For me the most dangerous thing about living with depression has been the seductive temptation to isolate myself. There is a twisted logic to it. It starts when I can feel myself slipping. A little more fatigued. A little less able to fend off negative thoughts. Waking up with less hope and less joy on each successive day. The things that usually cheer me — grooming a horse, singing (badly) in the car with my kids, or reading, for instance — lose their power. Eye blinks get slower and footfalls heavier. This is when the internal seduction starts. The depression says, “you should rest. You’re just tired.” So I rest. It feels good to rest. But things go undone. Phone calls neglected. Children neglected. Animals neglected. Work undone. Guilt. “You need more quiet. You’ll feel better tomorrow. Make them go away. Close your door. Turn off the light. Stay alone.” I push people away and isolate further. Once he (yes, big D is a dude) has me alone and safe, he shifts tone. “You are LAZY and DISGUSTING. Look at you! You left work early to sleep? You don’t deserve that!” D’s a colossal asshole but I can’t see that when I’m in it. The internal taunting rises to the level of a 24-7 diatribe. Think of the most hostile, critical, vengeful, mean-spirited person you know and imagine that person having a private loge (with alcohol because D is a mean drunk) in your brain. D has a direct line into your emotional center and just won’t shut up. Eventually, it’s just to exhausting to argue. You agree hoping he’ll just stop talking. The more you agree, the more you internalize D’s smack. Now you’re alone and trapped with a sociopath.
I believe I have always been able to empathize with people who stay in or repeatedly return to abusive relationships because I have lived with my own internal abuser since early childhood. My identity was fashioned around D’s words. It never mattered what I accomplished. He was always there to remind me of when I’d failed or why my successes weren’t really deserved. Where I was flawed. When I say my identity was constructed on a frame of D’s choosing, I mean it. My first depressive episode was probably in kindergarten or first grade although it’s hard to pin that down. The only specific memories I have are snapshots of moments most of which were filled with torment and a profound desire to simply vanish. I was comforted to read about research recently which showed how autobiographical memory is distorted by depressive illness. People who are depressed tend to have memories of the past which are categorical, global, and characterized by the broadly negative emotions of the time. Now flip that over. That means that specific events, happy, sad and otherwise, get washed over by waves of negative mood essentially wiping out the details of those events (I’m sure that there is a delightfully complicated neuroscience explanation for that…). I suppose other than a handful of specific events this is why I have very little memory of the details of my childhood or adolescence but I clearly can still feel what it was like then. The foundation of who I am was therefore built out of these broadly defined emotional layers.
When I was diagnosed in my 20’s, I was in graduate school. I was on my own and more depressed than I had ever been. I was blessed with a tight-knit group of friends and a wonderfully supportive family to whom I clung as if my life depended on it (because it did). I am also possessed of a classically rural work ethic (growing up on a farm will do that to you). No matter how bad I felt, I went to class and work, taught my classes, and did my research. At the end of the day, however, I would completely collapse unable to function. The entirely predictable ending of a short but emotionally overwhelming relationship pushed the remaining buttons needed to send me to therapy and a diagnostic process that included some retracing of the past but mainly focused on re-training my thinking so that D could be named and dismissed as the lying, bastard, asshole that he is (he’s still bitter about it). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy worked for me but it clearly wouldn’t have had I not simultaneously started taking an SSRI. Doing so quieted the negative thoughts and intrusive images of dying long enough for me to work hard in therapy, keep going in school, and eventually get an academic job (which I still have). For all those people (you know who you are and I will temporarily suspend the desire to dope slap you) who think meds are a crutch for the weak, what is a crutch for? If your leg is broken, you use crutches to allow your leg to heal properly. Why does your brain deserve less support than your leg? I’m not taking an easy way out by taking an antidepressant. I’m giving my brain the opportunity to heal and remain healthy.
The temptation to isolate remains a challenge for me when my emotional resources are stretched. When there is a lot going on with my kids, husband, co-workers, or the world for that matter, I can start to feel like walking in the dark again. At least it’s a familiar place where I know the rules and can clearly predict the outcome even if the outcome is very painful. Then I remember what hanging out with a sociopath is really like and claw my way back to the surface. Thankfully, those times are rare for me now as I have an arsenal of weapons to use when I’m challenged. I don’t regret my childhood and adolescent experience of depression. I honestly don’t think about changing it. I wouldn’t be who I am otherwise. And I am enough.