For the past few months, I’ve been battling a sneaky depression that’s been playing hide-and-seek in my consciousness. It’s popped up on its own accord and despite my best attempts at playing whack-a-mole to send it back from whence it came, it just doesn’t work that way.
The first time I really recognized what depression felt like was about three months after I’d lost my job. It was my first job out of college and it’d collapsed in on itself in the name of departmental restructuring. In its wake, I was left blindsided and immediately desperate for a way to pay my rent.
I was living hand-to-mouth at that point—no savings whatsoever—and the job paid me about half of what I really needed to get by in Manhattan. I, like so many new graduates, entered an inhospitable economy and had to take what I could get. It’s not that I wasn’t thankful for the job and for the ability to live in New York, but to be frank, ability is an overly-generous statement. Bills were going unpaid on a monthly basis and I routinely had to make a decision whether to make my student loan payment or to fly to Dallas for Christmas (Christmas with my family always won out).
I turned my attention to finding fast employment. I was just delusional enough to think I could find something quickly, what with my two degrees and a resume littered with internships, and since I’d been told those were the key ingredients to success in the real world, I was confident I’d land gracefully like a dove or Misty Copeland. During the week that followed, I was laser-focused, pulling up dozens of listings a day and diligently applying to each of them. Publishing, communications, nonprofits, theater—I swung for the fences. I told friends and family about the “perfect” jobs I applied for and reassured myself I’d come out on top.
Unemployment money began arriving though it wasn’t enough to even pay my rent, much less anything else. Still I pushed forward, hunting for anything and everything that might keep me afloat. I felt buoyant in choppy waters and remained steely focused on keeping my spirits afloat.
Around week four, something happened. Actually, nothing is what happened in week four and that sent me sinking into an anxiety whirlpool. I found myself existing in such a disorienting headspace that scrolling through job postings began to feel like sitting in the spinning teacups at Disneyland with the flu. At night, I’d pace around my tiny apartment crying, talking to God and saying, “You do know what the hell you’re doing don’t you?” Maybe that’s not what your prayers sound like but I had to say what I had to say. God can take it.
The months wore on and it reached the point where getting out of bed was a challenge. Even when I stumbled into some freelance work via a colleague from my ex-employer, it couldn’t bring me out of it. I’d been sinking for so long, I began to think I’d always be in a state of sunk. My parents helped me with rent one month, something that embarrassed me and bludgeoned my pride when I had to ask for help, and the tendrils of depression had wrapped themselves around me so tightly, I thought I may never move again. Not many people knew any of that though. I slapped a grin on my face and laughed through brunches and coffee dates like everything was under control. Depression was something that happened to other people, not me. I couldn’t even bring myself to use the word.
The freelance work promised to keep me afloat and reading the dollar amounts on my invoices filled me with temporary reprieves from utter hopelessness, but I still felt stuck. This anxiety was complicated by the length of time I was made to wait to actually receive the paychecks. One month, I had to call my management company to beg them not to evict me because I’d done work seven weeks earlier but was still waiting for the check to arrive. It was a level of anxiety I’d never felt before and I simply couldn’t pull myself out from under it. I was Charlie Brown, alone on the pitcher’s mound, and the black rain cloud hovered only over me. Everyone else had sunny skies, perfect lives, and not a care in the world. That’s how it felt at least.
This went on for a year. A year of suffering in silence while projecting an image that everything was fine. I stumbled into a recurring freelance position 16 months after I’d lost my job which turned into a permanent hire. After a few months of regularity, I began to feel more like myself. It was slow, but it happened. My good days began to outnumber the bad and I felt less and less like I was sinking. However, the further away I got from those depressed feelings, the more diluted their potency became in my memory. I reasoned the depression had been situation-based anxiety and was therefore something I’d never have to deal with again. Part of me even questioned if I’d made it all up, if I’d conjured it by extreme worry, and if the listless feeling I’d existed in for a year had been merely a figment of my insecure imagination.
Of course it wasn’t.
It’s been more than four years since that initial bout with depression but for the past three months, I’ve been walking in and out of the fog again. It comes and goes, it’s debilitating and it’s manageable, it’s all-consuming and it’s nonexistent. On good days, I reason with myself that I’m okay. I tell myself I’ve come through it and I’m over the worst of it. But it inevitably returns and it’s all I can do to sit upright at my desk. It robs me of my attention span, my appetite, my energy.
I’ve struggled with why I feel this way. I move through life like a detective, reasoning and questioning until I find the cause of the problem and remove it. But that’s not how this works. I’ve tried to do what I know to do: I’ve talked to people, I’ve changed my routine, I’ve spent time caring for my self. I’ve taken advantage of the days when it’s not around, like I’m sneaking out of the house after curfew, but when it comes back, it’s a wave of water with which I can’t compete; a tsunami of confusion as to why I’m so down.
I told my other half last night I felt useless. I know that’s the depression monster clawing its way through me—I’m not useless—but I sure felt that way. How is it that the depression monster has the ability to make us feel the unfair and untrue things about ourselves in such a loud and claustrophobic way? How does it have the ability to mask the parts of ourselves that are desirable and magnificent?
This disorienting feeling is tough to write about because words don’t seem to appropriately capture the bigness of it. It’s also tough to write about because I don’t want it to sound like a woe-is-me kind of refrain by Sadness from Inside Out. JK Rowling said, “It’s so difficult to describe depression to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling—that really hollowed-out feeling.”
I have a life of fullness. I’m surrounded by people who love me, a city I’m obsessed with, and I’m able to do what I love. But when the monster creeps in, that fullness is replaced with that hollowed-out feeling JK Rowling speaks of. I can’t feel the fullness, even if my rational mind knows it’s there, but by turning the flashlight onto the monster and writing about it, I’m trying to air it out.
Depression is an unfair monster. It’s unjust and doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter how wonderful your job is, how many commas are in your paycheck, how much you love Jesus, or how many people are rooting for you. It doesn’t matter what your follower count is or if you’ve got a book deal. It doesn’t matter if every aspect of your life is bliss beyond expectation. It’s a monster bent on taking; on minimizing and diminishing the wonder of you.
I don’t have the answer, the magic sword which slays the monster, but I have the ability to truthfully write this today and release it. That’s something I haven’t been able to do for months so I’ll take the win. It’s a win that says, I’m not alone and neither are you. We can do this, one day at a time. And even on the days we feel like we can’t, we will.
The monster doesn’t get to win.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here.
6 Replies to “The Word I’ve Been Afraid to Say: Depression”
You certainly have a way with words, describing things that I too feel, on and off. The most pertinent thing for me is that absence of emotion or feeling, combined with rage and uselessness. I feel guilty sometimes letting it get ahold of me when I have all this privilege (a place to live, food to eat, first world problems)…but it’s real, isn’t it. This depression. Sigh.
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It is and the guilt is the part that drives me the most batty. But we have to remind ourselves it’s real and we aren’t alone. You’re not alone. I’m here right along with you.
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Yeah…it helps to know we’re not alone even when there’s no magic answer. 🙂
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Gosh, your writing about this is so helpful to those of us who come across it. It’s a shame that depression is often interpreted by societal norms and mores to be a character flaw when it’s an illness.
Thank you so much for this. It’s something that should be talked about with greater frequency.