As 2015 comes to a close, I’m recognizing that it is the first time in many years that I’ve been able to think about a new beginning with hope, with a fresh outlook, with an imagination. This is a post about healing, very very slowly, from depression.
You see, depression has been eating away at my ability to envision any sense of possibility for the past five years or so – possibly even longer than that. It was unbearable for me, someone who was always writing stories and poetry and journaling, to find myself unable to write, unable to envision anything other than the endless purgatory that life suddenly became.
Depression is a kind of death, you know. Or at least, a state of non-living. There was an article I fell in love with last year, called “Living With Being Dead” on Cotard’s patients. Cotard’s patients lose their sense of self. They believe wholly that they are dead, or at least, that any sense of self starts to dissolve. “For patients who have it, their hearts beat and lungs pump, yet they deny their existence or functionality of their bodies, organs or brains. They think their self is detached.
Gazing around the compound, I lock eyes with a 52-year-old woman in cotton pajamas who’s curled into a half-fetal position in a pleather blue chair. […] Her name is Juanita and she has told doctors, from time to time, that she does not exist.”
There are overlaps with deep phases of depression here.
When young white radicals confidently tell me they are existentialist, I laugh to myself. I know what they mean, but I feel I am existential in a totally different and terrifying, and then suddenly simply numb, way. I’ve known what it was like to just exist. To drift. To be. To be to the point where being and not being seemed to merge like some horror movie, cabin in the woods set where you can’t tell where the fog ends and the lake begins. To mindlessly be in a sense that eventually erodes the meaning of what it means to be.
Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead has a particular scene that particularly resonated with me, as early as 16.
ROS: We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
GUIL: No, no, no … Death is … not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat.
ROS: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
GUIL: No, no, no – what you’ve been is not on boats.
You can’t not-be on a boat because you must, if on a boat, be (on a boat). Death isn’t because life is. These lines have stayed with me since grade 10 English. Ros and Guil are minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Stoppard’s play explores what their lives (deaths?) are like when they are not in Hamlet. In a sense, outside the original text, they cease to exist. What would this cessation be? Death is not. Characters outside a play are not.
And depression doesn’t let you be either.
In her article “Depression Stole My Ability to Envision a Different Tomorrow”, Anne Thériault writes eloquently about this loss of imagination. When her therapist asks her to “envision a different tomorrow”, Anne responds: “I can’t. I literally cannot imagine that.” And that just about starkly sums up what depression is for me as well: I also lost this ability to envision a life.
I’ve included Anne’s description of depression from that article here, because it’s so utterly brilliantly vividly accurate as to the kind of purgatorial life depression brings with it. (I strongly recommend checking out her blog at The Belle Jar and following The Belle Jar on Facebook.)
“Of all the things depression has taken from me—and just to be clear, depression’s thievery has been wide and vast—the loss of my ability to think about the future has been one of the hardest to bear.
It’s not that the future stops being there, exactly; it’s that it become swiftly and horribly blank. It goes from being a colorful and richly varied set of expectations to a world straight up ripped from the plot of some dystopian novel. And not even the good kind of dystopia where chaste teens give each each other long, meaningful looks that last for pages; I mean the bleak, deeply unsexy kind of dystopia. The type where every day you walk down this long institutional-looking hallway, all flickering fluorescent lights and scuffed linoleum flooring. Once all of the minutes allotted to your day have ticked down, you reach a door. When you open that door, there’s another hallway, exactly the same as the one you just left. Your whole life is a series of hallways, each identical in their grim white blankness.”
In my own navigation of depression this year, this endless hallway from a dystopian novel was essentially what I’d been describing as purgatory. And if depression is purgatory, then heaven is having hope and imagination for a better day tomorrow. For many people with depression, this time of year is particularly hard (as are birthdays). There is a notion to feel and think, particularly acutely at these times that our lives are meaningless, that we’ve done/been so little, that we have achieved nothing, and that there is no point to anything. There is also the tendency to not be able to appreciate happiness in general, and being around other happy people can be a difficult thing to bear as well, particularly when there is no personal rush of excitement for the new year. I remember becoming excited for my birthday and for the new year as a child, but I cannot, for the life of me remember why.
However, this is not a post that fetishises depression. I want to be clear: I’ve made remarkable progress this year in healing from my depression, and I’ve done it, paradoxically, by learning to live with it – and in so doing, learning to live with myself. (This has afforded me a kind of peace I did not know was possible. I am no longer lonely in that wretched way where I feel detached from my self. I am no longer desperate for love, because there is so much already that I have to give.)
