The above photo is from Yayoi Kasuma’s exhibit Infinity Mirrors and the painting I’m standing in front of is “I Who Have Taken an Anti-Depressant”. At the end of the Infinity Mirrors exhibition, before entering the obliteration room (the room with all the colorful polka dot stickers) there were several canvas pieces with titles and symbols that acted as tells to how Kusama views and lives with her own mind and mental health. Today is the last day of Mental Health Awareness month, and I wasn’t even really intending on creating a piece about my own personal mental health, but today I have a little extra time and wanted to share how I live with depression.
I have Dysthymia, or in the simple to understand terms, persistent depressive disorder. It’s fairly common affecting around 3 million people in US (thank you Google) but is less common than major depressive disorder, which effects around 16 million people in the US and is what most people tend to associate or understand as depression. A person with persistent depressive disorder, like myself, can experience major depression, which is then called double depression – how fun is that. But when you have persistent depressive disorder, it means you’ve been in a state of depression for two or more years, and there are moments of it when it’s alleviated but basically, you don’t go more than two months without depression (thank you MayoClinic)
Now, I can continue to explain this all like a medical book, or I can just explain what it’s like for me to live with it. I’ve had it since I was a kid, I’ve always connected more to Grumpy Bear and Oscar the Grouch. My negative self-talk was hardwired into my brain, I came out of the womb skeptical about myself and the world I grew up in didn’t necessarily make it easy to silence those voices. So, I just have always had this stormy little rain cloud following me around. But what do rainclouds bring? Rainbows. So, I was also like a super fun and silly kid too. As I grew up, the storm clouds got bigger and so did the rainbows. And people like rainbows, so I had lots of friends. In my teen years, which sucks for everyone, I was a popular kid with suicidal thoughts. I was incredibly self-destructive and tried my best to hide it from people.
Yet, I couldn’t hide the depression completely, so there were a lot of days when people would ask “what’s wrong?” and I know they were concerned but you can’t say the truth. What do you say to another 15 year old, that you feel like death is better than living and you realize you don’t even have it that bad. I had a lot of conflicted feelings about my depression. I felt guilty for being depressed, but I also had this sick pride – it’s was something that made me feel special. Like I understood what all those Lifetime movies are about, I feel that, all the time. Plus, I was already in therapy, what were my friends going to do. So, on the days when it was really hard to hide the depression, I’d just say I was tired. Even today, I don’t love when people ask if I’m ok, because I’m not, but what am I supposed to say – what are they supposed to do.
Depression and destruction was all I knew until I was about 20 and I got medicated. With medication came the ability to see what the world could be like without depression. A big part of persistent depressive disorder is it goes on for so long, it becomes a part of one’s identity. And the medication was like a power washer to the window that I viewed life and emotions. All I knew was depression and brief moments of technicolor rainbow happiness. I didn’t know what it felt like to go weeks without feeling depressed, and medication gave me that wonderful feeling. It was super cool! The medication worked (when I remembered to take it) for about 3 years, then it stopped working. I was taking Bupropion (aka Wellbutrin) and it just stopped being effective. I was getting more depressive episodes than normal while taking the medication, and I took Abilify to make the anti-depressant work better but that caused my hand to twitch so I stopped taking it. In order to continue to be medicated, I would have had to go to a more intense anti-depressant like Prozac and that honestly scared me. So at 24, I decided to go off medication, at that point I had read enough self-help books, been to therapy, and grew a self-awareness around the depression that I felt I could navigate life without the anti-depressants.
Now, 6 years later, living with persistent depression without a therapist or medication – it’s not a fucking walk in the park. It sucks. But it’s not terrible, and it’s not impossible. That stormy raincloud, it’s more like a shadow monster, and some days it comes banging on the door refusing to leave and I’m just done. Other days it peaks it’s head around the corner to tell me it’s still there, and I just go ok, nice to see you, not today Satan. And other days it’s nowhere in sight and those days are awesome!! But my shadow monster is always lurking, and I’ve learned how to deal with it. I’ve learned how to have friendships, relationships, a stable job, ambitions, goals, dreams – all of it.
Earlier this month, I wanted to start weekly/ daily vlogging. It’s been an ambition of mine, but I have a lot of conflicted feelings about it. One, my days are fairly routine and kind of boring. Two, my depression. I don’t know when it will hit. I don’t know when I’m going to have an episode, where all of a sudden I’m filled with a deep hopelessness and very little will to function. So, the week I started doing it, by Tuesday I woke up feeling depressed. I had to do a lot of contrary action to pull myself out of the sludge, but I plugged along. Because that’s what I’ve learned to do. I just have to put one foot in front of the other. I have to keep going. Brush my teeth. Write out my to-do list. I have to go through the motions until the shadow drifts away. I have to starve the shadow with contrary action, instead of feeding it and giving in to the depression.
The scene from The Neverending Story with Atreyu and Artax in the Swamp of Sadness, I am both Atreyu and Artax, all the time.
Some days I wish I could just be back on medication, it would make everything so much easier. But I’m choosing not to spend money on medication, because I also know how to manage my life without it. Instead, I exercise, watch my diet (avoid trigger foods and drink), practice self-care rituals, and make an effort to see my friends and spend time with my husband. I find other ways to help me manage the depression. Now, if I felt I was slipping into a major depression or a double depression I would need to seek medication and attend therapy again. Wedding planning nearly put me into a major depression, but with a lot of self-therapy and a lot of French fries – I got through it. Yet, if I do have double depression that impacts the quality of my life to the point where my relationships and work suffer immensely that is when I will decide to reinvest and seek out psychiatric treatment.
I view my persistent depression similar to a person living with Type-1 diabetes. It’s something I have, it’s not who I am. It will also never go away, but I can manage it. Lastly, you don’t need to feel bad about it, because I don’t. I was having a conversation with my mom in which I was explaining the frequency of my really dark depressive episodes, and how I get through them, the cycle and she said “good, and you’re still alive.” I’m still alive. I’m still having fun and enjoying life and depressed at least 50% of the time. I’m ok with the fact I will likely never be 100% depression free. I just want other people, especially young people, with persistent depression to know that they can learn how to navigate the world with it and have a full life. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know you can have a life that you love, and still feel like life isn’t worth living, and then learn to love it again.
*I’ve decided to not weekly vlog. Mostly, because I’m even bored by the material I would have to edit together to make interesting. Creator rule #1 – make what you would want to consume. I don’t want to consume my week again.
** I’ve done my best to explain my life with depression in as concise a form as possible, I have likely oversimplified in some areas. So if there are any questions or desire for clarification, please leave a comment and I’d be happy to elaborate.