“Wear a smile on my face, but there’s a demon inside.”
–from “Jekyll and Hyde” by Five Finger Death Punch
Don’t Google or YouTube that. (No, seriously. Don’t.)
I don’t for a moment think it’s a literal demon. Let’s just get that out of the way right from the start. I haven’t invited anything in, I haven’t been messing around with Ouja boards, I haven’t opened any metaphysical doors I can’t close. When I talk about having a demon, I’m not talking about being possessed. Because I’m not.
The “demon” is a metaphor.
So is the dark cave. So are: the quicksand, the black dog, the She-Hulk, the dark cloud of doom, the shadows closing in, the sludgy ocean. All of these are metaphors for the thing I’ve been dealing with that’s called depression.
This has been a long time coming
(and the cards are stacked…).
I’ve been disgnosed with depression, and I am now ready to talk about it.
As a teenager, I suffered depressive episodes during which I just wanted to curl up and stop everything. There was a lot of crying in the bathroom. I chalked it up to academic difficulties in school, relationship difficulties with friends, relationship difficulties with parents. Hormones. When I was 14, a psychiatrist told my parents I was “well-adjusted.” I took that to mean I could rest on my psychological laurels. Turns out I was just a good enough actress to fool a therapist.
In my 20s, I struggled through a long depressive bout that (I believe) resulted from my inability to say “no” and give myself the alone time I needed to recharge and recenter myself. Self-care has never come naturally to me; it’s always been Put Others’ Needs First, Second, and Third. Things improved when I learned to respect my need for solitude — and when I learned to require others to respect my need, too. Peace entered in when I listened to my spirit saying gently, “It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to take care of you. It’s okay. They’ll be just fine without you. Go do you for a while.”
I got better. I made the life choices I needed to make when I needed to make them. I became a full-time writer. I changed my eating habits and turned myself into a runner. It’s amazing what writing and exercise do for my spirit. There’s really no comparison.
Family History: Depression’s Descendant?
I won’t overshare here, because some things are not mine to share in public. Suffice it to say that there’s a family history of depression and anxiety. Nature or nurture? I believe it’s both, and that both get passed down through the generations. I have a great-great-grandmother who tried twice to stab her husband to death. Her daughter beat my grandfather. And so on and so forth.
Whatever it is, it goes back at least a hundred years. It gets diluted with each successive generation…like a poison poured into a glass of water, poured into the next generation’s glass, and the next, and the next. It’s diluted — I’d venture to say we can’t quite taste it anymore — but it still sickens us ever so slightly.
I fear for my daughter. I want her glass of water to run clear and fresh and pure. I know I can’t protect her fully. And yet, I refuse to give in to fear. “There is still hope,” as the elf-saying goes. I haven’t lost that.
Or rather, I lost hope for a while, but I’ve regained it.
The Demon Called Depression
I’ve never been suicidal.
Oh, there have been times when I wanted to be dead. The pain was great, and I wanted it to stop. I didn’t want to kill myself, never even pondered methods. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to be dead because I wanted the pain to stop. And because I’m a Jesus-follower, I knew that part of what Jesus promises is “no tears” after this life. I desperately yearned for the “no tears” part. The “no pain” promise was for me, and if ever someone wanted it, I did.
So I prayed for God to take me — in a painless way, preferably while I slept, so I wouldn’t have a clue what was happening. I prayed he would comfort my family and friends after I was gone but reassure them they’d see me again. In the meantime, I would enjoy the lack of pain and sorrow.
But never once did I consider ending my own life. Was I still suicidal, since I was asking God to end it? I don’t know what the professionals would say, but I don’t think I was a danger to myself. I thought of myself in the light of the apostle Paul, who said, “If I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live” (Philippians 1:22-23).
If Paul could talk about wanting to rest with Christ, why couldn’t I?
From 2012-2015, I plodded on through a rough pregnancy, delivery, and post-partum recovery:
- Mentally and emotionally, I was a mess because I spent most of the 9 months terrified I would miscarry. (I suffered a miscarriage in 2006; looking back, I have no doubt that a major depressive episode followed, possibly outright depression.)
- During my first trimester one of our cats died unexpectedly and in a shocking way. (A botched spaying basically led to internal bleed-out and heart stopping). I grieved her loss as only a terrified, exhausted pregnant woman can. I haven’t really gotten over it yet.