In terms of practical steps, I have slowly started to envision hope, plan, set goals. And most importantly I have learnt to accept my emotions, while recognizing that they are not a good marker of what I should base my sense of self worth on – instead, I have to focus on doing, thinking, and on a more somatic sense of my body’s needs. And though I cannot remember why I felt excited, I remember how I got excited. Now this is going to sound weird, but this has, so far, been the only thing that has worked at all for my depression. I felt damn silly doing it the first few weeks too. But in short: I pretended. And I continue to pretend.
I don’t pretend to be ok or to live without depression. And I don’t pretend to be happy when I wasn’t. But I pretend an action of happiness. I fake it. I fake it to myself. I smile at myself in the mirror before getting ready for work. When reading and something strikes me as particularly insightful, I tell myself to smile even if I didn’t feel like it, and even if it isn’t a reflexive response. When something strikes me as beautiful, I force myself to smile, or at least think to myself: “This is beautiful! This is a joyful thing, a good thing” It could have been whatever: a flower, a bird, a shitty funny joke that wasn’t that funny. What. ever. Doesn’t matter. Good things all are something I have to consciously reflect on and remind myself: “This is good.” And then I have to usually do a little bodily gesture to value it – like a smile.
I cannot tell you how humbling and bizarre this exercise was for me the first few times. But I silenced the sharp voices of criticism and cynicism in my own head by approaching those feelings from a compassionate space in myself that I didn’t know I had. So my demons went: “Haha you complete fucking loser what the fuck do you think this is going to do? Stop already just fucking stop. ”
And there were many ways to respond: I could do what I’d been doing for years, which is to laugh along cynically with my demons – and yes, this is a coping strategy that has helped me not kill myself in the past. But it was also a coping strategy that hadn’t let me move forward in healing.
I could desperately plead with them or get angry with them: “Why can’t you let me be happy? Why can’t I just be without feeling so vicious?” And this has nearly always resulted in some vicious internal dialogue that I lose. My demons are better at arguing than I am.
So instead, I went a different route this time: I tried asking my demon-self “Hmm, why does it bother you that we’re trying to be happy?” I didn’t plead. I didn’t beg anything from my demons or get angry at them – my demons have kept me company, but they haven’t been particularly good at wishing me well. But my demons are also not my masters; they are my equals. I also didn’t mock my demons; my shadows are just a reflection of whatever light I’ve refused to let into myself, and so there was no jeering. I just asked them why I was not allowed to do this.
There is a way of letting in light that destroys those shadows, or turns them inside out, or whatever shitty metaphor you want to use here. But I have to do it from a space of reaching out, gathering up my ill will, and hugging them really tightly, and really seeing those parts of myself for what they are: scared, sad, lonely herstories. They are a past-me. I’m learning that the darkest parts of me exist in the way they do because they have been starved for love. They are only telling me what they’ve been taught – what I’d been taught. That’s not their (my) fault. But they are causing me harm and have robbed me of a kind of genuine happiness from the world, and it’s time to teach them that there are other ways of being.
But it’s coming back. My happiness is slowly returning as I focus on the how of happiness, my actions, my goal-setting. My personal sense of happiness is returning as I recognise that I can forgive my shadow-self, that I have a healthy respect for her too – she has, after all, saved me countless times from manipulative, abusive people. My personal sense of happiness is returning as I focus on small joys – believable joys. Joys that my demons cannot rob as easily because they’re so small, so what is there to take? Hardly anything.
But those little joys build up – have been building up this past year. I am able to look forward with hope towards a new year. People who take this for granted do not know how lucky they are, but that’s ok. I’m not envious of them. I am simply grateful to be able to hope again.
I have learned too that in order to set goals in a way that doesn’t chase a future that may or may not materialize, I need to set goals while focusing on accepting myself – all of me. Shadow-self, poison tongue, sweet kisses, morning French Vanilla. Depression demon, gift-wrapper extraordinaire, anxiety monster, friend, lover. All of me. And, I’m recognizing that accepting all of me also means approaching everything external with a similar sense of equanimity. So these are my personal strategies for combating depression in the new year:
- Focus on little joys, and re-learn happiness through actions, not through intrinsic feelings. My feelings are silly when it comes to understanding myself (but important as just an expression of who I am.)
- Meet myself, others, and anything life where they are at, with where I am at. This includes racists, sexists, and anyone else.
- My anger, sense of vengeance, are important in small doses and have helped me survive when I had no other tools. I have no need for anger now; it does not serve me in a way to grow. I have other tools – and love really is more powerful in the long run.
Happy New Year, and to everyone, I wish you all peace and the ability to dream this 2016.