades. This particular one is a verdant green. The gray dullness I feel is made more pallid by the contrast of a lush Minnesota summer, when the rain has come at all the right times.

Already I – have become tired of such a deep-colored summer.

In the grove the masses of royal fern – have grown up to

their full height and

underneath them

I suppose such things as beetles, frogs, and blue-green

dwarves are walking.

This greenness like a sea

must have totally dyed the expression of my eyes.

Sei Itō, Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry

canstockphoto43309768It’s like being in the middle of a really great party, but no one can hear or see you. I feel untouched by happiness, retreating further into the recesses of my mind. Life becomes this out-of-body experience and I used to fear that if I didn’t hold on, force myself back out, I’d just drift away. But my energy is low, even while my brain generates worst case scenarios by the second.

I’ve long ago abandoned the idea that I should feel this way or that. This is emotional freedom. My life is now constructed in such a way that my depression isn’t a spectator sport. I can pull weeds without expression, fold laundry mindlessly, make a meal in silence. I can think my dark thoughts and not have to apologize or try to ameliorate the worry of someone else. I can go dark and quiet and unnoticed.

My experience gives me the edge when it comes to the regular dead space that overtakes me. I know it will end. I’ve been through this so many times, that I know I will likely wake up tomorrow in an entirely different place. This keeps my depression from becoming something more dangerous. It makes it less dramatic or interesting, which is something I don’t take for granted.

canstockphoto5410688Some depressions I slide into, requiring days of numbness to finally force my acknowledgement. Some, like where I’m at now, happen snap-quick when an incident knocks away my self-assurance, uncorking tumble-down thoughts that I was filled with at a young age. I am not good enough and making mistakes just proves that.

In this case, I said something that I thought was funny, but I hurt the person’s feelings. I apologized and maybe in a differently-wired brain that would be the end of it. We moved on from it, but I stayed with the thought that I am mean-spirited and that I can’t trust myself to be around other people. That I can’t trust other people.

It triggered an anxiety attack. I would not be loved unless I made myself more worthy. How do I make myself worthy? Strive for perfection. Strive to be better. I put myself through a punishing workout. I worked harder getting the house in order. I tried not to speak unless necessary. Intellectually I know I’ve gone off my nut, but intellect is only one part of the human operating system. In less than 24 hours after an innocuous exchange, I am in the murky waters of depression.

Sometimes a depression is already brewing, in search of a trigger. I never know if I’m in the beginning or at the end, until the fog lifts.

I have a family history of depressive and personality disorders. Some of us have chosen medication and some, like me, have willingly allowed ourselves to live with it. And in some cases, embrace it. Not being a hugger, I’m willing to give it a pat on the arm and think, get on with it.

canstockphoto20314927It may be my superstition that if I give up the fog, I may not have the sharp clarity and energy that follows. It’s a common rationale for manic-depressives, unwilling to treat the depression because the treatment dulls the mania. With a milder version of it (cyclothymia), I am less willing to give up those moments when intricate thoughts wend themselves through my brain and words hurl themselves onto the page.

To an outsider, it might seem an untenable life and in the early years, when my life was less stable and circumstances more dire, it was. I would desperately try to medicate myself – booze, smoking, men, food, shopping, gambling. But at some point I made different choices and one of those choices was figuring out how to make room for my brain chemistry. I found people who didn’t press when I wanted to be alone. I sought help when I couldn’t help myself.

I learned to give myself permission to just be and observe. It has become a meditation canstockphoto26470846unto itself. I unwind the monologues that run through my head, acknowledging with gentleness each twisted perspective, diatribe, miscue, mistake, and loads of dubious self-pity. I’ve learned to tease myself “Yes, yes, you are a horrible person. Yes, that trip to Greece with the drunken boyfriend was a huge mistake. Yes, you really are quite the lumpy hausfrau. Yes, the world is an awful, awful place.” Yes, dear, lay it all out on the table.

And all these things that have been tucked away, the failures and the embarrassments, lay there, inert and powerless. And I see them for what they are – old stories. It reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock short story collections: Stories to Stay Awake By, Stories to be Read with the Lights On, Stories to be Read with the Door Locked. These are my depression stories and I know them by heart.

