Taking Down the Stigma

For the record, I have depression. It runs in my family, it plagues my twin sister, I’ve known it’s ugly face since adolescence. It’s managed now, thanks to selective-serotonin-reuptake-inhibitors (SSRIs), of which escitalopram is my savior. It’s also one of the reasons I’m so in love with exercise, which is a blessed natural mood booster and anxiety reducer.

Nonetheless, some days are harder than others – and today’s one of those days. This ebb and flow of emotions is just part of my life, although regular medication helps to muffle the impact of its blow. I’m continuing to learn to acknowledge it, let it stay its short while, and let it pass. It doesn’t knock me off my feet, or strand me on the brink of tears with an inexplicable sense of utter desolation. These days it’s a gentler melancholy, an occasional bleakness, and the sense that either I’m moving slower, or time’s rushing by too fast. It’s not debilitating, and I am soothed by the inevitability that this, too, shall pass.

Walking helps. So does stepping outside into the sun, purchasing something small – a coffee, new socks – texting a friend, paying bills. Little things, that smack of ordinary, minor household triumphs. I don’t usually talk about this. It’s something personal and private, like gastrointestinal distress. Ironically, it also plays a huge role in in my relationship with exercise – about which I am so incredibly open and proud. I work out to feel good about my body, but it also keeps me sane. Obviously this isn’t true just for me. So I thought I’d write about my own experience, and hopefully help shed some light for others!

The thing is, it creeps up on you. It germinates in your head and makes you vulnerable to external influences. Then, when life gets a little bit hectic and stressful, you find that your internal reserves are compromised, and things fall apart. At least, that’s what happened to me. The inciting incidence was moving out of state for college, which turned what my pre-existing teenage angst into something more sinister. I hit a point where I realized I wasn’t okay, or “normal” anymore. I sat through class with eyes brimming, desperately hoping nobody would notice or make eye contact. I looked forward to nighttime and sleep as an opportunity to slip back into unconsciousness. Waking up was the worst part of the day. I started daydreaming about being hit by the bus speeding by, an marveling about how simple it would be to jump from a window. Those thoughts are part of a category called ‘suicidal ideation’, and are grounds to seek help. If this is something you can relate to, ASK FOR HELP from a medical professional – it will make things so much more manageable, I promise.

I knew something had changed when I wasn’t afraid of asking for help anymore. Before, I’d worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, or that I wasn’t a severe enough case to deserve assistance. However, I was sure that I was miserable almost all of the time – for no good reason other than being in a new place and feeling lost (that was the external factor, conspiring with elements already festering in my own head). The memory has since blurred, but there was one awful weekend, sunny and brilliant outside, and I remember staring out my dorm room window at the cheerful little dandelions below, tears streaming down my face, feeling like I’d never be happy again. Nothing horrible and traumatic — just a privileged little white girl with first world problems. At least, that’s how I saw it.

But that’s when something clicked, and I realized my problem was bigger than I could handle on my own. I was falling to pieces. I couldn’t stand it any longer – happiness was such a distant memory, just thinking about it made me cry harder. I decided I didn’t care whether I was being over-dramatic, or silly. I just wanted it to stop.

I remain grateful to her, the PA I spoke with at the urgent care, and even the pharmacist who dispensed my new prescription. Although the pills would take a couple of days to kick in, having something tangible to pin my hopes on was a placebo in itself. At the Urgent Care PA’s prompting, I also booked an emergency session with a therapist at the college’s counseling center, and continued to do so while the Lexapro’s magic began to work.

In general, college was a gloomy place for me, although I won’t say there wasn’t some good that came out of it. Now, years later, I live in a different town, near a different college. It’s graduation weekend, and in the midst of flocking families and glowing grads, the familiar shadow of my own college doldrums keeps me company. The sky is gray and heavy, and has been spitting occasionally throughout the day. It’s not helping matters. However, like the clouds, I know my mood will clear, and I’ll be more excited about life’s prospects soon enough. Thanks to a trusty SSRI, and ample Vitamin D supplementation (a contributing factor, I’ll expound on later), this, I know, I can handle.

Depression is a malady, not just a weakness of the mind. If you feel like your mood is impairing your ability to participate fully in life, ask for help. Your teacher, counselor, or doctor, are all excellent resources. Or you can do what I did and show up at the nearest Urgent Care. They’ll get you going in the right direction, and just doing the asking can be an incredible relief in itself. You deserve to experience the full-range of human emotions; depression doesn’t do you justice. I might add that many normal, cool, intelligent, talented, capable, and accomplished people struggle with depression every day. You’re not alone. It might always be a part of you, but it can be tamed to manageable dimensions.

In the meantime, I’ll list below some of the interventions that help me avoid self-harm. The goal is to focus on a thought or sensation that edges out the panic or craving for destructive pain. Positive stimuli, including touch, muscle engagement, breath, smell, and thought – can pull you out of the hole. Things to try:

  • Cold shower: painful, and non-destructive. Seriously cold though, not tolerably tepid. Can boost endorphins.
  • Warm shower: Self-care, not harm. Just soak it in and relax the weary bones. Breathe in the steam, and remember that all is well.
  • Tea: a big thermos of it. Gaze meditatively into the depths. Inhale the steam. By the time you finish, you’re calmer and also hydrated
  • Draw or paint on yourself: Tactile self-expression, no scars. Draw angry red lines, a mandala, or the tattoo you want. Draw the tattoo you’re not sure you want or something you’d never ever get inked for real. Draw on your hands, your feet, your legs, arms, belly… and when you’re ready, wash it all away.
  • Run slow and long, or find a track and sprint it out. Or do both.
  • Yoga
  • Pipe icing – onto cupcakes, cookies, or cardboard. Just squish out all the angst into shapes and textures. Super satisfying.
  • Dab soothing essential oils behind your ears and under your nose.
  • Write a heartfelt letter or email. You don’t have to send it, just spill your guts to/about someone who’s been hurting you, ignoring you, or supporting you. It’s very helpful to vent and process  interpersonal issues.
  • Update your resume. Hey, it’s productive, and might make you feel good about yourself!
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