Can You Hear It Too?
It was 1997 when I fell from the cliff, and hit a bottom that I never saw coming. I suppose that most people when hurtling through the air, knowing that the sudden stop is coming, close their eyes not wanting to see the ground rushing closer and closer. But it happened.
Of course, this is a metaphor… I write, and because I write I take liberties with words and phrases to make you think… to make you wonder. More importantly I do it because it is simply what comes out. Something happens inside me that triggers me to stop what I am doing and begin to write and often I do not know what is coming. This, however, is not one of those moments. I write now to stop thinking. I write now to get rid of pain, to use skills, to survive. I write now because I see that cliff in the distance again and I can’t… I CAN NOT risk getting too close. I am talking about depression and suicide. They often go together, you see, but sometimes at least in my view, sometimes they don’t.
My dance with depression began before I ever even heard the word used to describe mental illness. Depression was for weak people. Depression was not for me, of me or about me. Looking back now, I see that I began to change. I see that somewhere along the line, something happened in my brain and I became a different person. I was depressed and was sinking fast, but had no idea at all….
It’s funny… the looking back part. You don’t see yourself, not at all. There is no clarity when you are actually depressed. The disease lies to you and tells you that you are tired, or not eating right or getting exercise… and you believe the voice, but… you do nothing. You sit. You think. You hurt. It gets worse. Sometimes you get your head above the water to breathe and for a while you function. For a while you keep going and make it through each day. You function. You go through the motions.
I tried therapy… and meds, but never for long because I didn’t believe in them. I refused to believe that there was truly something wrong that I could not fix myself. Ah, and that was the biggest problem because nobody can convince you any different. You don’t see yourself falling… but those that love you, well, they see it… and they know it and desperately try to make you see… For me, I was suddenly angry at stupid things. I lashed out and I cried and I raged, and then after the calm would come, and I would wonder why I felt this way… I would wonder what was happening to me… and I thought and believed that I needed changes, what changes, I did not know, but I looked for them, and I found them in places that were wrong… so wrong… but you don’t see it… you only know that for a while, you feel something besides sad….
I am back in 1997 now and it is spring. I am looking out the window of my beautiful home that I share with a beautiful woman and we have plans, so many plans and life seems perfect… I look out the window into the back yard, where the ground calls me to plant a garden… it is all exactly what I have always wanted… then why… I think to myself… why am I so unhappy?
I am spiraling now, but working at my job, which I love, with people I love and I come home to a home and hearth that I love… and then…. one fall night my world comes crashing down in an instant. I remember how it felt, like some spigot was opened up and my life spilled out of me. Suddenly I was alone and desperately trying to hold on. My job laid me off and gave me unemployment compensation, which was a blessing I can never repay. Even they saw that I was in trouble. I was. I was in a terrible emotional place and I have no words for the kind of crazy I was experiencing, but somehow, with the urging of friends and family, I signed up for counselling… and medications… and I decided to give myself over to the process. I decided that if this is what life was going to feel like as a depressed person, that I wanted to die. So I decided to see what would happen if I just laid down my sword and let myself be broken and damaged and see if it was true… if something or someone could help me get back to the place where the sun coming up mattered. I wanted to wake up in the morning and be happy about it instead of cursing the start of another terrible day. Depression had me and was dragging me and I was willing to go. I wanted to go.
Instead, I did what I was told; week after week I went to counselling individually and in groups. Three times a week I went. Days I didn’t go I had to call and check in. I took the medications, often through tears because I hated taking pills. It scared me, but I did it and in those counselling sessions, they wanted me to talk, so I talked… and I talked and I cried… and then I would listen to the stories of the others in the groups. I would read the pages in the book we used to lead us along the road to wellness. I still have it. I still refer to it now and then.
