March 11, 2013
I am sad at dawn again. This happens sometimes; I wake in the dark and want to cry. Something’s wrong, I think, as my eyes open, and then I squeeze them shut, realizing I’m having another episode. My thoughts are wheeling like buzzards, ready to peck. It will be hours before I can sleep again.
I heave myself from the sheets and lurch to the couch, where I begin to write what I believe, in my sodden state, to be a true description:
Black dog lowers his head in my lap. Black dog insists. If I push him off, he flicks his tail and saunters away for a drink or a walk, but then he returns. He sits at my feet, shadows me through rooms and hops on the bed when I’m sleeping, his weight pressing the covers.
The light behind the kitchen curtains is still deep blue, and the cats are curled. My boyfriend, a good sleeper, sighs from a dream. My thought is that catharsis might help. I might find calm faster if I can type something out. Also, maybe I’ll write well, and then my sadness will be good for something.
But I’m waking up now, growing sharper, and I frown at the words I wrote. Winston Churchill owned the black dog. Churchill and his doggy jowls used the phrase to describe dark spells, and it stuck. It became famous.
You see? I don’t even have my own language for depression.
Here is what I know: Doctors have helped me make sense of depression, and that’s mostly a good thing.
“How long have you felt sad?” they ’ve asked, pulling out paper surveys from desk drawers, and extending them to me. “A week? A month? Circle a number between 0 and 5, depending on extremity of agreement:”
‘I feel worthless / ugly / unlovable,’
‘I enjoy things less than I used to,’
‘I feel hopeless about the future,’
And so on.
I’ve laughed at the way the surveys wrangle emotions into metrics, and then made my small circles: 4, 5, 4, 4, 5. Handed it back. Everything is very tidy and professional.
I was nineteen when I first sought treatment for my daily cries, and I’m thirty now—I’ve spent a decade becoming fluent. Depression is like my second language.
It’s good, of course, to know the terms: suicidal ideation, self-harm, etcetera. By using the right words I can raise enough concern to get help but avoid alarming people: ‘I think of bridges but have no plans to jump.’ I can comfort myself with borrowed scientific rationality: This is a symptom, I say, as if observing myself from a distance. You’re not bad, just experiencing a manifestation of your illness. Classic. I become Freud chewing on a fountain pen, or Florence Nightingale putting myself to bed.
But it can be tiring to know that my thoughts are just the incubation of an illness, that my thoughts might not even be my own. Worse, all I have to express myself is the staleness of medical jargon and worn metaphors—as if my feelings, my experiences, are all clichés.
Now that the early mornings are coming more frequently again, I’m beginning to worry. It’s not that I won’t get better (I always do), it’s that I don’t want to forget. Each state – health or sickness – is wholly consuming; I can’t see past either one while I’m in it, let alone feel its inverse. When I’m not depressed, I get cocky. Yeah, I was sad then, I think. I’m good now. Then the unspoken leap, my hopeful hubris: And I will stay good.
Maybe my own words will stick to my ribs better than those I’ve swallowed from others—well-meaning therapists, magazine articles, and so on. If I can map the process of my own depression, maybe it won’t seem so disappointing when I return.
I’ll tell you something. In the beginning, my depression feels cozy. As if my whole body is coated and wrapped. Tinted goggles cup my eyes. They’re the color of watered whiskey, the dregs of a glass, or weak tea. When I’m outside, walking down streets, there’s a tan curl framing my vision.
I have the sense that my shoulders are cloaked with a long shawl, and the wool is pulling like a hood over my head. I could shiver just thinking about it, at the familiar warmth returning to embrace me.
No one else can see the change. My body makes its motions, walks and talks, but there is a film between the world and me. This feels romantic somehow. Special. There is the notion, skating along under the surface, that I’ve been let in on a secret. I feel as though I understand things that others don’t: a certain synchronicity to the people bumping shoulders and cars bumping bumpers and cold wind blowing, the afternoon light falling. I’m alive and feel attuned to the mystery of things.
The privacy of my thoughts is romantic and oddly valuable. My detachment (or detaching) is like a homecoming, a sliding back into some quiet core self that has been, until now, shouted down by emails and task lists and constant conversations, the petty home improvements and summer plans I’ve been making. Those things are fluff, static. Better to have them gone. Without them, we can be alone with each other: me and my self.
So I begin to ignore old plans and concerns. They no longer apply. Are irrelevant. I keep going to work, the one necessity, but everything else can go. This feels scary but deeply right. I am melancholy but certain. My life up till now has been a series of mistakes. The cats, the good chairs my mother gave me, the apartment, the boyfriend who lives there with me: they are all false trappings.
This is easier to accept when I am moving about in public, when the motion of my body gives me a sense of momentum – like I am on the move, about to break through (of what, I don’t know). This adrenaline abandons me at home. As my body quiets, as inertia sets in, I realize how sad I am.
My daily routine shrinks. During evenings I arrange the pillows on the couch behind my back, and stretch my legs out. There is nowhere to go. My old records and books and blankets, which usually please me, look foreign and untouchable. I’ll have to shed them, but how? I scan ads for sublets; imagine selling everything, moving away. My boyfriend looks at me quizzically with his kind brown eyes.
“Are you hungry?” he asks. He doesn’t know what to do with me, and so he looks after practical matters: meals, laundry. He’s intelligent and pensive. He does not have a carnivore’s aggression, and I appreciate this about him. But why are we here together? He seems unaware that I’m already far away. The take-out he procures, arriving in hot plastic containers, means little. I should feel grateful but instead feel sorry for him, and tired. Our loft is airless. I want my own room with a door to lock. The night stretches impossibly on.
