In hopes of empowering others who have deeply struggled and erasing the stigma associated with mental illness, I’m sharing my journey through depression. And how I came out on the other side.
Can you remember the last time you felt so happy that you were literally beaming? So happy that you smiled at strangers, and they smiled back because your joy was so contagious?
How long ago was that? Hours? Days? Months? For me, it was years.
It wasn’t until that I started seeing a therapist that I realized I couldn’t recall the last time I felt happiness that radiated from my core. Really, I had no recent memories that I could categorize as happy. Not even content.
Sure, there were a lot of moments that I enjoyed. I managed to make incredible memories that I continue to hold close to my heart. But, despite the list of incredible accomplishments, adventures and friendships — I didn’t feel happy. In fact, I didn’t feel anything at all.
Have you ever seen something sink in water? Slowly at first (if it’s porous), and then all at once? That is what happened to me.
I slowly began to slip beneath the surface of a deep, dark, expansive lake. So slowly that even I didn’t notice it was happening. Every day I just sank a tiny bit deeper, until I was completely submerged in the frigid, dark abyss. So deeply submerged that returning to the surface, to who I used to be, seemed like an unimaginable task. Over time, I became paralyzed in the deep, freezing waters of depression. The undercurrent of what was expected of me by my family, friends, co-workers, and even strangers, pushed me further into paralysis.
In fleeting moments of vulnerability (a feeling I had all but stonewalled out of my life), I tried to reach out to those I was still close with. It was impossible. I had become so removed from all emotion, from myself, that I didn’t know how to describe what was happening to me.
Over time, I found a solution to this “vulnerability” nonsense. I just stopped offering any personal details about my life to anyone. Ever. I focused my conversations on the people I was with — if I even talked at all.
The paralysis brought on by the freeze of depression also took a toll on my self-worth in a big way. I felt an ever-increasing sense that my interests, opinions and life events were incredibly uninteresting to those I shared them with. (This was something I constructed in my mind, and probably wasn’t as true as I felt it was.)
There were times where I felt like I was trapped underneath a frozen lake. I could see people looking at me, wondering what was wrong. Instead of breaking through the ice, I let the freezing water fill my lungs and began the descent back into depression.
Eventually, all the air had worked its way out and I began to sink to the bottom like a stone. All at once.
Over the course of a week, I deteriorated rapidly. At this point, the only thing I could tell my therapist was that I felt “exhausted.” I said this over and over again. Exhausted from the facade I put on for everyone to appear ok. Exhausted from feeling like a failure. Exhausted from trying to be everything to everyone.
This exhaustion led to an overwhelming desire to sleep. I came home from work, took a sedative and went to sleep. If I woke up, I took another sedative and back to sleep I went. Sleeping was my escape. It was the only thing that allowed me get out of my head.
Day after day, the amount of sedatives I was taking increased. My waking hours were limited to essential activities and nothing beyond that. The escape that sleeping was almost like gateway. The more sedatives I took to sleep, the less concern I had about whether or not my heart would stop. Whether or not I would wake up… ever.
It didn’t matter, I just wanted to sleep. If these sedatives sent me into a permanent sleep, than so be it.
It wasn’t until I woke up at 8 AM on a Saturday morning and immediately reached for a sleeping pill, that I realized I realized what was happening. I had drowned in that freezing, dark, expansive lake. I stopped trying to swim towards the surface and I let myself sink to the bottom like a stone.
I laid on my bedroom floor and let tears stream down the sides of my face. How did I get here? Who is this person I’ve become? What have I done to myself? What the hell was wrong with me?
Questions and doubts swirled around in my head for the rest of the weekend. Despite my own negativity, I knew I needed help. I couldn’t live submerged in this depression for a single second longer. It wasn’t living, it wasn’t anything. And I was done with it.
At the recommendation of a few people, I sought out help through an intensive therapy program (which I was admittedly skeptical about). But, what did I have to lose? I had already hit what was most certainly my lowest low. It couldn’t get worse, right?
The first two days in this program were spent silently rationalizing reasons why I was not “mentally ill enough” to be there. I told one of my friends that it was like Scared Straight — but for the mentally ill. And in may ways, it kind of was.
Participating in this program provided context for my feelings. I was able to evaluate myself against the other participants and see that maybe I wasn’t that bad. Maybe I wasn’t unfixable.
None the less, I spent the first two days practically in silence as I listened to other people talk about their problems. Because I didn’t volunteer much about myself (classic depression-era Carley), the other group members didn’t trust me.
A few even had the audacity to remark that I didn’t “look like I needed to be there.” I understand now that comments like those are more of a reflection of their own feelings. But still, comments like those made the program even harder to immerse myself in.
As I reflected on the first two days, it became clear that I needed to buck up and participate, or I needed to get out. I wasn’t helping myself, or anyone else, by just observing. In fact, I think I was mostly just freaking people out with my stoic silence.
It was hard for me to recognize that I needed to be there. That I did essentially try to kill myself. That I no longer knew how to establish or maintain relationships because I had (literally) lost the ability to feel emotions. It was a very tough pill to swallow.
But once I did, it was like someone lit a little fire in my chest that reignited my glow.
I learned so many things about behavior and thought patterns, criticisms, the constructs of reality and perception. The time I spent in this program was truly life changing in a way that I did not expect.
Not only did I feel like a human again (as opposed to an emotionless, fake robot), but I felt like myself. I felt like the person who I used to be years ago before depression started slowly pulling me under.
In reality, I’ve become an even better version of myself. I’m empowered. I’m aware. I’m present in each moment. I’m in tune with what I need, and what I can give to others. I’m actually happy.
And it feels weird. It feels wrong.
When I feel moments of radiating happiness, I quickly assume I shouldn’t feel like that. I look for minor details that indicate that maybe I don’t deserve to feel happy. I dissect each and every step as I progress on my journey to being ok. I look for flaws. I’m searching for errors that prove my assumption that I don’t deserve happiness.
In the past, this would have sent me plunging into the frigid abyss of depression and self-loathing. But not anymore. And hopefully never again.
In reality, the issues I deal with are not gone. I will always be my worst critic. I will continue to scrutinize myself for flaws. It’s likely I will become depressed in the future.
And that’s ok.
Feeling ok, or even happy, is not a destination. It is a journey.
And while at times I may feel like I am in this alone, I take comfort in knowing that there are lots of others who are also on a similar journey. They may be standing in line behind me at a coffee shop. Sitting in the next car over in traffic. They may be a friend who chooses not to share what they're going through.
We’re all on this journey together. I take comfort in that.