Navigating Depression – A Sort of Helpful User’s Guide

Real Talk Time – I’ve been navigating depression since I was very, very young. This is a serious post and people who are averse to reading about mental health or who might experience triggering due to discussion of it are encouraged to check back another time. There will be mentions of suicidal ideations, emotional abuse, and other difficult subjects. Also, Harsh Language.

I’m not a mental health professional. I don’t read critical analyses or publications about my condition for three very good reasons:

  • A. It doesn’t occur to me to do so
  • B. I don’t make time to do so
  • C. I don’t want to.

Reason A and B are because I just spend my time doing other things, and reason C is because when I’m not having a depressive/anxious episode, I’m trying to enjoy life as much as I can by doing things that actually bring me pleasure. I will explain what it’s like to have an episode further down the post.

A History of FuckedUpNess – Pt. 1

When I was 13, I went to something called Ropes Camp. This was my first indication that things might be going on with me, because I was going to Sandy Pines, a place all the other kids whispered about. It was where Fucked Up kids went – kids who cut themselves, or drank, or stole, or otherwise were ‘Bad.’ If you notice my definition of the place seems juvenile and ignorant, that’s because it was the only information I had to go on. At no point did an adult take me aside and say ‘We are sending you to a nationally recognized mental health care facility because it might help you, and here’s why .’ One day I found out I was going, and that was that. One summer was art camp, another was tennis, and this one is mental health counseling.

Ropes Camp was an outpatient program with trustfalls, sharing circles, and an obstacle course intended to help kids bond and build confidence. It lasted a week or so. In our group of ten, the oldest was 15 and was experiencing severe back pain and panic attacks because his best friend had been a victim of gang violence who was shot and died in his arms. I don’t remember his name but he was old beyond his years and he and another guy became our default leaders, due to their age and charisma.

“Gosh!” I thought. “Nothing like that has happened to me… I wonder why I’m here?”

I did the course to the best of my ability (almost jumped off the trust fall thing because ha ha, anxiety). Somewhere my family has a picture of me up on the elevated balance beam, wearing a hardhat and holding onto the stability rope, tied into the climbing harness. Since all this happened in 1993*, keeping up with people wasn’t really a thing, so after the program concluded we all went our separate ways.

“I guess I am fixed?” I thought.

*We were on the bus when the news hit about Michael Jordan’s father.

A History of FuckedUpNess – Pt. 2

The summer after 9th grade, my mom took me to see an Art Therapist. Again, no explanation was given other than ‘We think you need someone to talk to’ so off we went. I liked the Art Therapist, whose name I have forgotten. She had a fluffy white dog named Pita (Pain In the Ass), and lived in a neat little house with hardwood floors and a fireplace. We did art together, and I drew dragons and monsters and all the other fantasy bullshit that held my interest then. While we did art we talked about things – she was the first adult with whom I ever discussed menstruation, even though I had gotten my first period on my 13th birthday. “Those damned Kotex boats,” I remember her saying. I imagined I could tell her anything.

I only saw her a few times before it was time to see someone else, who I will call Dr. Simmons. Dr. Simmons was what I can only describe as a Palm Beach Type. He wore chinos and open shirts with lots of gold jewelry glittering on his gray chest hair, had a tiny mustache and a thinning gray mullet. He had a piece of the Berlin Wall, and lots of prints of seascapes by Wyland. Docksider-type shoes without socks.

Wyland! His stuff was everywhere in the 90s. I still kind of like staring at it, very soothing.

Unfortunately, Dr. Simmons was a well-intentioned but misguided bozo. We did not do art. “I just don’t feel like I understand the other kids at school or have much in common with them,” I confessed to him. “Well have you tried fitting in?” he asked. Another time I told him how my mother had a screaming meltdown when she noticed I had some hangers in my closet hung backwards and it was a problem because we would not be able to get the clothes out fast enough if the house caught fire. “Well that’s a serious concern,” he told me. I will say he was also the first adult to ever say to me ‘I think your Mom would DEFINITELY benefit from therapy.’ But mostly he was a bozo.

Eventually he decided I might need meds, he sent me to his associate the psychiatrist Dr. Whatever, and Dr. Whatever talked to me for twenty minutes and then prescribed me Buspar for my ‘Attention Deficit Disorder.’ In the innocent pre-Google days, it was both not possible to look this medication up as well as unthinkable to imagine it would do anything but what it was supposed to do, which is ‘make my Attention Deficit Disorder go away.’ I remember very clearly my mother and Dr. Simmons agreeing that the meds were for ADD, because I had it, and needed help concentrating. I took it through most of high school, feeling ashamed and not knowing why. I thought if I could only concentrate, make my grades go up, I wouldn’t have to take the pills any more. I became obsessively self-policing. Stop shaking your foot, stop doodling, stop looking over there, focus dummy, focus, look at the board, stare at the teacher, no, not like that she’ll think you’re crazy, [music playing] what did she just say? There, see how dumb you are?

And so forth.

When I got to college(through the skin of my teeth, grade-wise) my best friend and roommate, on a whim, looked up Buspar in the DSM-IV and informed me that it was intended to treat social anxiety. I know now these conditions can be related, but in 1997 it was a different matter. I confronted my mother about it and she made excuses. I quit taking the Buspar and did my best to just finish my degree. My grades were not great but I finished. It might have gone better if I’d been able to just admit I had social anxiety, take my meds, and go through the problem instead of around, but being lied to by a parent and a mental health professional for years hurt. I wasn’t able to deal with all that and college at the same time, so I fumbled through as best I could. Like many people of my generation, I was told I needed a degree if I wanted a real job, and it was very clear that once I was done with college, I was expected to support myself.

The Care and Management of FuckedUpNess

It would take another ten years to even get a grasp on what was ‘wrong’ with me. Through talking with other therapists and mental health professionals, I came to understand that what’s going on in my head is normal for people with depression and anxiety. It’s a shitty kind of normal, but it’s better than imagining you’re the only human in all of the species’ existence who feels this way.

What a Depression/Anxiety episode feels like: Too many emotions, powerful emotions, all fighting together inside your head. Are you angry? Sad? Laughing so hard snot runs out your face? Yes! Sometimes more two than the other three, but generally there’s a lot going on and any one of them might win out. Sometimes your heart races for no reason, sometimes you can’t sleep, sometimes you wander around your home with a vague sense of ‘I should be doing something.’ Music gets stuck in your head, there’s too much housework to keep up with, have you even started on your Xmas shopping?

Maybe your simmering anger means every show you watch is just a reminder of all the mistakes you’ve made in life. Maybe the excitement you feel about trying a new recipe will devolve into a crying jag because you minced the shallot instead of chopped the shallot and therefore are a failure. Maybe that trip to another country you’ve been looking forward to your whole life will be more fun than you can handle during the day, a grim slog through existential misery at night, and you avoid selfies because the exhaustion will show in your face.

Maybe your friends and family wonder why you leave events after such a short time. Maybe you’re not as good as hiding it as you think, and and they know what you’re dealing with, and they forgive you and would rather see you for a little bit than not at all. Maybe they’re used to you lashing out in anger, or withering away in despair.

What Managing a Depression/Anxiety Episode Feels Like: After three decades of practice at this shit, I can cope. I know what I can handle, and what I can’t. It’s taken a while to understand it’s not weakness to admit I can’t do things, or that I have to do some things other people are free of.

When navigating through these episodes, I feel like a seasoned, weather-beaten captain steering a ship through a storm. I prefer this imagery because it’s powerful, but more importantly, empowering.

A ship in drydock is impressive – humanity has hewn and reshaped great balks of strong timber, bending them into a ship’s ribs, anchoring them so that a powerful gust caught in a mast’s sails can draw the whole thing through the sea without ripping it free of the frame. Acres of canvas are woven and stitched and hung, replacing the mast’s foliage with a canopy of cloths. A stern might take a hit on underwater rocks and not smash – and if it doesn’t you can thank the microscopic spaces between wood fibers that compress and absorb the impact, the elastic properties in the fibers themselves who evolved to survive changes in air pressure from hurricanes, contractions and expansions from frost and heat. Whether rooted to a mountainside or cruising a tropical sea, a tree does its best to survive.

A good captain knows all this and isn’t fooled. She knows her ship might be a testament to human carpentry and nautical engineering in drydock, but that doesn’t mean shit on water. Out on the ocean, forces are strong enough to crumple this construction into splinters in the blink of an eye. Beams thick as three men huddled together snap all the time. She knows the weak points: where the mast was repaired after a lightning strike, or the mainsail restitched. She knows its yaw and in what conditions, she knows the cannons have been moored tight on the gun deck so they don’t shift ballast and overbalance in a critical moment. Nothing loose is allowed on the main deck, lest it become driven by the wind with the force of a bullet. Slacken a hand on the wheel and it’ll spin so hard and fast it’ll break bones – so she doesn’t. She keeps hold so tight her hands will be useless after, but that doesn’t matter because all that does is getting through. She can tell if the wind is the kind you risk tacking into, or furl all sails and just try to steer clear of danger. She knows all there is is making it through.

Because on the other side of all that wind and rain and crying and screaming and elevated heart rates and wondering if this is going to be the one that finally puts an end to the whole voyage, there are calmer waters. There are better days ahead. Maybe even sunshine. Nothing’s given and even if there’s not, it’s still worth it to find out.

Managing depression is a continual cycle of recognizing your self-destructive tendencies and telling them No. No, I’m not going to hurt myself to feel something else. No, I’m not going to pretend I’m fine when I’m not. No, Voice that Whispers ‘you are worthless’ in a steady, numbing rhythm, you are wrong, and I won’t listen.

I’m going to sail this fucking heap of bones and jelly and hair as far and as long as I can. I can deal with the exhaustion and frustration and even the occasional jealousy of those non-neurodivergent folks whose mental climate is more akin to San Diego in springtime than the Inferno roaring in my mind. Because there’s always something better on the horizon. There has to be.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

1-800-273-8255

Author: jennnanigans

Orlando-area writerly person.

5 thoughts on “Navigating Depression – A Sort of Helpful User’s Guide”

  1. Wow, that’s an incredible story, thank you for telling it. I’m glad you’re making it through. Respect.

    1. Thanks! I think most people have stories similar to or even much more intense than this, but because of stigmas about mental health those stories don’t get told. Plus it’s not like people get together to hang out and say ‘let me tell you about some shitty things that happened to me’ you know?

  2. Reading this post, I caught myself nodding in agreement, thinking “yes, that,” where I recognized myself in your words. My own journey with this stuff is sort of a weird parallel of yours in so many ways- I’ve just never been as open about it as you have.

    Really great post.

    1. Thank you, I appreciate it!
      I hope this post encouraged you to seek out help for yourself, if you need or want it.
      Or even if you don’t – everyone, even people who consider themselves neurotypical, ought to consider getting a ‘checkup’ just as they should with a general care practitioner. Because it’s better to have that resource in one’s back pocket when you need it, than need it and not have it.

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