The first time I was diagnosed with depression was the summer I was 20. I had suffered from it before that but had been good at hiding it or had diffused it in other ways, like running or controlling what I ate or taking long drives in the country to escape and to think and, sometimes, to cry.
But that summer I finally couldn't hide it anymore. I was supposed to stay in Michigan until the fall but I couldn't find a job, and I spent most days plodding from place to place either not feeling anything or feeling, fuzzily, that something wasn't quite right. I was anxious and unable to convince myself that anything was real. Finally I called my dad and said, "I'm sick and I think I need to come home."
So he came and got me. I went home and into therapy. I started taking an antidepressant. Slowly my feelings came back, one by one. It felt like waiting for the pins and needles to subside after your arm falls asleep, except instead of my fingers it was my heart, my lungs, my head, myself, and it took months. The moment I knew I would be OK I was on a plane coming back from France and saw on the flight-tracking map that we were over Michigan; I did a little excited dance in my seat without even thinking about it and then, later, realized, OH. I went back to school in the fall feeling like myself and like I could handle things. I have, more or less, handled things since then.
Here is the problem with depression, though: It doesn't go away. Even after you figure out the medication part of it. Even when you learn how to cope and what things will make you feel better when it seems like nothing will ever make you feel better. Even after you learn that it isn't your fault, it's just that your brain, your stupid brain, doesn't work quite right; is fucked up in a very particular sort of way that, cruelly, impossibly, has nothing to do with you at all. Even after you come to understand that you should just ignore the voice in your head that tells you you're worthless and that nothing is ever going to get better and why do you even bother? Dealing with depression is exhausting and a lot of work and the problem, ultimately, is that even after you do all of the work and and all of the dealing, it still never really goes away.
It surfaces for me rarely now. My last bad bout with it was a few years ago when the medication that I had been taking for years abruptly stopped working for me. Everything felt foggy. I made my way through my days and got my work done and I doubt it was noticeable to anyone else, but nothing felt right to me. I switched medication, and the new one worked for awhile until it didn't, and then I was suddenly wading through the darkness - viscous, thick, up to my neck. I couldn't find meaning in anything, I couldn't fathom it would ever get better. I thought about killing myself. This was all hard on Brandon, which I understood logically but couldn't bring myself to care about. Finally I went back to my psychiatrist - this seems simple, I know, but it took weeks of convincing myself to make the appointment; even the idea of the phone call was exhausting - and she switched my medication. Within a week I was me again.
This, I think, is the very problem that some people have with antidepressants, which I understand because sometimes it's scary to me too - that it just took a new prescription to correctly regulate the chemistry in my brain to make me feel fine again. But that's not the right way to look at it. The medication keeps me on the surface, it prevents me from trawling the depths by myself, but it doesn't make me happy and it doesn't change who I am. If someone is drowning you throw her a life preserver, and you don't think twice about it and you don't think she's weak for needing it. Once she's back on the solid deck of the ship, she still has to face the rest of her life. It's like that.
On the whole, I do not actually think too much about my brain or my depression. I take my pill every morning - one glossy tablet, half butter yellow, half light green - and I go about my life. I do not deal with the throes much anymore, but sometimes they tug at me, and they did, suddenly, on Saturday.
I woke up feeling out of sorts, for no reason I could point to beyond the race I had registered for months ago and did not end up participating in. Brandon got up and made coffee and went to the gym and I stayed home, immobile, trapped in my own self-loathing. He came home with flowers for me, and we ate and I watched football with him until I couldn't anymore.
"I'm going to lie down," I said, and went to the bedroom. I curled on my side and counted the ways in which I felt inadequate and useless.
It was a long list. Eventually I stopped counting.
Brandon came in a while later. He curled himself around me like a comma. He asked if it was his fault, and once I said no, he understood without me really having to explain. He asked if I wanted ice cream, or a mimosa, or to play cards or Monopoly or to go to a movie. He was (is always) so patient and so kind and I cried twice, quickly, silently, because I knew I didn't deserve it. He held me, his breath on my neck. He left for a bit. Then he checked on me. Then he checked on me again.
Later, I remembered that a museum two blocks from our house was setting up a Ferris wheel in the middle of the street as part of its annual fundraiser. I reminded Brandon and then I debated going. It would be neat, and fun, and really easy to get to, but I would have to get dressed, and the tasks of moving and putting on clothes and going out into the world seemed insurmountable. Impossible.
He didn't pressure me, just waited. Finally, after going back and forth, I said, "OK, let's go."
"Really?" he said, excited, proud of me, maybe a little relieved. "Yesss!"
We walked over hand in hand and bought our tickets ($1 each). The line moved slowly so I took pictures of this improbable thing, this lit-up attraction in the middle of the road. I rested my head on Brandon's shoulder. I felt sprinklings of normalcy, of gratitude for this steady and understanding person who didn't need me to explain anything and still wanted to be with me. We rode the wheel, strapped in together, flying through the warm air hundreds of feet above the ground.
We saw our house; we watched the sunset. When we climbed out it felt ludicrous that I had almost missed this chance.
I woke up yesterday and I felt fine. Silly and ridiculous and like me but 18 pounds lighter. I can't explain it other than to say that depression is stupid and dark and it claws at you even when you think it's been vanquished to the very back reaches of your mind. My stupid brain doesn't work quite right and so I feel everything too much sometimes and I blame myself for most of it even when none of it is my fault. And that's OK. Most days, I know that in the same way I know my name, and I don't have to think about or apologize for it. But some days - rarely, these days - I don't.
On the way to the Ferris wheel my husband asked just once if I had been keeping up with my antidepressant. I have, I said. And I will.
But it's there, and I know it is. Most of the time, I kick it in the teeth and go on with my day. It's just that sometimes - rarely, but sometimes still - it wins.
If you need help or someone to talk to, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or chat with someone online here. So many of us have been there. You are not alone, and the world is better with you in it.