Depression and the Lost Dark Years
When I was about 20 years old, I stopped existing. By some dark magic, I pulled off an astonishing vanishing act. I disappeared behind a cloud for six to eight years. While in this cloud, time stopped. Yet, the world kept moving without me. When the cloud cleared, I could finally see clearly my life all around me. It spread out forever like a bombed city. I was tasked with rebuilding it. This is my story of depression and moving out of it.
I don’t like to admit that I have struggled with mental health. In fact, it seems like an odd thing to say. I don’t like to see it as a part of me. Instead, I like to see it as some external force that happened to inhabit me for a long while. It began in about the the 4th grade. That is when I began experience panic attacks. Though, at the time, I didn’t know what they were. They were just some terrifying curse that fell upon me randomly- like a demonic possession, which would tighten might chest and put me into a state of fear. I found it hard to breathe and swallow. They often happened at night, around 3 am. Sometimes they happened at lunch or on the school bus. I would sleep with a glass of water (and I still sleep with a beverage) to help me swallow if I woke up in a panic. Panic attacks were inconvenient, especially when they happened at a sleep over or with groups of people. My father would call them “spells.” Heather is having one of her “spells.” I suppose it gave it a supernatural quality. I had these “spells” for years. I didn’t know their name. They were just some strange quirk about me that I never talked to anyone about. I was ashamed of them and could not imagine that other people in the world experienced the same thing. Thus, I had been dealing with anxiety to some degree since childhood.
(Oh no, this witch is conjuring up a “spell” ….a.k.a causing children to have panic attacks. The cat seems particularly into this endeavor. )
I mostly coexisted with my “spells” as they were an irregular visitor in my life. But, once I graduated high school, I was visited by a much darker and stronger force. It began with a deepened sense of social anxiety, (but I have a hard time differentiating when anxiety ends and depression begins). Basically, I came to believe that I was a failure and the world was judging me. Because of this, I became so fearful that I could not leave the house to get the mail or put gas in my car. I feared that someone would see me….Heather…that failure…that terrible failure. I didn’t want to be seen in public. I struggled to stay in college. While I was in college, I maintained perfect grades but I couldn’t face being in school. I dropped out several times. While I felt anxiety over seeing people and being judged as a failure, I also experienced depression. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t feel that I had the capacity to make friends. I basically worked the night shift and otherwise hid from the world. I lived at home with family members. The only bright spot was that I did try to travel from time to time. It was the only thing that made me feel that I was doing something with my life and that perhaps I was not a failure after all.
I was in an out of college for several years. I did attempt to go to counseling a few times, as it was provided for free through St. Scholastica. This helped a little. At least it provided me a name for what I was going through: anxiety and depression. Really, it opened up the door to the idea that what I had experienced was not some strange, magical force unique to my own bizarre, miserable existence. It was a treatable medical condition. It was suggested that I try medications, but I only took a few doses before giving up on that. I am stubborn and like to be in control. So, the idea of medication never sat well with me. Still, I think that going to counseling helped me to think differently. I was given weekly goals. Even though I am not sure that I did that well at the goals, it created some momentum in my life. But, as a general rule, between the age of 20 and 26, I wavered between complete, wickedly immobilizing depression and barely climbing out of depression. During the time I was caught in wickedly immobilizing depression, I really didn’t live. I didn’t pay my bills. I didn’t think of the future. I avoided my phone. I didn’t feel suicidal, but I hoped that death would magically come to me and save me from living. And, since I had social anxiety and felt that the world doomed me a failure, the depression didn’t help…as it made me a failure! I hadn’t finished college. The bills were piling up. I was doing very little with my life.
(Ah, my citadel of misery. Yet, I miss those dark towers)
I am not sure exactly what happened to change things. Depression naturally receded, much like the glaciers at the end of the ice age. This happened sometime around the age of 26 or 27. Something just…changed. It went away. It wasn’t anything I did or the result of any treatment. The only problem was that my life was a mess. For one, I hadn’t paid my bills for over a year. I simply didn’t care enough about living to bother. For another, I owed over $10,000 to St. Scholastica (the only reason that I owed this much money to the college was because I had too much social anxiety to visit the financial aid office and take out a student loan…and the time period to take out a loan had elapsed). This put my transcript on hold and prevented me from finishing my education. My life was in shambles. So, even though my mood had improved, I had a big mess to clean up. That mess took a lot of hard work and several long years.
(The ice age might have ended, but I was left with the carcasses of some mammoth messes to clean up.)
Once depression had passed, I had a lot more energy for living. This was useful, as I needed this energy to work. I completed two service years as an Americorps member, as the program paid over $4000 in an education award at the time. This helped me pay off the bill with St. Scholastica. In turn, this helped me to finally finish off my bachelor’s degree there. During this time period, I filed for bankruptcy, which discharged all of my other debt (aside from student loans). Because Americorps paid a stipend of less than $900 a month after taxes at the time, I also worked the night shift at a hotel. At other times, I worked as many as four jobs. I was a bit of a workaholic at the time, with periods where I worked 80 hours a week. However, I was trying to eke a modicum of pleasure from my bleak life. I probably didn’t need to work as much as I did, but I wanted to save money for travel and for hobbies. And, between all of the jobs I really didn’t make that much money. Another boon for my financial situation was when I donated eggs, which helped to pay off my car and the rest of the St. Scholastica bill. It took me about three to four years to re-assemble my life. All the while, I felt that I was looking over my shoulder, waiting for depression to return. After all, it had visited me so often in my early to mid twenties. I feared that it would return and sabotage everything. Certainly, there were some very dark and terrible moments in my workaholic years. But….depression did not return.
