Intrusive Thoughts & A Failing of Words
by Katie Thomas
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I am a firework. An explosion of color unfurling a night sky. The inky expansiveness, a world without edges, is swallowed up in light. Yellow. White. Blistering red. Gasoline sears through my veins as if struck by a match. A firestorm licking at the edges of my consciousness. Anxiety the catalyst. Depression the end result.
Acquaintances ask how the downward spiral begins. Abuse? Drug addiction? Dysfunctional upbringing? I smile apologetically and shake my head no. The complexity of the question is like trying to explain colors to a blind man. I cannot provide adequate imagery without some form of prior history; if there is no foundation, I have nothing to build upon. Comparing depression to blindness feels like a cop out, an affront to those with actual blindness. I am embarrassed by the inadequacy of my response; I wish to snatch back the words as soon as they escape from my lips. Enlightenments for non-sufferers do not exist.
I consider the evolution of words. They serve a purpose, undoubtedly, but the purest of emotions need no preamble: Babies cry when hungry. Children laugh in happiness. Lovers kiss with affection. No need for verbose fluff. Depression exists within these same parameters. It is infinite sadness coming out of incoherent mumblings. A heaviness that straps ankles to lead. I feel too much. Emotions are my downfall. Some people are born as ambivalent lions ready to conquer the world. My pedigree stems from lambs.
I think back to the sympathetic acquaintances who asked, “what’s it like?” I must give them something tangible to visualize. I think of my grandmother sitting in a dark room for hours. She was agitated. Not sleeping. Closed off from the world. “It runs in my family,” is the only explanation I have. Evasive but adequate. I asked my grandmother once to define depression, far before my own downward spiral into it. Did she still love me? Did I make her angry? Why wasn’t she coming to visit me? Her absence felt more pronounced than her presence.
I had a gradual shift in paradigm. It was not an immediate decline, but it happened in small increments. Depression became a form of agnosticism; I knew it existed but the source had no name. My outgoing personality turned reclusive. I turned down social invitations and began sleeping when I returned home from school. My dreams were dizzying confusion. I had racing thoughts that felt more like dreaded premonitions. Will I accidentally hurt someone at home? What if I run my car off the road? Is it possible that I’m a psychopath?
I did my best to hide my restlessness from the intrusive thoughts. I tried smiling at friends. Making small talk during class periods. Even so, my body was outwardly revolting. My legs tapped incessantly. My fingers trembled. I could feel my cheek twitching when hiding behind a smile. I would never be able to live with myself if something bad happened to someone I love. The veracity of those thoughts overwhelmed me. The only way to escape the emotional toiling was to close my eyes and shut the world out.
Driving became a nightmare. What if I purposefully drove my car into oncoming traffic? I was certain I would. I’d squeeze rubber legs behind the steering wheel, sweat pouring down my face, and stumble around with quaking fingers until the key found the ignition. The ominous sound of the engine roaring to life felt like the end of my own.
The anxiety persisted. A merry-go-round of compulsive thoughts. If I didn’t fear driving one day, a new fear would crop up in its place. The worries transformed but never dissipated. The Kitchen and Knives Anxiety was more prevalent on a day like Thanksgiving. The threat was more imminent due to the close proximity of people in confined spaces. Family and friends would move in and out of rooms freely with all kinds of cutlery—forks and carving knives—and be blissfully unaware that the obsessive thoughts ran as rampant as weeds. They took up valuable real estate and did not give me ample space to bloom.
I realized that this was not a typical bout of existential examination. I felt isolated, not even willing to voice my concerns out loud. The condemnation of others would destroy me. Murder, or malicious behavior of any kind, did not align with my morals. I surmised that this was the case for most “functional” people. Would I be judged unfairly for harboring these thoughts? My heart would be perceived as ugly. Unworthy of love.
