Every once in a while it comes out in conversation that I struggle with depression and anxiety, and someone says wonderingly, “But you’re always so cheerful!” This is amusing to me, both because it never occurs to me when I’m being cheerful that I might be overcompensating, and also because I apparently I fooled everyone about the massive pit of existential terror that uncoils in me when I contemplate, for instance, having to say hello to someone on the sidewalk. Apparently—apparently—it is not readily apparent that I am spending most of my time waiting for my life to spiral out of control.
The funnier thing, of course, if you’re using a very particular definition of the word “funny,” is that I didn’t realize until recently that these things weren’t normal. It didn’t occur to me all at once, either, or in a way that seemed to stick. It took quite a few years to get myself to both know and believe what was going on. Ah, I would think, I have anxiety. I would then proceed to go about my business, terrified of everything, but behaving as if nothing was wrong.
But, of course, something was wrong. There was the wave of depression that left me unable to sleep, eat, or breathe without being tormented by the crippling feelings of shame and inadequacy. There was the persistent visualization of my own death. And there was the anxiety. I remember trying to articulate to a friend why I didn’t want to do a certain thing. I explained, in great detail, exactly how that thing could go wrong, and finished with: “and then, I don’t know…I’ll probably catch fire.” It was, in one sense, funny. I was talking about something on the level of going to buy stamps, or wear brighter lipstick, and I was actually filled with the hitherto-unarticulated terror that this course of action would kill me. Something was clearly wrong.
Now, when I say wrong, that something was wrong with me, I mean in the technical sense of the word ‘disorder:’ the point at which something is negatively impacting quality of life. In that sense, something is undeniably wrong, and has been wrong, in varying amounts, for a good portion of my life. It’s no one’s fault. It just turns out that it is not normal, for instance, to vividly picture yourself driving a car into oncoming traffic and off bridges every time you remember you have to go get groceries.
Who knew? Not me. I just figured other people had a higher tolerance for that sort of thing than I did. Likewise, I thought everyone else had some magical ability to cope with the sly, constant reminders from their brain that everything could go wrong at any minute, usually because I might give in to my ‘real’ self, who—my jerkbrain has informed me—is incredibly lazy and weak. It turns out that isn’t normal, either…
…most of the time. What isn’t widely publicized when we talk about depression and anxiety and all manner of disorders, is that an astonishingly large percentage of people will suffer from some or all of these disorders over the course of their lifetime. Depression and anxiety aren’t always things one is born with, though they can be. Sometimes, as my father once pointed out, feelings of overwhelming sadness are, in fact, the correct feelings to go with a particular life event. Sometimes they’re manageable, and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re relatively fleeting, and sometimes they’re not.
One of the things this blog is for is to talk openly about the things we refuse to talk about, and the ways those secrets and silences hurt us. Today, it’s a shout out to, I’m guessing, most of you reading this blog: people who have dealt with this all their life and not realized it, or people for whom the awful thoughts have crept in silently and taken up residence, people who have known what troubled them and had no one to share it with. This is for the people who haven’t had words to describe what’s going on.
The ancient Celts, among other cultures, believed that naming something gives you power over it, and I believe that. One of the most freeing moments in my entire life was when I learned the term “intrusive thoughts,” and realized that one of the things that tormented me had a name. With a name, it could be quantified. By being spoken of, it was removed from a mind that magnified it and gave it power.
It’s a grim process, dragging dark things out into the light of day. But it’s worth it. When they’re out in the light of day, sometimes we can laugh at them. And that’s the other surest way to steal their power.
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