I returned, not long ago, to a wood in which I had played as a child and saw an oak, a hundred years dignified, in whose shade I used to play with my brother. In twenty years, a huge vine had attached itself to this confident tree and had nearly smothered it. It was hard to say where the tree left off and the vine began. The vine had twisted itself so entirely around the scaffolding of tree branches that its leaves seemed from a distance to be the leaves of the tree; only up close could you see how few living oak branches were left, and how a few desperate little budding sticks of oak stuck like a row of thumbs up the massive trunk, their leaves continuing to photosynthesize in the ignorant way of mechanical biology.Fresh from a major depression in which I had hardly been able to take on board the idea of other people’s problems, I empathized with that three. My depression had grown on me as that vine had conquered the oak; it had been a sucking thing that had wrapped itself around me, ugly and more alive than I. It had had a life of its own that bit by bit asphyxiated all of my life out of me. At the worst stage of major depression, I had moods that I knew were not my moods: they belonged to the depression, as surely as the leaves on that tree’s high branches belonged to the vine. When I tried to think clearly abou tthis, I felt that my mind was immured, that it couldn’t expand in any direction. I knew that the sun was rising and setting, but little of its light reached me. I felt myself sagging under what was much stronger than I . . . Its tendrils threatened to pulverize my mind and my courage and my stomach, and crack my bones and desiccate my body. It went on glutting itself on me when there seemed nothing left to feed it.
Currently I’m in the middle of a very bad depressive episode–so I don’t have the mental focus to contribute the way I could when I was feeling less crazy. But I am right as of this minute simply marveling at how disengaged with reality I can be, knowing that I’m disengaged with reality and still not being able to re-engage reality. As I get older I get more sympathy and even respect for my mother, who I resented so much when I was younger because of the instability–what a word–no, not instability–really, really bad and frightening spirits that were in our home because of her mental illness. I watch myself doing the same exact thing to my own children and I’m so, so sorry about it but at the same time helpless because if I could stop it, I would. My mother would come out of a horrible rage episode and apologize profusely and tearfully, and I would think to myself, “Well, it’s all well and good that you’re sorry, but why can’t you just be different?” Seriously, if this is God’s twisted method of teaching me compassion, I TOTALLY GET IT NOW, THANK YOU.
Rosencrantz: When I was at my worst, I had difficulty even getting out of bed, and I didn’t even have the ability to feel guilty. The only things I felt were apathy and pain. Not a good thing when you are the provider for a wife and children. I’ll just say it quickly and bluntly: I lost my job and we had to sell our house and move because I couldn’t keep it together. So it was a horrible experience for my wife and for our kids. I’m still a little surprised she didn’t divorce me, and I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had.
Looking back, my wife and children were about as understanding and patient and kind as I could have possibly hoped, and that was a blessing. The aftermath has been a challenge, because I still feel really guilty, and I still haven’t been able to metabolize the experience yet. Sometimes I fear that this is just a temporary calm period and that I’ll repeat the whole damned process again.
Desdemona: This is the worst of the topics surrounding depression for me. I’m not sure how I will be able to add, because I can barely bring myself to even think about how this has affected my children. Worrying about that is a key feature of my depression and anxiety, so I just can’t say how much of my worry is justified and how much is insidious imagination. I know I can be a very bad mother when I am depressed or anxious. I neglect, I get angry and snap too easily, and above all I am inconsistent. Sometimes I want to just disappear so I won’t expose my children to me any more. Obviously losing a mother to suicide would be an enormous harm too, so it’s kind of an impasse. Objectively, they’re probably fine. Everyone tells me they are great, happy, smart, fun kids. But part of my anxiety is to worry that each little thing is the early sign of a problem (that I caused). One of the most tension-releasing moments of my life was when my therapist finally met my children for the first time. She happened to pass us while they were playing in a garden area near her office building (we were coming from a different appointment there). Of course we’d spent a lot of time talking about my mother guilt, so it could have been a vulnerable moment. But in that moment I could see my kids through her eyes and they were just normal, happy kids, not horribly emotionally disfigured. It was such a relief.
