I’m Living With Depression, Not Fighting It

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Arianna Rebolini

My depression has evolved as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve realized that the way I live with it needs to evolve too.

I’m sitting in the bathtub. The water is hot-tub hot and neon orange, and the steam floating up smells like citrus. I have given myself permission to use the bath bomb that’s been in my closet for months; I’m trying to cheer myself up. It isn’t working. I’m still crying.

Crying is my constant today — a true inconvenience, since I finally have a job again. I’d been out of work (or “freelancing”) for 10 months, a lifestyle change I’d entered into enthusiastically and by my own will, but which resulted in a depression so bad that, after seven months, I was in a psych ward. I left that ward with new meds, a clearer mind, and one goal: to go back to work. I did, and it was good. It is good. Except I missed a day of my meds, and it turns out one of the meds I’m on is notorious for a swift and devastating withdrawal.

So here we are. Crying, crying, crying; only the triggers change. 11 a.m. and I’m crying in bed because the weight is back, pushing me down. My tiny voice beats against it like useless arms: Get up, get up, get up. 1:30 p.m. and I’m crying because I know I said the wrong thing in that email, and I know that colleague thinks I’m a moron, or — worse! — rude. 4 p.m. and I’m crying because the boundary between good and not good is so delicate, so thin, I can’t imagine a future in which I don’t pass through it absentmindedly and unintentionally; because failing to leave the apartment is a telltale sign things are not good, and, well, so is crying all day. 6 p.m. and I’m crying because I’m sitting naked in a half-filled bathtub, listening to the third song on my “CRY FOREVER” playlist, and realizing that the lyrics I’ve relied on for 15 years have nothing to give me anymore.

Sometimes in the morning, I am petrified and can’t move
Awake, but cannot open my eyes

When I heard these lyrics for the first time, the first words Jenny Lewis sings in the Rilo Kiley song “A Better Son/Daughter,” they were a revelation. I was 16 and reckoning with a sadness I didn’t understand, and I was missing enough school to both worry my parents and inspire some lighthearted teasing from friends. “Oh, you decided to come in today?” they’d say, eyes rolling, and my gut would churn. Oh, you know, terrible headache. Stomach flu. Bad period. Anything but sad.

Jenny sings about the weight, how it crushes and terrifies her, how her awful phone calls with her mother don’t help, how all she can do is stay in bed and try to remember when things were better. But the 1:40 mark is when it really begins. Here is the crescendo, here enter the drums in a pounding waltz, here Lewis’s voice is clear and soaring:

And sometimes when you’re on
You’re really fucking on
And your friends, they sing along and they love you
But the lows are so extreme
That that the good seems fucking cheap
And it teases you for weeks in its absence

And here is where I used to scream-sing like the lyrics were a conjuring, eyes shut, arms thrashing, heart trusting that all of these words were, or could be, true:

But you’ll fight and you’ll make it through
You’ll fake it if you have to

And then after Jenny and I sing through the list of everything that will change when I get better, when I’m happy, she closes the song, her voice still clear but tender:

And you’ll fight it
You’ll go out fighting all of them.

Here, now, is where I’m stuck. When I sang this song at 15, 18, 21 years old, it felt like what I was doing was fighting. Maybe it was. It doesn’t feel like fighting anymore.

I’m finished with the idea that depression is a battle I can win. I say this understanding that it might be exactly what others need in their journeys through their own depression, and that at some point in my life it was exactly what I needed. But today I’m 31 years old, and it’s just not cutting it.

I think about the words I clung to, on LiveJournal and then Tumblr: Fuck depression. Kick depression’s ass. If you have depression and you got up today, congratulations, you’re a goddamn warrior. Depression is awful, but these messages made me feel that at least it gave me automatic membership in a (very sad) army, and that we were all fighting together. This is true on some level — finding others who live with similar thought and mood patterns has made me feel far less alone. But depression is also inherently solitary; no matter how often I speak or read about it, at its worst it’s just me and my brain.

The battle against depression was compelling when I saw depression as a clean narrative — a low, then lower, then rock bottom, fight, fight, fight, and then, finally, victory. Linguistic nods toward war are everywhere in articles meant as self-help for the depressed: “Eight Ways to Actively Fight Depression.” “Conquer Your Critical Self Attacks.” “Combat… this internal enemy.” Exercise, and maybe you’ll defeat it. Battling to overcome depression is fine once or twice. But I didn’t realize it would be a perennial fixture in my life, ebbing and flowing with the seasons. Now I hear “You’ll fight and you’ll make it through” and I don’t feel energized. I feel something along the lines of “Ugh, not again.”

