Depression: words on the things we lose

Of late I’ve been trying to figure out how to manage more shifts at work, a new story idea that is essentially about queers with mental illness trying to solve crime while living the stigma and erasure their diagnoses and treatments bring, the ongoing mountain that is trying to clean my house, and survival. Survival isn’t so easy when everything from TV to the wreckage littering my bed reminds me of my failure to just be a functional person.

Needless to say, depression dogs my footsteps, a snarling, smothering shadow of barely-dammed despair. Right now the only place I can escape it – where I feel capable, functional and successful at anything – is while writing fiction or handling stock/talking to customers at work, but even that comes at a cost, given the emotional exhaustion that follows shunting aside my feelings for a shift or two. Yet I can’t survive without that escape from my own head, such that the things that help me survive are making it harder for me to function in general.

I can write, and while I am lost in the words I feel almost alive, but if I write all the time I can’t do anything else: I’m addicted to that brief flash of not-depression I feel such that getting up and attempting laundry or the dishes brings on an even greater awareness of my world as it is, and there’s nothing about that awareness that is easily endurable.

The hardest thing to bear, this time around, is the nothing that’s causing it. Situational depression, as I have experienced it, at least has that window of if: if you get out, if things change, if this happens, things will get better. A good psychologist and other health professionals can help you take that step from if to action. I’m not saying it’s not hard, because I know it damn well is, but if you can make one tiny change with help and support, a second tiny change feels a little more possible, if no less difficult. The third feels a little more possible still, and while all these new actions are frightening and terrifying, they are now within reach, more tangible than mere daydreams. Meds to help flatten the anxiety a notch and gift me sleep, a supportive ear or two who gave words to and expressed empathy at all I had endured, and there it was, rocky and steep and littered with dangers, but nevertheless a path out of the pit.

(It might be a measure of my depression right now that this feels so much the worse, too.)

The road I’m on now loops backwards in on itself, taking me out of the pit for a moment before leading back in again. A med change here and a med change there, a breath of hope for a day or two, but always I find myself slithering down a scree only to end up at the bottom of the slope. Do that for long enough and discouragement eats away at your soul.

I’ve got to figure out a new road, because the one I know, the one made of mirtazapine, tramadol and a psychologist I respect and admire when I’m not crushing under the weight of my own helplessness, is leading nowhere.

The other day on Tumblr I posted my frustration with the delicate way people in my life refer to or mention the word ‘psychiatrist’ in my hearing and how this delicacy is interfering with my ability to be in a situation where I can sit down with a personage who has some expertise in the art of head-unfucking treatment. The situation – the way people talk about psychiatrists, not the depression, although the depression almost certainly makes the frustration all the more unendurable – is all the more frustrating when it comes from healthcare professionals, not friends/laypeople who have internalised society’s insidious and dangerous attitudes about mental illness treatment. There is something profoundly wrong in a world where someone with a several-year history of depression and anxiety treatment must wait so long for those with the power to connect me with such specialists to decide my worsening illness warrants it.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s already a slap to a face when I say I want a fucking psychiatrist and people express worry or concern at the idea. As scary as a psychiatrist might be, looking down the barrel of weeks or months with untreated depression after already suffering months in its grasp is frightening beyond belief. Perspective, please: how is a psychiatrist less frightening than the inevitable suicidal ideation? I don’t want to die, remember?

I want to take up the sword that is my life and beat this illness into the ground, but I need someone to help me fix my hand so I can clasp the sword.

It’s hard for me to write it this way, using that word: illness. I know it’s an illness in the sense that my depression requires treatment by specialists. I know it’s an illness that is impacting my ability to eat, think, make decisions, cope with stressors, look after myself, live my dreams, be happy, function in the world as the person I know myself to be. It is an illness that is stealing from me my self-confidence such that it is disabling. My chronic pain, even at a time when I was in constant pain, never kept me from action to the extent my depression now does. The list of things I can’t now do, things once well within my grasp, is immense such that the list itself is a crushing weight of grief. The things I knew about myself – motivation, drive, passion, enthusiasm – have dribbled up and crumbled away, or so it feels. They might still be there, somewhere, but right now they’re as far out of my reach as if they were stored on the moon. If I am living as less than I am, doesn’t that constitute an illness?

