I tried to explain having a mental illness to someone without one the other day, and it was like trying to tell Crayola executives about a color I invented, only in Swedish, while trying to make Jell-O.
Other than haphazard comparisons – “It’s like an allergy attack, only you want to kill yourself instead of sneeze…” “It’s like being on the Gravitron at a carnival while trying to tie your shoes…” “Have you ever been really high but also recovering from food poisoning…” – there really isn’t a way for me to put into words what it’s like. Fighting off an episode is exhausting. There really isn’t much more to say.
A lot has been written about depression and anxiety over the past few decades. The advent of pop psychology, and self-help books that became all the rage in the 1980s and ‘90s, allowed for many of us to grow up on Dr. Phil, or perusing the pages of books left on our mothers’ nightstands:
Women Who Love Too Much
Women Who Run With The Wolves
Feel The Fear Within
Awaken the Woman Within
The Anxiety Cure All
Depression Kills, Hope Cures
I Love You, Please Leave
25 Shades of Taupe
I hid in my closet, thumbing through these tomes, as my parents shouted insults at one another in the kitchen. I came away from those chapters with the knowledge that a) my parents were inevitably heading towards divorce and b) I had some seriously serious psychological problems. I thought that making someone well-adjusted was something that chiropractors did. I cried at Garfield cartoons and remained stone faced at family funerals. My favorite childhood fantasy was that Cher was actually my birth mother, and she would be coming back for me, sequined unitard and all.
As a creative kid growing up in a broken home in the suburbs, I was typical. I made the same shitty decisions as almost every teenager of my generation born into the same circumstances did. Because my behavior and moods were largely unmanageable for my mother, who also grappled with similar afflictions, I was sent to a therapist at a young age. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, a mild dissociative disorder and NSSI (non-suicidal self-injury) and it was recommended that I get on pills. My father refused to pay for the Prozac/Wellbutrin/Xanax cocktail, which, looking back on, I commend him for. My therapist, unable to write a prescription, meekly suggested I started journaling about my feelings. Those journals turned into poems, those poems multiplied, became stories, became scripts, became narrative. Writing kept me almost close enough to stable, and I survived my parents divorce and high-school without too many vicious scrape-ups.
In high-school, my poetry got me into college. After graduation, my college degree got me my first job in Los Angeles, at the story department at a major movie studio. I was able to toil away in a field of flawed artists filled with the same Pandora’s box I’d been accustomed to: addiction, anorexia, depression, anxiety. The link between the intellectualism, creativity, and mental illness is fairly well-known, scientists have even isolated a single gene, DARPP-32, as being the likely culprit. But, previous history, studies, and even a community of similarly plagued degenerates hasn’t kept me from my own personal MMA battle with my brain chemistry. Just because I’m suffering from the flu like 200,000 other people doesn’t make it any more bearable for my body. Mental illness is a personal albatross, no matter how many flashlight beams of science, fact! are shone on its dark crevices. Those dark crevices are my pied-a-terre, along with countless others. It’s our hostile hostel; we live there sometimes, and it sucks.
The problem with being a semi-aware, introspective adult is that I know when my neurochemistry starts backfiring…yet there’s nothing I can do about it. One day I’m fine, reacting admirably to life on life’s terms and interacting with the world in a nuanced, logically guided manner…the next day I think that my closest friends actually loathe me and I’m the most repugnant oozing pustule it’s no wonder I’m single, I should slice myself to ribbons with the nearest sharp object.
“Why don’t you call me when you feel like that?”
“You know you can always talk to me.”
“You know I’m here for you, right?”
After I emerge from the netherworld of sleeping too much, crying until my eyes feel like they’re wearing tiny cilices, and listening to the entire catalog of Joy Division on repeat, my friends, who didn’t actually hate me and aren’t intentionally neglecting me when they’re at work or dealing with chores, seem stunned. They chime in with well-meaning advice and verbal insistence that, no, really, they’re there for me, all I need to do is reach out.
But that’s the very nature of the problem with crossover diagnoses and being self-reliant: those suffering are often too neurotic to feel comfortable asking for help until they’re too depressed to ask for help because, welp, they’re hoping to be dead by morning.
It’s not that I don’t want help, it’s just that I don’t want to bother you with the fact that I want help.
“Does anything help?” that friend asked.
That’s tricky. As an adult, I opted to try a low-dose SSRI so that I wouldn’t kill myself. Lexapro gave a valiant effort, but came with curious and annoying side-effects, like cold symptoms and tasting fried chicken the entire time I was on it. Sure, I wasn’t depressed, mainly because I felt too sick to be sad. I didn’t like having to call upon a pharmacological solution when, underneath it all, I felt smart enough, strong enough, human enough to help myself.
Other than drugs, it’s a crapshoot. Televised hockey, walks outdoors, writing, working a recovery program, any sort of mindless game, cleaning, brain-numbing sex…these things keep some of the wolves at bay. It’s hard to be planning on offing yourself during playoff season. But, really, by the time the synapses start misfiring and the weird haze starts clouding my thoughts, it’s a little too late for mental Band-Aids and troubleshooting.
I’ve noticed certain things over the years that act as a wind-shifting alert that shit’s about to go sideways. I’ll suffer from a particular sort of fever dreams, I’ll stop responding to texts, I’ll cancel plans I had previously been looking forward to, or I’ll forgo scheduling them completely. Of course, it’s during those times that I hope the people I’m closest to notice and reach out, but I’m simultaneously mortified and afraid of having to respond to their inquiries to begin with. “I’m fine,” I always answer. I’ve learned to remember critical life details that can be handily tossed out in question form to change the subject back to them. Depression and anxiety are opposite sides of the same magnet. All of your needs and desires are at war with one another, lined up like the players on a foosball table, skewing in directions where they’ll match, but never touch.
And maybe that’s the silver lining to being an adult who suffers from embarrassing emotional disturbances better associated with teen dramas and Tumblr blogs: I’m finally old enough to know that these episodes will pass, even as I’m affected by them. That doesn’t make it easier, but allows for me to babysit myself as best as I can. For anybody else who is beset by this, I salute you. For the family and friends of the sufferers, I send you my sympathies, and deepest respect. May we all go through tomorrow’s neurotransmitter roulette spin without our number coming up.
[If you, or someone you know, feels at the brink of danger, call 1 (800) 273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7, and will connect you with a trained counselor who can help. Hang in there. You’re not alone.]