The Birds Saved Me

Two years this May is my anniversary, if you will, of being diagnosed with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. At the time, I hadn’t realized it was mental health awareness month and how fitting it was that I was finally going to see someone about this problem I’d had, hid, and endured for far too long. And even in going to see my primary care health professional, I had gone in with the mindset that it must have been just stress and anxiety that was plaguing me. But after spewing my guts out to her, and sobbing for a good half an hour, she made me gently realize that no one was supposed to feel as awful as I was for as long as I had been. And thus began my journey into accepting my, and now advocating for mental health awareness.

I can’t speak for every person suffering from some sort of mental health issue. Every person, and every issue is so very different. But I can say with 100% certainty that what I can say for every person dealing with a mental illness is that there isn’t nearly enough information, awareness, and understanding about the struggles so many people with mental illnesses face each day. And I can also say that this needs to end.

And the best way for this to awareness to grow is by those of us living with or loving people with mental illnesses to speak up about their experiences. Because maybe, if one more person can see that they’re not alone in the way they’re feeling, that they’re not broken or hopeless, and that there are people who care about them and will support them, then that’s one more person to get help and then share their experiences so even more can benefit.

While I know I’ve shared bits and pieces of my story before, there’s always more. So, here’s a little bit you perhaps didn’t know before.

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Many people who are close to me know that I love birds. I love having my feeders out and full each day so that I can watch the wild backyard birds in my neighborhood congregate and eat. I know each species that comes frequently, what their calls are, their habits, their mating patterns. I watch for my favorites, and am worried about them when the weather takes a nasty turn. I revel in seeing the babies each spring and summer, and am heartbroken when I find one that has smashed against our dining room window and didn’t make it. I’ve downloaded apps, bought books, joined groups, and researched websites all to learn as much as I possibly can about these amazing animals. And they are. I know this now having studied them for two years. But I didn’t always know this or care at all to learn about them.

If you’ve known me longer than two years, you might wonder when I suddenly became so obsessed with birds. My daughter certainly did, and asked me as such not long ago. “Why are you so into birds all of a sudden?” I think was the exact phrasing. And my answer was this: they saved me.

Two years ago, before I was ready or capable of admitting I was depressed, but was in the deep, dark hole of it, I found myself learning how to mentally check out. I would stare into nowhere, almost like an out of body experience because it was so much nicer than to be present with my feelings. Being numb to everyone and everything was far more desirable than feeling angry, desolate, useless, and out of control. So, I would leave my body where it was, and allow my mind to cozy up into a fuzzy blanket, and ignore the world.

It was during this time, early spring, that when I would check out during meals, I would turn my head and gaze toward the window and stare outside. Well, I imagine you needn’t be a birder to know that many birds start migrating back into our area during this time. And so, as I was trying to check out, a flash of color or a song would catch my eye or ears, and pull me back in. It began happening so frequently that eventually I simply couldn’t ignore it anymore. There they were, flitting here and there, dragging dried grass for their nests, or showing off to attract a mate. And always, always looking for food.

It was at that time as well that my dad put out a couple of simple feeders, and began filling them with seed. And still I would watch. I’d watch and see how different birds preferred different seeds. How some were ground feeders, while others preferred to eat while perched. Some were aggressive, and scared the other birds away, while others waited patiently until most all the other birds flew off, and then picked at the remains.

I watched and watched, and as I watched, I found myself being inside of myself for longer and longer periods of time. And the more I was aware of my emotions, the more I started realizing that I couldn’t continue to live this way. It was either I find help or I lose everything by permanently shutting myself off from everyone else. Everyone I loved. Luckily for me, I was able to recognize that, and did get help.

So, when I say that the birds saved me, it’s not because of some profound realization I had about them, or some meaningful connection I made between us. They saved me because their presence caused me to slowly creep out of the grayness of my mind and thus forced me to recognize that how I was living was unhealthy. I was able to begin a path of recovery, which to be honest, I don’t think will ever end. There is a distinct difference between major depressive disorder and situational depression, and therefore different treatments, which is a topic for another day. But part of the treatment I found was in connecting with something outside of my immediate bubble. And in doing that, finding that perhaps I wasn’t too far gone yet that I couldn’t be brought back. It allowed me to be cognizant enough of my own needs that I was still able to recognize that how I was feeling and how I was acting was not healthy, and so changed all that.

It’s been two migrations and eight seasons since the birds unknowingly filled a void in me that no one knew was there. And they continue to be a salve for me on days when everything still feels wrong.

