Please believe me when I say this is the hardest thing I’ve done. Typing this sentence might as well be lifting a boulder, and the next could be even heavier. Before this, the hardest thing I’d done was say “good morning” to co-workers, and before that, it was simply getting out of bed.
Just about the only thing I find easy is going to bed, but sleeping is a different story. Every night I lie down, unsure if I’ll fall asleep within seconds and wake what seems like moments later, swatting aimlessly at my alarm clock, or if I’ll remain awake, tired beyond belief but some mysterious finger in the dyke preventing a flood of sleep from washing over me.
I’m one of the approximately 21 million people in the United States who suffer from major depression. Let me tell you, it’s kind of a bummer. Lying awake at night might sound terrible, but it’s the easiest thing in the world compared to writing a sentence, saying “hello”, smiling. I live each day negotiating a watery fog, often unsure what people tell me, confused about what comes next, and desperate for the energy to participate in the world.
This isn’t an essay asking for sympathy; receiving pity from others would only make me feel worse. Besides, as a function of suffering from depression, I’m convinced nobody is reading this, that nobody is going to read this. This essay is for me. Only by engaging and grappling with this disease in words and in actions can I ever hope to pin it to the ground.
What are the signs and symptoms of depression? They vary, and can sometimes contradict each other: unrelenting sadness, anxiety or emptiness; increased appetite or decreased appetite; drowsiness and excessive sleep or insomnia; irritability, guilt, and feelings of helplessness; a lack of interest in the things that once brought joy. When you’re depressed, victories taste like ash, and mistakes feel like an anvil dropped on your ego. In your mind, you are as Wile E. Coyote: all your efforts are futile, all designs destined to blow up beneath you. Happy people mystify you and make you feel bad for not being happy. Successful people confound you and remind you of your lack of success. Food tastes like nothing, and colors recede. All your limbs feel wooden, your feet like cast lead. Good times.
Years ago, my dad told me that the little man in his head is the same as when he was a boy. As a metaphor, I’d never really considered that before, but couldn’t remember a time when the little man in my head wasn’t telling me what I was doing wrong, where I fell short, what I’d never be. He’s kind of a prick, that little guy. I’d love to wring his neck.
You’re probably hollering about help by this point. Yes, depression is highly treatable. Antidepressants have come a long way in the past forty years, and there are varieties to cover the many different shades of melancholy. Awareness in the medical community has never been higher, and the combination of a prescription antidepressant, talk therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy have proven extremely effective in treating all but the most severe depression. Even electroconvulsive therapy, once associated with the dark medical practices of the last century, has shown incredible promise in providing relief. Ongoing research at the NIH seeks to hone this treatment.
I’ve had treatment, and it certainly made a difference. Antidepressants helped lift me out of the worst of the quagmire, and I’ve taken the admonition for regular exercise to heart; I commute and run errands by bike year-round, which absolutely makes a difference. The only time the fog ever truly lifts is when I’m on my bike, regardless if there’s sunshine or a snowstorm.
Frustrated by the side effects of my prescription, I stopped taking it 18 months ago. I felt better then, and I still feel better than the darkest days. I made a conscious effort to cut back on alcohol (no small task, being a homebrewer), and continued biking. And yet this feeling persists, this lingering dread and exhaustion.
There’s no real conclusion to this story. I’ve been trying to shout down that little man in my head my whole life, and I don’t see that ever changing. I have a disease, I know what I’m up against, and there’s nothing to do but keep putting up that energy time after time. I still feel overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted, but I have hope. Someday, there will come an easy sentence.