Recently, one of my favorite bloggers, Jenny Lawson (aka: The Bloggess) came out publicly about her struggles with crippling depression and self-harm issues. Her naked honesty and raw expression of pain was intimate, arresting, and bravely self-aware. Thousands of people were moved by her words, writing, via site comments, direct messages, and emails, to this usually irreverent, amusing girlfriend of a blogger with words of comfort, support, and encouragement, or with stories about their own challenges and hidden fears. Not generally one to leave blog or article comments, I added my support to the mix and told Jenny (and the blogosphere) that I, too, struggle with depression.
A few hours later, my girlfriend, Holly, noticed a link to the Bloggess’ article on my Facebook page and asked whether I’d be addressing this issue on my blog. I’d been considering it, especially because Jenny’s post had touched on the issue of isolation – how those who are depressed struggle to achieve normalcy, and then, when they get back to their “norm,” they find there’s really no release or reward because they’re buried under all that went undone while they were “under.” I find this strikingly similar to not only my own experiences with depression but also to how life is when raising a child with special needs.
So I was tossing some ideas around, and I told Holly I would write this piece. But the truth is, even now as I type this, I’m wondering whether I’m brave enough to really share it. To really tell you what it’s like to live in the bell jar. I wonder if I can, because writing about depression and isolation takes me to a dark place. It takes me to that small but powerful black hole in my mind that occasionally, and for seemingly no reason, begins to suck in everything around it until my entire self is consumed in that blackness.
When I was 19, I read Sylvia Plath’s 1950s classic, The Bell Jar. Most people read this novel as part of an English class assignment at some point and find it beyond morbidly depressing and nearly impossible to slog through without drinking. But I read it because I was an English major, so I pretty much devour every book that comes my way. I knew a little about this novel by reputation, so I wasn’t surprised to find in its pages a bleak landscape portrait of a hopeless life. And I wasn’t repulsed or morbidly fascinated by the strangeness of Plath’s mostly autobiographical take on the world. I didn’t find it odd or scary or hard to read at all. I found it comforting. I realized I wasn’t alone.
From a very young age, I had experienced bouts of depression, some nothing short of crippling, making it nearly impossible to get out of bed, while others were mild enough to be little more than phases of annoying moodiness. I sometimes felt alone in crowds, unable to join in fun activities with peers, tired when rested, and lonely even when home or at school. I felt trapped and scared, always on the periphery of things, and not really sure why it seemed like no one else felt quite the same way I did. This was depression for me as a kid.
I remember being about 7, crying in the family room of our southern California home, and when my mother asked me what was wrong, I said, “I want to go home.” She hugged me and said, “But you are home.” And I knew that, but I just had no words for how isolated I was in my own mind, how bereft and empty I felt. Homesickness was the closest emotion I could express to the yearning I felt inside for a sense of peace and stability, the longing I had for emotional normalcy and knowledge of my own security. I was 7. And I was depressed.
Still, on the outside, most of the time, I was a pretty normal kid. And through middle and high school, I managed to keep my depression to myself, at least outside the house. I was actually fairly outgoing and involved in school activities. I held part-time jobs, I had boyfriends and went to football games and did all that typical adolescent stuff. And the majority of the time, I was really fine. True, sometimes I was faking it because I knew that’s what was expected of me. But mostly I was ok because I was busy and challenged and determined to be normal. Still, I’m sure my close friends from high school will easily remember me sitting alone writing morbid poetry when I was in a funk. But people don’t really think of Honor Roll students in preppy clothes who can still answer teachers’ questions while writing in their journals as “troubled children,” so I kind of coasted along.
In fact, it wasn’t until the early 90s, when I was in high school, that depression became something people really talked about. That was when Prozac came on the market, and depression became less of a dirty little secret and more of a treatable medical condition people started seeking help for openly. But even with depression more out in the open, I didn’t know that’s what I had. I just knew sometimes I was really, really sad for pretty much no reason.
Around that time, I had this one truly amazing teacher. It was my senior year in high school, and he turned me from a preening, self-impressed, flowery writer into someone who could appreciate the deliciousness of simplicity. He gave me the gift of telling me I wasn’t as good a writer as I thought, along with the knowledge that I could be and the tools to do so. And so I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and everything I wrote, this teacher read and marked and really worked through with me because he saw my potential.
He also saw the underlying sadness of this girl who was bubbly on the surface but empty in the eyes. He pulled me aside one day and said, “Next year, you’ll be in college, which is where you really belong. You’ll be challenged in ways you can’t imagine yet, and you’ll be free to learn who you really are and what you can really do. Just wait. Hang in there.” And because he’d paid attention to me, because he’d listened, because I felt like he actually knew what I could do and who I was inside, I listened, and I waited to burst free like a caterpillar itching to escape the cocoon.
That same year, at 17, the depression got worse, and I asked my parents to put me in therapy. My dad thought therapy was a big load of crap, but my mom was supportive in this, and so I went to the first of what would become a long line of therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists that leads up to the excellent counselor I talk to these days.
It was a bit of a family secret, my depression. And I felt ashamed that I couldn’t control my own mind, master that black hole. Sometimes, it seemed like therapy made things worse because all I was doing was talking about the very things that made me so depressed. But over time, I learned better coping skills. I learned to avoid the things that triggered my depressions, to see myself slipping before I fell, to make myself get up and move and breathe and live when those were the last things I wanted to do.
And finally, when I was 20, everything came to a head. I was in the worst depression of my life. Coping skills were worthless and nothing, nothing seemed to help. My mother found me a phenomenal doctor, and I sat in this woman’s office week after week, month after month, trying to find a way to climb out of the black hole that had consumed my life. And one day, she said to me in her lilting accent, “Tara. Present stress brings up past trauma.”
And that was it. I realized, in that moment, that when I allowed the black hole to expand, it didn’t suck me into nothingness. It drew me in to a place where only the bad things lived. So I was dwelling in a movie theater that played only the worst reels from my life, and that brought up only the worst feelings. My current crises weren’t unconquerable obstacles in and of themselves. Rather, I was trying to fight them one-handed from the front while sword fighting my past with my other hand behind my back.
It’s a bit like smelling coriander and immediately being transported in your mind to the last time and place you experienced that scent. Only coriander is nice and pleasant, and depression, if it had a scent, would be more like sulfur and brine.
So I learned to make peace with the past, and, just as importantly, to leave it there. I learned to deal in the moment with the crisis of the moment without letting my current emotions be compounded by the scent memories of my past. I slip sometimes, and I even fall still. But I get back up and keep moving because that’s what life is: motion. And although I loathe that black hole in my mind, its presence and impact on my life is exactly the thing that lets me know that I can handle nearly anything. It’s what tells me that I can be the strong mother my children need, that I can be the rock they lean on, that I can live with Will’s autism and teach him to live proudly with it as well. It is part of me, but it does not define me. Only I can do that.