And soon, they will shuffle back to their shelves, the fog will evaporate and I will remember the other stories where I do the best I can and that is enough.


72 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Depression

  1. The more you share your problem, more people will give you advice. This further aggravates the situation. Are you actually looking for answers to your questions, or you are just sharing and want people to just listen…! I, on my part, feel sharing is a great stress buster. Take Care.


    1. You make a good point. Any time I have written about depression, I do get unsolicited advice, but I assume it comes from good intention. I like to write and sometimes that means writing from wherever I happen to be at the moment, even if it’s in the midst of a depression. I tend to write about things that I’ve already processed, so while I can share personal things, they are not raw – I’m protective of my own sensibilities. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I do not want to give you advice so I do not know where Neeraj is coming from with this. I do take meds for anxiety but that is not depression. I have had times like the ones you describe but they are never as bad as what you are going through. I am not even sure if the word ‘bad’ should be used to describe your experiences. The experiences I have that are similar I describe as being solemn.


        1. For me, it’s simply one of my states of being and because I’m less likely to be self-destructive now, when I’m in it, it strikes me as neither bad nor good. I think Neeraj was pointing out what can happen when you talk about mental issues in public, but it sounds like sharing is helpful for her. I would also say that I’m not for or against psychotropic drugs – I absolutely support people reaching out for help, in whatever form, that will help them. In my family, we often called it being in a “funk”, but that rather underplays it.


  2. It goes in our family too, and it is good that you recognise and acknowledge your condition for what it is, then you can be realistic about how you deal with it in the way that is best for you. People with this condition in our wider family are not dealing with it, and making those around them pay for it. It takes a long time to work out what is happening and support those who will accept support.


    1. I think that it happens in a lot of families and perhaps that is why I’ve never been hesitant in writing or talking about it. So many people either don’t recognize what is happening or use their energy trying to appear “normal”, that they can’t acknowledge their brain has taken them for a ride. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point and even now, I have to tread carefully. But even in the fog, I know I’m fortunate to know that it will pass.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think emotional freedom is one thing which is essential to live a meaningful and fulfiling life!
    The fact that you are aware of your depressive modes of yourself and that you can handle it quite greatly yourself proves that you have got that emotional freedom in you to paint your own story on the canvas of life….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think there is great value in honoring one’s emotional life. It takes some effort – recognition being the first step. We live in a society that says if you are not in a constant state of frenzied happiness, there is something wrong with you or your life. Suffering happens when we deny who we are and fail to honor that. There is quiet joy to be found when we build a life to support who we are and reach out to get help when we need it. I’ve done both and it has made a tremendous difference.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Beautifully explained…..
        Thank you for sharing your views dear..
        Yes..true joy is in recognising who we are and asking For help whenever needed!
        Both of these acts need a great amount of courage which only a few amongst us can achieve…
        You have done both..!! Bravo😇😇

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I found that psychotherapy helped my depression but agree with you that everyone has their own appropriate solution.
    I also found ‘personal development’ workshops at a local education institute helpful as way of reminding myself of some of the things I learned in therapy and adding some new ones. One recommended giving oneself the occasional hug, which I would once have thought was silly, or – I now realise – would have feared other people would consider silly or ‘sad’ or some other derogatory term.
    It’s generous of you to share your experiences. And the fabulous poem.


    1. That is the fortunate thing – there are so many tools out there to use. Whatever works is what works. I went to therapy to deal with some core issues and over the last few years, I’ve focused on self-care. When I’m in a depressive state, I focus on the basics: decent food, sleep and movement. Sometimes I can only manage one thing a day, but it sends a clear message to my brain: handle with care.

      I checked out that poetry anthology from the library and that poem struck a chord with me – perfectly timed to my sense that I was in a dull spot, surrounded by lush vegetation. Thanks for sharing your experiences.


  5. This shows a ton of insight, and I suspect that’s half the battle. If only depression were a rational beast… Sorry to read you’re in this state but we all know you’re strong.


    1. Thanks, Ross. Self-knowledge hard won, but you’re right, it is half the battle. The lack of rationality is hard to explain to people who don’t experience depression, but that is why it is so necessary to put it in medical terms regarding brain chemistry. Maria Bamford is a comedian who does a great bit talking about other illnesses like people talk about depression. Here’s the link, with a warning for blue language.