I was too overwhelmed to be logical. My brain computed mirages as truths: I am a bad person. People think I am weird. What if I never get better? Suicide felt like a viable solution. I could live with this skewed perception for a short period of time, but it seemed inconceivable to sustain. Not just for me, but for anyone required to interact with me. Suicide would quell all of my fears. Society might feel safer. I argued that I was a Bad Person as assuredly as I believed in God. The antithesis of kindness. Sincerity. Generosity. I was trying to coax out ‘lioness’ from ‘lamb’ to no avail.
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Death felt like the most sensible of all solutions. It was self-sacrificing, a bizarre token of love that I could offer my family and friends. I loved them too much to want to risk putting them in danger. Perimeter outsiders have an enviable pragmatism that is unattainable to sufferers. They possess a self-assuredness that is taken for granted. People who lack it claw and scramble for equal footing. This is hard to do so when a sufferer’s world is crumbling. Suicide can be representative of a myriad things, but for me, it was a sacrifice for the greater good.
Mercifully, I did not go through with it. I took the pills out of my medicine cabinet, shoved them in a plastic bag, and threw them into a nearby dumpster. Never to be fished out again. Their presence could no longer tempt me. This tiny sliver of strength gave me the encouragement to start ripping out all of my seams. Each new tear exposed additional light. I searched the internet tirelessly to find a knowledgeable doctor with good bedside manner. I decided to go to a support group. I forced myself to initiate social gatherings. My recovery cannot be explained as a culmination of one miraculous encounter. It was a gradual effect. Every obstacle that I overcame served as a stepping stone to topple the next one.
My brother once asked me to explain the condition. We were sitting on my back porch. It was dusk. We watched geese float down upon water, hovering, and then landing on what appeared to be glass. The pond was quiet that evening. Tranquil. For once, I felt the tranquility too. Through trial and error, the compassionate doctor found a medicinal formula that took away the severity of my symptoms. It was not a perfect science but it helped tremendously.
I weighed the importance of answering the question truthfully. He had young children at the time and I loved them. I did not want to voice irrational fears if it might jeopardize the relationship that I had with them. Would he be horrified by my admission? Ban me from seeing his children? I cautiously steered into sensitive territory. I was fully prepared to hit the brakes if the conversation became too uncomfortable.
“I was afraid of myself. What if I suddenly lost control of my body? Family is the most important thing in life.” I tried shaking my head as if to rid me of the painful memories. I had come so far. I never wanted to feel that inconsolable again.
My brother was not put off by the revelation. He took another puff. “I can see how that would feel intolerable, but you are the glue to this family. We would never talk about feelings if you didn’t pull them out of us. You ask the tough questions and have the highest standards out of all of us. Maybe your fear was so visceral because you are otherworldly good. Not perfect. But compassionately good.”
I did not realize that my brother could be so introspective. I had assumed that he was made only of manly grit, but I discovered a pliability in his exterior. My brother knew the contents of my heart better than I did. Medicine was doing its part, but reassurance was bridging the rest of the gap.
I don’t outwardly disclose my condition to others. People seldom have reason to ask. I am a wife. A mother. A spiritual person. I’ve learned to smile again. Sometimes depression feels like a distant memory; an out-of-body experience that happened to someone else. And then, something will jog my memory. A friend will be struggling. A coworker will succumb to bouts of anxiety. An extended family member will call needing emotional advice. They might ask, Should I seek help?
Hindsight is often romanticized. To say that “I’m glad depression happened to me” is not a mindset that I can ever embrace. It happened. It may happen again. I am surviving through it. I suppose that’s what matters most. However, in those infrequent circumstances when people seek out my experience with it, I am thankful that I can say: Yes, go seek help! You can overcome this! Every word of this is true. The encouragement I can give to others will have to suffice.
Today, I am healthier. I have a family of my own. There are days when I feel the snippet of fear and self-doubt creep into my consciousness. It’s nagging and exhausting, but I manage to banish away the feelings before they take hold. The medicine helps. The realization that my child needs me also bolsters my resolve. I am a good person. People see the good in me. I am perfectly capable of realizing all of my dreams. I look at my son and know that I am already halfway there.
Perhaps a lioness roars somewhere deep inside of me?