My friend Sharon asked me what my depression feels like. Nobody had ever asked that before. “Suffering,” I said. Edgeless suffering. Every moment, every single moment is unbearable, suffocating, and all I can do is force myself to keep breathing, force myself to keep, force myself, force myself, force myself. It’s not pain. Pain is sharp, connected to time, and part of living, like a birth contraction. This has no beginning and no end, no way in and no way out. It exists, and it is everything. And yet, because it is only inside of me, it is nothing at all, it has no reality to it except the terrifying reality that it is me and I am it and I cannot emerge from its suffocating depths.
Real pain would be so much better. Cut off a leg! Flay my skin, and do it bit by bit to expose my muscles and let my fluids leak out and then my exposed self could get kind of dry and crusty, you know how it does that and it hurts even more, then we could shave that crusty part off again and again until there’s nothing left to cut away. That’s pain. Self-harm, they say, is one way that people who feel deadened can at least feel something. That’s not my bag. Sixteen years of anorexia though. What I did with my anger and anxiety when I was young was to turn it violently in upon myself. I manifested my sense of starvation by actually starving. I was a walking, talking, never-stopping one-woman protest demonstration only nobody really seemed to notice that my emergent bones were signs I was brandishing to declare my effed-upped-ness. Depression, though, lacks even that much visible, outer drama. No sighs, and no signposting. It’s not an inward-inflected righteous anger like anorexia. It’s much more workaday, plodding, inexorable, uninflected, like being submerged in the toxic waters of the black Amazon, or sinking into an Irish bog seemingly whole and perfect, and yet broken everywhere utterly crushed but so slowly so intimately and quietly that the everyday surface of the face you show to the world reveals no break, no bruise, no fusty odor of decay because although you are not alive you are not either exactly dead.
How could nobody notice that?
This is in part because, if truth be told, I have a super power. I really do! My super power is the ability to appear completely normal despite being in the most crazy circumstance or state. Now this is an awesome superpower if you are in an earthquake, or a car crash or some other dramatic catastrophe. Most other people start screaming and running around, hyperventilating, yelling for God, whatever. Not me. I just get real still and calm and I know exactly what to do. Act normal. Go through the motions. Walk this direction. For the last nine months at least, I have been using my superpower to the fullest – to hold down a full time job at a fancy art school, publish, teach, conduct research, write grant proposals, to be a single mother to an extraordinarily precious child, to cook, walk the dogs, and to keep living each unbearably endless moment while wondering how on earth I will keep going. Leaning in is not what I need. Not being big on compromise, I want to be at the top of my game in everything. What I wear, what I cook, how I parent, how I teach, how I consume (ever more greenly!), publishing, achieve, achieve, achieve, but the problem is that even though there’s nothing objectively wrong—well maybe there is, but let’s not talk about that—every conscious moment I experience I’m submerged so far down in a tar pit so powerful that it’s the black hole of tar pits. Its crushing internal force is so total that even a nobel prize astrophysicist can’t explain how it works. Yet even inside of that, inside a tar pit that is contained within a black hole, I have the weird ability to somehow keep on breathing. Nobody can live through this, and yet I keep on living. With the aid of my superpower, the tarpitblackhole where I live is my personal secret.
I had a few slips. I did start crying at work a couple of times and had to run out the door. Then I started crying while driving down the road. I’d been sleeping 16 hours a day for quite some time already. Sleep is the only escape I’ve found, only a partial escape but at least dreams aren’t consciousness and consciousness is the experience of total suffocation while breathing.
It finally did get so bad that I had to call my mother and ask her for help. To give you a sense of what an extraordinary moment that was, let me tell you that it was the very first time that I had asked my mother for help in my entire life. And I’m 50 years old.
So at age 50, with two ornery pit bulls, a 14 year old daughter and a book to copyedit, I call my mom and ask her for help. Mom, with her one boob (the other sliced off in a breast cancer incident), her “windblown” knees that list sideways because there’s no cartilage left, her gray blue eyes, her osteoporosis, and her incandescent capacity for love and caring, dropped everything and came to take care of me for six weeks. I don’t remember anything that happened during that time, not really. I know it happened. I know I’m grateful.
What happened was that for pretty much the first time, my superpower was no longer completely effective. There must have been some Kryptonite around, sapping my abilities. At this point, all I could do was my full time job. I couldn’t do anything else. You know, all that other shit: crafting, painting the living room, feeling joy, taking a walk, being inspired to write a book, sewing a dress, working in the garden, volunteering at my daughter’s school, raking leaves, tasting a meal, desiring—anything. Looking back I think, “what the fuck, I should have gotten a medical leave!” but at the time, asking for that much leeway was impossible. Asking for much of anything isn’t exactly my strong point. It was a friggin’ miracle that I broke down enough to actually call my mom. And ask for help.
If I really think about it, my superpower IS my Kryptonite. It is totally and completely sick how I am able to soldier on. I want to learn how to give up. I want to learn how to break down. I want to learn how to just stop and say: I need help, I can’t do this, I AM SUFFERING AND I WILL NOT SURVIVE WITHOUT ASSISTANCE.
