Shit-Colored Glasses: How Depression Changes Everything and How I’m Learning to Change Depression
The phone rang, and I immediately burst into tears from the immensity of it. I just could not deal with interacting with whoever it was. Or even the nerve-wracking mystery of who it might be: For the love of fuck it could be virtually anyone! And they could say anything! I can’t handle that kind of uncertainty right now!!!
I let it ring and ring until mercifully the voice mail kicked in, but each ring was like a drill to the head, like poor Daniel Craig in Spectre. Shudder. I took it far worse than he did; but in my defense, I didn’t have the same training. Maybe MI6 training is the real preventative medicine for depression? Or does it simply promote emotional repression? Hmmm. Probably the latter. Damn it. I really thought I had an out there.
This was during a depressive episode nearly twenty years ago, when I made it to work as I pretty much always have (though I’m trying now to attend to depression as it arises — as much as possible amidst the responsibilities of parenting and earning).
I first heard the shit-colored-glasses analogy a few years ago, and it is spot on in my opinion. In depression, everything, and I mean everything, is dull, hopeless, or even downright hateful. This is not an exaggeration, and you know the veracity of it if you’ve suffered from depression. Rather than a symbol of vitality, for example, a gorgeous flower can instead signify the transience of life and thus imminent death.
When you ease out of the fog of a major depressive episode and look backward, it can totally feel like you were being melodramatic, even a bit silly. Even to yourself — and you actually lived it. At this point, you’re able to offer platitudes to those who love you, to ease their minds. During the depression, you often avoid contact to ease your own mind. After all, speaking words is often way too much effort. Let alone any words that don’t render you a complete bummer in the minds of those you’d call — you don’t want to get your stuff all over those you love.
This is part of the real shame of it all: what you think others must think of your weak-ass character. And it is nearly impossible not to care about this, even if you know or suspect they can’t relate. Especially if you know or suspect they can’t relate.
When you are in a depressive episode, it is SO intense and so vague and so all pervasive, like being smothered under a huge pile of wet cotton balls. Rationally, I know my thought stream is totally bat-shit crazy when everyone, and I mean every single person around me obviously has it better than me. That single woman with no children is so lucky because she can focus entirely on taking care of herself. That homeless man totally has it made because he doesn’t have to pay bills or clean the house or get his stupid car repaired. And, I can’t believe how easy that woman’s life probably is, because her seven children probably just take care of each other so I’m sure she has tons of time to cook and shop in peace.
When I realize this is my mental tickertape, I try to do a reality check and, you know, practice gratitude and be all Zen about the good things in my life. But the problem is that during depression, you just really, really don’t believe it. This tactic just adds emotional damage, because then all of a sudden you feel shameful that you’re such a shitty person that you can feel this terrible when you have a house, and a beautiful child and a job and a husband and food, and you try to trudge back to your bootstrapping conditioning and society’s message that you are such a selfish little a-hole for feeling sad in the face of all of that abundance and just get over it already.
It certainly does not help when others suggest the count-your-blessings approach. Guess what, all you bloody do-gooders? A) most of us are already beating ourselves up for our depression, and B) your “helping” by showboating how perfectly fine our lives look on paper only reiterates that we are alone in this, that you don’t understand. Looking at the bright side for us does not help. It is literally kicking us when we are down. Okay, not literally, but you know, you might as well, because that would actually feel like far less of a betrayal. And be less painful. Unless you stomped with a stiletto or track cleats. Please don’t.
A few years ago, I read of a family who had lost their son to suicide after his decade-long struggle with depression. The mother commented that she took her son to Africa on a mission trip hoping to make him feel better by seeing how good his life was in comparison to the war-torn, starvation-ridden men, women, and children he met. It didn’t. (And I do not blame the parents; they loved him dearly and will always, always, devastatingly feel his loss.)
The message we get when we are depressed and are the recipients of this type of “help,” is “now this is real pain,” “you have it good by comparison,” “your pain doesn’t matter, or at least not as much,” and, through implication, “snap out of it.”
