I was talking to a patron (at work I have to call them "customers," but I think "patrons" sounds more respectful, less cheap) today about depression and anxiety--how hard it is for loved ones who don't "get it," how hard it is to watch one's loved ones not getting it. I wrote an article attempting to explain it to those who'd never been through it a few years back, and dug it up for him on the web. It was published in Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, a GLBTQ journal in Rehoboth Beach, DE (I wrote monthly columns then). I've decided to re-post it here, because I think it still works and says stuff that one can't say when one's in the thick of it. Here goes:
How Your Depressed Partner Feels
I do nothing. I sit. I stare at the screen, where a cute sad dot takes Zoloft and starts to smile. For the first time in five years, my drugs have stopped working.
My partner, who I’ve been with for four, has never known the me that seems on her way back. If I become as sick as I was before, I won’t be able to help her through it. I’ll be more log than partner, less companionable than a house fly. I won’t have the will to describe what hurts, and how.
I want to try now, while I can taste it, for her and for anyone who has a depressed partner, to describe how it feels.
Being alive is desperately uncomfortable, like a drive-you-crazy case of poison ivy. For a while you try to find the thing that will make you feel better: another cigarette, a certain food or drink. But nothing does—not these, and not the love and concern of your partner and friends. Those things can actually feel burdensome: you want to be "up" for them, enough to assure them of something, when all the while you feel like you’re in a different, barely livable dimension. You know you’re hurting their feelings because you can’t make long eye contact (it’s painful to look at them while feeling so far away from them) or smile (it feels phony, and being phony with someone you love feels terrible) and seem unwilling to try—but you are trying; you’re trying every minute, struggling your ass off.
I remember lying completely still all day for months, a blanket pulled over my head, looking as if I was "giving in" to my depression. I was working so damn hard under that blanket! And what I was doing was trying not to kill myself. The feeling that I needed to was as urgent as a healthy person’s need to breathe. Staying alive felt not like being Sisyphus, pushing a rock uphill every day for eternity, but like being Prometheus, chained to a rock, his liver eaten out by vultures every day for all time. Most mentally healthy people feel like Sisyphus at one time or another, but few feel like Prometheus. I hope to Zeus I never do again.
However extreme it sounds, not killing myself at that time was an excruciating sacrifice made again every second for my family. To lay down my (mentally healthy, mostly) life for them now would not be as large. When you’re that sick, the desire to "free" yourself of life is no less instinctual than the actions of the fox that gnaws off his leg to get free of a trap. My wrists, then, were as tempting and magnetic to me as the object of an obsessive crush. I bought wristbands to hide them from myself. I kept peeking. I resorted to sitting on my wrists most of the time. I wasn’t afraid I would slit them, nothing that delicate. I was afraid I’d gnaw through them.
Try to understand this if a clinically depressed person you love attempts or successfully commits suicide. Don’t plague yourself—or the person, if s/he lives—with Why?s. The three preceding paragraphs are why.
There are as many myths and preconceptions about clinically depressed people as there are about gays and lesbians. The only things we haven’t been accused of yet are having a "mentally ill agenda" and hanging around restrooms trying to seduce kids into a life of nervous breakdowns.
Knowing that some hold these myths about my depression is as painful to me as knowing that others hold them about my homosexuality. So, in closing, two quick attempts at myth-dispelling.
1. People With Depression Should "Buck Up" and Get Over It. People with mild depressive periods may be able to "buck up" and get through, but asking this of someone with a major depressive disorder is akin to asking a diabetic to "be a man" and forgo insulin. The longer someone seriously ill tries to buck up without seeking help, the worse and more damaging his or her depression may get. I "bucked up" for three years before coming out depressed. When I finally did, it was only because my legs were shaking so badly I couldn’t stand up. I was afraid to leave my bedroom. And I was due on campus to teach two sections of English 101.
2. You Should Be Able to Snap Out of Depression Because It’s "All In Your Mind." Um, is there any worse place it could be? If I had broken ribs, I could do something to "take my mind off" the pain. But a broken mind’s always with you. There’s no way to outrun it, no distraction, no relief.
I think we find that hard to believe or accept because we find it so hard to imagine. I hope that, this article notwithstanding, you and yours will always find it hard to imagine. I was originally thinking of titling this "Depression: Clip N’ Save!" But I hope you never need it. I hope your lover never needs it. And I hope, in a few weeks, with me on a new, effective drug cocktail, mine won’t need it.