      1. I just finished reading A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume about a young artist trying to isolate herself from her depression. It’s virtually plotless but beautifully written and surprisingly engaging. Will check the link.


  6. I appreciate the eloquence and accuracy of this post, the latter of which I observed within the context of my own cyclical experiences of depression. (I am not sure Tolstoy was correct: While each person’s experience of this particular kind of unhappiness has its particulars, those of us who have depression also know each other’s experience, at least generally.) Thank you. You helped me feel less alone this morning.


    1. I’m glad, Cate, that something here resonates with you. Sometimes I wish I’d caught onto the cyclical thing so much earlier in my life. It’s only been in the last ten or so that I really got a bead on it. But, I suppose I can still consider it lucky that I ever did. We often feel isolated until we tell our stories and give others the opportunities to tell theirs.


  7. Having never experienced depression or anxiety I can’t contribute anything meaningful to this conversation. But I can thank you for being the honest, eloquent and generous writer you are. You share yourself so openly and beautifully you take my breath away.


  8. As always, Michelle, your writing is powerful and vivid. It conveys your truth and also universal truths. Even if I don’t relate to every element, there is always something that makes me say, “Oh, she understands that so well; she describes it so perfectly.” I often find reading your words to be therapeutic—I hope writing provides the same lovely benefit for you.


    1. Thank you, Donna. Writing it out does help to organize things a bit in my head. The response I get reminds me of how important it is tell stories here – not just the sculpted, topical essays, but the messy moments of our lives as well. I’m all for the mess, because usually it’s those moments that shape our characters and our connections. And I’m deeply grateful for connections.


  9. Michelle I find a lot of wisdom in your posts, always, and in this one in particular. Learning to live with your depression and to derive some meaning from the experience, to honor those feelings and yet to recognize their transience, that is some good work you’ve done there. I’ve felt for a long time now that living successfully isn’t all about being happy, but rather being open to experience it all, the good, the bad, the ugly, and to make peace with the myriad emotions that accompany this messy life. Thank you for your honesty and willingness to share your true self. It does make those of us who wrestle with similar issues feel like we are not alone. I hope you are soon back to a more balanced state where you have a little peace of mind and a lot of creativity.


    1. Thanks, Ilona. This is something I’ve taken away from some eastern philosophies – trying to look at things and accept things without labeling them. It’s human nature and perhaps, in our current culture bereft of critical thinking, to label things good or bad when sometimes things just are. Somehow labeling a feeling as bad, gives it more weight than it deserves.

      It reminds me of those children’s toys – the Chinese finger trap. You stick your fingers in a tube and when you go to pull it out, you’re trapped. The more you struggle against it, the more it tightens, but if you relax, your finger is freed. The more we struggle against feelings, the more we tighten their hold on us, instead of just acknowledging them for what they are and letting them slide on by.

      Writing this post is a pretty good indicator that light will be around the corner soon.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry you’re in the fog now. Depression is a tricky beast and will tell you there is no end in sight. But depression lies – it skips all the good parts about the future and who you are and just lies its ass off. Take care of yourself, get help if you need it, and remember that you are not alone.


  10. You seem to be very intimate with your depressive side and have the ability to recognize much of what encompasses your depression, “mindlessly folding the laundry.” With such indepth insight one would think that in such times with your recognition so keen that you would try practicing mindfulness, thus consciously transforming those moments of mindlessness into being present.
    Thank you for sharing such very descriptive feeling and emotions.


    1. I truly believe in practicing mindfulness and I would likely not have the insight I do without it. However, it does require a great deal of effort and one aspect of depression, is that it is absolutely exhausting. To put another demand on myself in a depressive state, beyond just working at self-care, is too much to expect. I would say it is more important to be gentle at that time, than expect myself to wrangle with an uncooperative brain.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective.