In fact, hearing and seeing the ubiquitous pain and suffering around us often significantly compounds our own pain. Like there is no hope and life will always feel very, very hard. [I had to quit a counseling job where the secondary trauma — the trauma suffered from witnessing others’ trauma, made me feel like a cigarette butt being slowly ground out under a very large, very persistent boot heel. I felt like I was dying.] There is struggle everywhere you look, as when I was driving home depressed and saw a duct-tape “repair” made to the car driving next to me. At that vulnerable moment, it was just validation that life is scarcity and poverty and scraping by and never-ending to-do lists and all your shit breaking and blah, blah, blah.
On a mentally sunny day, it might have been validation that duct tape is amazing, that people are resilient, that some people are higher-minded than to be concerned about the appearance of something as trivial as some cracked plastic, that cars function well despite bangs and bumps, and isn’t it lovely that we are each respecting the boundaries of our own lanes? Aaah, life is beautiful everywhere you look! And this is a thought pattern I do have at times, when I am not depressed, and when I am extremely vigilant about taking care of myself and monitoring my sneaky mind.
But some days I wake up and the thought stream is something like this:
“I dislike everyone who doesn’t have kids. How easy life used to be. I would love to be able to cut all ten of my fingernails at one sitting.”
“I resent everyone who isn’t in chronic pain. I cannot even imagine the lightness one must feel when one’s body feels simply neutral, let alone strong. Those people won the fucking lottery.”
“I abhor everyone who has never been depressed. Those jerks will never, ever understand me/us [others with depression, not my other personalities, though you know, if the shoe fits] and that makes me feel way more broken and alone than ever.”
You can never know the internal dialogue inside the head of the person who is depressed. It can feel impossible to keep going. Even after years of “training” to hear and refute this nonsense, you get worn down after doing it for a while (hours, days, weeks, depending on your training, strength, and resilience), and then it’s like face-planting in the La Brea Tar Pits.
I took an intro psych class where one assignment required us to ask our parents what the most difficult stage of our development had been for them. I was certain that my mom would say it was the years when I refused to have my hair combed and yelped like a banshee at the torture of getting my nails cut. I was surprised when she said the mid-teens, “because you were just so unhappy.”
Now that I am a mother, I both can and can’t imagine that pain of feeling so helpless when your child is suffering. In fact, when I am deeply depressed, I hurt more in the apprehension that my sweet kid could inherit this extremely painful malaise. That is a very dangerous place to go, and I recognize it even through the fog and must evacuate those waters ASAP. All the dangers and pain that exist in the world and that could arrive in his life — it is just too much.
It often really sucks that no one else knows what is going on in your head, or how hard you’re working to keep your head above water. (And sometimes, it really does feel this dire, like struggling not to drown. Exhausting.) Of course, we all know that people not seeing into your crazy head usually presents an incredible advantage, because I’m pretty sure I would be 100% isolated and alone if my thoughts were common knowledge to those around me.
As would we all, right? I mean, your earthy, body-positive reputation would be shot if people saw that daydream of a tummy tuck to revert to your supple, pre-baby belly. Or what about the F-bombs you were dropping every time your dear, dear husband forgot to turn the clothes right-side out before folding them. (Don’t hate me because my husband folds clothes. Because obviously I have to redo them anyway, after being super grateful about them being “done.”)
But when you are depressed, or have been thrumming with anxiety or clenched in pain all day, and somehow still are able to put your game face on before other people enter the house, it really, really sucks that they can’t read your mind and thus they enter the house with their game face off and fucking ruin your game face for the rest of the night with their incredibly selfish, non-mind-reading selves.
It’s like putting on your best outfit for date night and then your husband trips and spills a freaking cup of coffee on you or something. You can’t just recover super fast, because that’s the only outfit you had that fit the occasion and it took a long time to get dressed due to how un-datey you were feeling. So bugger off, you with your own needs and moods and adaptable wardrobe.
I’ve been in bouts of depression where my mind was so wasted that the only thing holding me to humanhood was brushing my teeth. I’d be so, so foggy and groggy, and not have a clue what to do, and slowly by bedtime the thought would occur (or the muscle memory would kick in) to brush my teeth. “Aha, that’s right, people brush their teeth. That’s what people do. I remember that I am a person, and therefore, I brush my teeth.”
