When everything slowed down, you began taking stock of the little things and decided there and then they’d carry you.
In an act of counterintuitive defiance, you committed to joy in public, suspecting it may require supernatural storytelling abilities to flip hurdles into something more hopeful. Again, you decided there and then hurdles would become stepping stones toward a more capable, more compassionate, more caring you.
Because you’re stubborn.
Pain is a path; you didn’t choose it but you’re on it along with 8 billion other humans. Every single one of us is coming up with ways to cope as we go along.
You’re a survival veteran of sorts — as is the case with many whose brain can turn into a mortal enemy when under extreme pressure — but it doesn’t make the current state of affairs any less confusing. On the one hand, not leaving home for weeks on end is already intimately familiar to you; on the other, when the place you call home is less than comfortable, it takes its toll on your physical and mental health after a while, exacerbating chronic depression.
You hide your brittleness behind a competent exterior so as not to be a bother.
Grin and bear it.
Still, for all the squalor of your surroundings, you have a home, at least for now, which is a lot more than many. You decide to make the best of it although it’s making you increasingly unwell and, at times, distraught, too.
What to do when your body betrays your mind? What to do when your first bathroom visit of the day finds you in spontaneous floods of tears flowing from a place you cannot even put your finger on? This is how you start every day now, eyes and bladder perfectly synchronized.
Your resolve to soldier on and your decision to hunt down joy seem to protect you most of the time, but when they fail, they fail spectacularly. All you have to show for them is constant exhaustion made worse by your living conditions, body aches so relentless the only place you feel vaguely better is under the shower.
You long for respite, relief, and rest.
But they remain resolutely out of reach. Instead, you notice brown stains on the ceiling and a hairline crack that runs all the way across the living room; the mere thought of having to get the building super to come and look at it gives you hives. You’ll need to warn the upstairs neighbors, in whose apartment the problem originated and the inconvenience to them and their new kitten will be immense, greater than to you.
But the place you call home feels like punishment, a doghouse of searing shame that makes you feel more canine than human, minus the walkies. You play fetch, too, but with hope instead of a ball.
To preserve a modicum of dignity, you’d prefer not to let anyone see how you live.
Love is a squeaky toy you drool over daily while daydreaming about a gentler future. You’ve lived like this for so long it’s almost chewed to a pulp by now.
It still informs everything you do.
But the greater ease you’ve been toiling relentlessly to build is now a shape-shifting waste water fresco redesigning your ceiling one flush at a time. You wonder whether this may be a good excuse to get out of the rental contract soon without a penalty and move to a place where the ceiling doesn’t ooze. Alas, this hinges on the one thing this household doesn’t have at the moment: job security.
You’re a freelancer whose wages precariousness pays.
And yet, you find yourself giggling at the impromptu ‘Shitstine Chapel’ above your head while nurturing the secret hope the ceiling might cave in, thus forcing relocation.
If it doesn’t kill you first, in which case relocation will happen underground.
For now, you experience a strong kinship with Vitalstatistix, the Gaul village chief whose greatest fear was that the sky may fall on his head at any time.
“Laughter stimulates the body’s natural painkillers and ‘feel good’ enhancers, known as endorphins, helping relieve stress and heal the body,” write Allan and Barbara Pease in The Definitive Book of Body Language.
And you know this instinctively.
Your body aches, your mind rebels, and your inner clown takes charge.
You never stifle laughs, those precious, random injections of joy that have the power to dispel all hardships.
So you cherish the moment, hugging it close and letting it swaddle you in reassurance; it’s proof you still have reserves of emergency ‘can do’ in there somewhere. Your brain may be a tetchy curmudgeon plotting to kill you but it still prizes humor as the antidote to self-sabotage.
The love that animates you is as sunny as it stormy, a freak inner weather phenomenon squeezing your heart so tight you often fear it might decide to call it quits with one polite pop, exploding from the hypertensive stress that has it playing Gangnam Style at random.
Day in, day out, your mind does battle with your heart and sometimes, they disagree so violently you see the life you worked so hard to nurture, one word at a time, unravel before your eyes.
And it is unbearable and nigh on impossible to navigate without extensive collateral damage.
The clash scrambles your compass and sends you into a blind panic, like a scared dog growling and foaming at the mouth in a primal act of self-preservation.
But you don’t bite, you’re just terrified of sinking again and not having the energy to stamp our feet against rock bottom so you can bob back up to the surface.
The pandemic makes everything appear more tentative than ever so you try and steady yourself with what matters most, whatever it takes. Unfortunately, depression is impenetrable to others and communicating when in the throes of distress a crapshoot. Worse, you don’t always know how to ask for help either.
Vulnerability takes trust.
You have to trust others won’t reject you when you pluck up the courage to open up; you also have to trust yourself to overcome fear of rejection so you can open up. Trust is a double-edged sword and you’ve got the cut marks to prove it. Not all of them have healed, some of them are gaping wounds at risk of infection.
But the sword is yours and you’d sooner impale yourself on it than hurt anyone else.
At this point, you need to sheath the sword but even with the best will in the world, it may not be enough. When you’re too cash-strapped to get help — as is often the case in the United States — you bootstrap any way you can, fighting what, on the darkest days, looks like a losing battle.
Your only goal is to keep yourself alive until the next morning without hurting yourself or anyone else.
Even if it feels like someone is ignoring you, consider empathy overload that triggers self-protection of the fight or flight kind.
They could be a Highly Sensitive Person, a term coined by psychologist Dr Elaine Aron. Her work could shed some light about what’s going on with you or those around you. According to the research she carried out with her husband — Dr Arthur Aron — HSPs make up between 15 and 20 percent of the population.
An HSP is a human who has an acute responsiveness to stimuli, among which pain. An HSP overwhelmed by empathy may feel that what’s happening to you is also happening to them. Of course you don’t want that but it still happens on occasion.
Chronic depression doesn’t preclude self-awareness. You know that, in the eyes of some, it makes you dangerous — or even impossible — to love.
When depression’s biggest lie intersects with self-stigma, you’re guaranteed a bad brain day.
So others can offer you a hand to hold without running the risk of crashing with you, make it visible with simple words. Maybe find a code phrase that is shorthand for the kind of distress you’re going through without having to unpack the whole thing.
That way there will be no crash for anyone, only manageable turbulences.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.