This isn’t to say I’m against survival. Survival is great. It’s why, when facing the urge to kill myself five months ago, I chose a hospital instead. I’ve just been wondering if the language with which we describe survival isn’t a bit alienating to those who need it. If surviving depression is living in spite of the overwhelming urge to stop, then survival is inherently an absence of action. At its core it is — to be frank — the rejection of suicide. For me, now, this kind of survival resembles more of a shrug than active combat.

Something in my body resists the insistence that what I’m doing is a daily act of heroism — not only because daily heroism sounds, frankly, exhausting, but also because I know what the truth of my living through a depressive low looks like: dirty hair, blank face, puffy eyes, stained pajamas. It’s mostly waiting, and trusting that the low will pass. It isn’t marketable or twee or inspirational, at least not by conventional standards. It’s hard to meme.

Actually, that’s not true. Depression makes fantastic memes, they’re just the kind that might make others uncomfortable. Which gets to the root of my aversion to the narrative of fighting, my growing cynicism regarding mainstream treatment of mental illness in general: I suspect it’s built to make those not living with it feel better about it. From this point of view, I can hear anger in Jenny Lewis’s list of recovery, so focused not on the depressed person but on everyone around them — she’ll smile, laugh, listen; she’ll be, as the title says, a better son, a better daughter. Now, when I listen to it, I hear resentment. Anything else I can do for you?

I suspect we spin depression into heroism so that we won’t be punished for living with it, let alone discussing it. The triumph comes prematurely, as if to move past the ugly reality of depression as quickly as possible. The single-minded focus on victory elides the overwhelming likelihood that the battle will return, and return, and return.

I don’t blame anyone for preferring the victory, whether they live with depression or love someone who does. When facing a decision to either sit and cry with someone or cheer them on, the latter is usually the more appealing choice. For me, it’s also the hollow one. Depression is scary, and when I’m in it, I want someone to see that fear, believe it, and share it, so that maybe I might feel less of it. Maybe that’s selfish. But for me, now, it feels like the only way to move forward.

After six hours in the waiting room on the day I chose the hospital instead of suicide, the doctor who finally admitted me placed her hand on my knee and said, “It was incredibly brave of you to come in today.”

It was kind, and it helped. Being in that bed was scary, so I suppose getting there was brave, but I was no more scared in the bed than I was at home. I didn’t feel strong for having gotten there. I’d never been weaker than I was that day. Please understand: That’s not me putting myself down. That’s me realizing that I don’t have to spin my weakness to accept it. While waiting for my husband to come home that morning, waiting to get in a cab to go to the hospital, I wrote in my journal, “Maybe I say: I can’t do it. I can’t do anything. Please, someone else, feed me and watch me and protect me, until I can. Is it possible? It’s probably better than killing myself.”

Recognizing my weakness was a lot of things — embarrassing, uncomfortable, freeing, healthy, good. Never a battle. Never a fight. If anything, it was an exhalation. Maybe believing in the fight works for others; it worked for me for a long time. It doesn’t anymore, and that’s fine. My depression is a part of me, and it evolves as such. The way I live with it needs to evolve too.

It’s 7 p.m. and I’m sitting in my robe, on the couch, with my MacBook on my lap and my cats sleeping on either side of me. (They always know.) I open a new tab on my browser and search for a video which has been, in recent years, a more effective salve than my old coping skills.

It’s called “Jessica meets Vanessa, and assures her she’s fine” — the best title I can imagine for it, and I’m in the business of writing headlines. Jessica is a toddler meeting her newborn sister, Vanessa. Vanessa starts crying, and Jessica shifts to hover over her, her little voice repeating, “You okay, you fine,” until her crying stops. It is 47 seconds long and absolutely perfect.

In an essay which contains the fact that I couldn’t care for myself, that I wanted to kill myself, perhaps the most embarrassing admission is this: I’ve watched this strange family’s home video more times than I can say. Walking to work on a morning when fear almost kept me in bed, wrapped up on the couch on a night when I’ve bailed on all the plans I really thought I could keep, standing at a party and paranoid that everyone can see what’s wrong with me, Jessica’s mantra loops in my mind rapidly, continuously.

It isn’t a rebranding or dismissal of my weakness; it asks nothing of me. It makes no promises it can’t keep. It isn’t triumphant. It’s modest and reassuring and kind: You okay, you okay, you okay; you fine, you fine, you fine.

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