I can hear birds again.
Outside, they’re chirping. It’s subtle and crisp and beautiful.
I can hear the breeze and feel it on my skin. It rustles the changing leaves and whisks a few of them onto a windy ride to the earth’s floor.
I can see the sky. I’ve viewed it previously, but today I can see it. It penetrates my eyes. It stirs me.
I feel gratitude.
I feel peace.
I feel like my grasp on reality has resurfaced. Like a rock climber with slipping fingertips who finally gains a firm grip with their other hand.
I can breathe more deeply. More fluidly. With less effort. Less weight on my shoulders, on my chest.
This is what I experience when emerging from a depressive episode.
Part of me despises the experience of depression; the other part of me states matter-of-factly that I am blessed to have the opportunity to fall back in love with life, again and again. While I feel pain more deeply than many, I also experience gratitude and other sensations with the same intensity. Wouldn’t I prefer that over living in a robotic in-between space?
I wish I could simply stay aligned with my gratitude and surrender and love for life, all the time. Inevitably, it seems, I take the controls back from god and try to make life look the way I want it to look. I now recognize when I do this and go through all the correct motions to surrender again (scripted prayers, meditations, and whatever else I deem appropriate).
None of it quite works like fully falling in.
8 weeks ago, I left a job I’d been at for 5 years as well as the comfort of my family’s home to live on my own and dedicate myself to self-employment.
I’d been hoping for each of these individually for years. They happened within days of one another.
These big changes are challenging for anyone. And, since I feel things down to my toes and generally have the volume on life turned up, it makes sense that this transition has been a more immersive experience for me than I’ve witnessed when others have gone through similar things.
I tried to logic my way out of falling in, of feeling the feelings. I’d show myself the evidence of how everything was working out, how clients kept finding me, how bills were always paid for. I’d tell myself this dark cloud will pass, and everything will be okay. I told myself that focusing on the positives will attract more positive.
I did everything possible to ignore the fact that I was utterly terrified. Down-to-my-bones scared. That weary sort of fear that begs for our attention, like damp coldness that’s impossible to get rid of, no matter how many layers we put on.
Ah, but I ignored it. I told myself and others, “I’m struggling, but I know it will get better.”
In hindsight, that’s like looking at a sad child and saying, “Chin up! It’ll get getter!” Rather than listening to what’s wrong or holding that child.
I spent most of the last eight weeks in a state of depression. (Prior to that, I’d renounced usage of the word depression. I found it to be too weighed down and too dramatic. After this go-around of severe despondency and dejection, I decided there’s a time and place for the word.)
I’d make consistent and extreme efforts to feel better, to make it through the other side. I prayed and meditated and showered and walked the dog and talked to people on the phone every day. I went for a fun inner child date night and played arcade games and laser tag. I won a giant sticky mustache, some stretchy rubber chickens, and a mechanical go-fish game.
That night, I felt amazing.
The next morning, the dark cloud was back.
I spent a weekend with my boyfriend. We had an amazing time, laughing, watching movies, cuddling, making fun of each other. I felt amazing.
That Monday, the dark cloud was back.
I had a Reiki session performed on me. I felt great that day. The next morning, I awoke under the dark cloud. Therapy sessions, recovery 12-step meetings, one-on-ones with my sponsor, long phone calls with friends. Nothing dissipated the cloud.
It grew. Depression does that, you know. Feelings do that. If we refuse to listen to them, to feel them, to hear the messages they have to give us… They grow and find other ways to get our attention.
My safe go-to’s for joy became stale. That’s when I really started to get scared. Choi Kwang Do, watching The Matrix, painting. These are all safety nets of joy for me. In doing them recently, I felt nothing aside from distance and disinterest.
Normally, when in emotional pain, I’ll have ideas come to mind of ways to escape it. Since I no longer drink, do drugs, self-harm, or eat sugar… My escapism normally goes for, “LEAVE EVERYONE YOU THINK YOU LOVE AND TRAVEL THE WORLD. SAVE THEM FROM YOU. SAVE YOURSELF FROM THE SUFFOCATION OF HUMAN CONNECTION.” Or, “SHAVE YOUR HEAD AND GET TATTOOS.” Or the occasional whisper of, “WOULDN’T IT BE BETTER IF YOU WEREN’T HERE?”
Through years of practice, I’ve learned how to separate fact from fiction. I’ve learned how to avoid suddenly shaving my head or breaking up with all my friends or moving to another state. I’ve learned how to disengage from scary thoughts and anchor into reality. When in a rough emotional space, I’ve learned how to stay still. Breathe. Wait it out.
Lately, though, I was losing track of reality. I was losing my anchor to earth. My old tricks weren’t working. I felt like I was leaning off the edge of a cliff, held back by a few silkworm strands. One wrong move, one wrong breath, and I’d fall.
I was terrified of what would happen if I fell. All I had was past experience to go off. Suicide attempts, suddenly ending relationships, visits to behavioral health facilities.
I. Was. Terrified.
Finally, last night, I put words to my fears. Words I’d been avoiding saying due to an equal mix of pride and shame.
“I’m afraid I do not have the mental health or stamina to sustain this life change, self-employed and living on my own. I’m losing grasp on reality, and I’m afraid I’m going to spiral and get lost.”
I hadn’t shared that with anyone until last night.
Expressing it out loud and being heard and held in response is what began the shift for me.
Last night, after saying my goodnights and silencing my phone, I snagged Patches Pup and Woody (the stuffed animals I’ve had since I was a kid), sat on my bed, and fully fell in.