I love my family. I love my friends. And I cannot express my sincerest gratitude for those who have expressed their care and understanding to me. My love for all of you is immeasurable. But these birds…they are really the ones I owe everything too. Because they don’t even really know I exist, they ask for nothing, they require nothing from me. They don’t want to solve my problems or feel inadequate if their attempts at making me happy fall flat. They simply are. And in their being, I can just be with them. And thankfully, those who love me best know this, and know now to just leave me be with my birds when they see that look in my eyes. Because they know that I’ve found my way of coping. And their love for me respects this therapy of sorts.

Because it is therapy. It may not be exactly conventional or backed in some scientific study, but it’s good for my mind and soul nonetheless. And I firmly believe that whatever it takes, so long as one’s choice of coping or therapy does not inflict further harm on themselves or others, then so be it. We all need different things, and respond different ways. And there’s no right way to live with mental illness.

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My New Normal

It’s been awhile since I’ve last written anything. Sometimes I find the words to match my thoughts just mischievously elude me.

Anyhow, this is what I decided was good today. I am NOT a poet by any means, but today this just felt right in this format.

I naively thought the little pill was magic,

that I would pop it into my mouth each night,

and by some miraculous conjoining of my bile

and the Sertraline

it would make me better.

I thought that this little pill

the color of lima beans and

smaller than my baby niece’s little fingernails

would conquer my fears

and anxieties

and bring me back from underwater where

no matter what

I would breathe again with ease, and

like a superhero, keep me safe from

the monsters in my head and their claws pulling

at my brain and my heart.

I guess I should have figured that nothing

is as good as it seems; or,

that nothing worth having comes this easily.

I guess I should have realized these cliches

were true when it comes to mental illness.

Yes, mental illness.

Not crankiness

or a bad day

or over exaggerating

or being too sensitive

or making things up.

And just like any illness,

this too doesn’t go away by command.

I can ask and plead and even

cajole or bargain with myself

to stop all of this; but,

like no one can stop cancer from spreading

or epilepsy from seizing

or diabetes from metabolizing incorrectly,

I can’t stop myself from

worrying if I’m good enough

or wondering if I’ll ever measure up.

I can’t convince myself to leave the house

some days

or see friends

or go for a run

or do yoga

or anything that would help me feel

more alive.

Because I’m afraid.

This fear is real to me.

It squats upon my shoulder

nagging at me

taunting me

trying its best to

reduce me to invisibility.

It feasts upon me.

It nibbles little holes

into my willpower.

It breaks me down into

digestible pieces that are

easier to take without notice

over time and with little struggle

until suddenly

there isn’t much left.

And it’s then that it’s up to me

to save myself.

This little pill can be the buoy that

keeps me from being swept to sea,

but it can never be my personal island.

I can either flounder and drift amidst the

menace of the swells;

or, I can find some inner strength and

pull my dead weight to shore every time.

Because it’s become clear to me that

this isn’t going away.

It isn’t a small hiccup that will slowly

taper off until stopping without notice.

This is my new normal.

And so I open my arms wide,

put on a pot of tea,

put some cookies on a tray,

and welcome Depression into my home

like an old friend who will be staying on

for an indeterminate length of stay.

We sit together in my room, in

the sunshine pouring into the windows.

We sit and listen and watch and wait.

We enjoy the company of solitude and

the freedom of endless time.

We don’t worry about dressing up for each other

because we have no need for impressing.

But we also hold no pretenses.

We don’t embrace each other because that

would feel too risky.

But we also don’t ignore one another because

that would feel like a charade.

We watch each other in our periphery

waiting to see what each other’s next move

will be in this game of chess we play.

It may be the longest, most impossible

game of chess that has been played;

but as long as I have my arsenal,

my little green pill,

and my writing,

and my room with the sunshine,

I can make it.

There’s no magic here.

There’s no cure-all.

There’s only me.

In my new normal.

Whatever that means.

The Fog Has Lifted

It’s been two months since I came to accept that I suffer from depression, three weeks since I started treatment on Zoloft, and over two years since I’ve felt this light, this happy.

I don’t know what stopped me from taking care of my mental health for so long. I guess it was a lot of things, really. Stubbornness in admitting I had a problem, and the unwillingness to admit I couldn’t fix this all on my own. I also think I really didn’t even fully understand what was happening inside my brain. Did I really have a problem? Am I over exaggerating everything? And worse: am I going crazy?

There are still so many stigmas attached to mental illness. It’s a topic that remains largely taboo, and I think this adds to so many misperceptions and misunderstandings of what mental illness looks like in all its various forms. I mean, even I, who was dealing with it, didn’t even know what it was I was experiencing. Didn’t everyone feel overwhelmed, out of control, hopeless, and despairing all the time? Oh, they don’t? Shit, I guess something is wrong with me.

