It wasn’t until the bottom dropped out that I realized what was going on. It crept up on me, so stealthy, that in spite of my extensive experience with depression in friends and family members, I didn’t recognize it until the day that I could. not. stop. crying–and even then I didn’t believe that depression was what I was experiencing.
Because on the one hand, uncontrollable crying seems like a completely reasonable response to current events.
On the other hand, uncontrollable crying makes it really difficult to continue going about your daily business like eating and working.
While sobbing I thought, “Hey, maybe my brain is a little broken right now.”
As my therapist listed the symptoms of depression for me later that day, it occurred to me that my brain had been getting progressively more broken and I hadn’t even noticed, because I was looking for the wrong symptoms. This is my first personal experience with major depression–previously, I had only observed it in other people. My conception of depression was thus based on the symptoms that are easiest to see as an observer. I was looking for anhedonia, for the loss of interest in activities that I had previously loved, for social isolation, for self-harm. I was looking for can’t-get-out-of-bed-stopped-showering-never-smiles depression. Turns out, there are a *lot* of other symptoms of depression, and the whole thing doesn’t necessarily start with anhedonia, and you can remain reasonably functional and still be *really* depressed.
Google helpfully provides this list of symptoms of depression, gleaned from the Mayo Clinic and other reputable sources:
People may experience:
Mood: anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, or sadness
Sleep: early awakening, excess sleepiness, insomnia, or restless sleep
Whole body: excessive hunger, fatigue, loss of appetite, or restlessness
Behavioral: agitation, excessive crying, irritability, or social isolation
Cognitive: lack of concentration, slowness in activity, or thoughts of suicide
Weight: weight gain or weight loss
Also common: poor appetite or repeatedly going over thoughts
For me, I don’t know exactly when it started, because who can even say how these things start? But I can say that I started noticing symptoms in November-December of last year.
That was when the nightmares set in.
At the time, I chalked it up to stress: my partner was on a project that was causing him massive anxiety, we’d just elected a fascist as president, and suddenly there were neo-nazis coming out of the goddamn woodwork. It made sense to me that I’d be having night after night of nightmares about fascists coming for the people I love.
I assumed the accompanying insomnia and inability to stay asleep was a side effect of the nightmares.
Around the same time, I started having a lot of reflux–most intensely in the morning right after waking. This, too, I assumed was a side effect of the nightmares. My doctor agreed that it was probably stress related. I completely lost my desire to eat things. A long course of omeprazole cleared up the reflux, but my appetite never returned.
When I was in Manhattan for work in December, most mornings I sat in the hotel room for an embarrassingly long time, trying to cajole myself into eating a bowl of oatmeal. In goddamn Manhattan, I could find nothing that I wanted to eat. Even the thought of food made me feel queasy.
This was a little unusual for me, but my body can be really particular about food periodically, so I waved it away as an annoying combination of anxiety and seasonal change. (The hardest time for me to plan and make food is at the end of a season, before the next season’s produce has hit the market.) I figured it would go away eventually.
Friends, let me tell you that it did not go away.
I started trying to manage my sleeping difficulty with a combination of weed and old-school antihistamines. Smoking weed before bed helped me fall asleep and dialed down the nightmares, but also made it hard to stay asleep for more than six or seven hours. My body is happiest with 8.5 hours, so weed alone left me constantly sleep deprived. The antihistamines helped me stay asleep, but by themselves that was just trapping myself in the nightmares for longer. Probably, if I had mentioned to anyone that I was only sleeping through a combination of weed and antihistamines someone would have said, “HEY MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO A DOCTOR HERE LET ME HELP YOU MAKE THAT APPOINTMENT”
But I didn’t mention it to anyone because I figured it would go away.
Friends, the fact that we are currently having this discussion should lead you to conclude that it did not just go away.
Over the course of the spring, everything started feeling so much harder. A cloud of exhaustion descended. Every action took dramatically more energy and effort. This seemed like a natural side effect of the trouble I was having with sleeping and eating. I considered murdering all my houseplants because watering them felt impossibly difficult.
I attributed all the crying to sleep deprivation, too. Zack started asking pointedly, “Is everything okay?” I kept telling him it was because, fresh horrors of American governance and white supremacy aside, I couldn’t actually figure out what was wrong.
Even on the day that I couldn’t stop crying, when my therapist was like, “Have we talked about depression at all?” I was skeptical. Sure, I couldn’t stop crying, and eating and sleeping were a struggle that left me constantly exhausted, but there were still things I enjoyed! I had not abandoned my beautiful garden! I laughed with my friends! Occasionally I managed to get work done, and I was still regularly showering and leaving the house! So yeah my brain was definitely broken at the moment but surely it’s not depression, right? Sometimes I still experienced happiness!
Then a few days later, I stopped being able to watch television. Six television shows started and rejected within the first fifteen minutes. Several beloved movies started and then abandoned. When I stopped being able to read–four books started and discarded within a week–I began to consider that maybe, just maybe, I was, in fact, depressed. I *love* to read. Losing the ability to focus on and enjoy a book finally, FINALLY ticked the box on the symptom I associated with depression.
In a lot of ways, it’s pretty comforting to realize that I am actually *sick*, and that this isn’t just the way life is going to be from now on. It’s nice to have an explanation for the strange and unexpected things my brain is doing. I like to think that someday, maybe, I will stop fucking crying. (Though to be honest I will absolutely take the crying over the days when my brain just WILL NOT commit to focusing on anything and I am left in horrible, unending, crushing boredom.)
It does, however, suck a lot right now. I’m doing all the things you’re supposed to do to treat depression, but I am getting the impression it is not one of those things that goes away overnight.
In the meantime, I’m eating a lot of bean burritos, which are more nutritious than your average milkshake but almost as easy to eat. (My sister said, “The depression burrito is a real thing.”) It’s a step up from instant oatmeal, anyway. I am trying not to be too frustrated by how utterly uncooperative my brain is being–trying to keep my self-talk more gentle and less exasperated. I am spending a lot of time with my friends, and a lot of time appreciating my garden. In other words, I persist.