It would be funny, I guess, yet it’s so diagnostic. I am never suicidal in my depression. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live, living is not what I’m doing anyway, I don’t know, it’s a survival of a kind, but I have no urge to end it or to kill myself. Besides, all my willpower is absorbed into my superpower: looking normal. Doing the normal things. Going through the motions and being amazed that either everyone around me is willing to go along with the charade, or they really can’t see that I’m all action and no feeling, no spirit, no soul, no feeling, no life, no spark, no pleasure, no joy, no contentment, no peace, no rest. It’s not their fault, I remind myself. After all, I have a superpower, and they are under its influence. Even with mom propping me up, I still did a reasonable impersonation of a competent person. Minus anything that had to do with anything besides showing up for work and doing my job while on the job. In the midst of a depression that would have any ordinary person hospitalized, I taught full time and missed only one class.
Sleeping isn’t rest. It’s a blank conk-out. Escape, temporary. Relief of a kind. If only I could just sleep and sleep. I would go to work, then come home and lie on the couch, I remember flinging my arm over my face so that the light was shut out and all I could do was force myself to breathe. I didn’t sleep then, but just tried to keep living, long enough to haul myself up and sit at the table and eat something, though I wasn’t ever hungry then. “Everything tastes like dust,” my friend Susan said, and yes, that’s sortof it, but it was more like, even the act of chewing seemed pointless, I didn’t feel hunger, the food caused no response at all, except for me to wonder why it was in my mouth and what I was supposed to do with it. Chew? Chew! Why? Half the time, after putting the fork in my mouth, I’d put it back on the table, forget why I was sitting there and get up and wander away. I lost about fifteen pounds because eating – I couldn’t remember to eat, I just knew I ought to but couldn’t really muster the energy to do it. Having food in my mouth felt strange, unpleasant, swallowing was too much work.
Some describe depression like being in a fog, but to me fog seems friendly. So soft and moist, light and misty. There’s a sense for me of my “self” being utterly captive, crushed inside of the depression, while my body goes through all the right actions: smiling, shaking hands, walking, driving. My self is carried around inside that walking talking humanoid carapace and not really experiencing anything except this upless downless timeless utterly relentless state of suffering. It is not dramatic at all. Drama requires energy.
When I visit the psychiatrist, he asks all those stock questions: do you feel interest in things? Do you feel hopeless? No, I don’t feel interest in things, no I don’t feel hopeless. I don’t feel anything. Definitely have no interest in anything. Interest is a state that has a perkiness to it, a spark. Mostly, I hear something and think, oh no, I just can’t even think about that, it makes me tired. This particular kind of tired has its own shape, its own weight. It’s not a cozy kind of tired. It’s the kind of tired you might feel being in an endless desert and knowing you have to keep walking but the landscape will never change, you will never arrive anywhere. I know I need to do x or y or z, but I cannot locate within me any sense of pleasure in doing it, or need or desire. The weight of just existing is impossibly exhausting. I’ll just go through the motions because there is no visible alternative, and because that’s my superpower.
So it turns out my superpower is also my achilles heel. It doesn’t give me strength, it allows me to suffer indefinitely which doesn’t really seem like such a great thing. No thanks, I’d rather not. Neither the depression nor my ability to survive it has the slightest element of choice about it, unfortunately.
When I’m feeling normal, I can have a bad day, I can be pissed off, or cranky, or even really mad, but the whole me feels fine. Whatever feeling it is, it is passing through the me that is fundamentally ok. This is nothing like that. That thing is parked right on top of me, it’s inside each of my cells and sure I look like I’m responding or conversing or whatever, but really it’s like I am a formaldehyded frog jumping because an electrode touched a muscle. There’s no consciousness, no soul in anything that’s going on. Inside the envelope of my skin is a me-shaped glob of rubbery deadness. Inside of me there is no me.
There were people who tethered me – my daughter, my partner, some precious friends. One friend would call every week or so and even though most of the time I wouldn’t answer the phone, she would leave a friendly message, “Just checking in,” she’d say. She didn’t ask me to call back. She just wanted to let me know she was there, thinking about me, and that she understood how I was. Another had me to dinner once a week, we’d drink prosecco while our three kids lounged on their three separate screens, (at least three, that is, and sometimes more) and she made dinner and performed her own superwoman act with unbelievable grace. My partner just loved me in the clear and simple way that he does. Then there was my mother whose extraordinary gift was to just take care of me when I finally admitted or realized I could no longer take care of myself.
I can only write about the depression now because I am moving out of it. It’s an odd thing to try to remember the experience—or lack of it—because it isn’t something I felt in words or through language, it simply was, it had me, it existed and that was all. Today I can try to describe it and as I do, I’m crying. I’m crying! It’s different than the unaccountable crying that would randomly overtake me as I performed some everyday task, crying that would just begin on its own for no reason. That wasn’t crying. That was leaking.
Today I’m crying because while I cannot feel the suffering that possessed me for nearly nine months, I now am witness to it, and I am deeply, deeply sorry that it took me. I’m crying because I’m grateful it has receded this much. I’m crying because I’m afraid it might return. I’m crying because I hope my daughter has not been too much hurt by my absent presence. I’m crying because my mother saved me.
I’m crying. It feels good.