On Being Held Hostage by Depression

How to lose five years of your life

Depressionland wasn’t on my travel itinerary.

Despite the apparent absence of bumps in the wide open road — I’ve just gotten married and immigrated to the United States, a brand new life beckons — I stall. While the U.S. government processes my application for permanent residency, the fuel behind two decades of peripatetic living mysteriously evaporates. I run out of resilience, perhaps because it suddenly becomes redundant.

As long as my life was a shit show, I coped. When it improves —with love, cats, and set geographic coordinates — I wilt. Instead of using this pause to catch my breath, shed baggage, and look forward, I start taking stock. One by one, I pick up every single suitcase on the failure carousel.

And I go through it, meticulously.

After clearing customs I look up and realize I’ve landed in Depressionland.

I’m a journalist with a new byline and no copy, a tour director without passengers. Welcome to the place where dreams dissolve and life runs out of time!

Of course, Depressionland doesn’t officially exist. Invisible, everywhere and nowhere at once, it lies unmarked on maps, its name either unspoken or shrouded in an amalgam of shame, distrust, and sometimes ridicule.

Although you’re surrounded by a diverse population of like-minded humans as big as the whole of North America, Depressionland isn’t an aspirational destination. No visitor ever feels the urge to send a “Wish you were here” postcard home.

With gritted teeth, I tell myself this is only a layover.

Almost five years later, here I am.

Still stranded. In Depressionland, time is a fiction without clocks. Past and present blend, there’s no hint of the future, I’m a shut-in. The big picture — the world and my place in it — is always blurred, when I manage to catch a glimpse of it at all.

In Depressionland, I’ve partly forgotten who I am. I haven’t even got a clue how to be anymore, how to be among others, how to navigate the murky waters of meatspace. Every time a grocery store cashier chirps “Hey, how are you today?”, I stuff down the nauseous urge to reply that I have no idea how this miracle of existence is even possible. I am, despite myself. But no one needs or wants to know that so I say nothing.

Online, I’m an intermittent cat signal, aptly named.

It’s a stark departure from coming up to strangers and asking about their life and dreams so I can share them with the world in print. It’s a change from having fifty pairs of eyeballs fresh off a transatlantic flight trained onto my person as I crack jokes into a tour bus microphone. Depression has disappeared me as a person, a professional, a wife, a community member.

Because I entered Depressionland at about the time I arrived in America, I don’t have much of a local social circle to answer to. There’s no one to corral my inadequacies and frail mental state into occasions of forced merriment and interaction. This loneliness is a good thing. I can deal with letting myself down, but failing others is a responsibility I’m ill-equipped to assume.

And yet, in civic terms, I’ve spent almost five years playing hooky from life. I’ve all but abdicated pulling my weight, adding value, giving back.

In a competitive, capitalistic society where a dollar amount is the only acceptable metric of human worth, depression has canceled me out.

Worse than an under-achiever, I’ve become a zero achiever. Or a zero even, as I produce nothing. For a long time, the only thing keeping me alive is the knowledge my household won’t be able to afford a funeral. I’m a burden, I’m loath to impose, and yet I stay alive because it’s cheaper than a one-off massive, unplanned expense.

Yes, my brain is a destructive asshole. But it’s the only brain I’ve got. No matter how little I strive to consume, shelter, utilities, health insurance, food, and transportation still have to be paid for. My household soon sinks into reduced circumstances no amount of financial juggling can remedy.

Bills are late, payments bounce, things get disconnected, sometimes the fridge echoes and we learn to survive on one meal a day. (Not the cats though — they have breakfast, dinner, and snacks in between.) Our marriage vows are being tested hard. It falls to my husband to singlehandedly keep two humans and two cats housed and fed in one of the most expensive metro areas in the U.S.

Meanwhile, I ponder ways to plug the ginormous crater on my résumé. It doesn’t help that what ails me is invisible to the naked eye. I can look normal, I can pass for well. This isn’t always the case, however. The eyes don’t lie.