My deepest, darkest worry that I can’t believe I am about to write down is this: that having infertility meant that God was trying to prevent me from having children that I would then ruin, but I wouldn’t listen and kept wanting children anyway. That I am the Martin Harris lost the pages of Motherhood. The process of healing for me has been a process of repeating these steps over and over: identify a negative thought, identify that it is false, and then let it go. Through therapy, and a lesser extent bishops, family and friends, I have one by one vanquished many thoughts. But a few are more tenacious, and that’s one of them.
Portia: I have the mother guilt, too, and, like Beatrice’s, it’s compounded by the fact that I grew up with a depressed mom. I know exactly the kind of damage I could be doing. I spent so much of my childhood making plans to be very, very different from my mother, so while depression feels, all by itself, like failure and ruin, turning out to be my mother after all feels like utter catastrophe. I want desperately to believe that I am doing better than she did. I take my meds, I try to deal with as much crap in therapy as I can so that I don’t take it out on my children. But sometimes I see it in their eyes anyway, know that they’re trying just as desperately to make me happy as I used to try to make my mother happy, and feeling like somehow they’re not enough because they can’t fix me. One of the many half-baked novels that float around in my head is a long suicide letter to a daughter, trying to explain that there’s nothing wrong with her, that she had brought her mother all the joy that it was possible for her to feel, but that she (the mother) just wasn’t any good at joy. I guess it’s good that I can’t seem to finish that one.
Beatrice: Initially, when I get depressed, it is the guilt that keeps me functional. I like guilt because it spurs me to action. Because I’m depressed, though, the guilt is always accompanied by resentment over all the things I have to do. But I can function through the resentment.
During this time of guilt and resentment, I’m also very angry, but it is as Ophelia described, all brewing under the surface and ready to explode at the slightest provocation. And then one day I wake up and look at the chaos surrounding me and think, “Eh. Whatever.” And then I am all done feeling guilty and also all done being functional. What’s the point? The anger and resentment stay, though. I’m very good at holding on to that.
When I’m properly medicated, I have perspective. Because I have perspective, I can prioritize tasks and not freak out over the littlest thing–or even relatively large things. I get more accomplished because I have more energy. I mostly feel only appropriate guilt. I think I’m also very unusual in that I’ve never suffered the sexual side effects of anti-depressants. I find I enjoy sex much more when I’m not wishing I were dead.
Mistress Quickly: Ah, sex and depression. For me it’s a mixed bag. Being very depressed shoots my sex life to hell, in every way imaginable. Certain antidepressants also seriously dampen my interest and capacity for response. By contrast, one particular med has an aphrodisiac effect for me (too bad it doesn’t work for my depression). The impact of depression AND antidepressants on sexual desire and responsiveness is a really big deal because it can put serious strain on marriages that are already strained. So while I’d rather be super slow sexually than suicidal, it’s more complicated than that.
Rosencrantz: At the risk of oversharing, I can say quite confidently that if they ever want to discover an antidote for Viagra, Paxil can do the job very well with muscle to spare. The prospect of smoothness in the afterlife doesn’t scare me at all because I already know what it feels like to be unsexed.
Beatrice: Everyone else I know that has been on a SSRI–Paxil, particularly–has experienced these sexual side effects, but it just hasn’t been my experience. When I’m depressed, all four phases of sexual experience are affected, not just the libido. When I’m not depressed–that is to say, when I’m taking drugs–all four are markedly improved.
Viola: I haven’t been on medication while being sexually active so I have no idea if it affects me. Though of course, I’m much more interested in sex when I feel normal than when I feel like I’m stuck in a deep, meaningless abyss and I don’t want to wake up because then I’ll have to think about how much I’d probably rather be dead.
Ophelia: My maternal grandmother tried to kill herself three times- and never succeeded. Again in retrospect, there is a strong family tendency there, and I wish she had had the benefit of therapy and/or modern pharmaceuticals, imperfect though they are.