- I only threw up once the whole pregnancy, but from 10 weeks on I spent every moment feeling nauseated. Eating and drinking were anathema (unless I felt ravenous). Somehow, I managed not to get dehydrated.
- During labor and delivery in September 2012, my tailbone broke. Thankfully, I had an epidural, so I didn’t feel it. But I heard it. And after the epidural wore off, I felt it. I felt it until, oh, April 2015 or thereabouts.
- Four days after delivery, I visited the ER for ultrasounds on both legs to make sure I didn’t have blood clots. (I didn’t.)
- Six days after delivery, I visited the ER again for an impacted bowel. I swear, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a cute little 20-something girl pump soapsuds up your–
- Well, you get the picture.
- Somewhere in there was a UTI.
- Two months after delivery, I discovered that my toenails had died and gotten infected. Apparently this can happen as a result of physical trauma, because the body pulls resources from non-essential systems. They took a year to grow back normal.
- Hair loss.
- Baby weight that still hasn’t come off.
- (Percocet for broken tailbone post-partum) + (sleep deprivation while caring for newborn) = hallucinations
- Re-injury of back (torqued sacrum, to be specific) in June 2014.
- 11 months total of physical therapy for spine injuries.
- All the stress, frustration, worry, and guilt that go along with being a (new) mother.
And the stress, frustration, worry, and guilt refused to let up. Instead of decreasing, they increased. They turned into anxiety and anger. By January/February 2015, I was pretty sure something was seriously wrong.
Duh, you might say.
But have you ever been so close to a situation that you couldn’t see the truth of it? That’s a rhetorical question, because I know the answer is “yes”; not seeing the forest for the trees is pretty much a constant of the human condition. With everything I dealt with from 2012-2014, maybe it should’ve been a logical conclusion that I’d spiral into a major depression. But you know what? Maybe not. Maybe it wasn’t so obvious.
Maybe I’m just a good enough actress to fool myself in addition to fooling a lot of people around me.
Maybe my smile looked genuine enough in the mirror to fool even me into believing that a demon hadn’t taken up residence inside me.
About six months ago, I realized I felt angry pretty much all the time. I also cried a lot. I had no desire whatsoever to be around people. I didn’t want to leave the house for anything. I couldn’t get to sleep. I couldn’t stay asleep. I couldn’t wake up in the morning.
My thoughts were not normal for me:
“I can’t do this (read: anything, really).”
“I didn’t sign up for this kind of life.”
And, most telling:
“My daughter deserves a better mother than this pathetic one she has. I can’t do anything right by her.”
“God made a mistake when he made *me* a mother.”
Without getting deeply into theology, I’ll tell you this: the idea that “God Commits Errors” is not part of my belief system. If God chose to make me a mother (which I believe he did), then his choice was not an error. Intellectually, I was confident in this as Truth.
Emotionally, I railed at him for inflicting me upon this beautiful, innocent child.
My anger increased. And, to make a long story short (too late), most of that anger was nonsensically turning in the direction of that beautiful, innocent child.
That, my dear friends and neighbors, is unacceptable.
For her sake, if not for my own or my longsuffering husband’s, I had to change.
In May 2015, I saw my general practitioner, who agreed with my self-diagnosis of depression and prescribed Zoloft.
Depression is sitting in a dark cave, curled with with your knees to your chest and your arms wrapped around your legs. You’re terrified to move, because if you move, Things Will Get Worse. You don’t know how or why, you just know that they will. You’re curled up in this dark, dank, miserable place, and you cannot see an exit. Your eyes are wild and wide, but you cannot see even the faintest hint of light. You are incapable of movement. You are incapable of reaching out or calling out for help. Somewhere deep inside, you hope that someone will reach in and wrap their fingers around yours and tug gently. If that happened, maybe you could follow that gentle encouragement back to its source, back to the light and the warmth and the real. But very few people know how to reach in like that. And even if they do, you find that all you can do is twitch in response. You can’t actually move enough to follow them anywhere.
Depression is a dark cloud of doom that hangs slightly behind you and overhead, always just out of sight no matter how quickly you turn to confront it. It never goes away. It follows you everywhere. It blocks out warmth and light. It is an invisible, intangible jailer, and it mocks you.