There were ups and downs; there were deep and terrible times when the counselors urged me to check in to a hospital. There were weeks when the big victory was simply going to the book store to pick up a stack of free magazines. I remember going with a friend to a concert, and she said, you really can’t be happy about anything, can you… and it was true. Nothing moved me and nothing brought me out of the dark… until one day, I realized that I was changing. It was sudden, like the click of a light switch. I began to come out of the horrible place I had been in for so long. This is when I looked back for the first time and saw the road I had travelled. I saw how sad I had been and it came as such a surprise to realize that I had been that depressed. You can’t see it when you are in it. It is a startling moment but it happens to so many of us…. And then there are so many who never make it out; so many who perish by their own hand without knowing that there is something more than that pain. I almost made it out that way and the struggle to live never stops… the tantalizing voice is never quite silent.
The struggle NEVER stops. Depression… chronic depression never goes away. It will keep talking to you, sometimes whispering to you to give up, to sit down, curl into a ball and quit. You must return to the beginning and talk to yourself and remind yourself and take the pills and Talk. To. Yourself. Life becomes work. It is now a never ending job to keep my brain from shooting the bad chemicals into my bloodstream, the chemicals that cause the pain and sorrow. Sometimes, the happy pills will do some of the work. It is like having a friend who is constantly shoveling coal into your dark and smoldering engine. It is a dirty, ugly thing. But you keep feeding it because you must.
At some point, I felt well enough to call myself a survivor. I had met the demons, my demons, face to face; each and every one of them and most of the time they are quiet and remain behind the curtain but sometimes they leap out. Sometimes they wake you up. But now, I know how to take care of them, and I do with a violent internal bloodletting. It is what I must do, have learned to do, to survive. It is a category called PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. The hard part is, people have said to me, why don’t you just get over it… and that is a fair question. I want to just get over it, but you don’t. I don’t. If I could, I swear, I would. It is out of my control.
With PTSD you must recognize that what you experienced, the terrible thing… broke you. It broke you and your mind and body are staying broken. There will always be nightmares and flashbacks. Little things will trigger a moment that drops you into that moment again… I never know what it will be… and fortunately the right cocktail of medications have reduced these things significantly. The last one I remember clearly. She touched my shoulder as I walked away…. I reared back with my fist clenched… and it was over… it was a moment… followed by days of racing thoughts and crying. PTSD… not for the faint of heart. This is why I claim SURVIVOR as part of who I am. I have been surviving for 18 years now and it will be my lifes work to simply make it to the end, whatever that is. My promise is that it won’t be by my own hand. The truth of it is that it is a promise I sometimes wish I had not made… that is how powerful the voice is that calls me, to all of us who suffer with depression.
Why did I pick today to write this down? It was a bid for survival. It was a way to keep myself from falling, to puke up all the pain, all the loss, all the negative that has been screaming my name. It is also a way to share a glimpse of what depression is and how it can change a person. It is a clue as to what is happening to someone you love and what you need to do to help them. It took years for me to find my way through the door of the counselling center and keep returning… and I did it for me. THAT is why it worked. I was doing it for me and I still do it for me, because in those moments where my mind is clear and I am looking out at the world, I am just happy to be in it, and see it all and to feel deep inside the happiness that comes so easily to most people… Think about it… how you would seek happiness if you had to work at it in your mind just to feel it. Think about that when someone you love is sad… and not all sadness equals depression… so be vigilant.
I was fortunate to have the love of friends who pushed me and supported me… a sister and niece who showed up to protect me when I truly needed protecting and didn’t realize it. I made new friends along the way who dragged me along into the light and finally, I found my way back to me, to a ME that I hadn’t seen in decades. I owe everyone along the way a debt of gratitude… even though many didn’t know how important their roles were in my life through that time. Imagine, you could be that light to someone. You could be that light to someone right now and not know. You could also remain aware and be the light for someone struggling, and guide them to help. Imagine that. We all have the power to be a positive force just by being a friend, by listening, be cheering someone forward… by reaching out your hand. A few words… a few of YOUR words could change a life… save a life… so be vigilant, even when it seems there is no reason to be… be vigilant.