I’m Just Tired: When You Dismiss Depression
I was sleeping a lot. I woke up each day wondering how soon I would be able to go back to bed. I could force my body to get up, and complete the most minimal morning hygiene routine and I could even get to work on time, but my mind was never present. Colors were less bright, conversations were forced, and no train of thought would hold for more than a few minutes at a time. Days seemed to have little purpose, no matter the difference in schedules, events or social interactions. With my waking hours passing drearily, I naturally grew a deep affinity for sleep. Sleep permitted an escape from the numbness that followed my once-content life, an outlet that I had no conscious mental control over. In sleep, I felt no guilt about how the hours passed. Over the counter sleep-inducing medication became part of my usual drugstore shopping list. I didn’t see how this change in my day-to-day was problematic. After all, this was just one of several lifestyle shifts I adapted to cope with losing Preston.
Despite the size of our ten-children, one-income family, we grew up squarely middle-class and conservatively religious, with our basic needs met for by a hard-working, albeit emotionally-stoic father and a nurturing, stay-at-home mother. We had stable social networks, hobbies like sports and music actively encouraged and attended to, and mostly healthy family dinners spent together nightly at a table custom-made by our dad, to make sure everyone fit in the same vicinity. Sure, every family has their internal dysfunctions, and yes, we have our fair share, but for the most part we loved and looked out for one another, even when we didn’t get along.
When I got the phone call about Preston, I was woken up amid deep sleep several hours before my standard morning alarm was to ring. The news felt like a nightmare, had I dreamt it? Suicide? Unlikely. In my family? You’re mistaken. And Preston…out of all of us siblings? He’s always been even-keeled, emotionally stable. He doesn’t ask for anyone’s help, he never seems to need it. He’s fine, this is just a sick joke…or a dream. I even called Preston after the news, sent him a text telling him to reply back, so sure I had imagined it all in my stupefied haze. But it wasn’t a dream, and I sometimes wonder if the intense craving for sleep following Preston’s suicide was my subconscious response to being jolted awake to the news of his death.
Preston Douglas Wood was sibling number six in our family of ten children. Essentially one of two true “middle” children, he was easy going and sweet. He didn’t mind being recruited for teatime by his little sisters or trouble making by his older brothers. But from a young age, he kept his opinions and feelings to himself. When frustrated, hurt, or sad, he’d clench his teeth and fists while tears welled in his eyes. And then, he would simply walk away—sometimes to his room, sometimes outside—but always alone.
As Preston grew older, the tendency to keep negative emotions hidden increased. In our rural Central Pennsylvania hometown, the “strong and silent” male typecast was favored. Like many teens, Preston preferred not to disclose his private thoughts with family, perhaps in attempt to seem ‘cool,’ or in fear of what bigger conversations may follow if he did share his inner dialogue. After his death, it was made clear that Preston had been facing deep emotional challenges for several years. But, rather than address them, Preston turned to another solution: alcohol.
By the time he was a junior in high school, drinking was his primary coping mechanism. And with each year, it worsened. Preston passed away at nineteen. By medical standards, he had been an alcoholic for almost four years at the time of his death. All unbeknownst to our family until we found beer cans, liquor bottles, left in ‘tribute’ to Preston at his headstone. The guilt that ensued upon realizing that the kind, laid-back kid who ‘interpretative danced’ to Enya songs to entertain siblings or searched for daffodils at a nearby farm to gift to sisters on Easter, had transformed into a lost, defeated, hopeless adolescent who only experienced temporary escape through substances. And, oh, how that weight crushed me in Preston’s absence.
As many who have encountered grief can attest, the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief are all-but-guaranteed to transpire when processing a loved one’s death. However, the ways in which denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance all occur is unpredictable, elusive. The intensity of each stage depends entirely on the person experiencing it and the event itself; it’s not atypical to experience a stage more than once during the grief process, and there’s no defined period for how long each stage might last. Most will attest that the grieving process does not ever truly end, but rather that the ways grief takes hold change with time, personal growth, or new hardships and experiences.
My initial shock and denial lasted for nearly three months before becoming depression. Even as the depression took hold, I re-encountered denial and shock – but this time, it was directed inward. My internal script was the same: “I’m not depressed, I’m just tired. Preston isn’t coming back, I know this now, I’ve accepted this, and there’s no basis for any depression to occur within me. Everything is as okay as it will be, and we all just have to keep going. I’m not depressed. I’m just…tired.”
What happens when you’re tired all the time? For me, it meant withdrawing from numerous social communities, because I couldn’t muster the energy to laugh, fake a smile, or respond about how I was doing for the millionth time. If my financial well-being didn’t require participating in an event – read: work – I didn’t participate. An active volunteer in New Orleans social justice and community engagement programming, provider of pro bono music therapy services at a “dayhabilitation” for adults with developmental disabilities, a Mardi Gras krewe member with a local parading dance troupe—I withdrew from these entities entirely. I found substitutes to replace my volunteer schedule and music therapy services, and stopped attending dance rehearsals. I had no appetite, but continuously gained weight because, when I did eat, I chose the easiest foods to consume and never followed my newfound convenience diet with any sort of physical activity.