But it’s this very statement that shows that even I maintain some semblance of ignorance of the complications of the human brain and our conditions. Nothing actually is wrong with me. Is my brain chemistry different than others’? Yes. Do I need to cope with some different things than others because of it? Yes. But does that mean something is wrong with me? I don’t think so. This is just who I am. And I’m starting to realize  that it’s ok. I’m not going to be ashamed of it. I’m not going to hide it. I’m not going to be like the pharmacist at Target when I picked up my prescription and whisper, “Zoloft” as if it’s something illicit. I’m depressed, and I’m on ZOLOFT! Will I always need this medication? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But if I do, I’m ok with it because it has helped to bring me back to my former self, something I truly could not do on my own.

I don’t really know if I can even explain the ways being on Zoloft has helped me. And I don’t think that if I did find the right words, you would even be able to understand fully because you can’t be inside of my brain. Here’s what I do know, and what I can say: my brain is finally cooperating with me. Instead of flying out of control when stressed, snapping at my children for little reason, feeling dizzy and like my mind is underwater, and ultimately shutting myself off from reality to cope, I now see whatever issue is pressing and deal with it. I can think objectively. I can problem solve. I don’t ruminate on upsetting things like I once did to the point of making myself physically ill. I can walk around Target with the kids by myself and not freak out every few seconds about them talking to me or walking too far away or worrying about how many people are there and figuring out how I’m possibly going to get through the insurmountable task of picking up a few things from the store.

Now I come home from work happier. I have patience again. I’m reading to my kids at night again. I’m happily cooking dinner. I’m not overwhelmed with physical contact from others. A simple kiss from the hubs used to feel like just another thing that others were demanding of me, and I simply couldn’t give anymore. Now I remember how nice it is to feel his lips and face and look into his eyes. When my kids crawl into my lap it no longer feels like suffocation, or like bugs crawling all over my skin. Conversations and noises don’t make me want to scream and hide in a dark closet.

This is not to say that things don’t bother me anymore. The difference is that I can cope now. I can rationally work through everything without the most minute incidents becoming world-ending. And if I do get angry or annoyed or upset, it doesn’t last long, and it certainly doesn’t  push me down a spiral of despair into my zombie-like trance. And when I feel myself slipping back into what would lead to a depressive state, I can actually sense my mind working around it, almost as if it’s telling itself to stop and not go there. It’s really nice being a part of the world again. I really didn’t realize what I’d been missing until it was restored. I will never let myself feel like that again without doing something about it.

I really appreciate everyone who has supported me throughout this. All those who have had to deal with my mood swings, anger, irrationality, sadness, absence of self, and did so while still loving me. It couldn’t have been easy. And it won’t likely always be easy in the future. Depression is not really something that will just magically go away in a month because of medication. It’s going to be a process, something I may have to deal with the rest of my life. But I now know that as long as I have the support system I have and the treatment that I’m receiving, I will be fine. More than fine. I will be me. Wonderfully me.

Not Waving but Drowning

“Not Waving but Drowning”

-Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

This poem came to mind today on my drive home from work. I’ve been thinking lately about writing the entry I’m sending out now, and trying to figure out a way to explain my thoughts with as little cliche as possible; and, this poem captured the essence of what I’ve been living with for some time now.

I feel uncomfortable saying I am living with depression because I have not had a medical professional examine or speak with me and give me his/her diagnosis. But that’s not to say that I don’t completely feel it in me.

I know that many people use this term so very flippantly. Depressed is often used in place of sad, or bummed, or even in jest at some some slight. But I know what untreated depression can be like. My grandmother suffered from depression that I don’t think even she wanted to recognize, and she also suffered feelings of paranoia and rage. Her one sister was bipolar and attempted suicide more than once. Her other sister was institutionalized. So I know that depression is a real and serious thing. Nothing to say causally or without great reason. And so when I say that I believe I am living with depression, I don’t mean stress or sadness or anger or apathy. I mean all of these things in an overwhelming combination and intensity. And trust me, this is not something I’ve wanted to admit to myself, let alone others. But it is something that I have just come to accept very recently.

