Health

It Gets Better and Then It Gets Worse

What will I do with this column and my Twitter account if the sadness doesn't end? Do I keep writing about the experience of living with depression and anxiety, and exploring the nuances of sadness forever?

by VICE Staff
Sep 22 2016, 7:15pm

Illustrations by Joel Benjamin

People have asked me, "What will you do when you are no longer sad? Will you still write this column? Still tweet?" It is as though they perceive human emotion as a dairy product with an expiration date, and depression as a finite entity with a beginning and an end. Alternately, I've found both experiences to be a lifelong journey: one that ebbs and flows. I actually tend to wonder about the opposite of their questions: What will I do with this column and my Twitter account when the sadness doesn't end? Do I keep writing about the experience of living with depression and anxiety, and exploring the nuances of sadness forever?

Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning and one of the fathers of existential psychology said, "In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning..." This column has proved helpful to me as a raison d'être: a place where I can control the narrative of my mental health when I don't feel in control of what's actually happening to me. Even now, as I go through another period of darkness, I find the process of writing this column redemptive somehow.

When I feel an acute period in the cycle of depression encroaching, it is like a hand that will eventually try to strangle me, but whose fingers are just beginning to touch me. It is like the fingers are playing a soft, but haunting piano in my psyche. Sometimes, I forget that it's a disease I have entirely, and cannot figure out who these haunting fingers belong to. Sometimes, I'm aware of what they are, but I don't want to face them. I hope that they will simply retreat on their own.

In the past, I have made the mistake of not addressing the fingers with my doctors until the hand is wound tightly around my neck. Other times I feel that I am on the alert, hyper-vigilant, always waiting for the fingers to appear. In these instances, I might interpret any sensation I experience as the fingers. I am waiting for doom—frightened that this is going to be "the big one," the one that takes me out. This is what's known as anxiety.

I don't know that every bout of depression has to have a tangible reason behind it. Likewise, if there is a reason, I'm not certain that knowing the reason is always the most direct path to relief. Sometimes we might know the cause, but the hand is already pretty tight. We can eliminate the cause, but the hand still stays. Yet instinctually, when I first feel the fingers creeping, I will immediately search for a cause of the depression so as to ground it or "normalize" it for myself in some way—trying to gain control of it through my rational mind.

Most recently, I decided that the cause of my depression must be the new acne medication I'm taking, which my friend said made her depressed. Incidentally, the friend had lost her job at the time, which may have also played a role, but I was looking for answers. Furiously, I googled until I found one person on a chat board from 2011 who said that the acne medication definitely represses antidepressants and to get off it right away. I don't know who this person was or where she got her information, but I was like, Yes, medical expert.

When I went to see my psychiatrist, she said the underlying cause was likely not the acne medication but Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Suddenly, I was propelled back to autumns past: Octobers, Novembers, and Decembers going through some of my greatest terrors. But I also remembered March terrors, June terrors, August terrors. And I remembered autumns where I went apple picking and felt very comfortable with existence, nestled snugly in the flow of life. Now I live in Los Angeles where there are no real seasons. So how could it be SAD? Maybe it's the lack of seasons: Life laying out before me in an endless and meaningless succession of 70 degrees and sunny?

I can spin my wheels indefinitely, searching for a cause. On occasion I find one that's feasible. But sometimes you are taking good care of yourself and life is going OK, and the hand reaches out for you anyway. Sometimes you throw things at the hand—things that have worked in the past: antidepressants, cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, yoga, ebooks, isolation, being with people, sex with strangers, sex with not-so-strangers, dietary restrictions, beautification, shopping, shoplifting—and the hand flinches for a second, then only clenches tighter. What then?

In these times, I've been told that acceptance needs to come into play. That's when we need to accept the hand, perhaps to even try and relax into it, so that we don't contribute to our own suffering. But I still don't really know what acceptance means. It's hard for me to embrace my own powerlessness. Does accepting a situation mean you have to learn to like it? Also, I don't think I've ever relaxed.

I can't say what works for anyone else in this situation, but I know that for myself, in those times, I have to write things: poems, essays, tweets. For me, writing is a form of acceptance: a way of finding little air pockets, space and other dimensions, within the grip of the hand. The act of writing doesn't eradicate the hand. But it allows me to move around within it and sometimes even see beyond it. And the desire to create from inside the hand, and maybe even as a result of having to live with the hand, is a gift.

To be clear, I hate the hand. The hand is a little bitch, and I wish I didn't have to deal with the hand. I don't want the hand, wouldn't wish the hand on others and never asked for the hand. But the hand is here, and it looks like it's going to be around for a while. So in the meantime, I'm going to keep talking shit about it.

If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.


Buy So Sad Today: Personal Essays on Amazon, and follow her on Twitter.