The following is from my newsletter about surviving difficult times and managing depression. I had an experience today that I catalogued as it was happening, and shared with the subscribers of the newsletter. I’m sharing it here as well, in case you need it.
• • •
#145: Let’s Talk About Depression, Pt. 5 (long)
I’ve written several articles about Depression (this one and this one are still on HuffPo, the others have been deleted in last week’s purge). In most of them, I’m standing on the outside of it, looking at it as an object, and I try to discuss it for others so that they can cope with it.
This time, I’m actively experiencing it. Right now, as I write this. I catalogued my experiences throughout the day as I went to work and tried to exist normally, amidst this black tar of Depression dripping from my skin. I do so in the hopes that you might benefit from knowing how it happens with me. If you suffer from Depression, I hope that you’ll find comfort in the knowledge that you’re not alone. If you do not, I hope that you’ll read this and gain understanding about those of us who do.
• • •
I’m sitting in my truck in the parking lot outside of my workplace and tears are streaming down my face. It’s early. I woke up from a dead sleep feeling… Sad is the only word for it. Depressed is another word. Somehow neither of those words really convey what I’m experiencing right now. I couldn’t go back to sleep. So I decided to try to go into work.
I didn’t have a bad dream. I didn’t receive any bad news. My girlfriend and I are great. The animals are healthy. My job is awesome. The rent is paid. I got a little ill last night from some Cajun food, but nothing that would shut me down or make me regret waking up this morning, or even daring to be alive.
There’s no reason for me to feel this dreadful, painful sadness. I mean, the state of the world being what it is and all, there’s a general malaise that encompasses us all. But nothing that would cause this level of hurt inside me, on this morning in particular. I went to bed feeling okay. I woke up this morning and wanted to disappear from this Earth.
I want to say I have no idea why, but I can’t. I know exactly what it is, because it’s happened before. It’s something I have had to manage most of my adult life. It’s Depression. It’s been a few years since I’ve experienced this. I almost forgot that it could happen. But here it is.
I feel so terribly vulnerable right now. I feel like every emotion I have is on display, like sayings on a t-shirt, telling the world every dreadful feeling passing through my mind and my body.
One moment I’m remembering old friends from an old life, and I’m not sad about them or the passage of time, I’m just sad that things turned out how they did. They don’t make me sad, but they are sad things and my mind just drifts to them. The next moment I’m about to lose my shit because I have a part of a sound of a song I like stuck in my head, and can’t remember the artist or album name and scrolling through my music list isn’t helping, and it’s somehow a metaphor for my entire life and I am literally crying because of it.
I can’t find the will to get out of my truck and go into the building. I want to turn around and go home. I could. My higher ups are super understanding, and they wouldn’t bat an eye. I wouldn’t have to even explain anything. But I know from past experience many moons ago that that will make it worse. It gives Depression a dormant body to thrive in.
It’s almost an hour since I got to the parking lot, and I’m about to finally build up the courage to go inside. I know that the second I do, I’m going to find a secluded room and work from there, because the very last thing I want to do is explain to everyone why my face is flushed and my eyes are red and swollen.
• • •
It’s lunchtime. I’m eating a salad from the cafeteria downstairs and listening to some Vaporwave music in a small room away from everyone. I’m blinking out a tear or two every few minutes. I’m not choking them back, or fighting them, or trying to hide anything. They just show up, fall, and then stop for a bit. It’s how this thing goes.
Each one streams down my cheek with no real destination, and with no one or nothing’s name attached. There’s no reason for these tears, aside from the fact that Depression showed up and took over. My body hurts in a way that I can’t quite explain. It’s not sore. It’s not wracked with pain. It’s not burning or itching or tight or achy. It just has a dull undercurrent of discomfort. I stretch and move when the mood strikes. I am drinking plenty of water. I have cut back on the coffee. None of these things help in the moment, but for the future, they’ll help immensely. It’s something I learned a long time ago: there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop Depression at any given moment. All your work is done to eliminate reasons for it to stay.
• • •
1 PM. I’m sitting on a conference call, wanting to crawl under the table and cry until I pass out.
It’s not been a bad day in particular. Work is steady but nothing is crazy. That’s a huge blessing. If this hit during a crunch, I’d be a hinderance to my team. I am the energy of the team. I am the guy who keeps things going when they’re tough. I solve problems and keep things moving.
People notice when I’m anything besides happy. As it stands, I’ve had to dodge or deflect at least a dozen inquiries as to what’s going on with me. I’m not super at hiding my emotions when there aren’t playing cards or Monoploy pieces involved.
It’s such a strange feeling to be around these people I see five out of seven days a week, week after week, and know that, if only for today, right now, our relationship is completely different than it’s ever been. They are the same as they’ve been since I met them. I, however, feel like a naked and scared alien dressed in human clothes, hoping like hell none of them look too hard at the “normal” uniform I’ve put on for the day.
