I could not get out of my car without capturing this “moment.” I drove around for an hour, through empty streets, with only the occasional passing snowplow, fighting that valiant, but losing, battle with nature itself. The roads were treacherous, though they sounded so soft, even the feel of my car, seemed softer. I couldn’t describe exactly how I was feeling, but I needed that “moment.” It popped into my head and I had to experience it.
You see, that week was tough for me for a few reasons. Mainly, I was feeling “shackled” everywhere I turned, by comparison- judging myself by what I saw in the people around me. Finding myself wanting. I was feeling inadequate at work. My colleagues seemed to me smarter, more aware, more compassionate, more genuine, more capable, able to see the bigger picture. And in my interactions with them, I began to hear, “I don’t belong.” Was I saying that to myself? Was it being said to me? I honestly don’t know. But the reaction was strong. I was so angry, impotently angry, and there seemed to be no place to direct it. Do you know that sensation?- The heat, the trembling, the knots in your stomach, your mind throwing random, emotional reactions or responses at innocent stimuli, your breath becoming shallow as you restrain yourself because… there may be impulses to react, but this is the last place you would want to display them? I was feeling this every day.
I’d also been losing sleep. That week, each night, I couldn’t seem to close my eyes until roughly 2:30am, only to wake up about 4 hours later to repeat the same day. At day’s end, I just didn’t feel like I accomplished much, and I was afraid the coming day would be just like the passing one. I was fighting the coming of tomorrow, and losing… of course. The negative thoughts, the feelings, began to cascade upon each other, bleed into each other, poison or strengthen each other. My feelings were muddled, and I could not tell which emotions were occurring. What I could tell, was that I didn’t like it, where it seemed to be heading. I seemed to be heading to a place I had been before.
About 15 years ago, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). For those who may not be aware, MDD is a condition characterized by prolonged periods of low mood, sadness, lack of interest in activities, emotional outbursts, numbness, or physical pain, any or all of which can negatively impact your ability to function. My diagnosis came after a suicide attempt, which fortunately was unsuccessful. Before my diagnosis, I had these escalating negative feelings and outbursts for several weeks. After my diagnosis, I began multiple treatments: medications, psychiatric check-ins, and counseling sessions. I also withdrew from college… and friends, and only spent time with my family, who were having their own challenges dealing with me at the time. I spent the next 14 years going through some combination of these treatments. Not consistently applying every thing, but earnestly pursuing some thing. I would later see that pursuit was working against me (main example: all my counseling sessions were aimed at altering my sexuality). But, I did learn some valuable insights, 7 salves, along the way, which I would like to share with you.
I’m doing this now, because as this week passed, I had an epiphany about mental illness. A lot of us have this idea that when we feel better, we can go on our way and do what we want. We don’t need to see the doctor anymore, or do what was prescribed. It’s all in our minds anyway. We just need to think positively and things will fix themselves. WITH WHAT OTHER SERIOUS ILLNESS WOULD THIS BE OKAY? With what other serious, potentially life threatening condition, would you take on the role of doctor and declare yourself healed or recovered? That’s what I did. When I felt “normal” (not even considering that I might have been growing accustomed to an abnormal state), I pronounced myself cured, and stopped taking my medication or receiving counseling. I’m grateful that, for the most part, my “normal” hasn’t been too damaging.
Can I tell you about this “moment” I had to capture?
Well, it begins with a piece of music called Sacred Grounds ~ Esto Gaza. It’s a piece of game music from Final Fantasy IX. I invite you to take a listen, but I am also going to describe it to you- how it makes me feel. The song is equal parts isolation and inclusion. It’s interesting yet, stable. It’s slow and engrossing. Its rhythm is lilting and its chords are warm (for my music folks, in the key of C, the bass line rolls along in a I, IV, iii, ii, I, IV, II, V…). It’s juxtaposed against a cold, lonely settlement on a remote island. And against a snowy night… I find it very soothing. I had the music on my phone, but not the setting. Where I was, there was too much light, too much noise, too many buildings, homes, businesses, places, and things that brought me into the real world. But I needed a quick reprieve from the world. So, at about midnight, I am driving around looking for parks or forest preserves or empty open fields, where I could exit my car, stand outside, and lose myself in this “world.” After a couple of dead ends, I found the best spot I could and spent a little time there (see picture). That few minutes, helped me a lot: taking a moment to find and appreciate something beautiful to me.
