Sunday, December 28, 2014

Broken Crayons Still Color

I was depressed. Not sad, not blue, not going through a rough patch. I was clinically diagnosed with severe depression. Diagnostic code 296.23, to be exact. It's been so long ago that it almost seems it happened to a different person. But it was me and it makes up a significant part of who I am now.

Mental illness is complicated and talking about it makes people uncomfortable. We tend to hide the uglier side of ourselves out of fear others will think less of us or worse, abandon us. So we don't talk about it. Only a handful of people in my life know about my depression and the things that led up to it. I used to be ashamed of it. Not so much anymore. Maybe it's my age, but the truth is we are all flawed and damaged to some degree. The older I get the more I see that. I wish I knew it then.

I was about halfway through college. In an odd way, I was happier than I'd ever been. My nomadic childhood behind me, for the first time I felt I truly belonged somewhere. On the surface, things were good. What I kept hidden was that I was drowning in waves of heavy sadness, lapping at my feet at first, then eventually my head was going under. Away from home, I was starting to process some of my troubled early years. Utterly exhausted and tired of holding it together for so long, I began to slowly fall apart. I was powerless to stop it. It's surprising how easy it is to fall apart. The hard part is putting yourself back together.

My thinking began to take a dark turn. All my imperfections, real and perceived, seemed insurmountable. I saw myself as a jumble of deficiencies, weaknesses and unfixable flaws. It was overwhelming. Physically, I was barely functioning. I had trouble concentrating and staying awake in class. Secretly, in remote private cubbies where no one would see me, I wrote - memories and thoughts, attempts at making sense of how I felt. I also read a lot, searching for answers in material from my English classes, the Bible, classic novels, self help books. Anything I could find on being human and surviving it. I pored over books on psychology and mental illness. I was looking for an explanation of what was wrong with me. It took months, but finally in all that searching, I discovered I was depressed. I wasn't crazy. Although I certainly felt like it. What is crazy is how good I was at faking I was fine.

It's hard to describe to someone who has never felt it. You hurt on a subterranean level. It's an odd thing to feel pain with no outward signs of injury. It's your soul that's hurting. And your body wants to quit. It's lonely and it's scary as hell. All your energy is required to do the most basic functions. You can't cheer yourself, talk yourself, reason, drink, eat, sleep, exercise, pray, yourself out of it. I know because I tried all these things. It has to go away on it's own.

I believe depression is a combination of things. It's a perfect storm of genetics, environment, personality, experiences, and how you process all that, or can't. Some events in my childhood caused ripple effects that I feel to this day. But I can't say those things were specifically why I became depressed. It's just part of the puzzle. There are people with way worse histories than me that don't get depressed. I don't like to blame anyone or any thing for my depression. It just was.

Tired of hiding it, I admitted I needed help one summer over break. Over the course of a few years in and out of therapy, I laid down my burdens and secrets and was eventually able to step away from them with some perspective. I tried a couple of different antidepressants and finally settled on one that had the least side effects. It was work. The hardest I've ever done. I had to force myself to go. I thought of quitting every time I drove to the psychiatrist, because often it felt like it wasn't helping, it just hurt, like picking at wounds that would never really heal.

Going to therapy was a regularly terrifying job of pulling back the curtains of my past and facing my demons head on. Eventually, I was able to close some doors and walk away no longer feeling haunted by what was behind them. I began to view the world in a more realistic light. What was revealed when that finally happened was beautiful. Life was there, waiting for me. It was hard and it didn't happen overnight. I had to learn to fight dysfunctional reactions in certain situations and to think positively because negative thoughts were ingrained, second nature. I still struggle with that almost daily, but fighting it is more of a habit now.

It's different for everyone, but for me a few things were key in surviving depression. I said earlier that you can't pray it away. What I meant is that you can't pray and suddenly depression is gone. But you can cling to your faith to endure it. Which I did. I talked to God a lot - even when I felt nothing but anger. Psalm 40:2 had meaning to me and always will. Then there is simply the passage of time. Depression has to lift when it is good and ready. It doesn't happen overnight, it's more of a slow emergence. When I was crawling out of the darkness, I met someone who changed my life forever.  For the first time, someone didn't buy my "I'm fine" act. He saw me for exactly who I was, flaws and all, and not only seemed to be okay with it, but embraced it. He saw who I wanted to be but was okay with who I was at that moment. Unconditional love is a powerful thing. I am not the person I would be had he not come into my life and insisted on staying.

None of us are perfect. We all have dark places in our hearts and minds. For some of us, the only path to real happiness involves going through that darkness and coming out on the other side. I'm no longer embarrassed or ashamed of my experience. I'm too old for that. If someone thinks less of me after reading this, that's their problem, not mine. It's a small miracle I graduated from college considering my state of mind for a good part of it. I still struggle emotionally at times and probably always will, but I've come to accept that as my normal. I'm okay with it because what I have gained is compassion, tolerance, perspective and patience - with myself and others. And a dark sense of humor that I rather like having.

I'd like to think that my experience was of value if I can put it out there and help someone going through the same hell I did. If you're depressed, you're not alone. I understand. Believe me when I say it gets better. You will get better. I promise. Fear thrives in darkness, shed some light on it and watch it wither. I know this. I've done it. Don't believe the voice that tells you you're crazy or unworthy or unfixable. It's a liar. There WILL come a day when you can see again that life is beautiful. It may be a long and rocky road but don't you quit. Don't ever give up.