For two years, I excelled in situations that could have broken others. In two years I quit an oppressive job, moved out of a emotionally/psychologically abusive environment filled with people who love me but do not see me, went back to school while suffering anxiety and chronic pain and kicked fucking arse at writing and publication production. For two years I was able to be a student in terms of motivation and engagement in a way I never was the first time around, pre-diagnosis and treatment; for two years I was offered all manner of opportunities and discovered, to my surprise, that I could cope and succeed. I didn’t say it aloud, but I was a little bit proud of that. For the first time in my life I had a future. I believed I could live at least some of my dreams. I was going somewhere.

For the first time in my life, Mum told me she was proud of me.

It hurts, more than anything I can say, to have lost that.

Today I talked again with my GP. In three months, I’ll be able to see a bulk-billing psychiatrist at a clinic in Sunshine. (I’m not even going to discuss the lack of health services in Melbourne’s Western Suburbs or the lack of spending on mental health services in general, save to say that I’m suffering the consequences of both.) Three months to spend living with depression that’s not responding to medication is a hell of a prospect without anything more than a maybe to show for it, never mind my usual trusting-people issues. (I’m not scared of psychiatrists. I’m anxious about any healthcare professional and even more anxious about cis male healthcare professionals.) Still, she is arranging a referral, which is something more than I had, even if I suspect I’ll be learning a new definition of patience.

I told people that, contrary to being upset at being told I should see a psychiatrist, I’d be singing and dancing when I got the referral. It’s not a sentence; it’s a possibility, a hope. Diagnostic words most often mean a condition is understandable and has some treatment plan to accompany it, so why fear that? Of course, the answer is our Western societal attitudes towards mental illness, but again, perspective: the terrifying thing is for a pain specialist to look you in the eye and tell you he doesn’t understand why you’re in pain or know how best to treat it.

I’m not singing or dancing.

I think my relief lasted all of fifteen seconds.

What this means for me is that I’m looking down the barrel of a summer that isn’t going to be easy, of an illness that might take six months or a year or a great deal longer to get under even a little control such that I can go back to being something close to that coping, successful person. It means not doing post-grad studies next year, at least for the first half of next year. It means letting go of the idea of trying to find editing/publishing work, doing a Cert. IV in Training and Assessment so I can teach editing, or setting up my own business, at least until I feel more stable. It means taking things as easy as I can; it means right now that just my current job and looking after myself on a very basic level are profound challenges enough. So I spend some time selling card games and being awesome at entering goods received data in a job where my boss does actually tell me I can work less hard while I write and edit stories and breathe. I can’t handle pressure right now; I don’t need it.

Everybody reasonable I know is perfectly understanding if not downright approving of that.

‘Everybody reasonable I know’, of course, doesn’t include ‘people to whom I am related’.

Of course, at some point I need to tell my family I’m not doing post-grad next year and I’m letting go the immediate search for publishing work (or work that pays me enough money to pay a private psychiatrist) in favour of something I’m not actually qualified for (but does carry the perks of being easy going, enjoyable and involving use of my organisation fetish and great conversations with friend-customers) that they would consider beneath me (and say so to my face). I don’t know how many times they told me that they were disappointed in my previous job as a warehouse picker/pick supervisor/inventory assistant, never mind the fact that skills I learnt in warehousing have been invaluable as an editor and a retail worker: why was someone with my potential to hold A Career working a minimum wage job?

I have a good reason, of course, for taking time off on the quest to figure out A Career (and maybe I don’t even want one as much as a patchwork of different kinds of freelancing/sessional jobs to keep me interested), but it’s not a reason I can tell them. It is final and unequivocal evidence that I am a crazy headcase, therefore not only in need of excessive worrying and reams of smothering advice and support, but also everything wrong with the family dynamic can be laid at my feet. A scapegoat, if you will. Yet if I don’t tell them about my depression, if I try to avoid being the family headcase, they will look at my situation and once again treat me as someone too lazy, unmotivated and withdrawn to hold down a proper adult job.

