But I’m not, and the last several weeks proved it. I’ve been slipping down, careless as a slick soul on mud. My mind skips from worry to worry and then floods with shame. A raspy voice berates me for feeling so bad.
The cure is what I imagined would come at the end of a long journey to heal myself, that began over a decade ago, when a relationship I cared about abruptly came to an end. Since I couldn’t do anything at the time except cry, a friend suggested I try some short-term therapy.
The therapy turned out to be a lot more long-term than short. Even in my current gloomy state, I can say that therapy helped.
I spent several years in therapy before I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t just a girl with a pile of problems. Soon after this insight arrived, I mentioned it to my therapist, Dr. Lori Goldrich.
“I think I might be depressed,” I said.
Lori gave me a knowing nod, then handed me the heavy diagnostic manual and pointed to the clinical term for what I had.
Technically known as dysthymia, the condition was described as chronic, low-level depression that lasted for years. Lori said she believed I’d suffered from dysthymia much of my life, but that I occasionally slipped down into major depressions.
Before receiving the diagnosis, I had flirted with the idea I might be depressed. But I hadn’t accepted it. Depression is a serious illness. Depression lands its victims in mental hospitals and sometimes kills. Depression, like matches, is something not to mess around with.
The diagnosis had me worried. I worried I might not get better. I feared I might even get worse. I knew what happened to depressed people. Though I’d never contemplated suicide, even at my lowest points, I understood that self-destructive thoughts came with the territory I was travelling.
A week or two went by after my diagnosis and the gloom lifted. Just because I was depressed didn’t mean I couldn’t be cured. Hadn’t I already made changes in my life as a result of therapy? Hadn’t I learned to transform the dull ache of depression into feelings I could release?
In therapy, I had discovered how to pay attention to myself for the first time and this cheered me up. By breathing in and out, then letting the breath travel through my body and watching the breath with my mind’s eye, I could locate the physical place where my feelings hung out. This allowed me to experience emotions I’d barely known I had, of anger, fear and sadness.
During those early therapy sessions, I didn’t have an answer when my therapist asked how I felt. While the question hung in the air, I would run through a quick mental check-in. Most of the time, nothing came back. The closest I could get to describing my feeling state was to say I felt dead, that my forehead felt packed with cotton.
Instead of trying to change the deadness as I usually did, by drinking coffee or jogging for an hour in the park, I sat in a straight-backed chair across from my therapist, as she helped me take the breath to that dead space, to see what I might find. The breath acted like a flashlight in the dark. Oddly enough, by simply observing the deadness, it changed. Seeing the depression, a balled-up knot of suppressed feelings, I could untangle myself and experience a real emotional state.
Writing this now, a snide voice pipes up in my head. Easier said than done, she says. Easier said than done when the goal is to be cured. Because I got better at transforming depression into feeling, and this led me to make positive changes in my life, I assumed I would one day be healed. As is probably obvious by now, this didn’t occur.
What did happen is that I became a stronger person. As dear Dr. Lori once said, I had previously been like a rootless tree, easily broken by the wind. Therapy helped me develop roots, strong enough to enable me to withstand some heavy gusts.
But it didn’t cure me.
In my better moments, I admit I’m not sure I want to be cured. Cured might bring a flatness to my life. I would never feel bad but I also might not feel that good. Cured would make me normal. Cured might even take away the delicious side of misery—the excuse to soak in the tub on a rainy afternoon or head downtown and shop for clothes.
I’ve certainly been depressed enough to take drugs. But I never have. Mostly, I’m afraid of the permanent harm they might do.
I’m also leery about putting something in my mouth to cheer myself up. The daughter of two dedicated alcoholics, I don’t see a lot of difference between medicating myself with alcohol or with prescription drugs.
More than that, though, my misery has led me to interesting places and I don’t want to give that part of depression up. The more down I get, the greater are the changes I must make to bring myself back up. Depression may be a brain chemistry problem but in my case it’s a whole lot more. It’s a way of processing the world when I’m feeling that the world is asking too much. Every time I step through the darkness to unravel each tangled thread that’s knotted me up, I emerge a little wiser.
There’s another aspect of depression, one I share with many creative folks. I feel too much sometimes. Walking along the beach or a river on a sunlit afternoon can wrap me in a wild, sorrowful joy. My husband jokes about all the places I’ve cried. To be touched by life in a throbbing way is the affliction of creative souls and the depressed.
I write, draw and paint to release feelings and to ease the depression for a time. The depressed mind mimics monkey mind, the term used by Buddhist teachers to describe the lazy, untrained mind. The depressed mind leaps from worry to worry, and from one hopeless conclusion to the next. Creative work quiets the mind through focus. It’s like meditating without getting the stiff legs and back.
Oprah and Dr. Phil would have a tough time accepting my argument that life transformation, the great cure, the new mind and body after one’s difficult work, may not be worth all the celebrating. And there’s something else. For some of us, getting cured might not be a choice.
William Styron was one of the first well-known personalities to write about his personal experience with depression. Styron’s thin book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, contains gems of insight about the disease, even though the author ultimately seemed to miss them. After barely scraping by a seriously contemplated suicide, Styron landed in the hospital. The hospital turned out to be Styron’s salvation. It’s not that the hospital offered Styron a cure. Instead, the hospital provided Styron time to be sick. Letting himself be ill, instead of continually trying to medicate himself into happiness, caused him to get better, almost right away.
I’m having to learn this lesson, every time I feel bad. I still have to remind myself that I’m not cured. Like Styron, the moment I stop struggling to find a fix, I realize what’s wrong. When that happens, I step right onto the path of feeling better.
A few years back when I decided it was time to quit therapy, I had a remarkable dream. The dream began as I was walking. Suddenly, the sky grew dark. I had to keep walking, though by now it had gotten so dark I couldn’t see my feet. Slowly, I stepped along, not knowing where each step would lead.
Eventually, I climbed to the top of a hill. There, the sky suddenly brightened. As I looked around, it started to snow.
Fat flakes swirled through the air and began to carpet the ground. Around me, the white world shimmered.
After I woke up, I could still feel the wonder I experienced in the dream. And that’s when I understood. Only by plodding through the darkness had I been able to reach the top of the hill. I would never have been able to witness the beautiful snow storm, if I hadn’t passed through that terribly dark territory first.
Read more on this topic in DEPRESSION: Ten steps to overcome it»
Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of 2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, Somlo has three forthcoming books: a short story collection, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil); a memoir-in-essays, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Find her at www.pattysomlo.com.