Falstaff: A family relation just committed suicide this weekend. Out of work, mid-30s, angry with others, he just decided to give up and hung himself. The devastation he has wrought on his family is incalculable. If anyone is ever tempted to think that their family is better off without them then with them they are wrong. This would seem to be the ultimate lie. We are all imbedded in relationships that we cannot really grasp. Viola is right that depression feeds us the lie that we are not important to this web. You are. Watching his family try to make sense of this has made me realize how much damage can be done by giving into the lies that depression tells. Each of you do matter. Believe that.
Ophelia: So true. After my brother-in-law committed suicide last year, the devastation is unimaginable. It ripples out and out and out.
Mistress Quickly: If I were to leave my family one way or another, it would not be because I felt unimportant, but because I play such a major role in their lives and I’m failing so spectacularly that they’re much better off without me. I would consider myself doing them a favor by disappearing. Now, from where I’m standing I can see how ridiculous this is, but when I’m in the thick of deep depression it’s the most reasonable thing in the world, and it even seems like a noble thing to rid my family of such a blight.
Desdemona: Exactly. I can’t count the number of times I’ve planned to leave my husband so he could be free to marry someone who could be a decent wife and mother. Even when I’m not feeling brave enough to commit suicide, I think, “Well, abandonment, that’s almost as good.”
Viola: Falstaff, I’m sorry to hear about your cousin’s son. So sad.
I think depression makes us both feel like we are not at all important at the same time that we are too, too important (meaning all the ruin in anyone’s life ever is our fault). It feels impossible to me most days to feel the right amount of self-importance.
Mistress Quickly: I wonder if for LDS, depression has an extra twist. We know the significance of this life, the importance of family, the weightiness of keeping covenants, etc. We know all too well that everything matters–in fact, we’re taught that this life is the middle act in a 3-part play, and that everything that came before was preparation for what’s happening now, and that everything that’s happening how will determine what will happen forever after. So even when I’m verrrrrry depressed I don’t feel like nothing matters. I feel like everything matters, but that nothing I do can even come close to being enough, that I’m a stunning failure in every respect, and that the whole human race is a morass of pain and failed potential–my family in particular. In other words, when I’m in a healthy state of mind the ideal always outsizes the real, but the difference between the two, although often painful, is manageable. When I’m depressed, the difference between the ideal and the real is soul-crushing.
Ophelia: What you describe and soul-crushing despair over the chasm of expectation/reality, I experience as all-consuming anger. Anger that is so hot, when I was a kid I used to lay in bed fearful I would burst into flames. I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture, so I want to clarify this anger is not a constant state. It sits in the back of my psyche like a little pilot light, but at any given frustration, it can blow up like a roman torch. Usually it gets self-directed, and as a teen I found myself pulling hanks of hair out when I was angry. My mother thought I was genuinely insane. She took me to a shrink who did absolutely nothing, and she felt better about her parenting.
This is my first foray drug-free in over three years, and I’m just trying to get through the day without killing anyone. While I would never actually kill anyone, I do understand the impulse to do harm- and usually it ends up self-directed.
Falstaff: I tend to focus on looking to myself and the conditions I find myself in for the cause of my depression. I withdraw even from myself. And like Viola I go through iteration after iteration of ‘if only X would occur or if only Y would happen’ then I would leap from this funk. Ironically I take fewer and fewer steps toward those very things that I think will bring me out of it. When I’m depressed I also create long lists of things that I need to do to get out of it, I become over extended and promise too much to myself and others and soon find myself scattered over too many things. At some point it all becomes impossible to carry the load and I drop into doing things that are easy and don’t matter. It’s like I’m spinning in place. This worsens things because I realize that I’m not going to escape from these conditions. And I start to feel like everyone is disappointed in me. I’m letting everyone down. I’m a bad employee, bad husband, bad father, bad bad at things I once felt good at, bad colleague, bad person.
