11:59 December 31, 2006. I am pleasantly pickled, among friends, counting down the end of the year. There are hugs and kisses. So much laughter. I am as drunk on laughter as I am on champagne.
Three days later, I am on the tile floor of a cheap motel in Twenty-Nine Palms, California. My skin is on fire. I can’t cool down. And then I’m dressed again, in layers of clothes, under blankets, shivering with cold. This hot and cold goes on all night.
The next morning we pull into the driveway of our friend, Liz, not far away from the motel. I keep my distance from her. Somehow I make it to the bedroom of the guest house. I sleep for 24 hours without waking. When I do awake, I am deep into full on influenza. I used to think having the flu meant throwing up or having really bad cold symptoms. I know now that I was wrong. I understand why people have died from the flu.
Several weeks later, in Baja, Mexico, the worst of the symptoms have passed but for some reason I don’t want to get out of bed. In fact, I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be alone with my cat and my books. I am sad for no reason. My husband is concerned. My friends are concerned. I start to call this my “funk”. I force myself to do things, my husband drags me out in public, but inside I am miserable.
After several more weeks, the funk lifts completely. I find out that the flu was passed to me on that fateful New Year’s Eve. All that laughter came at a cost.
Summer 2007, sitting in the waiting room of my new family doctor in Nelson, BC, I pick up a pamphlet about colds and flus and read it to pass the time. On a bullet point list of physical effects of the influenza virus is “depression”. Not sadness, not the blues, not a general malaise, depression. A switched flips in my brain—my funk had a name, had a diagnosis. I do a bit more research and find that there is definitely a link, the flu can trigger depression.
Lightbulb moment: I understand depression.
I am an optimist. My default state is happy. I like to smile. I seek out things that make me laugh. Even when I have no reason to believe things will improve, I do. Being sad takes so much more energy than being happy for me.
There was a time when I didn’t comprehend depression. The word is misleading. Depressed = very sad. I didn’t know how people could be so self-indulgent, how they could choose to feed that negative emotion instead of tugging up those boot straps and getting on with life. Sure, everyone is sad now and then but eventually you have to decide to get over it.
After my brief brush with flu-induced depression, I realized how wrong my interpretation had been. And, to be clear, what I had experienced was minor as depression goes. I was not suicidal, I was still capable of getting out of bed, showering, at least pretending to be normal. But I was also more than simply “very sad”.
Most striking to me was the pervasive feeling that life was purposeless. For someone who is competitive and driven, losing that innate sense of purpose was like losing a limb. Sure I could get up and go for a hike, but why should I? What is the point? There is no point. Hiking is pointless and it’s not going to make me feel better and my life is stupid and what have I even accomplished I am a failure everything is awful and will always be awful. That’s the direction every single line of thought took. There was no conscious effort on my part. If anything, I was consciously trying NOT to have those thoughts. They came anyway.
Once my brain decided life was meaningless, all colour drained out of the world. Where once I would have been filled with awe and wonder, I felt nothing. Nothing. Not happy, not sad. Nothing.
Feeling nothing was worse than feeling sad or angry; at least a negative emotion meant that I still had a fire in my belly.
Sadness can be motivating. You cry and eat too much ice cream and write bad poetry but underneath all that is a desire to move through this state to a better state. There’s an instinctual understanding that by getting the sadness out you clear the way for positive feelings, and that’s a kind of progress, a kind of forward movement.
Depression, on the other hand, is inertia. At no point during my “funk” did I feel was getting anything out. I felt glued in place. It was all those dreams of running, with legs so heavy that I can’t get anywhere, brought to life. Life changed from a straight line to a loop, always circling back to the same place, a place of despair and hopelessness.
When the “funk” ended, I stepped back into life with renewed gratitude and energy. I’d made it! I also re-entered the world with compassion and empathy for those suffering with depression.
Looking back, the thing about my quick dip into depression was how slowly it happened. I didn’t wake up one day in a depressed state. I moved from the normal physical exhaustion and lethargy you associate with illness, into a less-tired state, and only realized there was a problem after all the flu symptoms were long gone. But because this was flu-induced depression, with no other external factors to explain my state of mind, it was obvious that something very unusual was happening to me.
So, what if there are external factors to confuse things? What if, oh, I don’t know, someone you love dies, maybe two someones, and maybe you also pack up and move and leave behind your entire real-life social network and many of your dear friends shortly after those deaths? And what if you also have financial stress and you’re unemployed when you get to your new home? And what if, because you’ve been so tied up in the “arrangements” of death and the chaos of moving, you have not kept up your regular physical fitness regimen and your body hurts and feels gross? And what if your spouse is also stressed so you can’t lean on them too much and their stress magnifies your stress? And what if all this stress also triggers the crazy peri-menopause hormones that throw everything out of whack?
With all those external factors in play, at what point do you recognize that you are not simply sad and stressed, you have actually slipped into a depressed state?
You can probably guess by now that I’m not writing about a purely hypothetical situation. It was easy to write off that feeling of hopeless despair for a long time because there was also very real grief and sadness to go with it. Of course I would be feeling down, everyone would expect that. Unlike the post-flu depression, no one would be particularly concerned about my blues because they had a tangible cause to point to.
Except at some point I realized that I was more than sad. My trusty optimism was gone. Poof. Vanished. I was caught in the loop again: ___ is pointless, life is meaningless. I was not moving through grief and sadness, I was stuck in that place where nothing changes and the world is without colour.
After I realized/suspected what was happening, the next question became What do I do about it?
The flu-induced depression had just gone away on its own. Maybe this one would too? Maybe once I got a job? Maybe once Fred started working more? Maybe once the weather got better? Maybe once I had time to run again?
And then I got a job. No improvement.
And then the weather got better. No improvement.
And then I started running again. No improvement.
Now I had to do the hardest thing I could imagine: I had to talk about it. I had to reach out and tell someone, “I need help”. Seriously, that is the worst part of this for me, having to admit to what so many people, possibly even my own husband, consider a weakness.
You break your arm, you say, “My arm’s broken, I need to go see a doctor.” No one thinks, oh what a wussy. Just suck it up. Just get over it.
You realize you are in a depressed state, you say, “My brain is broken, I need to go see a doctor.” Lots of people think, oh what a wussy. Just suck it up. Get over it.
Let me tell you now, if you are one of those people who thinks depression is a weakness to be conquered by sheer force of will, you are wrong. Depression is every bit as debilitating as a broken arm. Worse, in many ways, specifically because of people who believe it is merely a weakness of character. Because of the stigma attached with saying, “My brain is broken.” The stigma that keeps people from seeking help.
I am determined not to be intimidated by that stigma.
I reached out. I talked to a few people that I knew would understand and be able to offer sound advice. Just doing that, just acknowledging what is happening, has lifted some of the fog away. Just taking action, just breaking out of inertia, brought some of the colour back to the world. Sharing this, right now, with the world, helps.
My brain is a little broken right now. The chemistry is wrong. I am not weak or self-indulgent, I’m injured.
11:44am, April 29, 2016. I am depressed. It’s going to take some time, care, and possibly even medication but I will get better. Life will get better.
Happy new year.