I was first diagnosed with depression in 1999, after my second serious suicide scare. It wasn’t the first time I had wrestled with it, though. Not by a long shot. I’d say the monster reared its ugly head first in 1980, after my father died and I ended up skipping school for a week straight.
At the time, I would rather get lost in the world of Luke and Laura than deal with my reality: a life without my father. I loved my dad more than I loved the moon or the stars, or even God himself. Daddy was all that to me. He filled my world with positive, uplifting thoughts that insulated me against a cold, cruel world. I never felt safer, more valued or more loved.
Honestly I didn’t know how to handle this loss. And I shouldn’t have known how to handle it. I was eleven. I was just a kid. A scared, lonely, grieving little kid.
Much later, when I was a parent of a couple of scared, lonely, grieving little kids, I knew by experience what not to do. The early 1980s didn’t offer that same guidance to me. My mother was the breadwinner, out of the house much more than she was in it. She was taking care of practical matters. As a child of the 1930s, there was no hand-holding to be had. There was doing what needed to be done. Life sucks. Bad things happen. Just muscle through and trust God.
But I couldn’t trust God. God had taken away the only person in the world that I felt gave a damn about me. This was the second major betrayal as I far as I was concerned. If anything, the only thing I could trust God to do was throw more shit at some innocent kid like I deserved it.
Getting lost in fictional worlds that were forced to make sense … well, made sense.
So I skipped a week solid. It started with one day. I knew I couldn’t handle life, and I needed a break. People who don’t understand depression, who see it as just a case of the blahs, one you can easily brush off if you just try hard enough, will shade this emotion as laziness. What they don’t understand is that being forced to “human” – for lack of a better word – when you are in the clutches of depression is painful. Physically painful. When I called in sick, I wasn’t lying. I didn’t feel like going to school. Everything hurt. I felt that ambiguous unwellness that made me question if I WAS coming down with anything.
In actuality, I WAS coming down with something. I WAS unwell. And it was an illness that would lace its nasty little fingers throughout my entire life.
That day turned into two, which turned into three. Once you’re pointed down, it’s easy to keep slipping further and further, until everything spins out of control. I racked up so many days that the school had to phone my mother at work to intervene, which she did with punishment because she too didn’t understand that I was sick. School officials didn’t get it either. I was shamed in front of my whole class by our PE teacher, who decided, in his infinite wisdom, to grill me in front of everyone about my excess absences.
Again, as an eleven-year-old, I had no idea how to handle it. No one knew how to teach me to manage life with this beastie on my back.
People get too caught up in the “mental” part of mental illness. Because it stems from the mind, people who are blissfully unaffected by these ailments of the brain think you can simply “decide” to be better. Mind over matter! You can do it!
Thirty-five years later and I’ve done the therapy thing. I’ve done the anti-depressant thing. I’ve battled suicidal thoughts and I’ve won. I’ve done meditation. I’ve done more holistic healing with natural supplements. For decades I’ve studied about depression, learning to recognize the warning signs so I go into battle prepared.
I’m self-aware as fuck.
That hasn’t made it any easier. In fact, it’s terrifying to realize that I’m one negative thought away from sliding down that slippery slope to a place I really don’t know if I’ll be able to return.
Thirty-five years later and I can recognize the symptoms. Every ache, every pain, every sleepless night and every long nap during the day, so I don’t have to “people,” every urge to do something destructive, every battle to do something helpful… I see the little beasties in the corner as they lie in wait to pounce the minute I turn my back. Seeing them, knowing that they’re there doesn’t make them any easier to fight. It still demands the same steely-eyed focus and determination to get in the ring with these bastards and face them off, no matter how broken or bloody I might feel in the moment.
2015 left me pretty bloody and broken. This loss of my mother, and the depression its courting, is – in a word – overwhelming. All the same patterns are emerging. I’m not sleeping at night, which is typical. This screws up my days, making me feel unproductive, lazy and all the other stereotypical BS I’ve had to field my whole life as a night owl. This fuels the beastie, whose taunting whispers grow a little bit louder the very second I’m by myself with no outside chatter to quiet them, which is another reason staying up all night by myself is a bad, bad idea if I can’t find a way to be productive.
I’ve decided to handle this mourning period a little differently than all the other times before. I’m not inexperienced when it comes to grief. I lost my dad in 1980. Three years later I lost my Uncle Tom (his brother,) and a year after that we lost my two-year-old niece to Reye’s Syndrome. Brandon died in 1995. Daniel died in 2003. Auntie Babe in 2010, and now… in the four years since I’ve moved to California, I’ve lost my Uncle Mac and my Mom.
This doesn’t even count my Aunt Gertrude, who helped fill the void for the McCandless family after my Dad died, or any of his other brothers and sisters that all disappeared off of my family canvas over the years, one by one. Even in the Voight family, we’ve lost Steven’s grandpa.
I’ve even lost a good friend and coworker I never expected to lose, one who died of heart failure when she was only 26.
It may seem like my perspective is warped – that I’m focusing on the bad stuff instead of the good stuff.
No. My life is just that unbalanced.
In my life I’ve been to seven funerals. The only wedding I’ve been to has been my own.
So… yeah. Things get a little hard to manage sometimes.
I’ve dealt with it all the way I was taught to deal with it. Do what needs to be done. Life sucks. Bad things happen. Just muscle through and trust God.
