Hope amidst the Hopelessness of Depression - OC87 Recovery Diaries

Hope amidst the Hopelessness of Depression

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In the summer of 1994, when I was sixteen years old, I was scouted to model. My parents agreed, thinking it was an opportunity too good to pass up. A curious teenager, I wanted to see where this path could lead. Four years later, I was living and working in London, sharing an agency-owned four-story flat with nine other models in the posh St. John’s Wood neighborhood, steps from Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park. I had my own room, the only room in the house with a queen-sized bed, a lock on its door, and its own bathroom; I never had to worry about my personal things being stolen or wait in line to get ready for castings in the morning. From an outsider’s perspective, I should have been happy.

The days were dark and damp and the nights arrived early. As the months in London passed, castings, for me, dwindled. No work, no income. When my housemates left for the day—for their own castings, or for shoots—I would hide in my room with the curtains drawn, pacing in the dark or tucked under my bed’s heavy down comforter, reading by lamplight. Sometimes the whisper of a local radio station broke the otherwise silence.

Two books I remember reading at that time, (among many others I have forgotten), were Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees. I spent hours escaping into these epic stories of troubled young women and complex household dynamics. A couple of years ago, I re-read both and was amazed by how little (as in: nothing) I remembered from my first read; twenty years earlier, my mind, cloudy and distracted, was unable to retain much of anything.

I became increasingly afraid and anxious to do anything on my own. So, more and more, I did nothing. If I did leave the house that winter, it was only to wander the nearby streets—aimless, alone—then, when I’d tired hours later, I’d take a double-decker bus back to the flat. Sitting on the upper deck, back then, was the one activity that brought me any type of amusement: I found the idea of sitting on the upper deck of a bus funny, and I enjoyed looking out at the world from above through the large front window as we swerved through the streets on the “wrong” side of the road.

I had always been a sullen, solitary girl, sensitive and moody, prone to uncontrollable emotional outbursts. But the sadness I felt that winter was deeper, the outbursts more frequent, intense, and all-consuming. My entire body felt as if it existed in a perpetual state of slow-motion. I cried. A lot.

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One night, two of my roommates—the two with whom I felt the closest—confronted me and expressed their concern. As we sat on the edge of beds in one of their shared bedrooms, they spoke of how they had noticed a change in me over the months we had lived together. Maybe I should take a break from modeling, one suggested. Maybe I should seek professional help, the other said. I cried through most of this conversation, reaffirming their suspicions that something was going on. I remember feeling slight relief that I wasn’t the only one who had noticed anything— that it wasn’t all in my head— but also felt more confused than before: What was I supposed to do now? This was before a ubiquitous internet; I couldn’t simply Google my symptoms.

Shortly after, in March, my booker—an Australian woman not much older than I was—called me into the agency for a meeting. Since bookings had stopped altogether, I wasn’t surprised when she told me that London “wasn’t working” and maybe I should try another market. This happened all the time in the modeling world; girls came and went like the fashions we promoted. A girl could be sent away for a variety of reasons: wrong hairstyle for the market, too tall, too short, too wide hips, too many other girls with the same “look.” I was sent away from London because my mood was bad for business. Sadness doesn’t sell.

Feeling a failure, I left London and returned to the last fixed address I had: my parents’ house in the suburbs of Canada’s capital city. On the flight back, I sat next to a woman who was nervous about seeing her boyfriend after a prolonged separation. We drank so many vodka tonics, which took my mind away from my negative thoughts, but I ended up throwing up in one of the airplane’s bathrooms then passing out in a seat that wasn’t mine until we landed. When my father picked me up at the airport, he said, “You smell like a liquor store.” I convinced myself that I was simply living that “model lifestyle,” having fun—certainly not masking a more serious issue.

Back at my parents’ house, my condition worsened. I spent weeks in my room, unable to do anything like get out of bed, get dressed, eat, leave the house, stop crying. Finally, I went to the doctor. My mother had to make the appointment for me. She dropped me off outside the office and waited in the car.

Under the garish white lights, I answered the doctor’s questions. Within twenty minutes I was given a diagnosis: depression.

I can’t remember what I felt or thought when I heard this, but it certainly made sense to me. Though, at the time, I was so numb, so desperate, I would have accepted anything, I think. I left that day with a prescription for the first of many anti-depressants I would take in my life, but mostly, an explanation for my feelings and behavior. In the car, I handed my mom the prescription and we went to the pharmacy to have it filled immediately. My mother, not knowing what to say, said nothing. I felt as if depression was mine to deal with alone.