This is the inevitable landing place. I should probably know better than to trust the seduction of the shawl and goggles. What follows are weeks or months, if I’m unlucky, of deadening. The secret spark of life I thought I’d caught has burned out, and I’m left sifting ash.
This should not feel surprising. My grandmother had bipolar disorder. As a child, I was the most solitary one in the family, the one most prone to shut myself in my room for long spells, but I was also the youngest child. There were crises among some of my older siblings – hospitals, halfway homes – and I was the funny one and high achieving. A relief, maybe, after trouble.
In high school and college I concealed signs that would have been concerning; I hid cigarette burns under Band-Aids, etcetera. I told no one about my fantasies. So it took longer than might have been ideal to get help.
In the mornings I am tin man wheezing, creaking. Sunlight slivers around the curtains but I am still in bed. My rusted arms refuse me.
Get up, I say. Now, I say. It takes a great effort. The goggles, if they are still on, are now the color of rust water bubbling from a faucet. I don’t know where the shawl is; I am just heavy.
My boyfriend sits on the edge of the bed, rubs my back. “I don’t know how to deal with this anymore,” he says. He is not particularly verbal, prefers to show thoughts through deeds; he typically respects my moods with quiet. His statement jars me.
Solution #1: Seasonal Affective Disorder
You are sad in the winter mostly, I say to myself one morning, and nod in pleased agreement. That is true, I say. Yes, yes, that has always been true.
I buy a contraption, recommended by the Mayo Clinic, which is supposed to simulate sunlight. For weeks afterwards I sit dutifully before it in the mornings at my kitchen table. It is a great white rectangle that sits propped on metal legs, beaming cold blue light. It hurts my eyes. I make a joke to my boyfriend, who is making us coffee, that I will put on sunglasses and post a picture to Facebook with the caption: “Welcome to the Tropics.” We laugh.
I decide the light has worked; I have found a cure! I bubble to friends about my elevated mood, and they tell me it’s like I’ve got spring fever. I go to their houses on Sunday nights, which is unusual. Usually Sunday nights are for the couch. But I feel good now and want to do things.
Solution #2: Cardio Vascular Activity
I decide I will be a runner and start taking jogs to the river after my morning light therapies. I pull on leggings and sneakers and huff my way to the water. It takes a mile for endorphins to begin tingling my vision, and I run another for good measure.
After two weeks I start to feel better. “I think I’m losing weight,” I say to my boyfriend, posing before the mirror. He smiles up from his laptop. I am in my sports bra and underwear, flexing my biceps, turning to appraise the backs of my legs. “I have more energy.”
This is my new way of life, I decide. Healthy living.
The solutions, though, become traps. They are tests I cannot pass, not for forever. I’m no good at regular exercise, and after a diligent two weeks I begin to miss days. I catch a cold and miss weeks. I continue using the light, but begin to doubt its efficacy. Once the initial thrill of perceived results wanes, the sadness returns, and I become haphazard with my usage. Every other day, skipped weekends. Everything takes a great mustering of energy, and I grow tired. Again? And again? The constant inhaling of a deep breath before the great push seems less, and then less, appealing. I just want to be done with the effort.
I am frustrated, more than I was before I tried.
Solution #3: Pills, which deserve mentioning
Maybe medication, I say. I don’t like this idea. I have tried it twice before. The pills make me sick and shaky; they fatten me like a Christmas goose.
Still. I make an appointment with a doctor. I cancel said appointment. I reschedule said appointment, leave with my prescription. Don’t fill it. I am afraid of the weeks adjusting. I am afraid of the pills not working again. They feel like my last resort, and what if they fail?
I am disappointed in myself. It is my fault that I can’t fix anything. You are a bad person, I say. Weak and despicable. You can’t do anything. You won’t do anything. I pick myself apart, flicking the pieces off my fingers.
There are tearful talks in the living room, in the kitchen, in the bedroom. I tell my boyfriend I don’t know how to be with him, with anyone. I weep and weep, and he pulls me to his chest.
As weeks pass he starts to sigh and put his head in his hands when I take a breath, prepare to speak. We say the word “depression” so many times that it ceases to have meaning, the way any word does when you say it often enough.
After a time I begin to doubt that I even have depression – it is just an excuse I’ve made up to mask a more fundamental character flaw. I am just someone who cannot be happy. Or I am someone who perpetually makes choices that leave her unhappy. Either way.
I begin to despise the word. What does it mean, anyway, to have depression? As if it is something I can hold or set down. I have a bath mat. I have a cat. I have a treacherous mind.
One morning, I wake up feeling rested. My comforter is draped over my arm, and a breeze from the fan stirs against my shoulder. My pillow is squished into the perfect cradle for my head. I swish my feet against the sheets, feeling for a cool spot.
I’m happy. It happens just like that – like the punch line to an absurd joke.
My boyfriend nuzzles into me, pressing his face into the back of my neck. We are warm from sleep, and for the first time in weeks (or has it been months?) it feels welcome. We keep our eyes closed and rest, unhurried. The possibilities of the day unfurl luxuriously in my drowsy mind. I had been planning to leave, which seems ridiculous now, in this moment.
But what was all that pain for, if it was just going to evaporate? What about my certainty regarding the fallacy of my life? It must be pointless, I think, to trust a thing my mind tells me. Even happiness, when it happens.
Megan Foley is a Creative Writing Teaching Fellow at Columbia University, where she is also earning her MFA in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Canteen Magazine, The Rumpus, Flaunt Magazine, The Village Voice, Poet Lore, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.