The Sinking Blackness of Depression
In the middle of Los Angeles is an area called the La Brea Tar Pits, where asphalt and crude oil seep up to form pools on the surface of the ground. There’s a museum nearby where you can view the fossilized remains of animals, from beetles to mastodons, that became stuck in the tar forever, with an exhibit where you can experience just how much strength it would take to escape. The entire surrounding area smells like fresh farts, and the pools have an ominous look to them: a murky brown-black with an insectoid petroleum sheen.
If I had to put a face to depression, it would be the La Brea Tar Pits.
It’s the sinking into blackness feeling. The stuck feeling. The fresh fart feeling. The simplest, most mundane tasks of daily life require a Herculean effort. I remember standing in the shower one morning feeling that just picking up the shampoo bottle was almost too difficult to bear.
The experience of depression for me was less about sadness than it was about weight: a heavy sinking mass in the pit of my stomach and a mental sluggishness that has yet to be rivaled. Activities I had once loved would feel like far too much trouble, and when I’d force myself into participating, it felt blatantly too forced. I’d feel embarrassed, absolutely sure the people around me could sense it too. I’d try to keep up with responsibilities through sheer force of will because that’s what grownups do, after all; and then I’d feel even more inadequate after every failed attempt to just pick my fucking head up.
Sometimes it would seem as though I had always been stuck in the tar pit and always would be. I’d look out from my darkness and see others living their seemingly carefree lives, and think the entire idea of “carefree” was impossible for me anymore — that I had some unalterable damage, wedged deep within my psyche that makes it pointless to even try. So I’d pull my covers back up over my eyes and hum Bon Iver songs to myself until I’d fall asleep. I’d hear judgment and insult where none was intended. I felt that even my closest friends secretly hated me and invited me places merely out of a sense of obligation, and I’d ask myself, “Who could blame them?”
I’m the first to admit that mental illness is frightening and that I can be a bummer to be around. It makes people uncomfortable. They squirm and avoid your gaze when you even hint at the fact that you just might not be “OK” right now. I would sit alone in my room at night sinking deeper into the tar pit, and I’d wonder when, not if, I’ll finally be able to say I’ve struggled enough, when I’ll finally be able to just lay down and plainly, simply, and without hesitation, never get back up again.
I’d had minor encounters with depression before, and though there’s a chance I had confused it for a greasy Big Mac that refused to sit quite right at the time, I could feel the onset of melancholy brewing inside of me since I was quite little. I never truly had to stare down its ugly face, however, until my dad died by suicide when I was 25. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t think of anything on the Earth more mocking than the incessant sunshine.
I had never been the biggest fan of LA: a city that even now I think myself just a little bit too Midwest for, but after my dad died, all of a sudden everything I hated seemed to amp itself up 30 times over. The air was too thick, and it hurt my lungs. I’d have panic attacks at just the thought of having to go to the drugstore and interact with a human being. The parking lots felt too small, the sky, too low, and that damn ocean would never just shut the hell up. I wanted it to be still for just one second, but the constant waves sounded like a busted TV or a lifelong busy signal. The dial-up sound just before AOL would connect and tell me I had mail.
I remember sitting on a friends back deck, during an uncharacteristically clear LA night, feeling quite proud of myself that I had made the effort to put on real clothes and leave my bedroom that evening. I was feeling “OK” enough. I was speaking when spoken to, telling stories if and when I could think of them, and genuinely enjoying just sitting with friends.
But then it happened, way too quickly for me to even notice right away. Faster than a blink, my mood shifted.
I can’t think of anything specific that might have provoked me, but it was like for the entire evening until then, I had just been pretending. And my body just didn’t feel like pretending anymore. I had been quiet just long enough for my mind to re-remember that my dad was gone. And I wasn’t OK. And how could I possibly be sitting here laughing with my friends when really, nothing in my life could ever be OK ever again?
All of a sudden, I decided I had no idea how to interact with people, but more upsetting than that was I had no idea how to express how badly I needed to leave. As my friends joked and laughed and smoked their joints around me, I quietly put out my American Spirit. I grabbed my purse, stood up, and walked back inside the apartment. Once inside, I made a beeline for the front door, and without saying a word to anyone, quietly left.
And with all of the relief that came with quietly leaving, for half a second I could almost understand why my dad did what he did.
I’m sure my friends just assumed I was going to the bathroom and can only wonder at what they thought when I never came back. I got in my car and immediately sobbed, out of embarrassment more than anything else. I was embarrassed that I seemed to have forgotten how to have conversations, that I’d forgotten how to joke, or laugh, or talk about anything halfway relating to who I was or what I cared about before.
I felt dead inside, and lonely, and empty, and perpetually nauseas. Like the eye of a tornado must feel: stagnant and insignificant, moving dully along trapped in the middle of all of the whirly twirlyness around me.
I’d like to be able to tell myself the worst is over and the clouds are parting. Yes, I still miss my dad, and always will, but my daily crying has been narrowed down to maybe a couple times a week, usually when I’m drinking by myself and watching a TLC marathon. The hurt will never go away, I know that, but for all intents and purposes, I suppose I would say, “I’m better.”
So then what am I so scared of?
Since I was depressed two years ago, I live with the underlying fear that it’s going to happen again. The fact that my dad’s gone hasn’t changed, why should my mental state? I’m terrified my depression will consume me for yet another round.
The first night after being back in the Midwest, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and gave myself a headache from all my worries. Before I could get out of bed in the morning, I had to calm down by listing my surroundings in my head. It’s a technique I learned in therapy.
I can hear kids’ voices out in the courtyard. I can feel my belly rise up and down against my arm. I can see the sunlight streaming through the window. I can feel the alpaca fur of my blanket. I can hear the clock ticking on the wall. I can see the cat sleeping at the foot of my bed, her weight almost too heavy on my ankles.
I count on this method to suppress my anxiety on those dark and cold Midwestern nights where time stands way too still.
I can hear the traffic from the neighboring freeway. I can feel my quilt pulled all the way up to the tip of my nose. I can see the blinking lights on my VCR, and I only sometimes stop to think how I must be on the only person in the western world who still owns a VCR. I can feel a slight tickle in the back of my throat, but I’m too afraid of breaking the midnight silence to cough, as though the world itself would shatter into a trillion pieces if I were to make my very presence known.
I want to believe I have the skills now to ward off another depression. I won. I cannot and will not let it get the best of me ever again.
I’m scared, but I think I’m OK.
If I’m not OK, then I have absolutely no problem saying so.
And that, I think, rather than going about your business through sheer force of will, is what grownups do.
It’s OK to not be OK sometimes. That realization saved my life. And I think if more people knew that, if more people could be compassionate towards and accepting of other peoples’ “not-OK-ness,” maybe so many people wouldn’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
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Image by Jon Sullivan