The Reality of Chronic Depression

I’ve known for quite a while now that I have chronic depression. I first struggled with it when I was 14 or 15 and got hit with my first major bout at 17. What followed was a good five years of nearly constant depression, with some slight reprieve here or there. Depression runs in my family, as do a variety of other colorful diagnoses, making it more likely that my depression has genetic components and thus will not change with changes in circumstances. I’m not sure what other signals I would need to illustrate that mental illness will probably be a part of my life forever, but if I did then a diagnosis of a personality disorder and an eating disorder (both widely known to be stubborn creatures that never really go away) would do it.

But despite knowing all of these things for years, I’ve always had some measure of hope that things could get better. I mean they had to get better. There was no way I could continue living if they stayed the same. Some day my brain would switch back over into “not utterly unhinged” territory and I’d be able to make it through days at a time without bursting out into tears or struggling to breathe due to anxiety. There was another version of myself that I imagined, maybe not one who was ebullient and joyous and energetic, but one who was functional and content. That version was waiting for me if I chose to accept her.

This past summer, I finally knew what it was like to be her, at least for a while. Getting relief from depression is one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had. You get tiny realizations here and there: it’s been weeks since I last cried. I’ve laughed every day this week. I ate three meals yesterday and didn’t notice until now. Each one is a victory, a delight. I’d find myself giggling in joy over my life for no reason.

Last night I got hit with an attack of the jerkbrain. It’s been dark and cold lately, something that’s always hard for me. The day started out well enough, but somewhere in mid afternoon the undercurrent of worry that asks whether I’ve done enough today to be worthy of living started to swell. What if my life is not enough? What if I never do anything worthwhile? What if no one actually likes me? Behind the questions is simple despair. There are no words to make sense of it, and it comes from nowhere. It just hovers over me and trickles in when I have spare moments. Sometimes it brings its friend, panic, which takes up residence in the lowest pit of my stomach and bubbles up and over into my heart, just to keep me on my toes.

I know how to deal with these things. I talked to my boyfriend, I left the house, I gave myself permission to go out for dinner instead of cooking. I had some ice cream and played Dungeons and Dragons with my friends. I systematically listed all the things I needed to get done in the next week and ticked off all of the ones I had already completed, making it abundantly clear that I was not behind on anything. The feelings receded and today I feel average.

What I don’t know how to deal with, today, in the aftermath of that little depressive episode, is the reality of chronic depression. I knew before that it existed, but it has only been with the contrast of feeling good that I’ve internalized I am never safe from my own mind. No matter how much work I have done or will do, no matter how many wonderful people I have in my life, no matter how many things I accomplish or if I find my dream job, there will still be days or weeks or months during which everything will be a struggle.

On some level I always knew this, but feeling it is different. The randomness of a depressive attack is what hurts the most. It makes me feel childlike, dependent, incompetent. It reminds me that my mind isn’t really my own. It says that recovery is always temporary. This is terrifying. There is nothing more scary to me than the possibility of feeling the way that I did for the last five years. Nothing except for the sure knowledge that I will feel that way again, there is nothing I can do about it, and I don’t know when it will hit. Life is Russian Roulette.

And tied into all the fear is the inability to explain it to the people around me. Sure, they get it, but when they ask what’s wrong and all I can say is “I’m worthless”, they’re left trying to help an unhelpable situation. I’m afraid to inflict myself on other people.

I’m reminding myself today that the people who love me see something in my ability to continually feel like this and continue on that is worth caring for. I’m reminding myself that chronic does not mean constant. I’m reminding myself that the episodes are smaller and shorter now, and that I get so many happy days. I’m reminding myself that when I think about my own survival, I am in awe of my own strength. I’m reminding myself that writing that sentence is hard and I did it anyway.

The reminders help. I know that chronic depression doesn’t have to define my life. But under the reminders I’m scared for the next bad night.

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