So guess what? I have depression. Sometimes I have anxiety too. I have faced a variety of diagnoses: dysthymia, depression, anxiety, ante/post-partum depression. Yup, a whole lot of this is fucking terrible. Very likely, my depressive tendencies were developed when I was young, growing up in a family where stress hung in the corners and anxiety punctuated our movements and interactions. No one in the family got out of there without at least one DSM diagnosis.
Fast forward to my adult life, married with two small children. I had seen other professional-moms struggle to make a work-life balance happen, and seen both sides of their lives suffer because of it. I thought I was making the right choice by staying home. I started a company. Company went bust. I started a writing career, writing primarily for an American political blog. The 2016 election was the ugliest in memory, and I felt like I was right in the thick of it. Feeling battered from both sides-- Bernie Bros with unacknowledged mysogyny issues and Trump supporters with open mysogyny issues.
(At this point, I acknowledge that I am white, and my experience reflects that. We are in a time when our bodies are the territory over which political battles are fought, and white bodies are immune from most of it. Many bodies of colour are seen as collateral damage, and are imprisoned and killed with political impunity. I acknowledge this discrepancy in lived experience, and how it has affected my life. As a white Canadian, I have access to free, high-quality mental health support, and I am grateful for this privilege.)
My first child is high-needs, runs away, and is emotionally dysregulated. But at least she slept nights. Then our #2 came along. She is a bright beam of sunshine-- happy and easygoing, but she woke up an average of six (SIX!) times a night throughout her first year of life. Her first 6-hour-straight night happened at 14 months, although even then the majority of nights even in her second year involved between two and six wakeups, for which I was primarily responsible. I sunk deeper and deeper into myself, into an endless cycle of attempting to sleep and being woken up by a crying child, then starting all over again.
By the winter when my second child turned 2, my sleep-wake cycle was so off-kilter that it would take hours for me to fall asleep, only to be awakened. By the summer, I wasn't sleeping at all. I hardly ate. I would head to bed (the couch downstairs, because I didn't want to keep my husband awake with my lack of sleep), shaking, with a pile of books, and read through them all before slumber took over, if at all. I spent periods of hours at a time crying and curled in a ball, shaking, in the darkened family room, attempting to read humour books to ease my diseased spirit. The thought of night or bedtime made me shake with terror. My fight-or-flight instinct was constant, and my body trembled constantly.
One night, at 2 in the morning, I fell into wordless, thoughtless panic. My body shaking and barely able to control my movements. Seeing no other option, I woke my husband up, then I called my mom to pick me up. I didn't know what to do, but I figured that being away from my family would help me be able to rest. I spent about five days at my parents' house, at which point I was really no better off. I decided to go back home and try to sort myself out from there.
So, phew! You still with me? If you're still with me, give yourself a pat on the back! This is heavy stuff. I suspect that, if you're still with me, you've either experienced something similar to this, or you love someone who has. If neither of these applies to you, a special kudos for engaging with mental illness when you don't have to.
As you can tell from the fact that I'm writing this now, I survived. As you can tell from the fact that I am cogent and able to write about my experiences, I am healthy(-ish). If you were to see me on any given day, you would have no idea that this is my story.
Here are 7 things that helped me out of a nearly-life-ending depressive episode:
1. A Caring Doctor
If you clicked on this article hoping for an “all natural” solution to depression, or some mantra or yoga move that would bring instant joy, sorry to disappoint. The first thing I did that made any difference to my mental status was to see my doctor, and to get a prescription for antidepressants. Sorry. I know that's not what you wanted to hear. We tried a few different combinations until we found one that worked. I take a low-dose antidepressant in the morning, and a medium dose of a different med at bedtime. The bedtime one gave me a ridonculous appetite at first, and I gained about 50 pounds (and my mental-health-body-love-fatness journey has been a rocky road, for sure-- that story is to come), but at least I could sleep.
Being a member of a socialist-godless-pinko-commie-frozen-north country with socialised medicine, I was also able to see a psychiatrist for free (although I had to wait about six months, so a caring GP was absolutely necessary as a first-response). The psychiatrist was lovely; a tall, elegant Indian woman with a slight lisp and a cheery smile. I had been on my meds for a few months by the time I saw her. She asked for a brief history, and we machine-gunned through my messed up childhood and history with depression, all the way up to my recent breakdown (I had alotted only an hour for what was supposed to be a 90 minute session, so we had to go fast!). At the end, she reviewed my doctor's referral including the meds and dosages. I asked when she thought I would be able to go off meds. She looked at me and said, “AJ, you have had four serious depressive episodes in your life so far. You are a bright young woman with a chronic medical condition. The world needs to hear what you have to say, and you need to be healthy enough to say it.”