It has been over a decade since I emerged from depression. Depression and anxiety have not returned in the same way. While they dominated my 20s, they have not and they will not return. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the situation. For one, while I used to fear that depression would return, I no longer fear that. I have far more tools now, emotionally, mentally, and intellectually than I did in my early 20s. While I continue to experience melancholy and sadness more than the average person, I feel that I have some control over this and can change negative thought patterns before they spiral out of control. I also have a sense of what depression looks like in my self. If I stop caring about life, stop paying bills, find myself unable to keep up with obligations, isolate myself, give up hobbies, or generally feel less motivated- I become concerned and seek to remedy the situation. While I was living in Mankato, I felt those familiar feelings, so I sought counseling right away. I only went to one session, but it was enough to get me back on track in life and throw my thought patterns into a healthier framework. As for anxiety, I very rarely have panic attacks. I have anxiety from time to time, but I recognize it for what it is and know it will pass. I think medication would really help with anxiety, since it is not a fun experience. However, I know I can generally power through it. I fully believe that there will be a time in my life that I do not have anxiety. I don’t think I have had a panic attack in almost a year. As I grow and experience more life, I feel that I become better at living and better at thinking. I am optimistic that I am fully capable of living in a healthy mental state.
I realize that my framing of mental illness is not really very helpful for most people. For one, I shunned medication. I don’t think this is the answer for others. I don’t even think it is the answer for myself. I suffered longer than I needed to. Seeing how depression ate up years of my life, I am not against taking medication. Time is the most precious thing we have. It is finite. Our time on this earth is woefully short. Anything that shortens and diminishes our short lives should be fought furiously. That is why I am a socialist. I want people to have the resources they need to live full lives. If I became as depressed again, I would not be as stubborn in the future. Also, I don’t really frame depression as something that will always be a part of me or something that is built into my genes. While it most likely was built into my genetics, I don’t care for that sort of determinism. I think that it very well could have been the outcome of my life conditions. That any human being in the same conditions may have also become depressed. Really, I was lost! I didn’t have friends! I struggled to figure out meaning in this world and find my place! I struggled with poverty and isolation. This world itself is pretty depressing. It is astonishing that more people aren’t depressed. So, in a way, I don’t really OWN being depressed. Worse, I sometimes feel resentful, uncomfortable, and impatient with others who experience mental health issues. I should see myself and my struggles in them, but instead, I want to avoid it. It makes me feel disgusted with myself for being weak and for failing. Yes, I have internalized some narratives of mental health as a weakness. Intellectually, I know better, but emotionally, I have negative reactions that I keep on the inside. I want people to think I am strong, capable, and in control. I certainly don’t feel happy about the ordeal. It is embarrassing. It shows that I am very flawed. And, even if I wasn’t defective, the disease stole several years of my life. Those are years that I won’t get back. My life is less full because of the years that depression took from me. It makes me angry. It makes me sad. When I see young college students having fun and enjoying their youth, I feel that I missed out. I didn’t have friends, bonfires, camping trips, parties, road trips, spring break…etc. I had soul crushing isolation.
Because of these feelings of loss, I am compelled to live very well. I can’t change the past. My 20s sucked. That’s how it goes. But, I made it through it. I don’t have perfect narratives about the whole ordeal, but I have a lot of determination not to go through that again. My 30s have been better. While I struggled to finish one degree in my 20s, I finished three in my 30s! I travel. I am engaged in many hobbies. I am active as an activist. I keep a very tight schedule. I have wonderful friends. I read. I learn. I share. I am living the life I wish I had been living in my 20s. I live each day very fully. I am hungry for living. I often feel stressed because I wonder how I will fit so much into a single day. I want to paint! Play violin! Run! Hike! Read! Write. Write blog posts. Write stories! Write papers! Write poems! I want to enjoy the sunshine and trees! I want to ride my bicycle. I want to study languages! I want to plant my garden! Try a new hobby! I want to be a better feminist, socialist, environmentalist, etc… Ah…I want everything! I have to forgive myself for my terrible 20s as it built a foundation for my 30s. I am pretty sure I won’t be blindsided by depression later in life, as I went through it, know it, and am more capable of handling it. I did travel in my 20s and I don’t regret my years of Americorps service. I had some good friendships in my 20s as well. So, while my 20s were not as fun and free as I would have liked, I have my whole life to make up for lost time. To the best of my ability, that is what I will do. Is it healthy? If my 20s is the story of my long bleak winter the rest of my life feels a little like the rite of spring, a ceremonial frenzy to dance myself to death. But that is another story. The story of my fundamental existential crisis. Perhaps depression really was just the first act.
(an image from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring)