Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On the road to "recovery": Reflections on depression

Sipping at green tea and reflecting on how quickly the end of my freshman year of college is approaching, I recently decided to read back through the blog I kept during high school. I'm a big advocate of blogging, journaling, or in some way documenting your thoughts and goals. For me, having undergone a dramatic transformation since high school, having a record of my growth has been an inspiring, motivating, and uplifting aspect of my life, as it has served as a reminder of how things can get better, and of how malleable the future is.

However, as I read through my (often stupid, and almost always over-dramatic) accounts of my junior and senior years of high school, I was taken aback by a number of posts. Not only because of their content, but also their quantity. Beginning in the Spring of 2011, my blog was updated with posts like the following on an almost biweekly basis:

How I feel about life: A rant.
I’m a failure. Please note choice of words — I haven’t failed. I’m a failure. The noun. The type of person who doesn’t deserve to interact with other people. Or eat. Or even breathe. I don't deserve to exist.
And I know that other people think it’s okay, and will be my friend anyways, and won’t hate me because of it. But it’s not about what other people think. I want to think it’s okay, and not hate myself because of it.
I don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve friends, I don’t deserve anything I have, I don’t deserve to eat. And right now I don’t feel like I deserve to live. I'm sorry to everyone who has supported me for letting you down. I don't deserve your support, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry for taking up space in the universe.
I don't deserve all the good things and people in my life, I don't deserve to be alive, and I don't want to be anymore.
I'm done.
Sitting in the debate office at my university having just come from an empowering workout, and having earlier that day received a paper on which I had received a pleasingly high mark, I felt quite honestly  speechless and heartbroken reading back over these posts. I paused for a second to consider my current state of contentedness. I looked at the people surrounding me, the paper on which I had just received a great grade, and the pictures I was working on post-processing of me and my peers smiling. Looking back at my blog I felt immediately sad, not because I had once felt so horribly dark and lost, but because I hadn't felt that way in some time. Suddenly, I craved my sadness.

Depression, the way it consumes your life and your identity, is a strange thing. For me, my depression crept into my life slowly until it had silently infected everything I touched. As my blog and journals detailed, during many of my years in high school, depression became an iron curtain that cut me off from the rest of the world, isolating me inside of a sort of invisible prison to which I truly believed I was rightfully sentenced. I lost the will to interact with others, to complete my schoolwork, to engage in the activities which had previously brought me so much joy, and even to invest the energy in the most basic tasks such as showering and other practices of basic hygiene. Certainly, my depression was not just emotionally but also socially, academically, and physically taxing on me for quite some time.

To anyone who has experienced a deep depression for an extended period of time, it will make sense when I say that depression became my identity. For so long, I believed that I was the lack of feeling that had consumed my entire life. My depression's ability to weave its way into my friendships, school life, physical health, and even my relationship with my family only served to re-entrench this belief: with no part of my life spared, my numbness became central to my existence.

But reflecting on this from the vantage point of a mostly happy, healthy, and dare I say flourishing individual, I suddenly felt the need to grasp at my body as if something was missing from it. If I've been in active "recovery" from my residency at rock bottom for almost two years now, then what has become of my depression, and in turn, my identity?

I found the answer to this question only two days later. Lying in bed, electing not to do my homework and ignoring the social plans I had made only the day before, I found myself consumed by a familiar, and almost comforting numbness for no reason at all. This is more like it, I thought. And with the sun still high in the sky, my studies untouched, and my teeth un-brushed, face unwashed, and body still clothed in sweaty athletic clothing, I decided my day was over, and laid lifelessly in bed until falling asleep several hours later, feeling and thinking nothing.

Though I often feel sad, apathetic, and even intensely depressed, it has been almost two years since the last time I felt so depressed that I couldn't find the will to live. Having spent almost the entirety of my junior year battling with not just depression and sadness, but often terrifyingly strong suicidal thoughts and urges, I have not only survived what I consider to be the darkest possible forms of self-doubt and loathing, but survived these personal struggles with grace. Today I am healthy, engaged in my schoolwork and extracurriculars, and communicative with and connected to both my family and a supportive group of close friends. I am, what most people with depression might consider, an example of what someone might call "recovered."

But reading back over my blog posts, feeling empty, and days later feeling a strong wave of depression (that proceeded to last for roughly another week and a half), I have recently been reminded of the inaccuracy behind the notion of recovery. Despite my current state of health and wellbeing, I am still, frequently and sometimes intensely, depressed. I still feel numb, sad, distant, antisocial, and pessimistic. There are days and even entire months during which I feel as though my future is worthless and my attempts at achieving my goals are futile.

But since writing that post, and all the posts in which I told myself (and the internet commons) that I didn't deserve to be alive, I have learned something important. My depression, sadness, self-doubt, anxiety, and dark feelings will always be a part of my life. For better or for worse, I am not an intrinsically optimistic person, nor someone who will ever wake up every day excited about life. No one is happy every day, and many people struggle with depression or even just typical occasions of sadness. But I am not my depression.

I am not my sadness, my apathy, my numbness, my self-loathing, my feelings of insufficiency, or most importantly, the past selves that I have been when feeling those things. The time I spent feeling suicidal, sad, alone, and hopeless are not invalidated by my capacity to feel bright, alive, and hopeful. I, like everyone around me, am a collection of different emotions, experiences, and potentials. I am depressed sometimes, but I am also excited sometimes. It was just the other night that I was literally woken up in the morning by my own happiness, as I felt so euphoric I couldn't sleep.

When I first re-read the blog posts I wrote in high school, I felt guilty and upset. Being happy, despite my frequent bouts of emotional lack, seemed to invalidate the pain that had once made me who I was. I felt that in being okay, I was denying that I once hadn't been, that I was denying the role depression has played and continues to play in my life. But to feel this way is naive.

My happiness is not the absence of my depression, but the product of it. I am not "recovered" and I am not "recovering." I, like so many people, am constantly struggling and fighting, and while I am winning some battles, I am losing others. But if I could go back and tell my sixteen-year-old self what would change to take me from a suicidal "failure" to an individual who is constantly growing and improving, I would say this:

You are not your depression, and you are never obligated to wake up and be the same person you were the day before. You will be a thousand versions of yourself in your lifetime, sometimes even in one day, and you are always capable of choosing which version of yourself you like the most. Three hours, three days, or even three years of sadness do not mean you are a sad person, they mean that you are experiencing a sad time. You do not need to hold onto your sadness in order for it to matter, you don't need to be sad forever for your sadness to stay with you. It will stay with you always: in the way your happiness feels new and scary, in the way your challenges feel like obstacles instead of dead ends, and in the way you will always hold an apology in your heart for the things you did to yourself.

To my past and future self, and to anyone who needs to hear it: you are not in recovery. Depression may make you feel weak, but it can also make you strong. You are strong because of it, and not in spite of it or in its absence. You do not recover from it, you do not beat it back. It does not consume you, it is inside of you. Just like you have strength, you also have depression. Don't let it go, don't give it up. Let it drive you, push you, challenge you, and break you.

Today, and on very many days, I feel depressed, sometimes even as depressed as I felt when I previously wrote that I didn't deserve to be alive. Today, I know I was wrong. I deserve to be alive, and I deserve to feel better. If not now, then eventually. To my sixteen, eighteen, or fifty year-old self, tomorrow is another day to be someone brand new. I hope that tomorrow you will be someone you can love, because you do, and always will deserve to be loved.

 Stay strong.

1 comment:

  1. love you so much. you are amazing, and you inspire me every day.