This time also meant isolating from family, who were encountering their own unique grief processes. I couldn’t stand to keep talking about “what happened” with them—poring over every detail of Preston’s life from birth to death, re-hashing each word he said or action he took in efforts to trace the depression he faced leading up to his death, or hearing some family members insist Preston had died “by accident” because of the way the gun was angled toward his head– even though he had left a goodbye letter.
What was perhaps the most indicative of the constantly-fatigued state engulfing me was my complete loss of interest in music. Despite a lifelong passion for songwriting, playing music, and a career in music therapy coupled with weekly performance gigs; the inspiration and relief that music had once supplied me suddenly disappeared. A prominent member of two dynamic New Orleans bands, I quit one and disbanded the other shortly after Preston’s death. I wrote only one song, “Lullaby (to Preston),” following Preston’s death, and then promptly spent the following months avoiding listening to music, let alone writing it. It required more creative and emotional energy than I could manage, its sound deafened by the internal numbness perseverating mentally, and I was “just…tired.”
Four months into life without Preston, I felt overwhelmed with every task, whether deciding on clothes to wear in the morning to thoughtfully signing a birthday card. Sleep became an enemy, because the thrill that once came with going to bed was replaced with the anxiety of knowing I would wake up the next day. When I dreamt, traumatic incidents I’d compartmentalized as an adolescent vividly arrested my dreams. I dreamt of Preston; always sad, painful visions, or sleep-playback of his funeral reminding me how much I missed him, how different life was before he died, and how meaningless my life felt now. During waking hours, my thoughts turned my head to pervasive notions of weakness, desolation, and worthlessness. I fantasized about dying in a car accident or being killed in one of my city’s notoriously high-crime neighborhoods. These fantasies were preferable to the vile, abusive voices blaring in my head, day-in, day-out.
Before Preston passed away, I had formed a local songwriters’ collaboration group—another of the social, musical communities I belonged to, and distanced myself from, after his death. The premise was simple: musicians would show up at a predetermined location once a month, draw a name of another group member from a hat, and proceed in writing a song with that randomly-drawn songwriter before the next month’s meeting. There weren’t any rules to the writing, and the group was intended to purely be an opportunity for collaboration, inspiration, and learning. After Preston died, I continued scheduling the meetings for group members out of duty to finishing what I started, but attended as an inactive participant—an observer. Several months into life without Preston, Kristen came to the songwriting group out of curiosity.
Kristen is a multi-talented musician, a practicing clinical music therapist like me, and had also lost her brother to suicide shortly after Preston passed away. We could not have been aligned more similarly in the aftermath of our grief, and had a long-standing friendship that started when we provided music therapy services in the same mental health outpatient clinic. When Kristen decided to come to the group, likely looking for a musical escape from grief as much as I sought to avoid such a reprieve, I threw my name into that hat consciously just because I wanted to mirror the courage she was showing. I didn’t plan on actually writing with anyone and stepped forward in action more than intent. But when fate aligned Kristen and I to be writing partners for that meeting, I couldn’t help but feel hope. I knew that the reprieve in sharing social space with Kristen was what I needed- no explanations necessary, no well-meaning, but anxiety-inducing, questions about how we were holding up, no attempts to deflect these conversations. It was okay to be tired, overwhelmed, withdrawn, and simply, sad.
Despite the lofty goal of our songwriting assignment given our emotionally-fatigued states, we met up the following week and set to writing. While it may not have been the crucial event that motivated me to seek help, co-writing “Free” with Kristen affirmed that I was not alone, and that I was so much more than “just tired.”
Kristen came to the meeting with lyrics that had permeated since her brother passed. The moment she shared them, the song nearly completed itself. Conversation about our fractured mental states, the unique despair embodying our days, the decline in any zest for life flowed effortlessly, quickly becoming song lyrics. We both identified intensely to needing a “safe space” to feel our hurt, our sorrow, without questions from others. For us, that space was “in a room, a house, where no one sees, in a city, in a place, where I am free to believe… a fantasy, brighter reality, a chance to just be.”
The very first lines of the song “Free” begin, “I can’t explain where I’ve been, and though everyone wants to understand, it doesn’t mean they comprehend. They can’t grasp where I am.” We didn’t fault anyone for being unable to empathize, but in this musical moment, we were able to relay how heavy it felt to bear this unique sadness. And as we wrote the song’s final lyrics, “I thought I could find relief in my sleep, but I’m not safe even in my dreams,” I was forced to admit that the mental script I’d been deferring to was never true. I was not “tired.” I did not “need a break.” I was deeply depressed, and if I kept going the way I was, I was going to break.
Fortunately, I was not alone. Recalling that friends like Kristen existed—empathetic but not sympathetic, supportive but not overbearing—reinforced that I had value. At a prior time, I was someone who had the capability to care enough to make connections with people, to find little joys in sharing favorite songs and childhood anecdotes, to offer advice when asked. That all those things I had abandoned after Preston died—making music, volunteering, serving others through music therapy, marching through the streets of New Orleans, cracking potty humor jokes with my siblings—had once brought purpose and clarity in my life. While such memories caused twinges of pain, acknowledging that these moments held joy because my family had once been remiss of suicide’s trauma, they forced me to face that I had never been the “just tired” type. This exhaustion wiped hope from my soul, but there was still time to find it, again. And so, I began my slow journey to find hope the best way I knew how: through music.