I’ve been absent here for a while, but I’m posting quite a bit over on my tumblr about our upcoming move and randomness.
I don’t post much about things that are important to me, but I’m still figuring out. Things like feminism, spirituality, how to live a meaningful life. I generally sit in my pile of thoughts, asking silent questions, seeking out answers (thank you internet), thinking some more, and once my thoughts have reached a jello-like feeling of cohesion, then I start talking about them. To a few people. Maybe re-post a few articles that resonate with me, see what conversation it sparks. This drives Jonathan bonkers.
Jonathan likes input on every part of his thought process. He needs the rapid fire bounce of ideas among multiple brains, reforming and rebuilding his thoughts and opinions through external interaction. So when I sit and think on an idea for days or weeks or months and finally start to talk about it, my first external interactions are much more fully formed than his and (exacerbated by my Yankee tendency to talk about all my opinions and beliefs as FACT, no matter where I am in my thought process) it seems to him as if I’ve gone and made a giant decision or belief change by myself, without letting him in on the process, when I’m just reaching another step in my process.
Sometimes I feel like I should talk about these things more, sooner, publicly. I’ll start to post something and pull back, not ready or able to spend energy engaging in a meaningful discussion. External interaction takes a lot of energy out of me anyway, and talking about things I’m still figuring out takes even more. I can talk your head off for hours about the importance of story and beautiful words in the history of humanity and the lives of individuals. Talk for days. But if there’s a discussion about gender inequality in media? Unless it’s one-on-one, I’m probably going to sit back and listen, engaging silently. One of the things I’ve learned from dealing with my depression is to know my boundaries and respect them, but don’t let them limit me.
Howard Tayler (creator of Schlock Mercenary and member of the fabulous Writing Excuses team) opened up about specifics of his mental health on twitter this week, and several people jumped in to support him and share their own stories. This happens in spurts in different communities (and more and more often in creative communities) and I adore Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) for her openness and the openness she inspires among other fabulous people about their struggles with their mental health. And many of the communities I’m a part of talk about the need to destigmatize mental illness, but part of the discussion that struck a chord for me in the Twitter discussion was when someone said that the more we talk about mental illness, the more people will see it as an actual illness, Howard responded, “Which is one reason why, even though it’s embarrassing and it hurts, I tweet about it to 7,000 people.”
While I may not be up for a discussion about my soup of developing thoughts, theories and beliefs, I’m in a really good place with my depression. It doesn’t hurt me to talk about it. At this very moment (though I can’t promise anything for this afternoon, tomorrow or next week), I’m not in the middle of it. But other than one-on-one conversations and the occasional re-post of a blog or video, I haven’t talked about it publicly. And if Howard Tayler can share his story while in the immediacy of the moment with 7,000 strangers, I can surely share my story with a much smaller audience of people who likely know me while I’m in a moment outside of depression.
Note for my mother: I don’t know how much of this I’ve actually told you. You should probably grab a box of tissues. Because I know you, even though this story is past and has a happy middle. The ending has not yet come.
I was chronically depressed from age twelve to age nineteen, and probably bits and pieces after that. I have never seen a doctor about my depression. At first, it was because I was a kid and I didn’t know any better. My mom was in a really bad place and not able to see it for me, and my dad worked a lot to keep us afloat. As an adult, I was either doing “okay” or so deep in the middle of it I had trouble holding two thoughts together, and now I’ve dealt with a lot of the history/hurt issues and have figured out a process that works for me that doesn’t involve meds. (I am ridiculously lucky that I can currently control or mediate my depression without prescriptions. I don’t know if this will last forever, and I’m not against medication if there comes a time where I need it.)
Without giving too much of my mother’s story, because it’s hers to give, not mine, what you need to know to hear my story is that my mom slipped into a bad place after my youngest sister was born when I was six, and she doesn’t remember several years — from about then to when I was twelve, from what she’s told me.
I can remember the exact moment I stopped telling her anything important to me. I was eleven, and I had start writing a new story, Siri and the Fairies. I excitedly formatted and printed the pages of the first couple chapters I had written, making them look as much like a real book as I could, and took them to her to read. She was sitting at a table, sewing, I think. She took the pages from me, ran her eyes down the lines of words,said, “That’s nice,” and set them aside. As an adult, I know that she might not have been able to engage with me at the moment — I know what it’s like to have a one-track mind, and I’d interrupted her in a project. I know now she was in the midst of a bad place and it’s unlikely she remembers this moment at all. But eleven year old me didn’t know this, and eleven year old me didn’t feel worth much at that moment.