(Before I continue, I need to share the first and most important insight: If you think you may be depressed, seek help right away. Even if the thought is a fleeting one; better for you to see a professional and be fine, than to assume you’re fine as you head to the gallows. Intense, I know. But, depression is more than just feeling sad or mad. It’s life or death. Nothing to be toyed with. I hear you saying, “Right now, I can’t even muster the strength to do that.” It’s okay. Seek help to get help. Open your mouth and say it to someone. Click this link. Call this number: 800.273.8255. They will get you started.)
1. FIND SOMETHING THAT’S BEAUTIFUL TO YOU. For me, it began with Esto Gaza. It continues with places that I find around me. And I appreciate them as best I can. These moments of beauty are not meant to replace professional help (again, see above). These moments provide a salve. And salves have a place and purpose as well. Here are a few I’ve found… where are yours? What are yours? The beauty only matters if it touches you.
2. YOUR FEELINGS MATTER. WRITE THEM DOWN. In some ways, this blog is one giant journal. But, it’s not my only one. I want to be honest and open, to reach people, to spark real thought and conversation. But, there are some things which I cannot say here. I still need to say them though, so I will show you where I put them:
Here, I yell and scream, and pour out as much of me as I can. Afterwards, there is relief because I’ve respected my thoughts. I’ve spent a little time embracing myself instead of fighting with myself. I’ve centered, and focused on what I am feeling. I’ve asked myself why. I’ve validated myself, and if no one else does, I know I must. You are not wrong to feel as you do. It’s not a matter of fault either. In the past, I chided myself for not always being happy. For voicing my dissatisfaction at what was happening in my life. I told myself I was ungrateful, that I lacked faith, that I was forgetting all the good things, that other people had it so much worse. Maybe you tell yourself these things. Maybe other people say them to you. This is folly. You improve nothing by judging yourself for being human. Also, getting angry with yourself doesn’t improve the lives of those who are “worse off.” You feel bad. That’s okay. Your mind is not working to its full potential right now. That’s okay, too. The breakthrough is in seeing that clearly, so you can move to the next step…
(Here’s an additional journal tip: You may have feelings you fear may be too intense to express in a journal. What if someone finds it? I had that. Being gay, there were feelings I was very afraid people I cared about would see. So, a GREAT counselor recommended that I write those feelings down, raw and unfiltered. And after I said EVERYTHING I wanted to say, take that paper and burn it. Now, I’ve validated my feelings, and addressed my concerns that others would somehow find out. I hope that helps…)
3. WALK, RUN, PLAY, LIFT, JUST MOVE. I’ve heard it said that “depression is anger, turned inward.” I’m not sure who said it (Google credits Albert Ellis), but it certainly rings true for me. Anger is interesting to me. It feels like a surge of power, of energy. This kinetic force that is so volatile, because it attempts to destroy anything it’s pointed towards. That means, it can’t be pointed at most anything. So, you have to find something to direct this energy towards which won’t harm you or others. I’ve found the easiest something is exercise. Some days, I will go to the gym, and spend several hours there. In my mind are 2 foci: the first, is a sense of control and simplicity. Fitness has a very simple, “do A, get B” outcome to it. The second is choosing something to think on, rather than telling myself not to think certain thoughts. In that space, only the next repetition, or set, or exercise matters, and that provides a good deal of relief. Not to mention that the brain usually triggers hormone releases that can improve your mood somewhat (somewhat is definitely something). Maybe weightlifting is not for you. Maybe you like to walk, or ride bikes, or dance, or box, or spar, or fake “Tekken” combat moves (that was my thing for a while). The point is to use as much energy as possible on something that will improve your overall health.
4. EAT SOMETHING GOOD… THAT ALSO TASTES GOOD. I have a weakness for food. When I feel depressed, I indulge it in one of two ways. The first, is to make something relatively healthy, but that is delicious… and eat a lot of it. The second, is to buy something unhealthy, and eat a lot of it. Neither solve my problem, but ONE exacerbates it, by “killing off” sensation and emotion. By deferring it. Can you guess which one? I used to bury myself, every day, in double quarter-pounders and large fries (not exaggerating). I would eat it and zombify. Not feeling good by any measure, but not feeling bad either. The feelings would concentrate themselves later though, in my nausea (from eating too much), in my negative self-talk (from gaining so much weight), in my slothfulness (not moving from one spot for several hours).
