Updated: Jan 10, 2020
I had my first depressive episode when I was twelve.
It was fresh on the heels of two early back-to-back traumas. Moving for the first time in my life, which threw me completely off balance and into the deep end of self-consciousness and anxiety as I tried to navigate a new landscape populated by new people and found I was woefully inept to do so. And my own early induction into the #metoo experience, when I learned the weight and shape of shame. How it lays across the shoulders. How it bows the head. How it nestles in your body so that you feel sick every time you look in the mirror. How it makes you hate yourself, blame yourself, hide yourself.
Looking back, it's so obvious. But at the time, I had no vocabulary for what was happening to me, and therefore no understanding. No way to explain it to anyone else. And I did what most confused and hurting children do, I hid it. And then I acted out. Dividing my personality between these two opposing poles: the very good, very quiet, very nice girl, and the outspoken, obnoxious, do-anything-on-a-dare girl. Of course, the acting out only brought more shame. And amazingly, none of my parents—I had four—clued in to the fact that maybe, just maybe, something was wrong and I needed some help with that.
I don't exactly remember when I came out of that episode. And maybe that's the problem, maybe I never really did. Somewhere in high school it got better. Kind of. At least, I stopped crying every day at school. And as I got older, I found more and more ways to act out, and more and more ways to self-medicate. I discovered alcohol in eighth grade, and I discovered drugs in ninth grade, and the rest of my high school and college years were a blur of blending the two. I made friends. Most of whom were also carrying confused and hurting children inside. And we found a certain camaraderie and validation in our shared, often unspoken pain.
But after having children, the depression came back. After each birth, a long and grueling tangle with the "baby blues" ensued. A sinking energy level. A sinking mood. The same when my mother was dying of cancer. When my husband's work and family life became so hopelessly knotted together it seemed we would never pick it apart, not without hurting feelings, not without sacrificing boundaries. When my writing career did not launch at the time or in the way I'd hoped it would. When my job failed to fulfill me. When I didn't have a creative project to consume me. When the wind blew left instead of right.
There were days in bed. Though I rarely indulged in that, even at my worst (because that is exactly how I was taught to view self care, as indulgence). There were conversations with the kids about "mommy crying". There were far too many bottles of beer. And bouts of attempting legitimate pharmaceuticals, or hormone therapy, or supplements, or dietary changes. I would always find some way to pick myself back up, piece myself back together, and move on. But if I'm honest, I have always felt a little broken. Even on my best days. It is the sense that the shadow you have been outrunning, and maybe even successfully for a while, is still there, always a step or two behind you.
It's hard to explain depression to someone who's never experienced it. Sometimes it feels sad. But the sadness feels disconnected from anything solid, like a balloon bobbing on the water, even when it is clearly in response to an event or circumstance. Sometimes it feels hopeless. Less like the future will not be what you want it to be, and more like there is no future. It often feels meaningless. Like everything around you is a Hollywood stage set, propped up with two-by-fours and duct tape. And if you dare to peer around the edge, you will see there is nothing behind it at all. Always, it feels uphill. And even when you are managing the incline, there are days your feet are just fucking tired and you are really sick of climbing and fuck the peak who needs it anyway I just want to lay down now.
At best, it makes me feel down. Like I need a quadruple espresso shot. Like I can't quite get my engine going. At worst, it makes me feel empty. Like there is nothing to me but a vacuum. And I have to fill and fill and fill that void up or feel it eating me alive from the inside. And the sadness comes in response to the emptiness. Like, a kind of sorrow echoing inside me at the realization that I am nothing where others are something. And I can't feel anything of value or substance or worth. I can't feel anything at all.
I've read all the books and listened to all the talks. I've meditated and prayed and saged and filled my house with crystals and my yard with plants and gone outside and stayed inside and contemplated God and death and spirit and oneness and none of it amounts to anything when I am in the empty place. Because the empty place refuses to be moved.
And then ... my child died.
I remember, shortly after we lost Evelyn, crying to my husband and saying, "I'm not really the kind of person who is made to sustain this." And it's a ridiculous statement because who the fuck is? But also, what I meant was, I am already treading water. How can I possibly keep from going under now? How does someone, who already has navigated a lifetime of depression, also navigate the worst kind of loss and grief and emotional pain known to mankind?
But the truth is, I don't think my bereaved counterparts who didn't experience depression before child loss are really any better off. Because pain is the great equalizer. We're all in it, and when we're in it, it just hurts. We're all struggling to keep our heads above water. Sometimes, we're all gulping down mouthfuls as we fight our way back to the surface.
If anything, I can say that at least the depression aspect of this is no stranger to me. Yes, my lowest low has been reset. Yes, I have to watch my mental health with an unflagging eye. Yes, I have a really, really good reason to be really, really sad now. And sometimes it's very easy to give in to that. But also, I know this territory. I have some hard-won strategies and coping mechanisms in place. I recognize my triggers and the signs that I am sinking. I have made the choice to put my mental health first before, and I know what it feels like to say screw the job or the appointment or the insert-whatever-obligation-is-needling-you-here because today is about SURVIVAL.
And I know that if I can hang in there, the empty place is only for a while.
It's not always easy to detangle grief from depression. The truth is, they blend together. You think there is a point of singularity where one ends and the other begins, but there's not. There's just this mess in the middle where they feed into each other on a continuous loop. But sometimes I can taste the flavor of my tears, and I can say these are tears for Evelyn, or these are tears for myself, or it's anybody's guess what these tears are for but they're coming anyway.
Studies have found that bereaved parents are significantly more likely to experience depressive symptoms and episodes, psychiatric hospitalization (particularly for mothers), suicidal ideation, health issues, and higher mortality rates. (Did we really need a study for that?) I don't say that to make you feel more hopeless than you already might, but to let you know that you are not alone and what you are going through is perfectly normal for someone who has had to absorb the shock of a blow like the one you have.
Losing Evelyn has taught me a lot about my depression. It has opened me up to be more honest with myself and others about my mental health challenges. It has freed me to own my pain. Because I will never disown Evelyn. And Evelyn and my pain are synonymous now. There is no parsing them apart. It has enabled me to find more acceptance for who I am and what I am going through on any given day than I ever allowed myself before. And I wish, I wish, I wish I had come to all these things another way. I wish I was sitting here writing about how good friends and good wine taught me to love myself more. But I didn't, and I'm not. Instead, it is the parting gifts of my beautiful girl that have made it possible for me to write this post. To share openly in this way about my experiences of depression and those early traumas that led to it and how it shows up now.
And I just want to add, for those who may read this that haven't lost a child and haven't experienced depression before, that those of us who have ... we are not weak. You are lucky. Good for you. I hope your every day is liquid sunshine and pink roses and extra whip on your latte. But when it's not, come and talk to me. I can tell you what it is to push. I can tell you what it is to surrender. To master yourself and then to be mastered by yourself. I can tell you what it is to fail. To sink. To drown. To swim. And I can tell you what it's not. It is not weakness. It's vulnerability. Maybe you were taught, like me, that those are the same thing. But those of us who have faced it and continue to face it know the difference all too well.