I was a very happy and confident child and a very sad, awkward, and confused pre-teen and teen. We started homeschooling when I was eleven. School, which I had wanted to attend since I was three, had become an unhappy place for me. I had a teacher in third grade who played favorites, and somewhere between first grade and leaving public school, I went from happy, engaged and popular to awkward, angry and bored. Mom told me a story (which I had apparently blocked from my memory) of my classmates booing me off our Junior Olympic field. I remember many many times, wishing that I didn’t exist. Thankfully, never considering suicide, just wishing for a state of non-existence. I remember going to an overnight birthday party for a long time friend of mine. She didn’t live in town, but she stayed with her grandmother often, and we’d set a tent up in their backyard. I knew a couple of the other girls from summer soccer, but most were strangers. I don’t remember how it escalated, but I ended up curled at the bottom of the tent while the other girls kicked at me (thankfully not hard enough to cause any pain) and poked and scratched me with the fake fingernails we’d put on earlier that night. Around two in the morning they got bored and left the tent for a while, and I bolted, running as fast as I could for her grandmother’s door, banging until they woke up and let me in. I slept in their spare room and they made the girl apologize. I don’t know if they told my parents. I never let myself be around her without adults again. We connected on Facebook a while ago. I don’t know if she remembers this.
I remember a short period of time where I couldn’t tell dreams from reality, or my memory was so jumbled it seemed like dreams and reality melding. Stupid stuff. Knowing that my sister had gotten a second piercing when such a thing had never happened. Knowing that I had told my mom about plans to go to a concert with a friend when I never did.
I read a story once where the character had trained himself to feel no emotion. That’s how I remember it, at least. It may have been that he trained himself to show no emotion. But I thought that was the best thing ever. How great would it be to not have to deal with emotion? I set out to systematically destroy my emotions so that I wouldn’t care. If I didn’t care, if I didn’t get excited, I wouldn’t be hurt.
The problem is that just doesn’t work. It’s actually fairly easy to destroy positive emotions. It’s not so easy to destroy negative emotions. I don’t know if it’s even possible. And in a way, I succeeded. I became extremely apathetic. I was able to control how I showed emotion — which was that I didn’t. I made myself that way. On purpose. Now, I can’t think of a worse way to choose to live your life.
When I was sixteen I went to Jamaica for the summer. It’s been ten years ago and I’ve only recently started to think about looking for the journals I wrote during that time. Only recently have I come to a place where I could handle it. While I was there, the woman I was staying with saw the disconnect in me, the lack of emotion when I should be hurt or sad or angry or happy or content. She started asking uncomfortable questions, even getting mad at me, at times making me feel worse than I already did, but she told me something that no one else had told me before. That my home life wasn’t normal. That it wasn’t my fault. And I finally started thinking about things that I had been hiding from. For the first few years after I started dealing with my depression, much of figuring out who I really was centered on defining my relationship with my mother.
Like I said before, my mom was in a bad place, and there’s a lot of time lost to her memory. During the worst years, she was inconstant, unpredictable, in pain (both physical from fibromyalgia and constant kidney stones — at least once a week, if not more — and emotional), hurt, angry, and it lead into a cycle of more hurt and anger as she saw how she treated us, how she treated Dad, how she treated herself, and she didn’t know how to fix it. I much of my childhood and teenage years defining myself by how I perceived my mother felt about me and how to live with her, to lessen amount of emotional pain and yelling. My sister and I, in a discussion at youth group, once told what we thought was a humorous story about waiting to ask Mom anything until after she had her pain pills because if you asked before then, it was always stressful and generally a “no”. We didn’t realize this wasn’t normal.
Maybe my mother’s influence on how I saw myself was stronger because I was homeschooled. I don’t know. I wouldn’t have given up being homeschooled for anything, though, and I got through highschool without ever trying illegal drugs. (Still haven’t. Can’t stand the smell of pot after smelling the giant cigars of it they smoked outside the school I taught at in Jamaica.) I had my first wine cooler when I was sixteen. I don’t know even half the trouble my parents had gotten into by the time they were sixteen.
Even though I started realizing how unhealthy my family environment was (because while my mom was the most obvious influence, none of us were blameless), I still held on to a lot of blame, a lot of guilt. I still felt intrinsically unlovable, undesirable, and useless.
While I was in Jamaica, my mom read an email I had sent to my friends about all the things I was dealing with. She sent me a long letter. I sent her a long letter back. My entire family was angry at me. I was violating the invisible, silent code of acquiescence that had guided our lives for years, and because I wasn’t at home, they were the ones to deal with the consequences. I was told that I was the one at fault. That I was rebellious. That I was blaming people for my own problems.
When I returned home a month later, there was a two week grace period, and then I remember standing in the entry of our kitchen, my mother and I screaming at each other, the rest of the family hunkered down a the kitchen table with her, caught in the crossfire. Shortly after that my mother started seeing a counselor. I went with her once.
There are very few moments, if any other than this, that I can say changed my life completely. I believe that most changes are gradual and small and a hundred thousand tiny changes build up into the big changes. Changes like — realizing your family isn’t normal. Changes like — realizing you aren’t intrinsically broken.
But Bonnie said this, and it changed my life:
We as human beings tend to personalize things. You bake a cake, and someone says they don’t like it. We interpret that as, “I’m a horrible cook.” Someone criticizes your child, for any reason, “I’m a horrible parent.” The next time someone says something that you think is negative about you, look at what they said. Are you simply personalizing their statement? Maybe they just don’t like cake.
Of course my life wasn’t immediately sunshine and roses, but she gave me a key to unlock a truer vision of myself.