One thing that has always been my focus after a death is taking care of the living. It is my one and fervent desire to make life easier for survivors, to shoulder the burden and responsibility so that they never feel as alone and bereft as I did when I was a grieving eleven-year-old.
When my two-year-old niece died, it devastated my mother. Like I told you in my previous blog, she loved her grandbabies something fierce, and this loss – which added to all the other losses my poor mother suffered (both her parents, both her sisters, her husband, etc.,) – finally brought her to her knees.
It was up to me to help hold her up again. I steeled my spine and marched forward the only way I knew how.
Get through it.
Do whatever you need to do, but get through it.
So I stuffed down the grief to take care of her. When Brandon died years later, I did the same thing for my sons and my husband, Dan. I stood ramrod straight with all the strength I could muster. Strength for other people. Strength to take care of them, to make it easier for them.
The beasties could have me if they wanted, and they often did. But I was determined not to let them have anyone else I loved if I could help it.
This time around, there’s nothing to do but feel. I couldn’t go to Texas for the funeral. I wasn’t part of the planning process, which included pre-made arrangements. I’m the one who feels the loss the strongest in my current household. My sons are men now, who have been raised to have a much healthier view on loss and mourning than I ever did – thanks mostly to my determination to make it okay for them – so now the people around me are the ones holding ME up. This means there’s nothing else to do but fall apart.
I get to feel the grief this time around, with nothing left to distract me.
I’m hanging on with a death grip, because I know I have to do whatever is possible so that I don’t slide down this hill again.
Of course I know from experience that I’ll get through it, even though moments of hopelessness will rear their ugly heads. This is nothing I haven’t navigated before, and a lot less prepared than where I am now. I know some moments will suck, and some will feel normal. I know that nothing eases the pain but time, and sometimes not even then. I know that this is yet another tear in the fabric of my soul that will heal in yet another scar. A battle wound, if you will.
Being human is not for the fainthearted.
Right now it’s just me and the beasties, and what rotten little beasties they are. They tell me to indulge the pain – to feel it, because I deserve it. They are the ones that whisper all my sins in my ear, taunting me with regret. They’re the ones that, dare I laugh or smile, condemn me for being heartless and inhuman.
In the exercise, which I finally found a way to manage and even enjoy, I feel guilt that I’m happy. I can be happy eating a cookie or ten, that’s okay for the beasties, because they know that gives them plenty of room in the future to beat me down for being weak.
But doing anything productive to save myself? CLEARLY I must be stopped.
I’m doing that a little differently too. I won’t be stopped. I’m going to shake free the shackles and do everything I know I need to do to protect the only person there is left to protect…
Inside is that same sad, scared eleven-year-old, and thirteen-year-old, and fourteen-year-old… that same bereft mother who had to bury her child… that same seventeen-year-old romantic that had to bury her hero.
Over the years she’s done a lot to make it better for everyone around her.
Now she gets to focus on making it better for herself… to nurse old wounds and new, with all the same steely-eyed determination that has kept her mostly upright no matter how many rounds she’s gone with the beasties.
I won’t give an inch. I can’t. The cliff I walk has always been narrow and crumbling. Each battle I fight is life or death, because if I lose my footing I’m afraid I’ll plummet down to my own premature demise.
In the words of my beautiful #10 – I don’t want to go.
In my life many people have said how strong I was to endure the pain I have. I always shrug it off. I don’t see that as strong. Life sucked. I kept moving forward until it didn’t. One step in front of the other. That’s all I’ve ever done.
You want strength? This admission of weakness is strength. This is me saying I don’t feel strong right now. I feel scared. I feel sad. I feel hopeless. The beasties have surrounded me and I’m terrified to face them again, especially after they nearly won their battle this year.
But I will face them. And I will keep going. This time I get to be the time-traveling doctor who reaches back in time to soothe and comfort a grieving child who has now been orphaned.
It’s my turn to say, “I’ve got you. We’re going to be okay.”
It isn’t easy. It hurts like hell. And it’s scary to admit these weaknesses. It’ll be even scarier when I finally find a new therapist to help walk me through all these beastly little mental landmines I’ve been navigating mostly on my own, the same clueless kid I’ve always been.
But if I want to actualize the life of my dreams, manifesting it out of sheer will and determination, I can’t keep pretending everything is okay when it isn’t.
I’m the good girl no longer. I’m imperfect. Flawed. Unwell. Scared to human.
And you know what?
I’m not made worse by this condition. I’m not weak or crazy because I struggle with depression. It’s an illness. And just like any other illness, confronting it and dealing with it early is key to managing it.
That’s all there is left to do.
I’m going to get out of my own head, which is filled with negative, lying voices that want me to destroy myself, that tell me it’s pointless to try and improve anything when nothing in my life indicates that I can conquer my demons for real. They want to shame me as weak because I have all these complications to manage. They want to make me feel like I’m alone, that no one understands, and that it’ll never get better.
This has been my battle for 35 years. I’ve managed it poorly over the years, chasing those temporary fixes that make me feel good for the moment, like overeating, or playing hooky from school, or getting blissfully wasted on whatever intoxicant looks appealing at the time, whether it’s booze, sex or shopping.
Today… I’m going to do something different.
I don’t just want to feel “good” anymore.
I want to feel “well.”
This is my Monday motivation.