With every word exchanged, I fight to maintain a balance between opening up completely and telling them the depths of my pain, and running away without saying goodbye and never seeing them again. The first is impossible, because I couldn’t explain it if I tried. Even after all these years, and all the learning I’ve done, and all the education I’ve shared… I don’t understand what’s going on with me, or why it’s happening at all. And I can’t run away without saying bye, because I’d probably run out of steam after ten paces. I barely have the energy to say hi back when they tell me hello.
My relationship with some of these folks goes back nearly four years, and at least a year with the rest. The bond we share is healthily, energetic and fun. We talk about any number of things each day. Work related stuff, politics, dinner ideas, who went on dates and how they went. We are all friendly, and for the most part, not in the fake plastic way that people pretend to be at work. We all genuinely get along. Some I consider genuine friends.
And when they’re near me today, I fight the urge to break down and tell them how sorry I am for not being well. They’re not blind or stupid. I’ve been asked a dozen times if I’m okay. I fight the urge to say “No, I’m not okay at all, and there’s no real reason for it aside from the fact that sometimes my brain fucks with me because it doesn’t know how to manage itself.”
I want to tell them “It used to be so much worse, but over the course of years I’ve learned how to pre-empt the worst attacks and mitigate the medium sized ones by recognizing the signs. I manage my mental health with cognitive behavioral therapy and for the most part, I’ve been able to turn the tide of bipolar disorder into a very minor occurrence. But every so often — in this case, several years since the last one — I get surprise attacks where I wake up and everything is just wrong, and I don’t hate you or anyone else but right now I really wish either all of you, or I, would disappear.”
Only instead of any of that, I say “Eh, rough morning, I’ll be ok tho, thank you for asking.” When a few of them pry, I tell them I’m a little ill from the Cajun food we had to celebrate Fat Tuesday. It’s not a lie, that shit is heavy, and my body hates me every time I have it. Due to the nature of the other side of my feeling ill, I’m genuinely thankful that I’m a little upset at my stomach. It keeps me from having to lie.
Even in this state, that’s important to me. I don’t want to lie, even if it’s the easier or best thing to do. In this instance, it’s fortunate I have a genuine excuse. If I didn’t, I’d have to make something up, because there’s no way I could burden these people with the truth of all of this.
For someone who has a reputation for always telling the truth, I know that this truth is not a fair one to throw at the people, especially the ones I work with. Our relationship is not one of pure choice. It’s mandated by the fact we all need money to survive, and it’s fortunate that we like each other enough to banter and socialize periodically (and in some cases, become genuine friends outside of work). But to pull open my chest and rip out my heart and show them all the places it feels broken is a messy affair and leaves them with the unfair consequence of having to avoid, from today on, the spot on the carpet surrounding my desk where I bled out in front of them.
I’ve made it through another call, and am hibernating at my desk, counting the minutes until I can leave and not have anyone question if I’m sick or where I’m at. I’m keeping busy with work, pushing pixels around and listening to music that keeps me distracted. It’s a relief. Focusing on how I feel — even though it’s absolutely important for me to catalog for future study — has exhausted me.
Someone comes up to me and waits patiently for me to notice them. I wait just long enough to see if they’re actually waiting for me, or if they just happened to stop near my desk. The timeline for happenstance expires, and I reluctantly take out my earbuds and look up at them. I try to smile, but I don’t think it worked.
“Hey Joe,” my coworker says, “how long are you here for?”
I want to scream at them for bothering me with a pre-question before the one they really want to ask — especially THAT question, since I’d literally been working out the math to determine when I could fucking leave. I want to tell them to go to hell for assuming my time belonged to them. I want to cry right on the spot because I feel, in this moment, that I may not make it through the next minute much less hour. I want to run. I want to fight. I want to apologize, because none of this is their fault. But I’ve not done anything truly wrong yet, besides look up at them without being my normal chipper self. Even that feels like a horrible offense to me.
I answer “I’m not sure, what’s up?” With a tone that I cannot help. Somehow, trying not to sound bitter, or irate, or put out, or smart-assed, I come off sounding like all of them combined.
My coworker tells me that they want to go over something with the user interface. They’ve been working on a feature I designed, and wants to know what I think of it, if I have time.
A thousand thoughts glint through my mind like moths around a lightbulb. Everything screams at me at once. I ask him if it’s okay if we visit it first thing in the morning, I’m pretty plugged in on the thing I’m working on and I’m having a hard time concentrating on anything else.
“Oh, I totally get that!” My coworker says. “No problem — you okay?”
Moths circle the lightbulb once again.
“Yeah, just tired,” I reply.
Another non-lie that isn’t the truth.
Four o’clock hits. I pack my things and begin walking out. My manager comes up and makes a joke. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what it was right now. I smile the best I can and say “Man, you can’t get away with anything these days!” It’s my go-to response anytime anyone says something to me and I didn’t quite catch it, or don’t quite understand, or am not into the conversation. It works 100% of the time. It doesn’t matter what my manager said.
Manager asks “Leaving early?”
“Man, you can’t get away with anything these days!” (Laughter)
At a party, someone asks “Can you believe what Trump said in the speech last night?”
