For Want of a Pen


“For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost,
for want of a horseshoe a horse went lame,
for want of a horse a rider never got through,
for want of a rider a message never arrived,
for want of a message an army was never sent,
for want of an army a battle was lost,
for want of a battle a war was lost,
for want of a war a kingdom fell,

and all for want of a nail.” -unknown

Depression is, at its core, about the little things. It’s about losing track of them until significantly bigger things go missing – and generally feeling too worthless to do anything about them. Generalized anxiety is about the sudden (and eventually ongoing) panic upon realizing that an endless stream of “little things” have gone missing, but also feeling utterly hopeless about having lost all these little things along the way, and feeling unable to collect them all. A productive anxiety – the kind that everyone really does experience – would be one that maybe catches these little things as they happen and spur one on to action. The kind of depression and anxiety I experience, at my very worst, is a deadly combination of losing track of things, and also being absolutely emotionally and mentally paralyzed about doing anything about it – I do feel pressure to do “something” about it – but this pressure manifests as just intense anxiety in the form of, usually, tachycardia. This is when my heart feels like it’s going a thousand miles an hour for no reason – it’s not a useful pressure, and it’s not life threatening, but it is truly a terrifying thing to feel. If I didn’t have a background in health sciences and a good-ish sense of the physical symptoms of anxiety, I would have probably thought I was having a heart attack. (Very confusingly, a heart attack doesn’t at all feel like this, and a lot of people experience one without even knowing they’ve had one.)

Lately, I’ve been a lot better about understanding and working with my mental health issues. I’ll give you an example though, where I caught myself about halfway through a cycle of depression/anxiety this past week – and yes, catching myself halfway is better than, well, not catching myself at all.

Last week, my favourite (and only) pen in the universe ran out of ink. This sounds extraordinarily silly, right? It’s not a big deal at all. Except, for the past few weeks, I’d gotten into the habit of regularly journalling on the subway.

And suddenly had to stop because this pen ran out of ink.

And, for a good while now, I’ve been in the consistent habit of keeping an agenda – an actual physical agenda in which I write down work plans, work appointments, personal plans, and even phone numbers.

And suddenly had to stop because this pen ran out of ink.

Significantly, when I wake up in the middle of the night with tachycardia, I immediately get my pen to write in a specific way in order to calm myself down.

And suddenly had to stop because this pen ran out of ink.

(As I write this post, the significance of just having a pen and paper on me at all times seems as relevant as my inhaler for asthma, or someone’s epi-pen, but, silly me, it’s taken me some time to figure out just how important this pen/paper situation is to me)

Fast forward to last night, when I woke up unable to concentrate on any specific trigger, but feeling behind on everything in my life, and in general feeling overwhelmed. I knew I’d made plans with some people this week, tried to plan a trip to Montréal, and that all of it had fallen through – I didn’t even want to really meet that many people all of a sudden – but I also felt wretched about canceling, and I did want to meet but when? I’d have to check all those Facebook conversations, re-affirm plans, re-plan, re-schedule, sort things out, oh god with how many people.

Today, distractedly, I was making a grocery list on my computer, instead of writing it in my agenda as I normally do – and it clicked in my head in a bizarre and suddenly clear way.

I needed a pen.

I fucking needed one.

This sounds ridiculous and that’s because it is ridiculous. Living with depression and anxiety means that for some bizarre reason, I’d put off buying a pen. And now, it was ruining my life. I sometimes feel only other people with anxiety and depression understand the sheer force of inertia that exists in our core, or how laughably insane our lives actually are. (I get to say this because I live with this and often do feel insane, and because one of my best weapons against what I live with is my sense of humour about it.)

Why did I put off buying a pen? Well, I work during the week. By the time I finish, due to Canadian Decembers being what they are, it’s midnight at 6pm, when I leave the office. And I hate it. I hate being outside in the dark at 6pm. But why couldn’t I get this pen on my way home? Because, there are no Staples on my way home.

And that was it. It was as simple as that. Staples too far. Pen pushed to sidelines of brain. No pen? No agenda. No agenda? No written plans. No written plans? Hazy future. Hazy future? Feeling overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed? Canceled/missed appointments. Canceled/missed appointments? FOMO (feeling of missing out). FOMO? Isolation. Isolation? Alienation. Alienation? Depression. Depression? Anxiety. Anxiety? Depression. Depression? Anxiety. Anxiety? Depression.

