Through Depression’s Eyes

There are times when events overwhelm us and there’s a disease that spends every day seeking to do the same.

The creek bed, dry and dusty before, becomes a raging river during a storm. With little warning it swells until it’s carrying trees, tumbling rocks, and drowning the unsuspecting. That draw is the indelible imprint depression leaves on your brain so it can find its way back into your life.

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Time after time after time…

I too was devastated at Robin Williams’ passing. He wasn’t much older than this fan who shared his battle with depression. As a fellow sufferer I dared hope he’d beat the evil beast, but I also understood the odds.

My immediate reaction upon hearing the news was grief and sorrow. On their heels came fear, for I well know that dwelling upon depression is like an invitation, a slippery slope I try to avoid. Following the fear was the knowledge that this time I’d not turn away.

So, here I am again writing the scariest post I know how to write, one that I often talk myself out of writing. How could I not go there this time? People need to know. People need to understand. A wonderful man’s tragic end has drawn attention to the subject.

It’s the least I can do for others, for him.

Even so, going to that dry creek is not only scary, but also a reminder that what I most fear is within me and when I think about it it starts to rain.

I’ve often said that when it comes to my writing it isn’t difficult for me to go to that scary place. Going there is a useful tool for writing the darker scenes. What’s difficult, unfortunately, is getting back. When I wrote Chapter 18 for Last Word Before Dying I had to step away from the story for days and spend a lot of time outdoors.

To protect myself after I learned about Robin I posted my normal writing themed piece last Tuesday morning. I then set to work managing my disease, mourning the man, and crying. I must be ever mindful to protect myself and avoid triggers, which is why I limit my exposure to news broadcasts. I care, but this is about self-preservation.

Life with Depression

How do you convey to others what depression is like when they can’t see or feel it? After all these years I’m still not sure. My younger self used to call it the “infinite sadness” in poems, meaning vast and forever.

First and foremost, depression wants to isolate me from people and positive thoughts. It colors my perceptions and attacks my self-esteem. My thoughts shrink and narrow. I withdraw and, if untreated, I implode.

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Photo: CA Hawthorne

It’s relentless and the more I try not to think about it the more I AM thinking about it. That’s what it wants. My senses become an aperture growing smaller until there’s ONLY the depression. It isn’t a bad day, it’s self-destruction of the mind.

People ask, “But don’t the depressed think about those they’ll leave behind?” Actually, thinking of others keeps you alive until depression severs those outward directed thoughts and convinces you you’re unworthy and inadequate. Over time that self-hatred becomes the belief you’re a burden on those you love, that they’re better off without you.

The world shrinks into your head like a migraine where unspeakable grief replaces the physical pain. Worse (yes, there’s a “worse”), it convinces you to seek isolation where you conclude, “If others didn’t have to deal with someone like me they’d be happier.”

Thus, if your reaction is to lecture the depressed, telling them that suicide causes suffering to others only reinforces their depression.

My first reaction when I heard about Robin was, “He couldn’t do it anymore. It wore him down.” You see, the disease roars until it breaks your eardrums.

In a sense, I consider myself more fortunate than Robin Williams because I don’t have all that he had. Literally. Fame and fortune mean constant pressure. Wealth means access to the best doctors and rehabs, but also access to endless drugs and alcohol. He fought addictions to both for years. He’s a warning, you see. The disease wore him down until there was no fight left in him.

Knowing the disease as I do I can’t find it within me to judge or disparage him. Nine years ago I came within a whisper of his fate.

Managing

It’s my hope that if I keep my depression quiet for as long as possible that I’ll finish life’s marathon, that I’ll conserve enough strength to allow me to reach high ground for as long as my body holds up. That’s my hope. It’s up to me to make that hope real.

All the more difficult because I must do so alone.

You see, I can’t take medication. Every drug they tried made me physically ill and/or more depressed. One made me delusional. Another turned me suicidal in an evening.

I’m convinced, though, that my oversensitivity is a blessing.

Since depression is the dry creek bed waiting for a rain I monitor the weather close and take care to seek high ground when the weather turns poor. Even so, I make mistakes and am sometimes caught unawares.

I’ve come a long way and am a happier person now than I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m not cured and that’s vital for me to remember despite my desire to think otherwise sometimes. Therefore I must heed the warning I’d rather ignore, the terrifying thought that’s shocking to others: I still have thoughts of suicide.

Every. Single. Day.

Sometimes there’s an inciting event, but most days it comes out of the blue. I think of it as the depression whispering to me to see if I’m receptive, to see if maybe, just maybe, this is the day when I’m not vigilant, when my guard is down.

Having my guard up is how I’m able to write this post and write fiction and that means managing my care.

Every. Single. Day.

For starters, I don’t deny my depression, for to do so is to either dwell on it or ignore the warnings. It just IS. I also don’t practice empty positive thinking that’s little more than whitewashing a moldy wall. That which is positive must be genuine or it’s a crumbling foundation for my defense.