“Man, you can’t get away with anything these days!” (Laughter)
Significant other asks “Whatcha drinking there?”
“Man, you can’t get away with anything these days!” (Laughter)
Judge says “I find you guilty and sentence you to seven years in prison!”
…You get the point. Try it. It works.
I get on the elevator. Another coworker is on it. They ask how I’m doing. I say “It’s quittin’ time, so you know how that goes.” Another careful avoidance of having to either lie or tell the truth. Thankfully, there are other people that we don’t know, and elevator social doctrine takes hold. No one says anything meaningful for the entire 17 floor ride. The doors open, and I leave the building in a haste that is usually reserved for the day a really great video game or awesome hockey match is waiting for me at home.
I get in my truck. I don’t even get the engine started before the tears start falling again. Not out of some sort of relief, or some pent-up sadness, but simply because they could. It’s not like there was a rush of emotions or any grand swell leading up to my need to leave before I break down. I just got in the truck, and that’s when the waterworks decided to flow.
• • •
It’s been, according to my journal, three years, 122 days since I’ve had this level of acute onset depression where I go to bed okay, and wake up and get sucker-punched by it and have to taste the iron swimming in my mouth and swallow the blood and try not to emotionally puke. I’ve had sad days — I’ve had breakups, I’ve had best friends pass away suddenly, I’ve had weird work situations, and any number of downs to go along with my ups. Those are explainable and understandable. They don’t qualify.
The major difference between sadness and depression is reasonability. Depression is not reasonable. It simply doesn’t care. It shows up and takes up residence and you’re stuck with it until it leaves — either because it gets bored, or because you know how to exorcise it. And the latter has absolutely no guarantee of success.
I’m home and writing this now. I’m tearing up as I write, not because anything I’ve written is causing me pain, but because my body simply wants to let whatever this is, out. It feels the need to cry. It feels the need to purge. I don’t really get many opportunities these days to just open the faucet and let the tears rain down. After the events of my life turning upside down in 2013, I feel like I cried every tear I had, and there has been a drought since. I cried for a spell when my friend Jeremy passed. I have had a few misty-eyed moments here and there. But by and large, the huge, heaving emotional upheaval has been nowhere to be found. Not that I want them, or that I have any particular reason to have them. But I do know, a lot of sadness has been stored up in parts and pieces over the past few years.
This past weekend, I had a hard night when I deleted most of my writing from my career. I wrote about it then, and cried a few tears, and I haven’t thought about it since. But I wonder if opening myself up then and experiencing that emotion of loss put me in a place where there were other things I needed to process, but haven’t, and they’re still floating.
Perhaps this is just a residual effect from that? I think deleting everything and having that vulnerable moment opened things up a bit and stirred some emotions that needed to come out. Cleaning the emotional grease trap, so to speak. And this might be that sticky lump of years-old grease that has to be scraped off.
Or perhaps it’s a result of my attempts at working out regularly going haywire left and right. I’ve had no regularity to my regemin. I’ve hit the gym in spurts, worked out as hard as I’m able, and then I’m off for a week or more. The flu a few weeks ago really knocked me for a loop. Maybe this is from that?
But I know the truth. Depression is a part of me, as much as my ego, my id, my superego, my thoughts, my feelings, and my need to shake my leg when I’ve had too much caffeine. And for as long as I’m able to pay attention to any of those things, I’m able to manage them and keep them all in check. But when I’ve lost that attention; when I take a break or rest on the laurels of work well done, is when I run the risk of having it sneak up and sucker punch me.
Managing Depression (and bipolar in general) is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week job. After the active part comes the passive part — doing all the right things to keep balance. Not drinking too much alcohol or caffeine. Working out regularly. Writing and processing emotions. Doing good work. Removing toxic circumstances from my life. Being healthy, both physically and mentally. Practicing self-care.
I can’t say I’ve gotten particularly lax on any of those things besides the physical workouts. But I can say, I haven’t given them the priority I did when things were truly haywire and I had to do the hard work of learning all of this in the first place. So, it’s not a shock or a surprise that this old, very unwelcome guest has come to crash for a while.
The other tricky thing about Depression is that it’s like getting a cat into a carrier. The harder you push, the more it resists. You have to work with it and understand it. You have to manage it into a position where it can be moved. Then, you have to act quickly. You have to make the right moves, at the right speed, in the right way, or you’ll lose it and have to chase it down again. To say it gets easier over time is both true and unfair. It confers the idea that it’s like typing on a keyboard or playing the guitar — as you learn, it just become second nature, and before you know it, you’re doing it without even thinking.
For the management part once balance is restored, yes, that’s true. But for dealing with it when it’s in your face? No. It’s a very active, very direct, very purposeful series of habits, coping mechanisms, applied learning and management.
Writing this is part of that. Sharing it with you all is as well. Not that that’s required, but it does help me feel better to know that I can capture this moment and share it with others who have to deal with the same thing. It helps to know that I’m not alone, and it helps to think that you’ll read this and know you’re not alone as well.
So, that’s where I’ll leave this. Thank you for reading.