    1. Your post made me think about how easy it is for me to describe depression, but that I don’t often enunciate the happy times (at least not on my blog). I suppose the angst is where the meat is, but I should remind myself and pay attention to those happier moments. For me, they are always moments, which is likely the flip side of knowing every mood and moment is transitory. Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Describing about depression. you did it very smoothly. I even can’t think about it. There was a girl who was poet. she used to write the sorrow of her life as a poem. No one was aware that she used to write until she did suicide


    1. Perhaps that is why it is so important to tell our various stories – suffering in silence lets no air or light in. I should say, too, that my depression is manageable – for so many it’s much more extreme. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  12. Very well written. What I find is the worst about that fog is that once it finally lifts, I typically find that those I’m closest with have run out of compassion. The people around me develop a “come on, get on with it” perspective and once I’ve finally “gotten on with it”, often times they become completely out of reach. Don’t know if you’ve had any similar experiences…


    1. That is one of the trickier things about depression – maintaining relationships in the midst of it and the after effects. Earlier in my life, I was a personal wrecking ball, unburdened by insight into my own behavior and interactions. It was very painful, because I tended to lash out when pressed. I would make commitments when I was feeling good that I couldn’t keep when the time came because I’d be depressed. I’d end up isolating myself because I perceived that I was not a good person or friend.

      These days, I have a BMOP: Bare Minimum Operating Procedure. I am careful when I make commitments, so that I can follow through. I’m honest with myself and the people around me, if I feel like interaction is going to go south. “I’m in a bit of a depression, so I’m going to lay low until I feel better.” I force myself to focus on basic self-care: sleep, food, movement. I apologize promptly when I’m being a grumpy ass (lessens long term damage).

      Most importantly, I try to remind myself that everyone has their own “shit” and that when we practice kindness with ourselves, we’re more able to extend it to others. Depression has a narcissistic bent to it, when we curl inward and sometimes can’t see when those around us are going through their own stuff. At times all I can manage to do is listen and not engage, but sometimes that is all that is needed.

      Depression often can make a person feel “less than”, like we’re just shittier people in general. This can really impact self-esteem which means we can pick and stay in relationships that lack kindness and compassion and in some cases, are toxic. It’s worth looking at who is around you to see if it’s healthy for you. Lastly, of course, is knowing when it’s time to get help from a third party, especially if you’re in the wrecking ball stage.

      This was quite a long ramble that I should have turned into a post, but there it is. I hope you find your way. I know it’s tough, but nothing is set in stone – sometimes a few small tweaks are all that is needed. Sometimes it’s time to call in some pros – therapist, support group, help line, doctor – whatever will get you on a sustainable path. Best wishes.


  13. “Sometimes a depression is already brewing, in search of a trigger.”
    This made so much sense now that you put into words what I’ve been feeling for a long time. Thanks for the wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I wish I could more clearly see when a depression is starting, because the trigger usually ends up being interpersonal conflict. Fortunately, most of that happens in my head these days or I’d have a tougher time with people.


  14. I have only recently joined you at The Green Study.I discovered you and all the wonderful people who join you quite by accident. (At least most people look at discoveries like this as coincidence.) It is more than a year after the last comment, but I am still going to add because it has never been more important for me to connect with people who have and still do really experience the loneliness, the certainty that this time I AM CRAZY, the pain and fear of never being able to let the light penetrate into your inner being again. See, this time the depression is tightly intertwined with my evergrowing anxiety after 3 major, extremely difficult occurences squeezed me between them and destoyed any possibility of sleep. Depression has been with me since age 5 but only let itself be seen when I exploded in my early 30th’s. Cognitive behavior therapy, medication, group therapy…all have helped somewhat. But I can’t like me and so it always reappears. At 73 just a few months ago I had effective meds, wonderful doctors and a support system that helped me remain even. But when I realized I had to give up driving, everything went away. All my life I have worn a mask and pretended…not possible now. Without sleep confusion of all kinds has stepped in. BUT what I am able to do is helping, and of course that is helping others. I have watched lots of episodes of utube on watercolor painting (not drawing). Learned wonderful ways to play with them. 8 of us in this senior apartment building meet once a week and play…wonderful! Eventually we will incorporate our masterpieces into greeting cards. Deep pain is still there and will eventually go, but I want you to know how powerful PLAYING is.


    1. So glad that you have found a supportive space. This is something I’ve learned over the last few years, as parents and grandparents age – community is more important than ever. And you are pointing out one of the best ways of finding community – helping others. It takes us outside of ourselves and our oh-so-busy brains and reminds us we are not alone. Best wishes to you!


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