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Thus, I’ve made positive changes in my life that are real. This year I moved to a location where I’m inherently happier and have begun exploring meditation and yoga, my initial efforts already providing positive results. I also walk regularly and have rediscovered hiking, though I must take care because I have a lung condition. Other positives in my life are sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, thankfulness, forgiveness, and compassion. Their opposites are lethal baggage.

I also avoid stress. Undue stress helped end my mother’s life at sixty-nine. For me, stress leads to shortness of breath because of my lung disease and that means anxiety. Stress and anxiety aid depression. I can’t completely avoid these, but I can manage them.

My greatest disadvantage is isolation, for I’m an introvert and a writer’s life is solitary. Too, because my lung condition renders me vulnerable to illness I don’t spend time at a traditional workplace.

Mindfulness is my most frequently utilized weapon. It helps maintain a healthy mind and is excellent as a swift response when I find myself on that slippery slope during a heavy downpour. Rather than withdraw, I pull the world closer and return to the NOW. My favorite book on the subject is The Mindful Way through Depression. In a crisis moment I’ll often reach out, touch any textured surface, and focus on the texture rather then my inward-directed thoughts. Contact with the world, with the present, becomes a lifeline.

There are other great resources out there in either book, video, or online form. Of course, there are help hotlines, and please use them…the sooner the better. If you’ve withdrawn too far into yourself, as Robin Williams had, you may not call.

Lessons

If someone you know suffers depression, or you suspect they suffer depression, don’t assume they’ll call for help. If you talk to them and they indicate they “just need to go home and deal with this,” realize the statement might be a clue they’re withdrawing.

Don’t let them go home to die.

Do they live alone? Has their appearance/grooming suffered lately? Have they disappeared off Facebook when they’re often there? Have they called out sick from work? Are they turning down invitations they’d normally accept?

Send them a text. Give them a call. Let them know they aren’t alone. Let them know the rest of the world is still here. Let them know someone cares. Keep them in the NOW until they can return on their own. Call for help.

Just get them out of that dry creek bed.

Take them shopping. Go out for coffee. Sit with them. Watch movies. Talk. Listen. Just be there. The rain has come and is washing them away. Toss a lifeline. Give them something to hang on to.

It might mean the difference between life and death.

Robin Williams, according to all the reports I’ve seen thus far, was alone for the last 14 hours of his life. Too, keep in mind that he often hid behind a larger-than-life personality and skilled humor, but to my eye his suffering was obvious. Of course, I have the advantage of having seen the same look in the mirror.

If you suspect, then please engage. You might save a life.

And we could all use more engagement in our lives.

6 Replies to “Through Depression’s Eyes”

  1. As a fellow sufferer, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. That tendency to withdraw is one of the hardest ones I fight. Being out in the world among friends helps us find happiness and hope, and depression causes us to go inside ourselves, trapped in a stream of negative thinking and overwhelming emotion, when we most need support and friendship.

    In her song “After All,” Dar Williams sums up depression this way: “It felt like a winter machine that you go through and then you catch your breath and winter starts again–and everyone else is spring-bound.” It’s a wonderful, hopeful song about going through depression and coming out on the other side–and yet another example of how the art we create can give others a sliver of hope when it’s needed.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • Thank you so much for the great comment and quote you shared. Yes, depression is much like an eternal winter. In fact, where I lived until recently winter lasted nearly 9 months and wind hammered the windows relentlessly. It was like having depression on the inside and also having someone else’s depression on the outside trying to get in.

      I’ve said it many times in the past, but I’ll repeat myself: We don’t lose hope, we lose our ability to see it. We become closed off with tunnel vision. Too—I wish I’d thought of this before, but thank you for making me think of it now—depression is like Stephen King’s version of daydreaming…people talking to you while you stare into space and forget about everything outside your own head.

      I dearly hope that you’re doing okay, that you’re managing and are finding your own ways to cope. It sounds as though you are given how insightful your comment is. If you have any special coping skills that you’ve adopted or developed I’d be glad to hear about them. 🙂

  2. Christina I am in awe of you. you know that each day needs care. You explained some things here that helped me understand my Brothers’s suicide. He also, like Robin hid behind a funny joke and a devil may care attitude. But deep down I knew he was hurting and he often explained it as a black cloud that followed him around. Thank you for your honesty the more we talk about this subject the better. You might just save someones life.

    • My pleasure, Kath. Sadly, most people don’t have your insight, insight bought at a terrible cost. Most think it’s just “a bad day” or something the person needs to “shake off.” I was appalled at the level of ignorance out there after Robin died. They say that “the eyes are the window to the soul” and that’s especially true when it comes to those suffering depression. Jokes and animated behavior struggle to cover-up the pain within that’s revealed in the eyes. When I look into his eyes it tears me up inside, as do old photographs of myself. They’re eyes that scream, “Please, help me.”

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