I’ve been reading a lot about depression lately. Many of my friends suffer from it, and for months on end they struggle with simple tasks like getting out of bed and going to work each day. Others are not affected to the point of being so dysfunctional, but it does impact every waking moment. It prevents them from fully enjoying their lives, their achievements, and the company of their loved ones. Because of the lies depression whispers to them, they sabotage themselves both professionally and personally. Still others manifest physical symptoms with their depression, experiencing chronic, crippling pain which only makes getting through each day even harder.
For years, I’ve lived with depressing circumstances: a down economy, bills that needed to be paid, creeping health issues, and a house that was falling down around me and no resources to repair it. My situation was depressing but I wasn’t depressed. Exhausted, yes. Discouraged, yes. But not depressed.
Somewhere in the last year, however, I’ve lost my balance. I’m no longer walking the tightrope of depression. I’ve slipped off the wire and am mired in the muddy trough beneath. Believe me, there is a world of difference.
Winston Churchill used to refer to depression as a black dog that followed him around–and though he was not the first to use this imagery, he was probably one of the most famous people to employ it. If you Google the words “Black Dog” and “Depression”, you will find hundreds of links to books, articles, and blogs about the topic by this reference. There is even a website called The Black Dog Institute aimed raising the awareness of depression as a medical condition–dedicated to illuminating this crippling condition shared by so many people.
Churchill was probably bipolar. He was aware that he had a medical problem, but this was back before there were medications to treat this disease. His historical consumption of alcohol and nicotine is believed to have been in part an attempt to self-medicate, though certainly studies have linked depression and substance abuse. Yet despite these known facts, Churchill is regarded as being one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century. Another famous person with depression was Abraham Lincoln–and yet no one in their right mind would say that neither Churchill or Lincoln had any impact on the lives of the people around them, or that they failed as leaders of their respective countries. Chances are, however, this is exactly what their depression probably told them at some point in their lives.
Because that’s what depression does to you. It lies. It tells you that you are worthless and that your best achievements are only flour paste and paper beside everyone else’s Faberge eggs. Worse, it tells you that things will never get better–that you will always be sunk to your hips in black mud, dragging pounds of it with you where ever you go, never being able to get ahead, make it to solid ground, move on with your life. Not only does it lie, but it makes you forget. You forget that you have people that love you for who you are, despite your perceived failings. That you have accomplished things of worth, that you are a valued employee. A good daughter. A loving son.
When I look back over the past year, I can see now that I was already bogged down in the early stages of depression, but I didn’t recognize it until now. Let’s face it, life has been tough for all of us lately. Sometimes it isn’t until things start to ease up a little, when the yoke doesn’t chafe quite as much, that we can appreciate there is more to our weariness than the effort of making ends meet.
I’ve been this tired before. I’ve worked these kinds of hours all of my professional career and yet at one point, I was writing the equivalent of a novella a month. My writing output dropped by at least 70 percent, however, and I was deeply unhappy with the work I was managing to produce. It was only then that I realized that this was depression talking, not me. It was depression telling me that I am burned out on my job, burned out on being compassionate, of giving most people around me the benefit of the doubt. Depression telling me that if I hadn’t been so kind, so quick to see the other person’s side, that I wouldn’t be in the financial straits that I am in right now. Depression telling me that it will never get better, only harder, that I am doomed to work up until my dying day with no respite in sight, or until my health completely breaks down. That I will never be more than a mediocre writer and that I should forget about hoping that one day the writing will allow me to work a little less hard at the day job.
Unfortunately, I am one of those people who cannot take medication for depression. Believe me, I’ve tried. After four attempts at various points in my life with different classes of drugs, I’ve experienced every severe side effect in the book, including thoughts of suicide when I wasn’t having them before. After a recent “Brittany Spears” weekend (so named because the medication I was taking caused emotional blowouts, including a strong desire to hack off all my hair with a pair of pinking shears), I’ve decided that I will not attempt medication again. I am still functional. I am more functional with my depression than I am on medication. My black dog of depression seems to be a lot gentler than most, anyway. I think of it more as Eeyore.
Which means I can manage it. If I get enough sleep, if I watch what I eat, if I get regular exercise. If, if, if. These are things that are easy to say and hard to implement when you can’t sleep because your entire body hurts, or you are too bloody exhausted to exercise because you just got home from a 10-12 hour workday and you didn’t get a lunch break and you didn’t get any sleep the night before. Hello, vicious cycle. However, failing to plan is planning to fail. If my only recourse for getting better is self-treatment through diet and exercise, then I have to implement these things.
So this is what I’ve learned from my own Eeyore of depression.