Needless to say, I’ve spent the last few months not talking to my family, because if washing dishes is more than I can handle, parents expressing their upset at my inability to return phone calls is a great deal further down the list.

(I wish they understood that expressing their unhappiness at my not returning their phone calls when I do talk to them doesn’t make me want to pick up the phone.)

For two years I wasn’t the problem child. I had tangible evidence of my successes: assignments, test scores, publications. They could now speak of me with pride in ways they never had before, because I could spin them half-truths and filter out everything they wouldn’t understand or accept. Finally, I had enough to talk about that I could filter out my struggles and challenges in order to present an image they could see without negativity. I could have conversations with my family that weren’t always hurtful reminders of my failures to live up to their expectations for me. I felt like someone who was finally deserving of their love.

Because love, the kind expressed in gentleness and soft words, the kind that makes you want to be around other people, was and is conditional … and until then I never met the conditions to see its nurturing, encouraging angle.

My successes now include doing the laundry and washing half the dishes in my sink. Oh, and a fairly decent word count (although I haven’t edited the book I’m editing in about four weeks), but that’s not a tangible success I can show them. If I filter out everything I can’t say, I’m left with a few whispers and an echoing silence, because they do not understand that right now doing the fucking laundry is a gold-star achievement. No, Mum will look at the mould in my shower basin or talk about my unanswered phone calls, all the while expressing concern at my failure to live up to her standards of adult, and saying that my depression is now so not-managed everybody is in agreement that a psychiatrist needs to come on board is giving her fuel to worry and cluck and interfere.

(I wrote, a while back, that empathy means not attempting to solve the problems of those we love. Nobody in my family possesses that empathy. They love me, so they try to fix me, never understanding that their solutions don’t encompass and only worsen my problems – that the solutions that work for them don’t work for me, a person they don’t see. Nor do they understand, in fact, that they need their solutions to fail, because my job in the family is to be the object of anxiety, the headcase. If they grasped empathy, I wouldn’t be the scapegoat, and then they’d have to look at that crooked stair that is conditional acceptance/kindness and abusive behaviour wielded by people who believe it love.)

I’m the first to admit that my family are fucked-up, but I love them. I loved, for two years, being able to be something close to the person they could love while also being the person I wanted to be. I loved that I could engage with them while experiencing some lessening of the awfulness I fled when I moved out and began a new life here in Melbourne. I loved the thought that I wouldn’t have to hear Mum say I didn’t try hard enough because I now had the evidence that I did. It was all an illusion, because love is only worthwhile when it encompasses my successes and my depression, but even an illusion of acceptance is better than nothing at all.

This is, for me, is the hardest thing to lose.

I am drowning, and I don’t even get to cling to the illusion.

Depression is a thief. It takes away, a sliver here and a sliver there, everything you most need to survive it. I have lost my self-confidence, my ability to chip away at most of my dreams, my ability to move and think and act, my ability to enjoy things I love, my ability to interact with or engage with other people, my ability to feel good about what I do manage to accomplish … sometimes, my ability to leave the house or get out of bed. It has stolen my sense of person and my pride; it leaves me weeping in confusion as to how I once again became this disconnected mess struggling with things I thought I had figured out.

In case that isn’t enough, I’ve also lost my family and the illusion or dream I can be loved by them, because I can’t survive my family on their terms when I am this ill. This person, the person who goes through half a box of tissues while telling perfect strangers online very personal things, isn’t good enough for them … even though, right now, I need more than ever to be told that I am. I need people to tell me I’m brave. I need people to tell me I matter to them, I have made a difference, I am worthwhile with all my current flaws and failures, I am successful, I am deserving of love, I am good enough when I feel good and when I am just trying to survive an illness set on killing me. I need something these people can’t and won’t give me, and I know that, but right now to look that truth in the eye feels a slap to the face.

Sometimes I think the guilt – the knowledge that I am letting people down by failing to do things I promised and be the person I was – is the hardest part about living with depression. It seems a horrifically intangible justification, even though it is in fact an illness.

Today, though, I think it’s the grief.

The loss of an illusion shouldn’t cost this much.

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