Those last strands holding me back, I found, were pride and shame. Once those were gone, there was nothing holding me back.
I freefell into the fear, into the feelings. I fully felt the panic, the aloneness, the terror. I fully felt the discomfort and anger. Any time I felt like I was getting lost in a feeling, I focused on my breathing, feeling the sensation physically.
I spoke aloud to god and to myself. Through tears, I shared a laundry list of things I didn’t like about myself, about how I was ready to learn who I was underneath all those default protective behaviors. “I don’t like how suggestible I am. How someone can say something mean to me and I immediately take it as truth. I don’t like how selfish I can be, or how afraid of commitment I am.” On and on I went, confessing these attributes I didn’t like.
I cried, deeply. Those full-body painful cries that the next-door neighbors can likely hear.
Suddenly, I heard: “What do you like?”
That startled me.
I shook my head as I shifted my focus.
“I… like that I go out of my way to save bugs, no matter what type of bug or how far away I am from a door.”
The crying then came from a deeper place. A fully surrendered place. I stopped caring what I looked or sounded like or who I was talking to or if god was real. I just continued realizing what I like about myself.
“I like that I’m about to be 33 and I still have my stuffed animals from when I was born. I like that I am willing and understanding. I like how much I want to help people, and how I want to make something beautiful from the pain I experience.”
Eventually, a sense of grace arrived. It gently lifted me from the waters and laid me in bed, under my covers, where I held my stuffed animals close to my chest. I calmly whispered a few more assets about myself, took a deep breath, and slept.
For 11 hours.
I woke up this morning and I can hear the birds’ love songs. I can see the blue sky sponged with puffy cartoon clouds.
The dark cloud has lifted.
Maybe other people’s experiences are different, but this is what I’ve learned: Depression is what comes to me when I’ve been ignoring other feelings. I’ve pushed them aside, tried to logic my way around them, or have taken the “fake it til’ you make it” approach to the point of being fragmented from myself and how I actually feel.
Or I get lost in my interpretation of the Law of Attraction stuff about how “focusing on fear brings more fear! Focusing on negatives brings more negatives! Only feel positive things!”
Toxic positivity, that is.
Those ignored feelings gather together. At first, they wait calmly. The collective water remains still. In time, though, the sky soaks up some of the water and creates storm clouds. Scattered, at first. And then all-encompassing.
The only way out is through. The only way out of a depression, for me, is to fully feel those feelings.
Feeling feelings has never killed anyone. My suicide attempts and ideations in the past were in an effort to not feel my feelings. They came from fearing my emotions, not from feeling them.
It can be scary. For those who don’t experience life this way: Do you remember the days before GPS and cell phones? Was there ever a time you were driving at night, missed the turn mentioned on your MapQuest printouts, and found yourself lost in a dark, wooded area? Did you ever experience that panicked sense of, “Holy shit I’m lost. I’m seriously lost. Where did I go wrong? How do I get out?”
That’s what depression feels like.
Except rather than physically, we experience that internally. So, to the outside world, they’re all, “Everything is fine. Look at the facts. You’re not lost.” But internally, it’s much different.
That’s what’s hard about it, isn’t it? Aside from the general fear of feeling the uncomfortable feelings and the growing terror when we’ve avoided them (knowingly or unknowingly) and now have a lot of catching up to do… The hardest part of depression is talking with people who don’t understand it. Thankfully, my loved ones desperately want to understand it.
But, the only way to really get it is to experience it. And, for that reason, I don’t want them to understand it. Getting lost-in an internal way that feels like quicksand-isn’t something I’d wish on anyone.
When in it, I feel crazy, I feel scared, I feel embarrassed, and I lose track of what’s up and down and real and false. Like hitting a patch of black ice when driving, spinning out, and not knowing when the tires are going to grip… Or which direction we’ll be heading once they do. Or what harm we could have done to others while spinning out.
Although I may have listed “avoiding-feelings-until-I-fall-into-a-depression” as something I don’t like about myself, I listed “my ability to share and express my experience to help others” as something I do like. It can feel embarrassing to share all this, y’know. I worry about loved ones reading it, taking things the wrong way, or misunderstanding what I share. I worry I’ll worry my family and they’ll fly into a panic. I worry people will think I’m dramatic or self-absorbed.
“Why are you sharing this online? Isn’t this the exact behavior you despise? Why are you adding to the problem?” <- These thoughts taunt me when I go to share anything I’ve created. I’m not a huge fan of social media, of the overflow of blogs and vlogs and people frantically searching for their big break. It saddens me to live in a world of filtered smiles and pictures taken on selfie sticks. Of people killing themselves because they feel so alone when we are the most technologically connected we’ve ever been.
But, maybe that’s why I am pushed to share. It’s not for me, necessarily. It’s not to gain approval of others. It’s to reach that one person, lonelily scrolling through a social media feed, feeling listless and afraid and like their skin doesn’t fit right.
That’s who I write for. That’s who I share for.
Dear Sensitive Soul,
You are not broken. You are not wrong for being who you are. You feel deeply, and this human experience is challenging for you, and that’s okay.
It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be different in a way other people don’t understand and likely never will understand.
We are not here to be understood. We are here to connect, to share, to learn to understand others.
Sharing about our mental health journeys in a world where mental illness is stigmatized? That’s one of the bravest things any of us can do. And it’s the only way we’ll reach the others who are struggling, certain they’re alone.
Snip away those strands of pride and shame, feel your feelings, get messy, learn the lessons you’re here to learn, and help a fellow sensitive soul.
And I hope you, too, can hear the birds chirping. If not today, then soon.