I’ve been teetering on the edge of a depressive episode for a few weeks now. I’m fighting it every way I know how: increasing my social time, being gentle with myself, getting out of the house, asking my boyfriend to make me meals, rubbing my cat on my face whenever possible…and yet I still find myself frustratingly out of control when it comes to my emotions. I downloaded a meditation app to try to feel less anxious and to combat the inexplicable crying jags that show up out of nowhere. I talked to my therapist, and looked for new coping skills.
But the whole time, no matter how hard I tried to remain positive and rely on skills, there was an undercurrent of fear that cut away at my progress. And the more I tried to work on remaining mindful and paying attention to the here and now instead of the possibility of bad things in the future, the more frustrated I got. Every time I tried a skill and didn’t get a result, my emotions flared up in fear, in disappointment, in resignation.
And it wasn’t until I had a bad therapy appointment that focused too heavily on mindfulness that I started to realize why.
Some background: From what I can tell I have only ever had one depressive episode in my life. That may sound surprising to you as I’ve been writing about my depression for the past three years or so. The reason I say that is because I cannot recall a time between the ages of 18 and 23 that I was not actively, overwhelmingly depressed. Sure, there were some times where it wasn’t as bad. But when I look back at those years (which is most of my adult life) and rate my mood on a scale of 1-10 (10 being bad), I can’t think of a single month where the average was better than an 8. And there were huge swathes of time, a full year at least, during which I could barely go two hours without crying.
During that time I was grappling with a very active eating disorder that took I would estimate 50% of my thoughts at any given time. I spent the last three years fighting self-harm (and failing to fight it most days). When I think of most of my life, I remember things that feel impossible. I have this
The last year has felt like a miracle to me. There was a time when it felt as if I would never simply be able to wake up in the morning and get out of bed without it leaving me exhausted, unhappy, or on the verge of tears. But in the last year I was able to simply feel hungry and eat food, to live out my days without overthinking anything, to live in a state of mostly contentedness.
It’s cliche to say it feels like breathing again, because it’s better than that. It feels like breathing when you’ve been inhaling water for years. It feels like coming back from the dead.
So with all of that out of the way, imagine seeing again the beginnings of a depressive episode. The only experience I have ever had with depression is one that I know with 100% certainty I would not be able to survive again. So despite how melodramatic this sounds, it feels like staring down what might be a terminal illness and people are telling me to just focus on the now. But it feels very important to me whether or not this is actually the terminal illness I think it is.
It is also very important to me that my support people validate how large and influential that past experience with depression, anxiety, and my eating disorder is. I will not do it again. I refuse. I am not being irrational when I focus on that fear because I have a very real and very strong experience from a large chunk of my past that is informing me this could be dangerous. Perhaps it would be easier to be mindful and only pay attention to now, but that also seems to me to be hiding from reality and not allowing myself to consider and weigh the possibilities against my ability to change my behavior. I need to be able to understand how much of my time and energy I should be putting into fighting this off, how much help I should ask for, how strongly I should be reacting to stay away from the depression.
I also want someone to actually engage with me about how likely it is that a future depressive episode would be the same as my previous one instead of just telling me not to worry about it. I would like to be able to examine how likely it is that it will be as bad with the help of someone more knowledgeable than I am.
For people with serious mental illness in their past, I’m not sure it always makes sense to tell them not to pay attention to their fear of the future. Sometimes that fear is grounded in reality. Being afraid of the effort it takes to survive a mental illness, and of the pain and shittiness of living through an active mental illness needs to be ok.