I long ago realized that I would spend my life sporadically courting depression. While hopefully most of my life will be spent engaged in meaningful, stimulating or relaxing activities full of compassion, mirth, and learning, I realized at a young age there would also be midnight tussles with inexplicable melancholy and week- or month- or years-long spells beneath weighty blankets. There are roaring empties occasionally swelling my ribcage which cannot simply be described as anything so pointed as “sadness” or “unhappiness.” I do not wish to dwell on the emptiness or melancholy now, but rather acknowledge that depression is part of my lived experience and has been a part of me since even before my first crush on a boy or a girl or a not-boy-or-girl person and my own battles with the gender binary. At the beginning of college, I weathered a particularly devastating storm of depression. Last winter, I wrote about that depression on Facebook. Feeling responsible for the impact a depression and suicide post might have on my friends, I made some commitments at the end.
What I wrote on February 17:
I’ve been composing this in my mind for weeks and scribbling it in my notebook for days, but I’ll never get it exactly right. I thought about saying something last year but didn’t so another year passed in silence. I write now because something in me needs for some of it to be said. On a day that was so damn beautiful, I need to acknowledge what could have been and also make some declarations.
Three years ago today (Monday, week 7, winter term 2012), I sat in my 8 a.m. poetry class wondering why I was entering due dates in my planner if I wasn’t going to be around to see them.
I was numb and I’d been numb since I started college. Try as I might—make some friends, talk to academic advisors, enjoy my classes, laugh as I did here and there, and even date a wonderful person for a while—I couldn’t fill the hole inside of me. For a number of reasons, including my inability to find my niche and purpose at University of Oregon, healthily process my knowledge of extreme systematic inequalities, and dissolve my self-hatred (for my fear of driving and unearned privileges) I was severely depressed. My depression had started out mild and bloomed into something that choked me. I didn’t want to die but I didn’t want to live either.
Besides feeling disconnected from others, disenchanted with the world, and purposeless, I was angry. I was angry that I was so numb and resentful of my previous frameworks for understanding the world. Angry that in a phone call, my mother made me promise that if I was ever thinking of “doing anything” I call her, no matter what time of the day or night. I made the promise even though I knew I wanted “out” of this life yet never wanted to make that phone call. I was angry because I keep my promises.
If I couldn’t be free from the negative feelings, I wanted to feel my pain more acutely. I wanted to get smashed or cut myself—anything to just feel something. I either wanted to be gone or feel alive again. It is important to note that I resisted drugs and alcohol not because I am stronger than anyone or “good”, but because I am a ridiculously stubborn person with a family history of drug and alcohol abuse and a fear of addiction (as well as a white privileged belief in the importance of following rules). I didn’t self-medicate because I knew that would only mess me up more and my battle was hard enough. Instead, I sought small, positive changes I could make in my daily life, saw a therapist, and after much resistance, began antidepressants. Those things didn’t get rid of my depression but they helped get me through the very worst of it.
Many people don’t have the institutional and interpersonal support that I did. Despite not having enough money to adequately feed myself (I dropped down to 98 pounds due to depression, hunger, and antidepressants), I had healthcare, and other forms of support, too.
One of my classmates in my Inside-Out Prison Exchange class is an example of individuals’ need for healthy coping mechanisms to work through depression. R– was a good student and standout athlete in high school. One year he played for the U.S. national youth team and was so excited to share his experiences with his grandma after returning from an overseas competition. Upon returning to Oregon, however, he learned she had died while he was away. Shortly thereafter, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and told she had a slim chance of survival. Devastated, R– started self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. He began committing robberies later. This was his way of handling his pain and demonstrating some agency in response to situations he had no control over. Police who did not respond to his neighborhood (felony flats) when families called 911 let his crimes wrack up then finally arrested him. R– didn’t get the help he needed or deserved.
My recovery has been a long road and one I walk every day. I only just regained my former weight this winter after three years of trying to reach a healthy, stable body weight. I’ve gotten a lot of my memories back, too; for a long time I felt disconnected from my pre-college experiences and identities. I also took Driver’s Ed this summer after years of being immobilized by fear and shame. I passed the class and that afternoon’s accomplishment remains the freest and proudest I’ve ever felt in my life. I still struggle with self-love, but I’ve been working on it.
Here is what I know to be true for myself:
Working through depression won’t necessarily make the “haters” not hate or the people and institutions too afraid to confront their privilege and the ways their actions hurt others actually examine themselves and make changes. Working through depression won’t bring back loved ones or cure cancer. It won’t end the chronic pain or make the icebergs remain frozen. But if we are persistent and obtain &/or create some support, we might be able to come back to life in new ways and respond to these struggles in different lights. We might dance again or for the first time.
My shame and self-hatred didn’t save me or make me a better person. Punishing myself didn’t make me treat myself or others better. But being brave enough to be brave and love myself and honestly assess my actions does.
I don’t know the language any other person uses to speak to themselves and it isn’t my place to tell anyone how to live with and move through their pain, particularly when people experience pain for different reasons and in different ways. But I do know that you are worthy of your own respect and love. You are worthy of others’ too. You are so darn worthy.
As I move forward in life (the days keep passing and I am still here), I make some promises to myself:
I resolve to be my best friend, rather than just worst critic. I commit to loving and supporting myself.
I resolve to make myself laugh regularly, even if it’s just making sassy comments under my breath at food products in the grocery store, because honestly my brand of humor is my favorite and I never love myself more than I do when I’m cracking myself up.
I promise to perform more random acts of kindness.
I also promise that so long as my body is pulsing and my mind is active, I will live. I will not end my life. I’ve got more laughter in me yet, more love to give and receive, more to learn, jokes to crack, mistakes to make, and life to live. This is not an easy promise to make nor one I make lightly. But I make it anyway.
Some resources if you or someone you know are experiencing thoughts of suicide:
National Suicide Hotline: http://www.crisistextline.org/
GLBT National Hotline: 1-888-843-4564, online peer-support chat: http://www.glbthotline.org/
GLBT National Youth Hotline: 1-888-246-7743