The depression was a killer. (As depression is actually a killer.) But in my case, it was almost too hard to manage. Somehow, I managed. My fiance said during one of our walks up a very steep hill, “You’re either going to make it up the hill, or die.” It was a pretty good metaphor for depression. Even when the hill feels insurmountable, you have a couple of choices: deal with it as best you can, call 911, jump off the nearest radio tower.
I can recall that when I was between 5 and 7 years old, I used to have fantasies about the very high radio towers that were near our house. When I was feeling particularly bad about my parents divorce, or my perceived shun of a cute girl at school, I imagined myself plummeting from the top of one of the towers. How sad everyone was going to be. How if they had known they would’ve loved me like they should. How if my parents had really cared about me they would’ve stayed together and my father would’ve stopped drinking. That’s not how it happened. Fortunately that’s not how I chose to deal with it either.
One of the ways, in my young, sad, and confused times, I dealt with being overwhelmed with sadness was by climbing up the forested hill in my back hard and building rock and stick forts. I would construct a shelter, sharpen sticks for weapons, and typically freeze my ass off. I’m not sure why it is always winter in my forted memories, but perhaps that’s more mythology than truth. I’m sure I had many overwhelming moments (dad yelling) in the heat of the summer as well, but for some reason in my mythical fort I am also freezing.
As an adult, I sometimes find myself behaving like this young boy. I isolate just as I did in my fort. I don’t talk to anyone or tell them where I’m going, or what’s wrong. I simply leave and hide. It’s a terrible coping mechanism for an adult, but when my brain has begun to shut down and get hopeless, my thoughts quickly turn to how I can kill all my plans and stay in bed. This probably sounds very weird and juvenile to anyone who hasn’t dealt with depression, but something happens, and the “rise and shine” of life becomes “duck and cover.”
And this isolation technique didn’t work any better as a small child. I would hide, cry, defend against my feelings, alone in the stone fort. I would wait for the yelling to die down, perhaps a car to speed off, or darkness and quiet to descend before I went back into the house. In the past few months I was dead set on getting out of all obligations beyond work, feeding myself, and feeding my kids and getting them to school when they were with me. But a beautiful thing happened and continued to happen.
My fiance stayed beside me. She asked me to go on walks, to play tennis, to eat good food. She carried on conversations between us when I was in STFU mode. And to her credit, she took nights and time off for her own rejuvenation. But she never abandoned me. In my little boy brain, that can emerge during depression, I was abandoned by my dad with his anger and drinking, and ultimately when he left the house in my parents divorce. In my small mind, I was also abandoned by my mom who didn’t come rescue me up in my rock fort. So I’m looking for signs of being abandoned during these down periods. And this loving woman, and still-new relationship, stayed solid. I tried to tell her what was going on. I tried to include her in some of the decisions I was making about meds and strategies. And she hung in there.
As the most stabilizing force in my life, this woman leaned in, continued to tell me she loved me, and continued to ask me to go walking, every – single – day.
I remember a conversation with my therapist at one point, “No one else is willing to spend that much time with you being with you. She must really care about you.” The logic held. The relationship weathered a massive structural change, and we continued to work, love, and play together as best we could.
Now on the other side of this event, the two of us are starting to sort through more of the details and stories behind what was going on. We are celebrating the emerging laughter and ideas that are beginning to come out of my mouth. And through it all she never stopped kissing me, or asking for me to join her on trips, walks, “adventures.” And I kept saying, “Of course,” even when I meant, “No fking way!” And 95% of the time I got up and out of my pit and went for a walk up the torturous hills behind a spry woman who was leaping and chattering ahead of me.
Even as I am coming out of it, I can still feel some of the residual effects of the last few months. There’s an anxiety that pops up, often at night before bed, that worries about some future event. “What if it returns? And comes back right now, just as I’m getting some of my joy back?”
For these little flutters I’m stopping and recognizing them. I am almost waving at the anxious flutter to acknowledge my current state of mind, and the careful balance that will keep me from slipping back down. I say a few Serenity Prayers and a few gratitude prayers of thanks, and then I move on. I’m pretty sure it’s the hope I am currently running on that allows me to smile at this ghost rather than get afraid.
For me depression is a lot about getting afraid and then continuing to listen to the fear more than the present. I’ve used some mantras during my walks that have seemed to push me up the hills with more energy and joy. “Further, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier.”
That’s how I move up the hills even when I don’t want to. There’s something to be gained from all this hard work. I can’t always get there, but with my ally, I am given the opportunity to show up even when I want to run away. I have to keep showing up.
The Off Parent
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