Why I Recorded Myself Multiple Times a Day for Months During Depression
I imagined I would write this from a shinier, happier place. I imagined I would be happily married, sitting in my home office, early morning sun streaming in over the books and legal pads and Sharpies, when the right and perfect moment would strike me, tap me on the shoulder and tell me it was ready. It was time. I would feel the security in the love of my partner, the safety of my hard-earned self-possession, and hear the echoes of my mother’s unending refrain to “Write, Kelly,” and I would do it. I would write the story of my depression.
I made the mistake of thinking I would be looking back on it, as if it were a transient state of being or a landmark which I could recall visiting on a school field trip — a moment in time that stayed static, crystallized in time and space and memory.
It’s never really looking back, is it? For some of us, myself included, it’s always here. We carry it with us because it’s a part of us, as much a part of me as my wide feet and dimpled thighs. It is past, present and future.
This story takes place in 2015, but it could just as easily be taking place in 1996 or 2032. I was fully immersed in/by depression, nearly sealed off entirely, and searching for something I could wrap my hands around to keep me from being enveloped. A few frantic hours of Googling and blog hopping led me to a piece of advice from Glennon Doyle Melton, acclaimed author of “Love Warrior” and a personal hero. In this blog post, I heard a new friend describing what was becoming a familiar cycle for me:
1. Sink into major depression.
2. Swiftly devolve into a caricature of the “mad woman in the attic.”
3. Dig through nightstand and dresser drawers for some evidence you were once a person who felt or existed in the world. (Optional, but in my case, necessary.)
4. Leave messages for therapists begging for an appointment.
8. Receive a phone call and book an appointment in a few days.
9. Feel relief.
For many, that relief is a warning shot to depression: you are not welcome here. You will be named and called out for what you are. As it slinks into a dark corner, there is a welcome reprieve which feels like salvation. With help on the horizon, you may feel better — so much better you forget how badly it all was in the first place. You may end up convincing yourself that things weren’t really that bad, right? You made the appointment! You showered! You actually made it to therapy! You must be OK!
It sounds like an after-school special on toxic relationships; depression can make you feel like you are nothing and everything. When you threaten to call it by its name, separate yourself from it, it retreats — but it covers its tracks, taking with it the memories of the horrifying things it convinced you were true about yourself. If you treat it like it’s not part of you, it will show you that it is.
Glennon, in her infinite wisdom, told me to write notes from my “down” self to my “up” self so that, in the event depression got word that I was taking us both to therapy, it couldn’t take away all of the memories of what I felt or who I felt I was in those moments, days, weeks and months. This sounded like the least I could do — as an English professor and writer, this should be the one thing I could do.
But I couldn’t write the words: I didn’t have them. The ones I knew didn’t seem adequate, and I didn’t have the capacity to make new ones. Because I was alone and without words, or even occasions to use them, I needed to be rehabilitated before my release back into the world of the well and living. I needed to look at myself and see who I had become, speak as her, speak to her and actively create an identity from both of these women.
I woke up early one morning from a fitful two hours of sleep, opened my laptop, turned on the camera and began speaking. Writing seemed too daunting, but I felt like speaking myself into reality was tenable; I could hear myself echoed and watch myself existing. At first, I could only muster the cries of something wounded and helpless, something that was sure she was once loved and cared for, but who now felt miles away. With a throat full of everything and nothing I had ever felt, I started saying things like, “I am scared,” and “What is this?” I would shrug my shoulders, see them move, watch my eyes well up with the tears of a familiar stranger, and tell myself what I was doing. I said things like, “I did some work today and felt good about keeping some momentum,” then “I feel every grey and heavy door shutting just as I grab the handle. I’m somewhere, but in a hallway that leads to more doors and almost theres and emptiness.” I did this multiple times a day for months—recorded my thoughts and feelings. When my “up” self emerged, I stopped. I saved every video in a folder on my desktop and they remained unopened for two years.
On an unceremonious day in August of this year, I sat on my living room couch, wrapped in the love and protection of one of my grandmother’s quilts, and I opened the folder. It was time. What follows is what I saw, what I still see and feel.
She is wearing a neon pink T-shirt with the word “Coolio” airbrushed on the front, the phrase her standard response to almost anything she’s told; it’s a prescription to be agreeable and easygoing. She wears it to bed at the beginning of the summer, but as the days pass from August to October to December, as rest and clarity become as scarce as sunlight, she wears it like a uniform during all her waking hours. The color is what Jenny Lawson would call furiously happy, a reminder of a family vacation that seems to have been experienced by a different girl — one who deserved to feel warm sunlight on her freckled skin, who could hear her own voice telling jokes, who felt surrounded and supported and worthy.
She has not spoken to her mother because she is certain that, if she did, they would both know and neither of them are prepared for the hostage negotiations which ensue once you give a voice and a name to depression. She has not spoken to a single friend in weeks because her memory of mutual love and respect and joy has been erased. She cannot imagine that anyone has ever voluntarily chosen to be near her, to share time and space and wine with her. She cannot remember a time before now, whatever time this is. She has been robbed, kidnapped and taken hostage. She is alone.
There is no therapist. There is no one asking how or what she is doing; she is not doing anything. There is no one listening, but she is too afraid to speak. She does not trust herself with her most prized possessions — her words and thoughts and feelings. She respects them too much to get near them.
There is no prescription, no pill. There are symptoms of an affliction, and side effects — including, but not limited to: nausea, insomnia, night terrors, cold sweats, hot flashes, a racing heartbeat and thoughts of self-harm — but there is no treatment plan or licensed professional with a furrowed brow and an illegible signature. There is no husband. He is capital “I” Important. He is capital “W” Well. She calls him every hour to beg for some assurance that she is alive, but there is very little overlap between the languages spoken by the Important and Well people and the Depressed and Terrified people. They often sound like warring tribes battling for resources and control of the land.
There is always silence. It presses into her, heavy. She will watch and listen to people speak her favorite words on TV — like “Yes” and “Always” and “Cinnamon” and “Enough” — and try to recall the way they would spill out of her mouth, creating reactions and connections. She practices thinking a thought and saying it aloud to herself and her dog. After four syllables, she stops, stunned by the sound of the voice and the thought itself. Neither are hers. She is terrified by the person she is becoming. She is shrinking. She is being praised for her weight loss, for taking care of herself and getting healthy. She wants to feel pride in her visible collarbones, two pristine trophies, like a hunter’s collection of antlers that line the walls of his cabin. Her once-full and rosy cheeks — the twin buoys of a crooked-toothed smile — have begun to collapse in on themselves, defeated. She feels disgust. There is no pride. She is becoming invisible. There is rage. She is burning alive, a million cells engulfed by a need to be seen and heard, for someone to bear witness to her undoing. There is no one. She must face herself.
I watched every video, one after the other, for an entire day. I watched myself ask myself questions, search for answers, bow down to loneliness, and exercise a strength that could only be formed by a woman who recognized the power in the collecting and articulating of pieces of a shattered self. I will always keep these videos, and I’ll revisit this essay many times over because I am certain that this self is worth remembering.
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Unsplash photo via Sergey Zolkin