And with this syllogism I would lurch slowly to the bathroom, perform this very human endeavor and thus maintain a tenuous link to life. I didn’t feel suicidal, exactly, but in these periods I feel more obligated to persevere than I feel driven by any sort of remembrance of beauty or vitality. My personal guess would be that suicide rates are lower in areas that really enforce work ethic and perseverance as core values: we simply MUST go on, despite not having much verve at all, and when it may actually be better to recuperate or seek help. Or maybe rates are higher, since we feel that we can’t stop to recuperate or seek help. (I’d look it up, but it sounds like depressing research.)
Depression can make me meek. During a recent depressive episode, I went to get sushi, because the artistry and complex flavors, as well as the simple and random ambiance of sushi restaurants are comforting to me. Plus, restaurants feel like an indulgence to me, and several teacher-authors recommend being very nice to yourself when you are depressed. I wanted to try to new roll, but it was too much pressure: if I didn’t love it, or if it was wide and awkward to eat, I really might start crying right there, tears dropping into my soy sauce. So I went with an old standby. Play it safe. Don’t rock the boat, even a little, or you might capsize.
Sometimes my tear ducts have a hair trigger, like the day above, and other times I feel like a very heavy cloud and the energy it would take to cry seems like it will never be mine again. Often the prior leads to the latter, especially in grief.
As the years pass and cluster into decades, I’ve continued working on the tangled, roiling waterway of my depression and anxiety issues, tracing the origins and triggers. I’ve been slowly and methodically charting my way up the tributaries of chronic pain, a genetic inheritance of mental illness, being an emotional sponge (some people would say Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP) which makes human interactions more tiring and troublesome than they are for most people, and various common insecurities and stressors (parenting, health, finances, overwhelm).
And, I’m learning to recognize which of the individual tributaries are contributing to NOW and trying to ebb the flow of these so that the main depressive channel slows to a manageable level. I’m aiming for a gentle float where one can easily get ashore for a pee break anytime, rather than world-class rapids that you need to seriously train and gear up for. And you know what? I’m getting there. It is so much more manageable than facing the rushing torrent head on. Would you rather try to stare down a tsunami or bail out a boat a bucket at a time?
During “sane” periods, I’ve tried to cultivate the tools to help me through these periods, like meditation, yoga, maintaining relationships, cognitive restructuring (don’t you love that phrase, like you are literally taking apart your mind and putting it back together a different way. Because you are.). The rub lies herein: I can’t find the toolbox when I’m really fucked up; I certainly don’t have the energy to pick up the tools; nor can I summon the mental wherewithal to know how they work anymore. I’ll gape at this yoga in my hand, jaw slack, “duh? What did I think this was good for again?” (Yes, that sentence is intentional –that is how dysfunctional the mind can be.)
Now, I’m getting better at reading the signs of depression earlier on and am often able to identity the contributing tributaries and can choose a next step. Do rehab exercises or schedule a physical therapy appointment. Call someone. Meditate. If there is no discernable cause, which is common — not much you can do about the genetics, unfortunately — then patience, acceptance without resignation, gentleness, good self-care.
All helpful concepts to base every day upon, and I’m working to prioritize activities that exemplify them. After all, as Cheri Huber writes in The Depression Book, “If you cannot be kind to the one person whose suffering you can actually feel, you will never be able to be kind to anyone. This is the most unselfish work you can do.” (Unfortunately, however, it is also the worst paying.) My bootstraps are so threadbare with so few results that I know the “buck up” method does not work for me. Or does not work anymore. Eventually we must all face the music, rather than pretend the orchestra doesn’t exist.
Yet even just typing this optimism about my progress with mental illness makes me feel vulnerable and apprehensive that depression is lurking and if it sees me getting some equanimity, it will jump out and nab me. Right now, I’m going to keep on keepin’ on.
And you: if you’re riding the rapids of your own smothering depression, I urge you to seek out the tributaries and work on the ones you can. Divert a drop at a time, and don’t give up. Don’t take advice from people who don’t understand depression, and don’t ponder the ways some others might have it harder than you. Stay vigilant about mapping and managing as you can. And always: portage, pee, and rest when you need to. You have a tribe. We’re out there. You are one of us, and we’ll see you if you let us. Keep on keepin’ on.