Life with chronic illness is an ongoing tango with a dance partner you didn’t choose.
Day in, day out, you fight to lead and reclaim your self from an entity constantly attempting to curtail your agency, your intellectual independence, your freedom.
Today, depression is kicking me in the shins, stepping on my toes, and throwing me around the dance floor. What usually is a reluctant dance has turned into full body combat because it is one of those days when everything catches up with you, all at once.
In my case, everything is a lot splattered over two continents besides depression. In fact, there’s so much to deal with it frequently eclipses my illness as I’m forced to compartmentalize everything to keep going. My brain is one of those old library card catalogs with lots of small drawers stuffed with a multitude of reference cards, one for each issue requiring urgent attention.
How do I remain present for my parents as my stepmom navigates the increasingly distressing reality of Stage IV cancer treatment? How do I protect my writing voice and modest livelihood? How do I secure more work?
How do I keep healthy so I can do it all? How do I sleep? How do I increase my income? How do I do more? How do I nurture fledgling alliances and friendships when I have so little time? How do I deal with my shattered personal life? How do I even begin to transcend the mess?
How, how, how?
I just get on with it, or rather, I was getting on with it until depression swooped in again and started outlining the reasons why none of the above will ever work.
Depression can be loud.
So loud you can’t hear yourself thinking anymore as it hijacks your internal dialogue, distorting everything.
After losing five years to major depressive disorder, I’ve learned to identify patterns. My illness is predictable and reactive. While challenges and projects have always motivated me, depression keeps trying to corrupt my thought process. The illness has one goal, to defeat me. It works in insidious ways, by trying to convince me none of the ideas or plans I might come up with are workable or have any more value than I do.
Erosion of the self is a feature of depression, and it can lead to erasure in the worst cases.
But since coming back to Europe, I’ve been adding little extra bits of self, such as Portuguese, an intrinsic part of my identity I had neglected for 7 years. As a result, I’m more complete than I’ve been in a long time. But I’m still not quite back to the person I once was, back when I had no idea what depression could do.
As I continue to try and find my bearings in ever-shifting circumstances, depression is the ruthless handler recalling me.
For over five years, illness was the only bearing I had, the very thing that didn’t change.
You are the boss of you.
When I come close to surrendering to despondency and self-doubt, I look to my stepmom for strength. She is going through hell with grace and the kind of defiant spirit that’s always carried her during a very difficult life.
Yes, life hurts and it’s more painful for some of us than for others. And yet, we do have it in ourselves to endure and overcome. We do not have to resign ourselves to the limitations imposed by illness or hardship, we can seek solutions and apply them. As long as we’re alive, we can change, we can grow, we can evolve.
Adopting a perspective other than the one enforced by depression is the hardest part.
No, you’re not incapable, the illness just wants you to believe so. No, your life isn’t over, the illness just wants to kill you. Depression lies, that’s how it operates, that’s how it undermines you.
Once you understand and accept this, you’re in a position to call out and identify every single lie and push back against it.
Depression will smother you but only if you let it.
It wants you to feel helpless and you very likely do, on the regular, but it’s an illusion. No matter how vicious your particular brand of depression, you’ve survived it so far and weathered the pain of being.
It thus stands to reason that you can do more of the same. You’re never as helpless as the disease makes you feel, even at your weakest. Every day that you manage to keep going is a small victory.
As depression attempts to tighten its grip on my psyche, the above is what I’m trying to remember. And because it wasn’t quite registering, I figured a print pep talk might be in order, for you and me both.
Depression is an isolating disease that makes you develop weird coping mechanisms. One of mine is exposing its fallacies in print to outsmart my wonky brain.
Today wasn’t a good day but today is also finite. When tomorrow comes, seek solace in the fact that you fought.
And you won.
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