But generally, unless I tell you what’s going on, there’s no telling what’s going on.

For over four years, “You’ll never write again” is the mantra playing on a loop between my ears.

Vocation becomes affliction, soon demanding journalism and I break up. Although ours has always been a precarious union often funded by other work on the side, I’m bereft of purpose without it. Worse, I’m still hard-wired for the job. Curiosity keeps craving words and the blank page taunts me daily with threats of impending intellectual inertia.

So I placate curiosity with my library card, gorging on books in a bid to keep it — and myself — alive. It seems to work. But survival doesn’t pay. I need to start earning a living again, find a way to transfer my skill set to another industry, reinvent, rebrand, relaunch. This dehumanizing approach to work does nothing for my depression.

I’m not a fucking product, I want to scream, I’m a human!

So what if I’m fallible? News flash: We all are. And yet, with only the slightest touch of editorial alchemy, I transform my stay in Depressionland into a “sabbatical”, thus proving to myself my copywriting chops are still intact.

At the time, I’ve only been out of commission for two years. One word is all it takes to preempt awkward questions, one word is all it takes to conjure up the illusion of agency and success. Most importantly, one word is all it takes to slay the guilt and shame associated with not earning a living for so long.

But the word “sabbatical” rings hollow and feels awkward. Try as I might, I can’t get behind it. Besides, it conveys an aura of professional privilege that has always been alien to me. Case in point: I worked in Portugal under brutal financial austerity measures. As a result, my career is littered with the corpses of editorial endeavors that met an untimely end when public funding and advertising revenues ran out. What’s more, the lie touches a nerve. By passing off fiction as fact, I’ve become a full-fledged member of Depressionland’s cult of societal silence.

Not only have I turned on myself, but I’ve become complicit in the very thing I decry.

It takes me another year to process my failed attempt at misrepresentation.

Eventually, I catch a glimpse of the border crossing between Depressionland and Wellness. To get back to work without lying about my mental zip code, I must embrace the unspeakable with the only tool I have: words. I go from being unable to focus to committed to mental health advocacy, one essay at a time.

However, I’m aware my experience of depression isn’t universal — there’s no such thing. Depression paralyzes some people while others manage to maintain high levels of functionality interspersed with intense bouts of despair. For my part, I hover between the two extremes but I discover despair tends to lessen and recede a little more with every word I nail to the page.

Anthony Bourdain’s death undoes me.

At the same time, I realize I’m lucky. Although the illness has been trying to kill me for years, I’m still alive, somehow.

I stop worrying about my words being any good and just push forward. Write, edit, publish, repeat. Fail. Write something else. Write, edit, publish, repeat. Occasionally produce something that resonates. Keep at it. This, to me, represents barefaced defiance in the face of illness. It’s a pair of permanently extended middle fingers directed at the invisible force field of doom holding me hostage.

I set myself the modest goal of reaching just the one person at a time. Because words do have the power to provide relief, shatter isolation, and ultimately save lives. Like fellow mental health writers, I feel duty-bound to map out the territory so others don’t fall into the same pit of shame and helplessness.

This, in short, is why I’m rebuilding my life out in the open.

In case you’re wondering how it feels, it’s difficult, uncomfortable, and more than a little embarrassing. I’m still trying to shed the shame associated with my illness and the lack of means with which to take care of it. Fear of judgment still runs deep but, at the end of the day, what anyone might think of me isn’t my business. Or indeed my problem.

Because when it comes to mental health, silence begets shame and stigma but depression gave me the opportunity to speak up.

I’m taking it so you needn’t ever be afraid to do the same, should depression ever come for you.

💛 If you enjoyed these words, please consider supporting my work with a modest cup of coffee. It’s cheaper than 🍽 and it keeps me warm. Merci! 🐱

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/ASingularStory

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