I had never seen myself that way. I had always seen myself as a burden; a fuck-up; a weight for society to bear. I never thought of myself as capable, but hindered. And I had certainly never thought of meds as the thing that would be the difference between killing myself and living a productive life. I had figured it would be easier for everyone if I got myself out of the way. The psychiatrist's description of me as a bright young woman dimmed under a bushel challenged everything I thought about myself, and about my depression.
There is a lot of stigma around mental illness, mental health, and psychotropic meds. Most people with mental illness experience internalised stigma about their own illnesses and prognoses. This can often interfere with receiving caring and competent medical help.
I would not be as healthy as I am had it not been for my GP (a wonderful man who'd been my doc for almost a decade), and for the psychiatrist seeing me as a whole person, and treating me as competent, rather than diseased. I started to be able to see myself through their eyes. Clouds fell away from the sun, and I could see the light once again. I could begin to truly heal.
2. Loved Ones Who Held Space With Me
The term “holding space” is credited to Heather Plett, a relative of mine (second cousin, maybe?) in her wonderfully loving blog post. I am changing her usage slightly to “holding space with” rather than “holding space for,” to make it more active on my part.
My exhausted body and mind prevented me from engaging socially, but I liked having people around who wanted to be around me. It was nice to sit with someone. Even when my mind was circling in on itself, cannibalising itself, torturing itself, knowing that I was sitting with another person helped me get closer toward believing I was truly safe and could relax my mental vigilance.
Part of the process by which stigma is created around mental illness is the discomfort others experience with folks with mental illness. Should they talk to them? Not talk? Mention the mental illness? Should they pretend that it doesn't exist? Should they make a joke, or would that be taboo? How do they make the person feel better, without making things worse?
These are legitimate concerns, although they don't need to take up too much space. Don't know how to help? Ask. Be near. Listen. Tell the person how much they mean to you. Your presence means the world to them as they face an illness that, by its nature, precludes and prevents the person from getting the help they need.
I was so blessed to have people to hold space with me. Sometimes two people sitting together in silence can feel like an army of support.
Okay, so here's where it starts to get super-cheesy (we all love cheese, don't we? No lactose intolerance here!). When I was at rock-bottom at my parents' place, without any purpose or desire to continue living, I had to fill up my time with something. I found this cool show on Netflix that combines horror, reality TV, and a high-energy game show format. Each episode, contestants rode on the “hellevator” and performed a series of horror-tastic challenges in order to win money. As an actor, I loved the staged gore and terrifying props; as a person experiencing soul-crushing anxiety, it felt like a relief to have direction for my constant terror. It felt wonderful to experience fear as an approximation of how healthy people experience fear. The contestants' screams and horrified outbursts amused me and somehow made me hope that someday I, too, would only be afraid of leftover WWII mutant man-beasts, and tiny triplets disfigured by a fire.
I have watched the series several times since, and each time I see it, it reminds me that life is worth living. I can't exactly articulate why-- there is a vivaciousness in the horror genre that seems somehow... life-affirming. When the horror is over, and the folks onscreen regroup, there is a moment of joyful cathartic release. When Carey Elwes saws off his leg and stumbles out of the room, our spirits come alive. When the final bloody piece of the puzzle fits perfectly into place, it is a single moment of relief from constant dread. You feel like you can make it. Horror is, at its heart, about the triumph of hope through terrible misery.
4. Going Back To Work & Putting My Kids in Full-Time Care
There was really no two-ways around it. I needed time away from my children. I needed to miss them. I needed to be an autonomous human person without tiny people clinging to me at my every move. From there, I worked backward. The only way I could take a break from my kids was if I paid someone to care for them. The only way I could pay for someone to care for them was to return to work full-time. I am lucky enough to have a professional career waiting for me. I applied and started a full-time job in the new year.
I was terrified and exhausted. I had no idea how I would be able to function working full-time when I could barely keep myself going. I was still struggling to sleep, so I made a series of rules for myself. Less than four hours of sleep meant that I would call in sick, as I didn't feel comfortable driving across town (oh yeah, the school was like 50 minutes away from my house). More than four meant that I'd go in, but would try to be kind to myself and not expect a perfect performance.
I began sleeping more and more. My job began to feel more comfortable. I was never what you could call “happy” there, but what had felt like a death march each day was starting to feel more free. I came home and cried all evening some days, then fell asleep and started all over again. But I made it. Now I have a different job, closer to home. There are still days and weeks that are hella-stresful, but I am getting better at enjoying my life, and about being confident in myself.
I had to re-learn how to enjoy being with my kids, after my episode. Life with two small children is still hard, but I am starting to see how some parents talk about being so blessed to have their children. I'm not #blessed yet, but I can see my way towards genuinely enjoying my beautiful girls.
Not to mention that my kids deserve to be cared for by someone who wants to care for them. They didn't deserve to be left alone with me in my misery. They didn't ask for this.
