At first you won’t know what’s happening. You’ll think it’s just a rough patch, a blip. You just published a book ~ a very personal memoir that makes you feel more exposed than you’ve ever been. Of course you’re going to have a letdown period afterward, a postpartum season.
And the money problems, that’s normal too. You’ve been freelancing for ten years, you know there are fat and lean times, and it makes sense that they would be lean now because you put prospecting and networking on hold for six months while you were getting the book out. Something will surely turn up any day now that you’re putting feelers out again.
Okay, so you’re a little alarmed when you find yourself crying in the shower because you applied for a job. Crying because you want a job and you don’t want a job. There’s no way to win.
But you’ll keep rallying, coming up with new plans, giving yourself pep talks, leaning on your husband and parents and best friend.
Until you have to move. And you see just how far down your reserves have sunk, when you’re packing and cleaning and carrying boxes, sixteen hours a day for a week. When you start crying the minute the movers leave you alone in your new apartment, and then while you walk back to your old house, and then again slumped against the living room wall, doubled over, sucking air.
Crying is fine, you tell yourself. Crying means you can still feel. You’re sad, it’s normal, moving is a huge transition, even if you’re staying in the same neighbourhood. Even if you feel as lucky as a lottery winner to have landed this apartment.
But a few weeks later, when you face a professional setback after months of effort, it’s all you can do to finish making dinner when you really want to dig a hole in the floor and throw yourself into it, bury all your tears and failure. And when your kids are whining about mosquito bites and clothes that don’t fit just right and a postponed trip to the candy store, it’s almost impossible to pretend that you care. You spend the weekend vibrating with despair and trying not to scream, and you know that something is definitely not right.
It’s difficult to talk about having a problem when you are a professional. You can’t do it in a way that undermines your credibility or scares people off. You don’t want to look unreliable or needy. If you wait five or ten years, you’ll have enough distance ~ you can talk about being depressed as though it happened to someone else, you can even write about one of the most terrifying nights of your life, but it will be okay because you can reassure everyone you’re not like that anymore.
You also know that it’s easier to stay silent because it soothes your ego. It means you don’t have to face your own hypocrisy, the way you sometimes lose patience or interest with strangers who are in the messy middles of their stories instead of at the neatly-wrapped and triumphant end.
However, the cost of pretending that everything is okay mounts by the hour. Your smiles are a lie. Your bright amusing anecdotes are a front. Your throat aches from holding back sobs while you negotiate with your children in the grocery store. Your resources are at an all-time low, and if you could reclaim some of the energy that goes into pretending ~ if you could come clean ~ it might be enough to tip the scales.
This is not sadness or grief. You are not mourning a loss the way you were when you moved to this city, mourning the end of your travels.
This is a deficit of meaning. This is existential despair. This is about how impossible it is to care about little things, to find the energy to unpack boxes or do your Mandarin homework or iron your daughter’s Perler beads when you feel as though you have nothing, are nothing, can look forward to nothing.
And the despair has been able to creep this close because your dikes and dams and levees have eroded and fall into disrepair. You don’t have a therapist or coach. You haven’t had a creative retreat in over a year. You’ve stopped writing. You spend too much time tethered to your computer. And the excuse is this lack of resources: not enough time, not enough money, not enough physical energy. And maybe also you have been needling yourself, finding ways to punish and deprive and sabotage, oh so quietly, undermining until the storm hits and you’re washed away.
4. Talk honestly, your way, when you’re ready.
You’ll know you’re doing it right if you get caught up in the flow of the story, the way it feels good to put words together. If that feeling of hopelessness lifts, especially when you think about the other people, listening to you and feeling seen and heard themselves. If you feel the relief of catching up to yourself, the way a video image will freeze and then fast-forward to catch up with the dialogue. You are back in sync. You are still in the thick of it, but your outsides match your insides.
People will want to know how the story ends, or at least how it continues. Tell them what you’re trying (which will encourage you to try things).
Tell them you talked to a gentle-voiced phone counsellor whose compassion and affirmation reminded you how much you were starved for such understanding.
Tell them you found a mood disorder clinic and saw a psychiatrist.
Tell them you got some names of therapists and made appointments.
Tell them your friends and family buoyed you up.
Tell them you biked and sat in the sun and swam in a wilderness pond and made fish tacos and played with your children.
And they might want to tell you their story, whether they’re at the beginning or the middle or the end. When you listen, don’t worry about fixing them. Don’t think that you have to have the answers. Sometimes it helps just to sit together, not knowing. Just that can be purpose enough for now.
Photos by Alison Gresik for Be Your Own Beloved, Feb/March 2015
Note: I wrote this piece on July 2, 2015 and sent it to a small group of fellow writers and artists. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but making art out of my experience and sharing it in a safe space was very healing.
Two months later, on September 2, I sent it to the people subscribed to my email list. I was doing better, still struggling with anxiety but no longer in such despair.
Now another two months have gone by. And I’m well again. I can make this news public without being overwhelmed by shame. I had a recurrence of depression this year, my first since 2002. It was terrible, and it was a gift. I’m still coming to terms with it, making what sense I can of this development.
Integrating it into the story of my life.
Wrestling the angel.
Thanks for listening.
I just finished leading an online book club discussion of Eric Maisel’s book The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path through Depression. If you’ve ever felt the kind of existential despair I’m describing, I highly recommend giving it a read.
The photos in this post are from Vivienne McMaster’s self-portrait class, Be Your Own Beloved, which I did earlier this year as the depression was setting in. I’m grateful to have a record of my tender feelings during that period. Vivienne’s class is a wonderfully accessible and meaningful exercise in creative self-care, and it’s not too late to join the session that just started on November 1, 2015.