Oh gosh. Not another crybaby with depression.

This is not a crybaby post about depression. Whatever that means.

Author Elizabeth Jolley and (younger) sister Madelaine Winifred in the garden, 1927

It is, rather, a very practical post about how I live with depression and generalized anxiety disorder, especially in the winter when it worsens. I’ve learned to make practical modifications so that suicide ideation is no longer a very real part of my every day and so that I am not an entirely miserable person with whom to share tubes of toothpaste and children and life.

I’ve been envisioning this post for awhile now. It’s been rattling around in my head, dancing with delusions about how I’m going to package it cute-like as if living with depression were a Betty Crocker recipe for making pineapple upside-down cake. But depression slows me down and drains me of motivation (when I am otherwise a fairly hyperactive person with a zeal for socializing and hobbies). I realized this post would never happen if I didn’t just aim low and crank out something, albeit not very fancy.

So here we go. Some things that have helped me stay afloat through especially hard months in Depression Town. I hope it helps someone. 

I learned a long time ago that taking a particular dose of a particular anti-depressant helped me to feel a certain way. It means I don’t laugh really hard like I used to. This also means I don’t cry at the drop of a hat like I used to. I take my pill every day and I may very well take it for the rest of my life. Oh no, aren’t you afraid of being dependent on a chemical? I am afraid of a heapton of things in this world. Many are beyond my control. Many exist as figments of my imagination. Many exist well beyond the horizon line of my lifetime. I can’t be preoccupied with them. I take each day as it comes. That’s what effectively living with depression looks like to me. Taking my prescribed dosage and being thankful for healthcare coverage and not worrying about how many more days I will need to keep doing the same–that’s my jam. 

The mascot pup after a bath 1943

I am not a morning person by nature. I often take hours to fall asleep at night and oftentimes I don’t stay asleep. Every semester, I teach an 8 a.m. class. When a colleague evaluated my teaching last semester, she said, “I can tell you’re not a morning person but you do a really good job of trying to pretend you are.” I laughed. Just because we have depression doesn’t mean we can all have a schedule that is favorable. Still, I have learned to fake only what is necessary. I wouldn’t recommend faking pleasure or friendship or happiness. I am willing to put a brave face forward in my early classes, though, because it only requires that I show up, prepared and ready to face the day, and I can tell that most of my students are trying to do the same. We are in the early morning struggle together.

Image from page 385 of "Abraham Lincoln and the battles of the Civil War" (1887)

I keep my life very simple, especially in the winters. I rarely say YES to things, and prefer a month of lame weekends to busy ones. I don’t like to dread activities that should otherwise be fun. I have learned which friends will take things personally and which friends are safe to tell that I really don’t feel up to things right now. Some friends will hold it against you and others will totally understand that you just feel overwhelmed by social expectations but look forward to seeing them when you’re feeling better.

The hardest thing I have found about living with depression is still being present for my hubby and kids. They may ask so little of me, e.g. to read a book to them or listen to a story and yet Depression, liar of liars, will trick my mind into thinking it’s a huge mountain to climb. The best way I have learned to be present is to be honest right out of the gate. To say to my kids almost immediately when I pick them up from school: Mommy is having a hard day. Do you ever feel like you just want to watch TV and not talk to anyone? That’s how Mommy feels today. My kids are remarkably accommodating when I let them know that I am wearing my grumpy pants and it’s not because of anything they have done. My husband is a living saint where depression is concerned and gets it and doesn’t hold it against me and makes me salads without asking. Praises be.

To that end, the final strategy I’ve learned to help immensely when I feel depression cloaking me is to practice radical self-care. I am uncompromising when it comes to eating healthfully and exercising just about every day. Depression will tell me that I deserve to eat a pan of Rice Krispie treats for dinner and be a wicked slob. Fast forward to when I am so much worse off and feeling all frumpalump and really? No, Depression. You may win the battle of the couch potatoes but this yoga mat is not your battleground. Move along.

Physical Culture Class, 1934

I am thankful for my faith and for my friends and family who have loved me through some rocky times. Depression can be a badge and a burden but it can also be the reason that blessings flood us when we need it most. Sending courage to all the depression warriors out there, and those who love them. <3

Continue Reading

Whitey, Noise: On #BlackMass and our own bully

Lovey and I ran away from home on Saturday night. The nice neighbor couchsat while our littles slept sweet melatonin-infused dreams. We went to go see “Black Mass,” which is the opposite of a sweet melatonin-infused dream, but which might be core curriculum for anyone who’s ever lived in Boston.

Looking Toward Copley Square from Pier 4, South Boston, in the Early Morning. John Hancock Building, with Boarded Windows, in Rear 05/1973Even if you have no investment in the stories of Boston boys-turned-gangsters from around the way, Johnny Depp’s performance is eerily good. I pretty much agree with everything Ty Burr wrote about the film, as I generally think he gets it so right. A major focus of Burr’s review which was especially sensitive to the families of Whitey’s murder victims is on the villainous portrayal of Whitey Bulger. His character in the film is not intended to be liked. He is to be feared, foiled with his statesman brother, aligned with his boyhood friend who became his FBI liaison.