I needed to seriously re-frame my thinking about what was best for my children. Mothers are force-fed the notion that they are the best thing for their children, from the first announcement of “Breast is Best,” to the scornful twist of the lips in response to a mother announcing that she will be returning to work. Women are still responsible for the lion's share of childcare, even when both spouses in a hetero marriage work the same number of hours. Sometimes what's best for your children is for their mother to take a fucking breather, and let someone else pick up the slack.
Double-duh, right? I get it, seems obvious. But for real, had I had a serious discussion with my husband about how I need to get a solid eight hours even once a week when our second was a wee mite, the situation may not have built up to the horror that it became.
I found a fabulous free white noise app that helped dampen the internal monologue that replayed endlessly. I started taking a nightly bath around 8p, taking my evening pills before I stepped into the warm water, allowing my body to relax (some nights, my body and mind would cooperate-- other nights, it didn't work despite my best efforts, and I was a wreck heading to bed). My doctor prescribed me some Z-drugs for very occasional use, when my body absolutely refused sleep and I needed to get my rest. Those pills were marvelous for a one- or two-night dry spell, to get me back on track. (I never experienced this effect, but they are considered to be SUPER-addictive and can fuck up your liver, not to mention that in time, you may not be able to sleep without them, and you may experience big withdrawal side effects. So don't rely on them for any longer than you absolutely need to, but they can fore sure help in a pinch.)
Once I was sleeping regularly, I started being able to see colour again; I started to be able to laugh and feel my body relaxing. I could look at a bed without feeling the cold clench of fear grip my heart.
Yup, I'm going there. Meditation was another way that I used up my time while I was non-functional. I found Chel Hamilton's Meditation Minis podcast on Spotify. She is a hypnotic meditation teacher, and I enjoyed her straight-talk and lack of mumbo-jumbo cultural appropriation bullshit that can sometimes accompany discussions of meditation and mindfulness. It was such an immense relief to sit in my mind and my body without feeling the creeping despair, even for a few minutes. Those few minutes at a time kept me going, gave me hope.
I read The Mindful Way Through Depression cover-to-cover, and tried to apply as many of the techniques as I could. I took the heart the warning that the techniques work best for folks who are already in a stable place mentally, so I just tried to do what I was able to do. The audio CD helped a ton as well.
Now, I tend not to do the guided meditations; I tend to just want to sit in silence for a period. I feel my body and let my mind fall into relaxation. I acknowledge thoughts as they come in, then let them go. If it doesn't work for me in the moment, I try for a while, then let it go and do something else. I would like to aim for 10 minutes a night, but I am not there yet.
7. Christmas Baking
While I was in the bath one evening, one of my friends dropped off a giant tin of fresh baking. My husband completely didn't recognise her, as she had recently dyed herself and, being her understated self, she didn't stay to chat-- she just dropped off the baking and disappeared back into the night. It is still one of my fondest memories-- my husband walking into the bathroom and said, “Um... Some person brought you these,” thrusting the huge tin into my hands. Eventually I figured it out and thanked her.
It was such a generous gesture, and I was so taken aback that a friend would take that much time and energy for me (and butter ain't cheap either!). It made my day to realise how much that friend cared.
I know that processed carbs and sugar are not ideal for mood stabilisation, but it sure helped to have a bowl-full of shortbread, snickerdoodles, and chocolate haystack cookies. Those small clusters of sugar and fat tasted like warmth, like caring, like hope. It helped to have something that I knew I would enjoy, and it was a way to start feeling pleasure in my body again. Obviously, this holiday season, I'm going to be scaling back on the holiday eats, but I know that they helped me get through a tough time.
There is some evidence that chewing is linked to an increase in mood, and an increase in brain function. It could be that oral activity is a primal act (that's what she said!), so it may not just be the powdered sugar and crunchy caramel that make life better-- it's the biting, chewing, and sucking that makes the brain happy. Think of how many self-soothing acts involve the mouth: biting your lip, sucking your thumb, chewing your nails-- some folks even chew the front of their shirt or their jacket sleeves. I know this was a major contributor to my weight gain, but it helped me get through.
Weird as it sounds, mouths are important when it comes to mental health. And sometimes eating those ooey gooey chocolates is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Putting It All Together
So here I am. I am here, right now. I am here, and my heart is open. My body is still-- I'm not shaking. I sleep at nighttime, and I am awake and energetic during the day. I have a job that I enjoy, and I am a present parent. I struggle daily, but not hourly. I can live a functional life and am not limited by my mental illness. It's not perfect, but I'll take it.
I am starting to see where I end, and where the depression begins. It is a part of me, but I am not defined by it. Unfortunately, the path back from the brink is a lonely one without a map. If you are struggling with depression, please know that this is a journey worth taking, and there is a space for you in the sunshine.
Image courtesy of julien haler via flickr, available under an Attribution 2.0 license.
AJ: coffee drinker, wordsmith, maker of homemade soup, and giver of "all better" kisses. Would-be runner of marathons; in love with Dan Savage and Freddie Mercury.