Depression is a Dementor. J.K. Rowling created Dementors in the Harry Potter stories as dark creatures without souls that feed off the happiness of people. They caused depression and despair in anyone they fed upon, eventually reducing that person to an empty shell, stealing their souls. I can’t help but wonder if Rowling herself has had some experience with depression because I can’t think of a more apt description. Depression sucks all the color out of your life, leaving you with a bleak, gray existence and no memory of it ever having been any different. It tells you it never will be different and that you should just go belly up and give in to it. It lies. Remember that. It lies.
There is a spell to ward off Dementors. Ah, see, the most powerful weapon you have against depression is your own mind. Your negative thoughts are your enemy as well. I’m the first to say that for many people there is a biochemical component to depression and for the love of God, get on the right medication. There are many, many forms of medications out there. Because one doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean none of them will. I am probably the exception rather than the rule when it comes to medication.
But in my own battles, I’ve found that the very mind poisoning my thoughts against me is the thing in the end that can save me too. In the world of Harry Potter, there was the Patronus spell to ward off Dementors. I find it interesting that it is a complicated spell that requires, at its core, that you concentrate with all your might on one single happy memory. I think one of the keys to fighting depression is to find your own Patronus spell. Your own Spirit Guardian to ward off your Dementor, your black dog, or your Eeyore, as the case may be.
I love the movie Labyrinth. It’s the sort of film you can watch again and again and find something new each time. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie comes near the end, when Sarah, confronted by the Goblin King in a bid to keep her as his prisoner in his world, begins quoting from a play she’d been rehearsing at the beginning movie. During the course of the film Sarah has grown from the willful child who could not understand the meaning of the words she was trying to memorize to a strong young woman who has experienced loss and hardship beyond her limited world-view. Now the words make sense.
The part where she tells Jareth “You have no power over me” is a moment of revelation. And that is exactly what we need to tell depression. Every day. We need to stare it in the face, back it up against a wall, and tell declare, “You have no power over me.”
Do it. I can’t explain why, but it helps. There is magic in such words.
The third lesson is tougher. Ashton Kutcher recently made an acceptance speech that went viral because he took the opportunity on winning his award to thank his fans and tell them three very important things: that opportunity always comes with hard work, that the secret to being sexy your whole life is to be smart and compassionate and thoughtful, and no one out there who built a better world for themselves was any smarter than you are–they just went out and did it. It’s a great speech–I encourage you to stick it out past the screams of the teenaged fangirls and listen to it.
But here’s the part Kutcher left out. It is perfectly possible that you will do everything right: that you will work hard and apply yourself, get a degree, enter the workforce, give 150% of yourself to your job–and you will still wind up unrecognized or unrewarded. Because you know what? Being compassionate and doing the right thing might allow you to look at your reflection in the mirror without cringing, but not necessarily garner respect in the workplace. You can do everything right and through no fault of your own, wind up living in a crappy little house with no possibility of retirement in sight, having to pick and choose which bills to pay when.
Maybe you had a medical crisis that wiped out your savings. Maybe you chose to take a lower paying job so you could stay close to your aging parent. Maybe you had to choose between corporate advancement or being the best father to your child right now. The truth is it possible to give it your all year after year and still have nothing to show for it.
So take your happiness where you can. Remember too, that success is an ephemeral term. Don’t let your measure of success be defined by other people. The view from the ridge behind my house is mine, even if I don’t own the land associated with it. Remember too, that sooner or later, spring always comes again. Winter is not forever.
Remember too, that when you are battling depression, it is okay to protect yourself. Cut off ties to toxic people, those who cannot understand what you are going through and try to batter you into ‘picking up your chin’ or ‘get over yourself’. I believe that someone who has never experienced depression is incapable of completely understanding it–but I also think that even among people who *do* know what it is like, when they themselves are not depressed, it is hard for them to get what you are going through. Remember your real friends though. The ones that stand by you through hell and back. You don’t the energy to thank them? Try. Some days they may be the only lighthouse in a sea of bleak fog.
You can’t deal with angsty television shows where your favorite character might get killed off next week? That’s okay. You only want to read light fluffy stories that are pure escapism and you know how they’re going to end? That’s okay too. There will come a time in which you are emotionally stronger and you find you want to read or watch something more challenging.
Until then, I’ll be writing my light, fluffy, escapist, HEA stories as my own form of therapy–and I will be delighted to share them with you. (Hey, it’s cheaper than therapy!)
Sarah Madison’s stories might occasionally make you cry, but they are guaranteed to have a happy ending. If you’re interested in a mysterious M/M romance with a paranormal, then check out the Sixth Sense series from Dreamspinner Press. Book 3, Truth and Consequences, will be released soon!