Depression is like you’re trying to use one potato to peel another potato. *If* someone offers help and you accept, you find that they’ve handed you another potato.
Depression is Sisyphus.
Depression is running through a dark, foggy forest full of pitfalls and sharp rocks and trees that reach out to grab you. A black dog with blood in his teeth is chasing you. You can’t outrun him. You can’t outsmart him. You can’t hide from him. Every time you throw a terrified glance over your shoulder, HE IS RIGHT THERE, tearing at your heels. You scream, and he howls in triumph. You can feel his damp breath and smell the rot that follows him everywhere. And no one can keep him off you.
Depression is a sweet voice pulling you further into the darkness with seductive whispers.
Depression is a rough, gravelly voice that beats you down with the “truth” that you’re not good enough, you’re a terrible person, if people really knew you, they would hate you, you’re worthless.
Depression is the She-Hulk, a rage always boilling beneath the surface, and once she breaks her bonds, you can do nothing to stop her. She takes over, grows to insane proportions, and destroys whatever is in her path.
Depression is quicksand grabbing you around the knees and pulling you into its suffocating embrace, and you can’t apply the anecdotal “fix” of stretching out flat on top of it and “swimming” to safety.
Depression is a vast, sludgy ocean that sucks you down and contains no life, and you can’t see a shore or lifeline anywhere.
Depression is dark shadows overlaying everything you see. (For some people, this is literal.)
Depression is a demon that lives inside you, an invisible disease of your will and emotions. The demon makes you smile when you don’t feel like it. The demon makes you participate in activities you don’t want any part of. The demon uses your body and your face like a meatsuit, playing at human life with the goal of keeping up appearances. The demon doesn’t want anyone else to know it’s inside you. The demon acts human so that no one will find out that it’s devouring your internal organs, eating you from the inside out. Only sometimes does the demon show its true face — and then only when it knows that the witnesses can’t (or won’t) do anything to cast the demon out.
“Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depression, major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and depression may make you feel as if life isn’t worth living.
“More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn’t a weakness, nor is it something that you can simply ‘snap out’ of.
“A variety of factors may be involved, such as: biological differences, brain chemistry (neurotransmitters), hormones, thyroid problems, inherited traits, [and] life events.”
Dealing with the Demon
The day I got the prescription, I started taking Zoloft. My doctor warned that it would be weeks before I felt a difference, if I felt one at all. It could be months.
Maybe wishful thinking or psychosoma took over, but I swear I felt an effect within two-and-a-half weeks. There came a weekend where I looked back on the foregoing week and realized that I hadn’t cried or even felt like crying. Another week, and I found myself putting on real clothes and washing my hair and taking the toddler to playgrounds. By June, I wanted to be around people. In July, I found myself more active in our house church, and the sudden influx of family for a reunion didn’t send me into the fetal position.
Best of all, I was exercising patience with my child.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors “increase the extracellular level of the neurotransmitter serotonin by limiting its reabsorption into the presynaptic cell, increasing the level of serotonin in the synaptic cleft available to bind to the postsynaptic receptor.”
Zoloft is an SSRI: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor.
I remember learning about those in college psych classes. On exams, I never had trouble recalling anything I’d learned about them — because they sounded so poetic. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The words flow off the tongue in perfect sibilants and labials, consonants forming a lovely rhythm. The “reup-” diphthong encourages a perky, upward motion of the head as you speak, as though the word itself on your lips is part of the treatment. The entire phrase is a poem of the soul, designed to move forward, move along, move on, get past this, leave behind all the dullness and lack of melody.
These drugs I’m now taking, I used to think they were poetry.
I’m not a professional counselor, but I’ve had counseling training, and I’ve been in a position (by necessity) in which I’ve counseled others. Some of those others have suffered from depression. I took care not to offer anything in the way of “professional” advice; I always pointed those individuals toward the fully trained, the licensed, the practiced.
Still, I sat only on one side of the “desk.” I settled myself in the “chair” instead of on the “couch.” I functioned as counselor, not client. I was the listening ear and the shoulder to cry on — not the one to speak or to weep.
Now, suddenly, *I* am the one with the disease.
It is a weird and humbling experience, and I don’t like it.
It isn’t poetic or perky at all.