I don’t know if you’ve seen those third world dogs that slink around dumps with their tails between their legs suspicious of everyone and everything even their fellow dump dogs. They seem to see harm everywhere—maybe they’ve been kicked too many times, but they avoid all contact. That becomes me. It’s not an apathy exactly, because I want to get going on things that I know matter, but it becomes a practical apathy because I cannot move towards anything that matters. And as I get less done I feel worse about myself.
Mistress Quickly: That describes my experience exactly: a practical apathy. I’ll feel painfully aware of what I’m lacking spiritually, but have absolutely no wherewithal to pray or do anything else likely to close the gap even a little bit. I’ll feel giant waves of caring for my kids, but be incapable of interrelating with them, and I’ll hide somewhere, and then feel worse.
Actually, the caring is more like fear and sadness. This is something I’m just beginning to figure out. When I’m stable I’ll get uneasy sometimes because I feel so apathetic by comparison to how I used to feel… what I forget is that the unwell version of caring is pathological, largely self-centered and driven by negative emotion.
I’m not sure I know what normal, healthy caring feels like. Seems like I’m either overfunctioning or underfunctioning, continuously. Same goes for productivity, spiritual engagement, and a whole bunch of other things. When very depressed I get to the point that I give up on everything, and in that sense I don’t care anymore, but I’m still aware of how much I should care about things that matter.
Viola: The more depressed I get the more apathetic I am. The first depressive episode this really shocked me. I didn’t care about church or God or my missionaries at the MTC (the horror!), my family, my friends, school, books, writing, TV. My normal loves. I just didn’t care.
Both episodes were preceded by pretty intense times of expectation and I think that breaks me. This is why I believe that a great part of my depression is not hormonal or chemical or physiological (however you want to describe that) but psychological. That my depression is ignited by how I see myself and the world. The first time my expectations of how I should be in relation to God, the Church, BYU, the MTC, what was right and what was wrong were so impossibly high that it made me hate myself. I felt guilty for everything, never good enough, never satisfied with the choices I’d made or the Spirit I’d felt or whatever. The self-loathing got to be so much that it turns to not caring. During the depths of the depression, I don’t feel anything, happy or sad.
The second time (I am considerably less churchy now) was couched in different kinds of expectations. My husband and I were moving for his job, away from friends and family. It was pretty rural but I had in my mind that I was going to love it. Make good use of my time, find a job and volunteer work that I was really interested in, that I was going to make this move as much about me as it was about him. I didn’t do those things very well and I really struggled. Early on though, we found out that we would, at some unnamed future time, move to another work hub in a much larger city. And then the expectations really began to build. I could make do in this little town because once we moved to the city I could friends and work and a happy interesting life. City living (and I do love big cities) became my land of magical thinking and fantasized about it all the time. Then we moved and nothing fell into place. Everything was much harder than I thought and several things didn’t work out at all and then the self-loathing began. It was intense, full-blown, angry, sad self-hatred. I kept on hating and that turned to apathy because feeling all the anger and disappointment and sadness was too big a burden to bear. I went to bed because when I was awake I would think of jumping out our 6th story window. All this to say, I think my trajectory is care too much–hate self–apathy–time for bed depression.
When I did feel things it was either a huge sadness and/or unmanageable anger directed at my husband for moving us in the first place, for not finding us friends, for not understanding me. I think that was mostly anger at myself and my dashed expectations of how a spouse should understand you (we’re still relatively new to marriage, I’m still trying to erase the expectations of marital relationships built in my head from Rom-Coms and Young Women’s).
Mistress Quickly: When I’m well, I can look back and realize that my depressive episodes are as difficult for my husband as they are for me. But when I’m in the midst of them, I can’t see that–and even if I could, I wouldn’t care. There’s no room in my psyche to consider anyone else’s pain. I can tell that he wants to help me, but I don’t know how to help him help me, and don’t have the wherewithal to try to figure it out.
During my most recent episode things were really strained between us, because he could tell I was worse off than I’d ever been before, and he was scared. He would plead with me to be candid with him about my state of mind, but then when I was honest about how I felt he was very distressed. Now I can imagine how helpless and even desperate he felt, and I can’t for one minute believe that he should’ve reacted in any other way. But at the time I was frustrated. I needed someone who could absorb what I was sending out and not be shaken by it. I understand now that a therapist is usually the only person who can play this role.