The villain that is James Whitey Bulger, whether rotting in prison in real life or portrayed on a silver screen, is sometimes easier for me to confront than the enemy that lives with me. It is easier for me to vilify someone whom I will never meet and expect fair punishment for the crimes committed than the enemy I live with everyday. The voice of the enemy that whispers often enough to me, You are so far from the mark, girl. You haven’t come close to your potential. No wonder you are unloved and uninvited. I have heard the lies that gangster spits long enough to recognize a bully. But because I’ve lived with this bully so long, I sometimes assume its permanence. When I skip my medication for a couple of days, the voice becomes louder to the point of deafening. When I stop recognizing the bully for what it is, I slide into some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, as if the lies are a defense for me, an excuse for self-loathing. It’s been some years since suicide ideation was a part of my daily life and I’m grateful. But it doesn’t mean the villain isn’t lurking, stashing its venom behind the corners of my mind that I prefer not to visit. Geo. Lurich  (LOC)

A few months ago, I started working on some strength-training goals. Nothing too crazy, just a plan that an online trainer works out for me that is easy for me to follow. It’s amazing what a difference having something spelled out like a recipe will do for one’s fortitude. If I know what to do, what order to do it in, how to lift it and lunge it, and how many times, I can follow along and go hard with it. I still mostly look the same but I’m stronger and I realize that when I’m stronger, I’m less susceptible to listen to the lying liar. I’m sorry, I just lifted my kids’ combined bodyweight, so that verse doesn’t ring true, anymore. I don’t talk much about the enemy that performs on the stage of my mind wearing the costume of generalized anxiety/depression.  When I do, I find that I’m not so alone, though. “You’re too fly for that noise,” my friend Trish once told me. And she’s right. We all are–too fly to believe that the enemy that whispers lies about who we are and how we were made for eternity should be put away for a life sentence.

Continue Reading

Remembering Chuck

Ten years ago, I was a Resident Director in a freshman building. I was a second semester senior, working on my thesis, tickled to be living in a residence hall with mostly first-year students. They kept the quintessential college experience alive for me: the late nights, the cram sessions, the homesickness, the smells of chicken wings and stale beer.

I was months away from graduation and the excitement was palpable. I couldn’t wait to earn that rightful sheepskin, spend the summer traveling, and then move to Boston to be with my boyfriend and live a fabulously urbane grown-up life!

But I had to get through the winter first. The winter in Northwest Pennsylvania is seemingly interminable and gray and bitter and prompted me to buy a sunlamp that I used constantly.

That winter of 2002 was especially heavy. My sunlamp was always on.

***

Chuck lived in a fraternity house off-campus. We knew of each other as we had many people in common and were both active in the Poli Sci department. Two of his fraternity brothers Jerry and Jeff were on staff with me in the freshman dorm.

My college boyfriend was one of Chuck’s RAs. We would see him around campus and Chuck always had a quick smile and a witty aside for us. He was brilliant, an Adonis. He would have become a remarkable lawyer, offering a voice to the marginalized with his splendid writing and speaking abilities.

Chuck did not survive the winter. On February 11, 2002, he took his own life. Jerry and Jeff came to my room and we sat, angry and begging for the hands of time to reverse. Our boss Josh stood and listened and made us all feel heard.

Ten years have passed and the pain and the ache and the loss is still acute. I trace back over the court case that ensued following Chuck’s death. I examine the evidence like an archaeologist trying to piece together clues of how the structure of a promising young man’s life, once in tact, tumbled and became buried. I think of his family and wonder how they have processed the pain. I think about the paralysis I would feel for the rest of my days if the same happened to one of my children.

***

I was not a close friend of Chuck’s but my life was irreversibly changed by his death.

As someone who has suffered from major depression, I do not hesitate to advocate for others who suffer similarly. If I am having a hard time in mental health land, I will not send you a postcard, “All’s sunny and well–wish you were here!” If you ask, I will tell you the medications I have taken and continue to take. I will tell you the dosage. I can share my experiences with months-long insomnia when I was a sophomore in college that were punctuated by several weekends in which I spent hours holding my mother captive to my tears. I have had racing thoughts and wondered if the pain I had been feeling for a year would ever EVER fade. I celebrate the fact that the people around me implemented man-on-man defense at certain times and implemented a serious time-out on the court. For all these reasons, I refuse to perpetuate the stigma associated with mental illnesses and the therapies that treat them.

I now teach college students, and by virtue of being an employee of a church, I consider myself a part of a ministry. I see many young people at their best and brightest. I see some at their most disaffected, their most despondent, on the worst days of their lives.

I pray with them and I pray for them. When my students are not in class, I fret and I pester them. I make a nuisance of myself and I do not apologize. I refer students to the counseling center and if they don’t make contact I do it again.

I married that college boyfriend, a mental health therapist. We both share singular ministries that involve direct service to people.

I do not believe that anyone is beyond help, that any person is beyond redemption. I believe our world is a widespread construction zone but I do not believe that God is powerless to save us from it. He often places people in our path to help save us from ourselves and our own demons. I wish so much that Chuck and countless others could have been in a place to receive this help. I know this is not always possible, but I pray that our world would continue to increase its value and awareness for the importance of sound mental health.

I will try mightily to do my part in making this so. Of course, I am only one person. But so, too, was Chuck.

Continue Reading