Suffering from depression represents yet one more fracture in my illusion of control. (All sense of control is an illusion; if you don’t believe this, you’re still in illusion’s grip. I recommend the red pill.) Maybe I didn’t offer advice…but as long as I sat in the chair instead of lying on the couch, I could at least fool myself into believing I was master of my situation. That belief, though ever tenuous, has now crumbled. I’m not adrift, as I remain in possession of my firm foundation, but I’m still at a loss to reconcile Who I Think I Am with this ill person who requires anti-depressants in order to function.
Like I said. It’s humbling.
Which isn’t a bad thing. Humility is never a bad thing. And through this whole experience, I am learning greater sympathy and empathy toward others who experience depression. That’s not a bad thing, either.
It’s just such a strange thing to acknowledge consciously and intentionally that I have a mental illness.
I have a mental illness.
I have a mental illness.
I do not say that I’m mentally ill.
Mental illness is not something I am, it’s something I *have*.
Just like I *have* neurocardiogenic syncope, premature ventricular contractions, a milk allergy, arthritis, scoliosis, hypermobility, and chronic sinusitis.
I am not these (mostly invisible) diseases and conditions. I have them, but they do not define who I am. I must deal with them on a daily basis, but they do not determine the nature of my person. And they certainly do not decide what direction my life goes.
(Speaking of those other conditions, though, I’ve noticed a pleasant “side effect” to the anti-depressants: I haven’t been experiencing nearly as many premature ventricular contrations since I started taking Zoloft. Instead of three per day, I’ve been feeling maybe three per week. This lovely development has led my cardiologist and me to cut my beta-blocker in half, with the goal of eliminating it altogether within the next few months. Since beta-blockers have some fairly onerous side effects, I am all in on getting rid of them.)
So. I’m not mentally ill. I have a mentall illness. It’s more than just a semantic difference to me. It represents my acceptance of this but also my determination not to let it rule me. I am not subject to depression. I do not belong to depression.
The demon does not own me.
I am aimed at and headed toward healthy.
When my doctor gave me the Zoloft prescription, she said, “We do not call these your ‘happy pills.’ If anything, we call these your ‘normal pills’ — because we’re trying to get you back to what’s normal for you.”
With her help, I came to realize that I’ve dealt with depression for at least three years, likely longer. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if I haven’t had some form of depression since the miscarriage in 2006.
When you’re just just trying to live your life from one day to the next, it’s difficult to step back and see the big picture (see: Forest for the Trees Syndrome again). It’s even easier to tell yourself this is just a temporary setback, I’ll get past this, it’ll be fine, tomorrow is another day, ad infinitum. But finally, I am seeing more of that picture and realizing that I’ve been treading water, close to drowning, for a lot longer than I’d realized.
The good news is, the dark cloud no longer hangs over my head.
The black dog no longer nips at my heels.
I have a potato peeler.
My organs are regenerating, and the demon’s presence has weakened.
I still have bad moments, bad days. In fact, as I write this, I am coming out of a particularly bad week. I missed some exercise days, and that has contributed to the lows. I also just published a novel 20 years in the making, and it took a lot of extra oomph I really didn’t have. But I gave it anyway, and then I crashed*.
The dark cloud no longer hangs over me, but I know it lurks beyond the horizon.
The black dog no longer nips at my heels, but sometimes I can still hear his howl.
My potato peeler isn’t always sharp.
The demon has weakened, but it’s still there.
I can hear it waiting.
And so, I do what I must to take care of myself.
I take time for me. Alone time. Writing time. Workout time. Friends time. These are all separate times, and I take them. It means being away from my family. So be it. I am a better mother and wife when I take time away from them.
I take my exercise. I run. I zumba. I don’t yoga as much as I’d like, but I’m working back up to it.
I take my meds. I’ve always had an aversion to taking pills. But I don’t mind taking these little blue ones at all. They make me feel that much better.
I take a step back. When emotions start to get the better of me, I take a step back and ask myself what I’m doing and whether I need to step out of the room. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Either way is okay.
I take these healthful resources because I need them.
This is where I am. No guilt.
I’ll stay here for as long as I need to.
*Vegging in front of the TV, watching “my boys“. They’re great therapy.
P.S. I will see a therapist at some point, but I’m not quite there, yet. In time.