But even with this tension, my husband was a huge support. He used vacation hours to be home with me during my worst times. He took me for drives and talked to me even when I couldn’t respond. He filled in the gaps with housework and child care as much as he could. He kept careful tabs on my behavior and asked me frequently (several times a day) to describe where I was at, emotionally and mentally. Often I resented him keeping such a close eye on me, but that’s what I needed, and it’s what he needed too. I wasn’t always honest about how badly I was doing, because I didn’t want to freak him out. But he helped me be self-aware during a critical time.
Viola: My husband, while very remarkably, lovingly non-judgy about my depression, does not understand it and withdraws a little bit because it is so massive and so heavy. The withdrawal mixed with my own expectations of what a spouse should be able to do (which are wrong, but they’re there nonetheless) make this disease really difficult on us as a couple. I have a lot of hope for us, mostly because my husband is ridiculously good, but in times of anxiety and negative thinking, I fear it will break us.
Beatrice: My husband wants to be supportive, but he doesn’t want to indulge my moods. He couldn’t tolerate me staying in bed all day just because I was depressed, and I’m not saying he should, but the very idea that we might someday have a conversation where he says, “I’m worried about you, Beatrice, because you didn’t get out of bed all day,” is just preposterous because I would never get away with staying in bed all day. He wouldn’t put up with it.
Clearly, my husband doesn’t have unreasonable expectations. “Get out of bed and be a contributing member of society” is not an unreasonable expectation, and I know that it’s not. I’m fully aware of what I ought to be doing and what I ought to be able to do. Like I said before, guilt works very well as a motivator for me, but sooner or later the guilt isn’t enough, and these perfectly reasonable expectations feel completely overwhelming. At that point I don’t know what to do for myself, and I don’t know how anyone else can help me. If I tell my husband it would be really helpful if he took over some particular responsibility because I can’t handle it right now, he’s going to wonder how long that’s going to go on and if it’s really wise to go down that path in the first place. He wants to be supportive, but he wants to help me in ways that help me help myself. He wants to do things that contribute to the long-term goal of me being self-sufficient. He doesn’t want to be picking up the slack indefinitely, and I don’t blame him. At the same time, when I’ve hit my limit and can no longer just keep pushing through the pain as I’ve been doing, I can’t explain what’s happened and I don’t know how people can help me. By this time I’m so keenly aware of my inability to meet basic expectations that it seems pointless to ask for help with anything. If I knew what would help, I could probably manage to do it myself.
People around depressives expect them to get themselves together: our society has little room in it for moping. Spouses, parents, children, and friends are all subject to being brought down themselves, and they do not want to be close to measureless pain. No one can do anything but beg for help (if he can do even that) at the lowest depths of a major depression, but once the help is provided, it must also be accepted. We would all like Prozac to do it for us, but in my experience, Prozac doesn’t do it unless you help it along. Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason. These fortune-cookie admonitions sound pat, but the surest way out of depression is to dislike it and not let yourself grow accustomed to it. Block out the terrible thoughts that invade your mind. . . .
Every morning and every night, I look at the pills in my hand: white, pink, red, turquoise. Sometimes they seem like writing in my hand, hieroglyphics saying that the future may be all right and that I owe it to myself to live on and see. I feel sometimes as though I’m swallowing my own funeral twice a day, since without these pills, I’d be long gone. I go to see my therapist once a week . . . In part, from the things this man said, I rebuilt myself enough to be able to keep swallowing my funeral instead of enacting it. A lot of talking was involved: I believe that words are strong, that they can overwhelm what we fear when fear seems more awful than life is good. I have turned, with an increasingly fine attention, to love. Love is the other way forward. They need to go together: by themselves pills are a weak poison, love a blunt knife, insight a rope that snaps under too much strain. With the lot of them, if you are lucky, you can save the tree from the vine.
Next in the series: Part III: Depression and Spirituality