The Blended Shades of Depression
by Tree Franklyn
By my twenty-first birthday, I had devised the perfect, premeditated plan to end my life.
Many days of quiet research and endless, dark nights filled with obsessive thoughts of how to do it quickly and cleanly finally culminated in a viable plan.
I had already ruled out four common ways. They would each cause too much of a burden on someone else.
I felt that my life was troublesome and a bother to others, and I didn’t want to be in the way or inconvenient in my death as well. I was convinced that dying would be the best thing for the world since I was taking up unnecessary space. But I didn’t want my final act to be a chore for those left behind. The very least I could do, if I couldn’t contribute to society in any other way, was go away quietly and cleanly.
A gunshot would be too messy. Even if I pre-hung plastic tarps to cover the walls and furniture, someone would have to tiptoe over pieces of brain and bone to take down the plastic.
A knife in the wrist would be messy, too. Even contained in the bathtub, someone would have to reach their hand into the bloody water to pull the drain plug and then lift my bloated body out. What happens to the knives, I wondered, that have been used to slice through wrists, anyway? Do they get washed, donated, and end up on a thrift store shelf to be bought and used for someone else’s steak dinner?
An overdose of pills would be cleaner, but uncertain. Even if I took the entire bottle, there’s no guarantee it would take me out entirely. If I had brain damage as a result, then my family would forever be obligated to care for me in a way worse than they already did. Troublesome. A bother. Inconvenient.
A leap off a tall building would also be unreliable. And back to messy again. Who’s going to have to shovel me off the sidewalk? Will my blood forever stain the concrete? Will the sight of it cause trauma for those innocent passersby out for a casual, nightly stroll?
This disassociated state, where you plan your death with no more emotion than if you were planning Tuesday night’s dinner, is one of the many shades of depression, perhaps the most critical. By the time I reached this shade, I had disconnected from my feelings, my body, and my life. I lived in my head mostly, and the thoughts swirling in there revolved around death and dying. I no longer cried, I was dried up from all the tears that had already been shed. It was as if I was stuck in a science fiction nightmare with an alien life form in my head, controlling my thoughts. The rest of me followed along helplessly in a zombie-like daze.
Fortunately, even though I didn’t care about myself, there was something deep inside me that still cared about others. And the thought of how my mom, especially, would have to continue living with the consequences of my choice long after I was gone, saved me from executing my perfect plan.
Instead, I sought help in a psychiatrist and was told I had manic depression, now commonly known as bipolar disorder. When I questioned why I didn’t experience surges of extreme energy and the highs that often accompany the condition, the doctor told me I had a form of “manic depression without the mania.” While it didn’t fully make sense to me, hearing the diagnosis, I was overcome with a visceral sense of relief; and numbness gave way to feeling again. At least it wasn’t my fault, I thought. It wasn’t something I was doing wrong; it was something my body was doing wrong. I wasn’t malfunctioning, my brain was.
Despite the psychiatrist’s urge to begin medication treatment, I left his office without a prescription and never looked back.
It’s a funny thing, the mind. Methodically planning out my death gave me a sense of control and the illusion that I was still in charge of something, even if it was my demise. But resorting to drugs, to me, meant that I had finally lost all control; that I couldn’t figure out my own way to make life work. Admitting defeat, it was the ultimate sign that I truly was everything my thoughts had told me. Weak, useless, and inept.
Back then, I didn’t understand the complexities of depression, nor was I educated enough about the value of medication to realize that, when you’re spiraling down a dark abyss, the right combination of drugs and therapy can stop you from spinning long enough to gain your footing and start planning your life rather than mapping out your death.
Not wanting to add more shame to my roster of self-condemning emotions, I shunned medication and clung to the diagnosis alone as my lifeline. It gave me a step to sit on, so I could rest a bit, and stop beating myself up for not being able to figure out how to get happy. For years I had blamed myself for my depression.
The thing that makes depression feel worse is that there usually isn’t any one specific reason you can point to and blame for your depression so you turn the finger towards yourself.
I remember lying in bed many nights, the times when I was deep in the throes of my depression, and screaming bloody murder toward the brutal silence of the white popcorn ceiling in my apartment, “WHY? WHY ME?? WHY AM I SO DEPRESSED? JUST TELL ME WHHHYYYY!!!!”
I thought if I could just know WHY I was depressed, then at least I could start figuring out HOW to get out of it. I desperately needed an answer. Not knowing was worse than the pain of depression itself.
So when the psychiatrist gave me an explanation, I latched onto it as if someone had mercifully thrown me a life vest in a raging river about to suck me under. It gave me momentary reprieve from the daily mental self-flagellation, shame and guilt. It was bad enough that I was depressed, but I had been beating myself up for being depressed.
Society trivializes depression with well-intentioned but oversimplified advice such as, “cheer up” and “look on the bright side.” Because of this tendency, I felt there was something inherently wrong with me since I wasn’t able to simply “turn my frown upside down” and make everything suddenly be okay.
