A couple weeks ago I realized my grief was veering into depression. Depression has been a constant in my life since I was about 8, but at that time, the world thought 8 year-olds couldn’t have depression, so I was just considered moody and bitchy. I was finally diagnosed in my teens and got on anti-depressants, which I took until my early 20s, when I was able to taper off of them and mange my depression with meditation, exercise, and lots of intentional choices about food and alcohol.
I was always aware that I was off medication “for now” and knew that I might need to go back on it at some point. Last year, when I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks, I started taking a low dose of Escitalopram, which can help with both anxiety and depression.
Over the last few months, many of the things I’ve attributed to grief had started to happen less frequently. I was still feeling intense grief but not every minute of every day, and sometimes I could go entire days without feeling intense grief. My appetite returned. My sleep was mostly regular. The sneaker waves of grief came less often. I didn’t feel compelled to visit my late husband’s bench every day.
But last month, I started wanting to sleep all the time again. I slept through my alarm in the morning. I craved sugar. I didn’t want to work out, which is one of my favorite things to do.
A couple weeks ago, I noticed that instead of feeling my normal grief mindset of “life is hard today but it will pass,” I was thinking “life is hard.” I didn’t have my usual sense of temporariness. I felt a kind of doom I’ve come to understand as anxiety, but it wasn’t anxiety. Anxiety shows up in my stomach and chest, but this doom was showing up everywhere. It was all encompassing, like a weight holding me down. It felt physical, as if a heavy blanket had been thrown over me and I had to drag it around with me all day. I couldn’t shake the heavy blanket or get out from under it.
It happened slowly enough that I didn’t quite recognize that anything was different. Then I started reading Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich, which is part memoir about her own experience of living with depression. Some of her descriptions of how depression felt resonated intensely with me. She uses words like “pervasive” and “relentless” and describes being unable to work on a project she had been passionate about and “the impossibility of physical relaxation.”
My first thought was, “It sounds like grief,” and then I realized grief hadn’t felt at all like that in a long time. I went back through my journal and saw the proof there that I had not always felt like I was dragging a heavy blanket around.
I’m now taking an increased dose of Escitalopram. The increase pretty much made me sleep for two days straight, but now I can stay awake all day and I’m starting to feel more like myself.
Just as I tried to make friends with my anxiety (we are closer now but not quite friends), I am trying to take a non-combative approach to my depression. It is part of me and if I love myself, I must love the depression in some way.
Two ideas have been helpful to me in this regard:
- Not being mean to myself. Buddhist teacher Susan Piver talks about how she gets as much done when she’s kind to herself as when she’s mean to herself. I have found the same. When I’m weighed down by grief, anxiety, and/or depression, being mean to myself about it won’t help.
- Owning the parts of me that I wish would go away. Another Buddhist, Leo Babauta, explains how hating a part of yourself doesn’t make it go away. Hating my depression won’t make it go away and may even make it stronger.
When I started grad school in 1993, nobody knew me or my past as a person with depression, so I didn’t mention it to anyone. I wasn’t consciously trying to hide it, but I also wasn’t bringing it to anyone’s attention. A few months ago, I added “I live with low vision” to my online bio, and soon after that I added anxiety to the list. A week or so ago, I added depression to the list.
Acknowledging publicly that anxiety and depression are part of my identity feels risky. Mental illness is still stigmatized and often seen as opposed to critical thinking, which is prized in academia. But I know from casual conversations that many of my students and colleagues live with mental illness. (I have tenure and am a full professor, so if I feel nervous about the disclosure, imagine how folks with less job security feel.)
Acknowledging depression in my bio is one way I am being compassionate towards myself and owning my depression.