The morning after the night before always hurts and I’m not sanguine about my chances of making it to the bathroom without vomiting on myself. Then again, I last had a meal two days ago. This is likely empty nausea, the kind you get after your brain took a beating because depression intensified. I’m teetotal but I still call this a vulnerability hangover, because those three days of despair were brutal.
And they got progressively worse.
I spend too many hours staring at the Dutch suicide prevention website and trying to work up the courage to launch the chat function. Eventually, I realize that if I’m not coherent enough to corral my distress into words in conversation at home or in print, chat will be useless. Besides, there are hardly any trains anymore; lying down on the track isn’t an option. Also, I’ve already eliminated the one pharmaceutical tool I could have used several weeks ago.
I may not have been very rational at the time but I also knew ingesting the whole lot would have been enough to knock me out or worse. I thought it more prudent to remove that possibility immediately before it became more attractive than it already was. To make sure it was gone for good, I took out the trash despite not looking remotely presentable. We have smart card activated trash cans here: Once the container swallows the bag, there’s no retrieving it.
Between 2013 and 2018, this brain kept trying to kill me.
I’ve dedicated the last two years trying to teach it not to do that anymore.
The reality of chronic depression is impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it and terrifying to those who witness it. And this is the reason why we need to document and share it as much as possible so we can learn how best to address it as a society. Right now, many depressives are stuck at home and hurting alone. When the pandemic cancels your entire life, there’s little cause for celebration, only raw fear that gnaws away at your sense of self until depression has a field day.
Anxiety, fear, and panic are catnip to the parasite in my head.
But after spending almost seven years bootstrapping mental health, I have a few coping mechanism in place. The main one is to let distress run its course. Fighting it only makes it worse but this is always how it starts, with terror demanding I push back.
Terror, to me, means losing my ability to write. When it happened the first time around, it put the kibosh on a career I loved and had dedicated my life to since 2004. When I was able to string words together again, vocation carried me. But I knew then as I know now I cannot take writing for granted anymore.
Whenever depression swoops down on me, I teleport right back to those five years I was lucky to survive and the one lesson they taught me: Depression lies. This isn’t a social media marketing coup but unvarnished, unredacted, unedited reality that has its own humbling hashtag on twitter and other platforms. No matter how often my brain keeps trying to convince me I’d be better off dead, I’ve learned not to listen to it.
I’ve also learned to be completely transparent about what ails me and ask for help.
Alas, this frequently comes out all wrong, one of the downsides of being more articulate in print than in person. Despair takes over and it’s an ungrateful and vicious bastard, fluent in recriminations and general unpleasantness.
It also burns up all my mental bandwidth, depleting contentment, contrarian can-do, and random silliness until there’s a big void within.
That’s why the day starts with great difficulty. The evening before crashed my brain but sleep rebooted it. One of the perks of lockdown exhaustion is that I didn’t default to insomnia but shut down completely. My brain blew a fuse and cut off thinking power. That did nothing to alleviate the terror of becoming wordless again but during a short burst of clarity, I had managed to start writing about rediscovering ourselves during lockdown. So I sensed there was a decent chance I’d pull through. Attempting to translate human warmth into words was enough to give me hope I’d be able to pick up that piece where I left off and complete it at some point.
Giving yourself some space is essential, you can’t wish depression away. The quickest way to get it over with is to sit tight and stay put, trusting the moment will pass because it always does. That mine lasted that long is an unfortunate consequence of living in America at the time. It is also unthinkable on a continent where universal health care is the norm. Now that I have moved back to Europe, I trust a healthier life will follow suit soon.
However, the most curious part of this whole episode was its timing, right when I intended to explore what it takes to transition to a place of greater mental ease based on my counterintuitive and contrary experience. By doing so, I hoped to clarify whether progress was really happening and how my environment informs and guides it.
But how did I even come up with this when too many current parameters in my life point to disaster?
Perspective is everything. Then again, colors are the first thing to bleed out of your life before depression makes everything fade to black. And once perspective goes, it takes a while and superhuman efforts to get it back. Writing helps enormously. When you can do it, it’s a way to process life that forces you to organize the chaos within. When you can’t do it, there are other things you can turn to, all of which designed for folks stuck at home.
Before I recovered the ability to write, I read everything I could get my hands on. The absolute best thing about America is its public library systems, which make culture available to all, regardless of means. I frequently stared at pages full of incomprehensible characters until they yielded their meaning though. My brain seemed to be intent on rejecting language altogether so I fought it daily, relentlessly.
I also turned to cooking to try and figure out how to feed my household a healthful vegan diet while on a tight budget. I developed recipes, gave them quirky names, and noticed my instructions were beginning to look like stories. I loved the bright colors of ingredients, the smell of herbs and spices, and learning how to handle each of them. Inspired by the formidable British budget cook, political activist, and single mom Jack Monroe, I made a point of finding uses for those bits we usually throw away. For example, gather all clean veggie scraps and especially the stems of fresh herbs like cilantro or mint, pop them into a baggie, and shove it in the freezer. One day, you’ll have enough baggies to make veggie broth you can use as a base for lots of dishes or even to cook pasta or rice in. It’s also a tasty alternative to tea or coffee.
And then I picked up a pencil and started doodling, losing myself into it for hours on end. My first drawing as a kid was a hairy rock and, well, that was a strong hint about what my skills as an adult would turn out to be. I graduated to mutant daisies, improbable teapots, and stick people.
Creativity is perspective and a depressive’s best friend.
Perspective is a particular way of directing your attention to something or someone. Anything that engages your mind can help it alleviate depression, whatever your jam is. I couldn’t write for five years but I kept my mind active and also took up yoga, teaching myself with books and a cheap app at home. If I stuck with it, it’s because it was so ridiculously difficult it demanded my undivided attention but also rewarded me with a unique and odd sense of calm I found addictive. It was always short-lived but any relief is better than none.
Relief is cumulative.
A string of bad days will shake you up but they do not upend tried and tested mechanisms nor undo all the progress you’ve made. It only feels that way when darkness closes in on you and you start believing nothing matters.
You do matter, life does matter because if it didn’t, none of us would be stuck at home right now, would we? See how depression lies? Enter curiosity, your personal shepherd and protector because, deep down, you probably want to know what happens next, don’t you?
Until then, stay put and sit tight until despair has run its course. Your brain will reset itself as many times as needed but it doesn’t want you dead. It’s not you, it’s depression messing with it so give yourself space, time, and as much compassion as you can.
If you can’t be productive, keep busy with something that demands your full attention.
See you in the future!
Netherlands: Suicide Prevention Netherlands in English for immediate help United Kingdom: Every Mind Matters for info + Samaritans for immediate helpIreland: Mental Health Ireland for info + Samaritans for immediate help United States: CDC for info + Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK for immediate helpCanada: Mental Health Commission of Canada for info + Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention for immediate helpAustralia: Head to Health for info + Lifeline for immediate helpNew Zealand: Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand for info + 1737 / Lifeline / Youthline / Samaritans for immediate helpWorld: Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak for info
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.