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Our culture doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for those who express deep emotions, especially the darker ones. When we ask, “How are you?” we only want to hear, “Fine.” Even mid-range emotions often get shunned for more neutral, superficial expressions. It may stem from our staid, Puritanical roots. While we’ve given up on the buckled shoes and bonnets, we’re still clinging to the notion that emotions should be stifled. “Tone it down,” “keep calm,” “suck it up.” Frighteningly, it was only fifty years ago that lobotomies were a common treatment for those with mental illness, which was thought to be caused by “an overload of emotions.”
Since we’re not empathically educated about the value of our emotions and how to effectively deal with them, we’ve become a society that’s quite uncomfortable not only feeling our own emotions, but also witnessing others feeling and expressing theirs. How did you feel the last time you were at a grocery store and the person in line behind you was openly agitated about waiting? Or when a child had an emotional outburst in a mall?
When we begin to accept our emotions without judgment and allow each other to be vulnerably open about how we truly feel, we can begin to have real conversations that honor each other wholly and create massive change in the mental health industry.
I didn’t understand the power of this idea back then. Depression felt like a constant knife in my heart, the initial pang of the stab long dulled, yet I walked around pretending there was nothing wrong. On the outside, I smiled, made eye contact and said “I’m fine” when people asked me how I was. On the inside, the knife twisted and turned with every breath, its rusty blade slowly corroding the life within me.
People who are not depressed think that depression looks a certain way.
The media’s incessant use of #headclutchers imagery has amassed a widely accepted, stigmatizing, and false view of what depression really looks like.
Gloom and doom. Alone. Head down. Sunken shoulders.
While it can be all that, it can also look happy. Bright. Cheery. Uplifting others.
You never know if that outwardly confident, perky young co-worker who jokes with you by the coffee pot every morning is internally suffocating from the darkness of depression with every single breath she takes, and, when she gets home after work, she’ll spend hours thinking of and researching ways to end her life.
That was me. Outwardly happy and bright. Inwardly depressed and suicidal. Many people struggling with depression lead two lives. On the outside, they do everything right in the eyes of society. They wake up, iron their clothes, go to work, raise kids, attend company functions, laugh, socialize and otherwise appear “normal”. On the inside, they’re desperately gasping for air. As they lay in bed at night, they secretly pray that they’re granted the mercy of not waking up. When they do wake up in the morning, their hearts sink.
Though I told no one of my suicidal thoughts, I opened up about my depression to those I trusted or whom I felt could help me. This included my mom,who saw through my fake smiles, and the many therapists I had throughout the years. For the most part, I suffered alone and thought I was the only one on the planet going through it.
In the same way that I’ve never been able to truly pinpoint one specific cause of my depression, I can’t pinpoint one specific remedy for overcoming my depression.
I think depression is a very nebulous, murky and confusing condition. You can’t really explain with certainty why you’re depressed. You can’t really describe exactly how it feels because everyone feels it differently. You can’t really look at a calendar and mark off the exact day you became depressed, nor can you mark off the exact day you became “un-depressed.” When you’re out of it, you can’t really pinpoint why you’re out of it nor can you specify exactly what caused you to turn the corner.
Depression is a blended, muddled fog of sorts with no clear beginning, middle or end which, ironically, is often how many depressed people actually feel. Losing our sense of SELF, whether it’s our self-worth, self-identity, or self-love; the best parts of us have faded into the background, as if we are watching our lives unfold through a wall of dark glass. The rest of life is happening on the other side and, as much as we want to touch it and be a part of it, and feel that we are still real and alive, we’re separated from it, behind the glass.We scream and we reach, but it seems forever beyond our grasp. And yet, there it is, unfolding right in front of us.
And we don’t know what to do to get out from behind the glass.
For me, it started with meditation. Like medication, I had read that meditation can change your brain chemistry. And I was desperate. So I started sitting on my bed for ten minutes every morning, in silence, and I focused on my breath. Most days this felt like an utter waste of time. My thoughts raced nonstop, unable to be silenced. But I sat anyway. Every. Day. On rare occasions, I’d catch split seconds of quiet between thoughts. It was in those gaps that I found peace, even if only for two seconds, those precious seconds were worth another attempt the next day.
My depression neither miraculously lifted, nor did it go away, when I started meditating.
But I felt a little better.
And it was this “little better” feeling that kept me going, day after day, trudging through the quicksand of depression, looking for more ways to feel just a little better, moment by moment, day by day.
It would be nearly a decade before I could climb out of the abyss and start feeling good for days, then weeks, and now, years.
It’s been over fifteen years since I’ve felt lost in the grip of depression and the last time I suffered a depressive episode was four years ago. My dad had died and my then-boyfriend left me for a younger woman. Given the circumstances, I allowed myself the emotional space to grieve and mourn the deaths of my father and my relationship, and I gave myself permission to dip into a depression I’d consider mild compared to the crippling depression I felt in my twenties.
I’ve since learned processes and techniques to manage stress, anxiety, and overwhelming emotions before they take hold of me. My focus these days is on living, not dying. And the alien life form that once occupied my head no longer has control. Maybe it will try to usurp me again one day, but for now, I’m too busy being genuinely happy to worry about it.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: BIPOC Mental Health Recovery Stories, Depression, Mental Health First Person Essays