Last time I promised that I’d write about what depression is like for me in this season of life. It’s no cakewalk, but it’s not Hollywood either.
I don’t spend days in bed crying, forgetting to eat and unable to take care of myself. I also don’t have dramatic breakdowns resulting in hospitalization. (Although, admittedly, on my worst days I have wished that was the case.)
In fact, all outward appearances probably look pretty good most of the time – certainly this time around. (Helps to have cute kids, right?)
When depression rears its ugly head in my life, it’s not always the same – certainly there have been times in the past of poor self-care, insomnia, extreme hopelessness and bouts of crying – but I mostly left that permutation behind in college. And there have been many periods of gray, when I’ve fought, every single day, to go through the motions, to take care of whatever job or child or spouse or friend or piece of music or writing I needed to do, because everything felt futile.
This time hasn’t been any of those things, exactly.
This time around, I feel great and then utterly hopeless. I feel happy and then out-of-my-mind angry. I enjoy all the things I usually enjoy – my family and my friends, laughing at dinner and tasting good food and loving great music. But then, on a dime, everything changes. I’m white-hot, lashing out in blind and sudden rage.
I have a good day, but in a split second am despairing, entirely crushed by the weight of the future.
Everything changes – in a second.
I can still go on with life-as-regularly-scheduled – most of the time. I keep my appointments, keep doing the things I’m supposed to be doing, and to the world, things appear okay. (See second photo with cute kids.) I’ve grown pretty good at doing and going and keeping on keeping on.
Here’s the thing.
My emotions have always been strong, my reactions are often disproportional, and my quick mood swings have always been present. This isn’t new, and I’ve even written before (like here and here) about how I’ve always felt things strongly.
So what’s new, this time around? What caused the strong emotions and overreactions and mood swings to all become too much, exacerbated to a breaking point?
Maybe this is obvious to all of you on the outside — who have the great privilege of not living in my own head — but my counselor suggested that perhaps everything became too much, this time around, because of all the necessary things that I wasn’t doing.
My counselor also gave me a brand new theory — something I had never considered, but that makes so much sense. In our short history together, she had noticed a trend in the times that I reached a crisis point.
I was over-stimulated. By my senses.
It’s easy for me to be bombarded by the things I sense – the things I touch, taste, hear, see, smell. I could write a dozen specific examples (and I did, actually, but then I cut them out so this blog post wouldn’t go novella on you) of how overly sensitive I am to smells and touches and sounds and tastes.
Okay, fine, I’ll give you two little examples.
Smell — I go berserk about smells! I beg my husband to brush his teeth again and again, six hours after eating raw onions. Even the faintest hint of onion lingering on his breath drives me absolutely mad.
Taste – I’m the same way! If I can still taste food in my mouth after a meal – garlic or oyster sauce or chocolate or strawberries — I can’t concentrate. I have two toothbrushes in our small NYC apartment because sometimes I can’t wait the extra two minutes to walk to the master bathroom. For real!
Point is, I’ve always been this way.
I start to feel things too strongly when my overly-sensitive self is also overly-stimulated. And then those feelings become so strong that I become burdened by them, crushed by their weight.
And it’s when I’m overly stimulated that I also start to react too strongly and too quickly to things. I operate in a subconscious “emergency mode,” my mood flip-flopping between extremes, and I feel like I can’t even think.
So this makes sense to me, except for this:
It’s not like all of a sudden my life changed and – wham – I became overly stimulated. I’ve lived in this city that never sleeps for eight years now, and I’m pretty sure I’m used to it (like it or not). I have two very young, needy children. But I did have one child first, and then, 20 months later, the second. Things shifted slowly.
Their needs and demands have not caused my recent downward spiral.
It’s the added stimulation from their constant needs and noises coupled with a lack of those “necessary things” in my life — those subconscious coping mechanisms. All my outlets – all my subconscious ways of opening the floodgates and relieving the emotions and the extremes and the reactions and the sensitivities – have disappeared.
And one of those “necessary things” that has gone missing is REM sleep. I’ve always been someone who operates fine on six or seven hours of sleep a night. And after my daughter was born, I was actually getting that (earlier bedtime! mid-morning nap!). But I was getting six or seven or even eight hours of sleep — in about four or five or six chunks.
I was not getting any REM sleep. For probably six months. Not just an insufficient amount – but basically none. And I’ve learned that it’s extremely important for those of us with a history of any kind of mood disorder (hello, the last twenty years) to get enough REM sleep. And I learned the hard way that it’s not about less or more hours in general. It’s about a minimum number of hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Additionally, absent were my daily runs and weekly yoga classes, my social events and dates with friends and basically any and all alone time (this includes going to the bathroom and taking a shower — young children are like shadows. For those of you without small children yet – it will be your turn soon enough. Cherish the potty!).
Next time I’ll tell you the story of the last three months. But before I do that, I just wanted to share that depression can be different from the pictures painted by Hollywood or Sylvia Plath. It doesn’t have to be devastation-all-the-time. It doesn’t have to be morose and wearing-all-black and slitting your wrists.
But it can still feel unbearable and awful and hopeless and scary. It can still feel overwhelming and isolating.
And it can still drive you to a breaking point. (That story, next time.)