Welcome to my very own special level of hell: the ouroboros of anxiety eating depression eating anxiety forever and ever and ever and ever.

I was at “FOMO” in this particular cycle of depression/anxiety before snapping out of it (I’m buying my favourite pen today, at the Staples, that is slightly out of the way) – but a lot of things started to happen in the middle that I want to also point out, because it’s amazing how quickly my brain lets me slip up in terms of stability – and I feel these are the things that are maybe more common among people with depression/anxiety.

Cooking
I love cooking. For the past weeks, I felt unable to cook as regularly. I ate out more. I felt unsure about when I was going to cook next so there was less stability so I instinctively ate more often. I couldn’t make a grocery list, so I did groceries more often, but I did them poorly! Because! I didn’t know exactly what I needed to buy!

Eating
If I’m super depressed, I eat less. If I’m super anxious, I eat… more. But either way, it’s never balanced, and both are super dangerous. As last week started to peak in FOMO phase, I felt more and more anxious and could start feeling myself eating more, and never feeling full. This is a metaphor for how anxiety works, because, if I was able to work with my anxiety and have it as a motivating force, I’d feel “full” or “accomplished” after finishing a task. But with intense anxiety like mine, eating becomes a metaphor for needless, mindless consumption as simply something to do.

Spending Money
One of my first symptoms of anxiety in moderately dangerous gear is spending money unnecessarily. I want to  be clear: I don’t have cash-flow problems, though others with anxiety might, and here’s why: anxiety commands us to do things. It’s an action-oriented feeling. Generally when people are anxious, there’s some question of motivating force. For me, my anxiety is *so great* when it hits that instead of acting as a motivational force to be productive, it just mostly feels paralyzing. If this happens around cooking for example, but I’m hungry or feel desperate or even feel like I *must* eat for my health, I’ll eat out or order in. $$. But! it’s not just food. I also impulse-buy a lot more. I bought a wallet that was ridiculously expensive and chalked it off as a Christmas present to myself. Which, ok, fine, maybe it is, but did I really need that wallet? No! Probably not. There was no reason for me to be at the Bay, buying a ridiculously expensive wallet. Did it make me feel better in the moment? Yes. Because this is how capitalism works – it’s instant gratification, it’s a feeling of “worth” based on spending-capacity. And it is a way to curb anxiety in the moment. Of course, spending money like this can be a dangerous side-effect to anxiety. I’m aware of that.

Sleeping
My sleeping routine goes to pieces. Somewhere during the  process of “precipitating causes –> depression/anxiety”,  if I find myself going to bed between midnight and 2am consistently, shit is up. or down. Whatever it is, it’s bad. The other thing is: I don’t sleep soundly when I’m about to enter a depression/anxiety cycle. I end up waking up often in the middle of the night – even if it’s not tachycardia waking me up, it’ll be just a whole slew of uncomfortable thoughts about the future or the past, or a general feeling of malaise. And finally, I sleep in later, and when I sleep in later, I end up having the most terrifying nightmares.

Depression is, at its core, about the little things. It’s about, in my case, needing a pen on hand at all times. I must have one. I wrote once a long time ago about how writing saved my life – and it did. I guess it’s continuing to do that, for whatever bizarre reason, and in whatever bizarre ways. I need schedules to organize my life; in fact, I often give off the impression I’m highly organized, because it’s true: I have to be. But when I’m not, things are usually in pieces. (At least I planned my vacation in an extraordinarily fortuitous manner!) I sometimes wish I was not as good as I am at putting up a “got it together” façade; maybe this would prompt people to check in or force me to seek help quicker. But part of the reason I am so good at setting up this façade is precisely because the kind of shame/embarrassment I feel around *not* being put together results in… well…anxiety. And even if people *did* step in, I’d probably reject their offers of help in the moment because anxiety around self sufficiency would make me feel unable to accept their support.

Anyway, I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, but here: if you want to ever ask me if I’m doing ok, don’t. Because I’ll always say yes, unless we’re super close or something. Even then, at my worst moments, I would be too embarrassed/ashamed to explain just how bad things are.

Instead, ask me if I have a working pen on me.

And if I don’t have one, or if I hesitate in answering, or you can tell I’m lying,  or if I don’t show you a pen, just, please, give me your spare pen.

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