Over the next fifteen years, I struggled, most often in silence, as I continued to work as a model. (Since graduating high school, modeling was the only life I knew; it seemed impossible to imagine an alternative.) In my twenties and into my thirties, I traveled internationally for work, spent months at a time living in Paris, Milan, Hamburg, New York City. I had a relatively successful career, booking international campaigns for cosmetics and clothing, appearing on international catwalks, magazine covers, hair dye boxes, two Times Square billboards. In photos, I appeared happy, because that was what my job expected of me, so that’s what others believed.

Yes, there were times when I functioned fully: felt genuine joy, laughed, had friends and boyfriends. Unfortunately, working as a model is unpredictable and transient, making it difficult to commit to a course of therapy—which, I believe, is essential when dealing with any type of mental illness. When I ran out of anti-depressants abroad, I simply stopped taking them; without health insurance and always on the road, I was unable to participate in regular therapy. None of this, by the way, is advisable.

Underneath the surface—my smiling model exterior—depression remained a palpable presence. It was part of me, who I was, who I would always be. I existed within a recurring, debilitating cycle: depression would inevitably appear, unannounced, and take over.

At my worst, I would lose days (and jobs) to my crying and isolation, which only worsened my symptoms and feelings of solitude. I thought about dying. Often. Never coming up with an actual plan, but I certainly spent a lot of my life under the influence of drugs or alcohol, sometimes hoping that when I did pass out at the end of a day it would be the last time.

This was no way to live, I know, but all of this felt so far out of my control. Depression— deaf to reason’s pleas— had me convinced there would never be an end to the darkness, though that is what I desired most.

In May 2018, at the age of forty, I returned to London to visit a friend who recently had a baby. One day on that trip, I ventured into the city alone. I went to the zoo. I wandered through Regent’s Park where I marveled at the flowers in the English Gardens, smiled at the awkward ducklings swimming in the pond. I strolled by Primrose Hill and found a pub where I sat on a stool and gazed out an open window at the crowds passing by, my face turned upwards towards the warming late-afternoon sun, a closed-mouth smile proof of my contentment.

As I sat there, with a cold pint of beer, I realized I was mere blocks from where I had lived in that model apartment two decades earlier. I realized that in the seven months I spent in London, I had not once walked to Regent’s Park, one of London’s largest, even though I lived five minutes away. I had not once sat in a restaurant or pub alone. I certainly had never struck up a conversation with a stranger, which I did in that moment: to ask what I should explore next; a tourist in my own, former, backyard. Finishing my beer, I headed to Camden Town where I stumbled upon the famous stable market, which I remembered visiting only once two decades earlier. I felt melancholy, knowing I had missed out on so much when I was younger, when I had been paralyzed by depression. But then, I was overcome by a feeling of happiness as I realized how far I had come.

So much has changed over twenty years, since my diagnosis. When I was thirty-four, after experiencing my longest, most incapacitating episode that lasted seven months, I finally committed to an ongoing course of both behavioral therapy and anti-depressants. I found a graduate program in creative writing, and I graduated in the spring of 2013. In April 2014, I left New York City, my home for the previous ten years, and moved to Idaho with my now-husband. I quit modeling.

In Idaho, I have found activities that bring me a sense of purpose—gardening, bird-watching, stained glass window-making, being a pet owner—and I have gotten involved in my new community as a member of the county fair board and the Parks and Recreation Committee. Focusing on what might build me up instead of dissect and tear me apart (as modeling had), I have done things I never imagined possible.

I do not recognize my former self—both in professional photos and when I reflect on who I have been: the woman I was for the majority of my adult life, that hopeless woman who believed she deserved to live swallowed by sadness, the one who believed there would never be an end to the darkness, the woman who believed her life would never change, move forward, or improve.

Now I know: That woman was wrong.

And though I’m aware an episode might strike at any moment (for that is the cyclical nature of depression), for now I live off-meds and symptom-free. My ongoing therapy is my writing, as I turn an honest, at times painful, lens on my life and explore what I have been through, working through it with my words. Talking about it helps, too. Knowing that so many people live with depression, knowing there is nothing to be ashamed of. After decades of both modeling and depression convincing me there was something wrong with me, I have finally learned to accept who I am. My depression no longer controls me.

I now know something I wish I had decades ago, something that brings me strength and comfort when my mood begins to shift: There is always the hope of something better, and change, though never easy, is absolutely possible.

EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman

See Related Recovery Stories: Depression, Mental Health First Person Essays

Originally from Nepean, Ontario, Canada, Ainsley McWha now lives in southeast Idaho, where she writes, takes care of 13 animals, and teaches writing through the College of Eastern Idaho Outreach program. Her BA in Psychology is from McGill University, and her MFA in Creative Nonfiction is from The New School.

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