The danger in any self-medication, whether it’s food, drugs, alcohol, danger, sex, violence, is allowing harm to come to others or yourself. You may see clearly that you cannot harm others, but may say, “Who cares about me anyway?” Then indulge any impulse you want, no matter how destructive. BUT YOU MATTER, YOU’RE WORTH PROTECTING, AND CERTAINLY WORTH SAVING. A salve, that harms you, is worthless. This is where seeking professional help can guide you towards the right salves, and how to best apply them.
5. FIND THE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE WHO WILL BE STRONG FOR YOU. Detour to Esto Gaza really quick: Another part I like about Esto Gaza is the chorus. It comes in the second half of the piece and supports the melody, which itself has been joined by another, more solid, instrument. I have definitely linked it to an insight about depression. When you’re depressed, often you just want to be left alone. Perhaps you think you’re a burden. Perhaps you don’t want to trouble anyone. This may seem selfless, but remember your brain is not working to its full potential right now. Your mind, your thoughts, are not entirely reliable. Meaning: when you feel like cutting yourself off from people, that’s when you should go right to them. Specifically, to a person who has shown you that you can feel safe with them, and who will love the imperfect mess that may be you at that moment. The person who will let you speak your mind, or sit in silence with you, or commiserate with you. The person who says, with or without words, “I am here for you.” These people are the most valuable. They are pretty rare as well. You may only have one or two. But, if through my own experience, I can make a claim, it’s that one or two is enough. (Maybe no one comes to mind. THAT’S OKAY. Start here.)
6. CREATE SOMETHING. FIND A WAY TO EXPRESS YOURSELF. Sing, draw, paint, act, cook, make music, furniture, anything which calls upon the uniqueness of you. I’ve had to come back to my blog, because I was falling into the void of comparison. I have people in my life who shine like the sun. Who tower above me. And when I look at them, I see only what I lack. I find myself envious, but also enamored. Awed and disgusted. And I lose sight of myself. It’s been happening recently, so I have begun finding all the ways that I express myself. In these ways, I show, and I see, what’s so special about me. I don’t know if those I compare myself to have these talents, but the combination of them… that’s mine. That’s Marlin Exton, Jr. And he shines like the sun. I SHINE. YOU SHINE ALSO.
7. KNOW THAT “MEH” IS GOOD. When you get the help you need, better times will come. Happier times with people, or experiences. More down times will come too. But, the goal of recovery isn’t to always feel happy. It’s to reach a balance that allows us to live as best we can. The feelings that accompany depression are normal and universal. That means sometimes, even when we are taking our medication, even when we are seeing our counselor, even when we are eating right, exercising, spending time with other people, appreciating the small, beautiful moments, or creating something, we may feel sad, or angry, or disinterested in short bursts. OR, we may not feel these emotions, but similarly, may not feel joy, elation, or contentment either. Your feelings are far from binary, and that’s okay. That’s not only okay, it’s a good thing. Our minds need time to just be. Sometimes, people ask me how I am. “Good,” I’ll say with obligation, and the voice of a wounded dog.
One of the people I admire a lot will say when asked this question, “Meh.” I’ve SO respected how honest she is with her feelings. She encourages me to give more of that honesty every day. I appreciate that, because it enables me to be truly happy in happy moments, and to be genuine to the people around me. Faux joy, will never beat a genuine “meh.” Not for those who seek, or strive to seek, genuine connection. And genuine connection, is the only solution to isolation, which facilitates getting help, which leads us on the journey to recovery. (See? It all leads back to getting better. To not only getting your life back, but getting to a better one.)
There are other salves too. Ones I didn’t mention, because I HAVEN’T USED THEM. That makes them no less valuable though. I listed these, because I’ve done them all in the past 6 days, and they’ve been working for me. I hope they help you if you need it. If you think you might be depressed, I see you. You are not alone. There is help out there. There are better days ahead. You will be okay. And if you don’t see it yet, that’s okay too (start here). You may not know me, but I promise you, ANY step, no matter how small, MATTERS.
I know because I’ve been there.
I know because I am there.
And it’s going to be okay.