Mom adds this:
At Bonnie’s urging and a lot of convincing by her, I started taking meds to treat my depression. I was already on so many meds, I didn’t want to take anymore, but I was clinically, massively depressed and although I didn’t and still don’t like the emotional numbing effects of the meds, it was what I needed at that point to be able to begin the long, uphill climb of being able to live a “normal” life. I think there a lot of people who feel like they can do it without meds, who in reality, are like me, and really need the meds, whether it is a temporary or life long need is something only they and their doctor can tell when they have gotten to a better place. For me, it still requires a low dose of antidepressant during the October to April season [Crystal note: there is little sun in western New York during this time]. It is just something that I have to do for me and the ones that I love. I hate that it dulls my emotions but am so grateful that it does at the same time. The good gets dulled with the bad, but it is better than having that huge weight of BAD FEELINGS dragging me down.
I had one year after Jamaica before I left for college. For most of that year, I just ducked my head and trudged on. I remember being extremely depressed that winter. I didn’t do any schoolwork from November to April. I ate, slept, worked, and if I had the energy for it, read, but mostly I slept and worked.
I met Jonathan, now my husband, and we quickly began dating. I began to realize maybe I was loveable. I continued working through all my issues. We dated for a year, and he broke up with me over Christmas break. I was devastated, but one morning after returning to school, I woke up and I was not depressed. I don’t know why then, in one of the most emotionally turbulent periods of my life, I had a giant up step instead of a giant down step. I don’t know how to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been depressed. I had lived with this sense of overall grey for as long as I could remember, and I simply woke up one morning without it. It didn’t stay away, but I knew there was something other to aim for.
(Clearly Jonathan and I got back together.)
After Jamaica, and talking to Mom’s counselor and moving to college, I held my family at arm’s length for quite a while. I put extremely firm boundaries up about what I would and would not talk to them about. Finances were off the table. Friends and movies were fine. There were still upsets. Really bad upsets. I silently made a decision to not stay with my family for more than a week at a time.
Mom had been working back and forth with her doctor for years, trying to find the right cocktail of drugs that would mediate her physical and mental issues, and they finally stumbled on a key: vitamin D. They visited Jonathan and I for Thanksgiving the first year or second year we were married, and my mom was a brand new person. She had energy! She was making jokes! She was getting all handsy with Dad.
So I started taking Vitamin D. Just 1000IUs. Just in case. I knew Western NY was bad for Vitamin D deficiency because there was no sun in the winter. And now I worked in an office all day, so I probably wasn’t getting enough now either. Jonathan was working on the campaign, and toward the end of it, I was luck to see him three times a week. I went to bed before he got home (if he got home) and was up and headed to work before he woke. The second winter in Nashville was bad for me. Very similar to my senior year in high school, I ate, slept, walked the pups, and went to work. Mostly slept and worked. I was too tired to even watch TV. If I wasn’t asleep, I simply laid in bed, existing. Not thinking, not doing. Maybe holding the dogs close and petting them. It took me two years in Nashville to make any friends. I think most of that was because I had no energy to engage people, but a good part is that Nashville is not an easy city to start up in.
There were times I’d be sitting at my desk at work and I would feel utter panic descend on me. I knew that I was crappy at my job. I knew that everyone hated working with me. I knew I was a failure. I knew they just put up with me because they had to. I’d have to go into the bathroom to breath so I wouldn’t burst into tears in the office.
I was tired of being tired. At some point I upped my Vitamin D usage to 5000IU and that won me quite a bit of life, but I still didn’t feel like a real girl. I went to see a doctor. I’d probably been taking Vitamin D for a year and a half, two years at this point. She told me to handle my tiredness, to eat more but smaller meals, and if that didn’t help, we’d get me some pills. She also did bloodwork and my Vitamin D she said was “fine” even though it was at the absolute bottom of “normal” range. Even after taking 5000IUs of Vitamin D for a year. I didn’t go back to her.
I started researching diets for energy, and came across Paleo. Paleo is pretty much the best thing that has every happened to me physically. I lost thirty pounds over two years of intermittent Paleo. I discovered that when I have a lot of carbs and sugars, my depression is more likely to pop up. When I’m on hardcore Paleo, I only need 3-6 hours of sleep a night and I have energy throughout the rest of the day. The stomach pain I’d been having randomly since college, pain that at times put me screaming on the ground (this happened once or twice a year) and a clenching stomach and heartburn every time I ate, disappeared. For the first time that I could remember, I was consistently without depression.
I got cocky. I forgot to take my Vitamin D with me for a weekend trip, and when I got back home I continued to forget to take it. Within two weeks, I was back to the worst I’d ever been, except this time Jonathan wasn’t on a campaign and he could see how bad I was. There were arguments. There were tears. There was once again feeling like I was broken so bad I was never going to be fixed. And there was the realizing it had been a while since I had taken my Vitamin D. Within a few days of taking it, I was back to a level of life beyond simply existing.
Sometimes the Vitamin D isn’t enough. Sometimes I’m not eating well enough. Sometimes my body just says, “Screw you. Meltdown time.” Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m just having normal doldrums or if I’m headed into a depressive episode. But most days are okay. Some days are good. A few days are great. Mental illness sucks. I’m happy I’ve found what helps me deal with it.