Imagine being at the beach enjoying yourself in the water and sunshine when you notice something in the distance. It’s small and fuzzy, but you can almost make out that it’s coming near. You look up and see an almost imperceptible change in the color of the sky and the intensity of the breeze. You have this unshakable feeling that something bad is coming. You look around to see if anyone notices and is worried, but everyone around you continues to have a good time. They don’t see what you see. They don’t feel the dread in the pit of your stomach. And so you think you’re imagining it. Maybe it really is nothing. Maybe it will go away. So you keep on doing what you were doing, but keeping the darkness in your peripheral. But even though you try to pretend nothing is happening, it is. The dark spot in the distance becomes bigger and comes clearer into focus. You watch it advance with detached curiosity. What is it this time? Is there a way out? You always wonder if there is a way out. But as always, you find that your legs have become lead. The sand is sucking at your limbs, pulling you down. You can now see that this darkness is a full-blown tidal wave and it’s drawing nearer and nearer without any stopping. You look around again to see if anyone else notices, but you find that there’s no one there. Where did everyone go? Why am I alone stuck here? But stuck you are. And you know with absolute certainty that no matter what you do or how much you fight, you will lose. And soon the wave washes over you. It doesn’t crash into you or knock you down; it swallows you whole. It pulls you under to the deepest depths of the sea and rocks you gently. And much to your surprise, you find yourself not even trying to get loose. You accept it, embrace it. It’s just so much easier to give in. It’s dark here, quiet, secret. And even though you think your lungs should burst from the pain, you really just feel nothing at all. An absolute blankness consumes you. No light, no joy, but no pain either. Just absolute void of all feeling. You just want to sleep. Just sleep it all away. But you can’t. Your eyes ache with fatigue, but your body remains alert. Alert, but inert. Here, but not really. And you remain here for some time. Days, weeks, it all varies. Until at last, and with no apparent provocation, you are slowly pushed to the surface again. You look around and notice that everything looks different, even though nothing has really changed. And then you notice that even though you were alone when the wave hit, everyone is back in their places again. And they look at you with careful eyes, but say nothing. They don’t ask where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing, or anything else that would indicate they’ve noticed your absence. So you think maybe you’ve made it all up in your head. And you do your best to go back to enjoying the sun and the water while it lasts. Before another wave comes through again.

This is what the last year or so has felt for me pretty much without much ease. It always begins with this feeling in my chest, these jitters that give me a sense of unease. It always progresses into a whole-body consummation. And as much as I want to drag myself out of it, I just can’t. I wait and ride it out, and inevitably it settles down and dissipates. Sometimes after a few days, sometimes after a few weeks. In the past, a few months. But always I could find a way out. Something to grab on to and heave myself back into the land of the fully living. But the longer I live with this, the longer these moments last. And I’m starting to worry that they’re going to become more of my norm. And that’s not the way I want to live.

This would probably be a good time to mention that I am not in any single way suicidal. Don’t worry about that. Despite all, I love living so damn much. But I love living so much that I want to go back to living without this weight. And it frustrates me to no end that I can’t get rid of it by sheer force of will. For the ultimate control freak, this lack of control is infuriating.

I imagine that for many people who know me well, reading these thoughts will no doubt cause some surprise. I know. I think all in all, I do a pretty good job of hiding it. I’m so concerned with not inconveniencing anyone or showing weakness that I pass it off as a bad day or being unusually tired. I want to be the ultimate super mom: working full-time, coming home to make dinner, raise my babies, have hobbies, and go to sleep with a smile on my face. I don’t want my kids to see me sob for seemingly no reason. I don’t want to snap at them for no fault of their own. I want everyone to not worry. I’ll be fine. I always am.

But even though I am proud of my acting skills, my resolve is starting to deteriorate. I just want to withdraw as soon as I get home. I don’t want to hear any stories, or answer any questions. I want to be left alone in silence. I want to escape into a book where I can pretend I’m somewhere, someone else. I can’t be bothered to show any intimacy to my husband. I’m grappling with holding myself together. That if I give anything at all of myself, my facade with crumble to dust. And then what? What will we all do?

So I try to tell myself it’s all nothing.The school year will be over soon. Oh, maybe it’s just vitamin D deficiency. Maybe I’m overreacting. Even though I know I’m not. But maybe if I can convince myself otherwise, I’m not too far gone.

And as much as I want someone to say to me that they get it, they understand how I’m feeling, that they worry about me, that they recognize I’m barely above water most days; I really don’t want anyone to think I’m out of control, that I’m crazy. I also don’t want anyone to think I’m just full of shit or making things up. I guess I’m just so tired to feeling like I’m bearing this burden alone. But what kind of person would I be to ask the people I love most to help carry some of this weight that isn’t theirs to deal with? Why wouldn’t I want to spare them of this?

Usually I have an ending in mind for each of these posts. But this time I can’t figure out how to wrap it up. It’s been a struggle just to get this much done. In the hour I’ve spent working on this, I’ve vacillated between wanting to shut down and wanting to break down and cry. Instead I’ve pushed forward and continued to get whatever I could out of me. Even though I’m currently underwater, I still want to struggle my way out. I want to be better.

I just stopped writing because Lily asked what I was writing about. She asked if I was writing about my stress and sadness. I was shocked that she knew. I asked her to tell me how she felt having a mom that felt this way everyday–stressed, sad, short-tempered. And she told me she feels sad and wants to help, but doesn’t know how, but hopes I can help myself because I’m an adult and adults can solve anything.

Fucking broke me.