“All continuous suffering is self-inflicted.” ― Justin K. McFarlane Beau
I was curled up in a corner somewhere, hands bunched into fists, forehead furrowed, muscles cramping, screaming at myself, screaming at my internal monologue to just SHUT UP and LEAVE ME ALONE for the LOVE OF GOD JUST SHUT UP. I was angry and tired and full of pent up energy or maybe no energy whatsoever, wishing everything would JUST STOP FOR A GODAMMN MINUTE and let me BREATHE.
That incident could have been 6 years ago. Or 5. Or 4. Or 3. Or 1. Or last month. Or last night. Or an hour ago. It could have been any of the times when I cursed myself for wanting to dissolve, for wanting to escape the stupid, pointless pain which dogs me because my brain is a bitch and refuses to function normally. It could be later tonight or tomorrow or next week.
You can be both happy and suicidal. You can be both ambitious and hopeless. You can be both desperate for company and terrified of it. You can have lofty long-term goals and still not want to ever wake up again. You can love the people around you and yet wish they didn’t exist so you could slip away without hurting anyone, and you can hate them for tethering you to this life. You can look up from a railway bridge and appreciate the sunset.
This is the bizarre dichotomy of depression.
It can be a cloud which descends, then lifts, or it can be a hazy mist which gently distorts everything. In some ways, the former is preferable. When you can barely get out of bed or hold a conversation, you know you are sick and so does everyone else. When the thoughts get too dark, you can whisper to yourself I’m just sick, I’m just sick, I’m just sick.
But when it’s a low-level hum, the darker thoughts seem truer. Dark thoughts seem more valid- if there’s nothing wrong with me and I feel worthless that means it’s true, right? You cannot hide the dark cloud sort of depression. You can hide the misty sort, telling people you didn’t sleep well, had a bad day, don’t like the winter, need a break. Non-depressed people can understand that because they have a frame of reference. For anyone who has not experienced depression, there is no frame of reference for the darkest times. None whatsoever.
We don’t choose the pain. We don’t choose those moments when the pressure of everything is agonising. We do, however, chose to suffer.
We chose to talk in therapy or to sit there mute. We chose to read the inspirational stories our aunts send us or to ignore them. We chose to cling onto the people we love or to leave them behind. We chose to try anything which might help – yoga, meditation, therapy, medication- or to pretend that we are too far gone.
I have known people (more than I care to count) who have given up, decided they were too far gone, resigned themselves to a life in institutions, broke limbs punching walls, hung themselves with Christmas decorations because that was the only open avenue. People who didn’t even try to explain what hurt or why. People who refused to accept that they were not the only one in the world to be in pain, or that anyone had ever been through this before. And I have also known many people (thankfully) who chose to stop suffering and clawed their way out of depression. Seneca wrote that to wish to be well is a part of becoming well and that is exactly it. Not because depression can be cured by positive thinking or whatever crap self-help authors claim because that’s a part of the process.
I still feel the pain. Every damn day. The only difference is that I no longer suffer. Maybe I could make a pie chart of what it took to change that– a combination of time, conversations with smart people, books, Stoic philosophy, Conor Oberst’s music, days in coffee shops, deep breaths. For the most part, the switch is mental. You spot a break in the clouds and jump at it, doing everything possible to prolong the good days. There is no sudden epiphany – not for me, not for anyone. Only one good day out of a hundred, then two, then five, then 50. Then, you get involved in real life and stop counting the days, although the occasional bad ones still surprise you. Sometimes you have to start with 5 good minutes or even 30 seconds. It doesn’t matter. You don’t get better by wallowing. You get better by keeping yourself safe (or allowing other people to keep you safe if you can’t do it yourself), then grabbing at the okay moments.
I once asked a psychiatrist how I would know when I was no longer depressed. At the time, the pain was too thick for me to imagine how life could be without it and I wanted a concrete answer. Her response was simple: one day you will wake up and go to see your boyfriend, buy a new dress for a party, make coffee, do normal things without even noticing it. And that day did come. And I did notice it, which only amplified the magic.
These days- the ones I’m living through now which hopefully will continue- are better than I could have imagined possible. I have a job I love and produce work I’m proud of whereas I once couldn’t trust myself to produce a coherent sentence. I see the friends who have stuck by me through everything. I have a kitten who I adore even though not long ago I couldn’t manage to look after myself. I don’t do anything impressive- I work, I sleep, I read, I go to my favourite coffee shop, I do laundry and try not to lose my keys. But those things are impressive, purely because they no longer feel like insurmountable obstacles. They feel normal.
I chose to suffer for a long time. Then I didn’t. It wasn’t quick or easy. I cannot even say when it happened, only that it did. And it does.
It does. I promise.