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When Depression Means You're Rarely Really Awake

I never really know which comes first: opening my eyes or waking up. The difference may not matter, but on mornings like this I wish I could just keep them closed. The sun is already high, heat and light pressing down through the plastic blinds of my bedroom window. I turn away and writhe, arms and legs, in a tangle of cheap cotton sheets slick with sweat. Nowhere stays cool long enough for me to get comfortable. I’m losing the battle, and I know I’m losing but I pull my quilt tighter in defiance, although really in fear. There’s nothing to be afraid of in my own room, just like there’s no reason to be tired after a night’s sleep, or sad at a new day. I know this, or I would know it if I could think, but my mind is drifting in and out and I can’t think of anything but escaping this onslaught of daylight attacking me, like some great apathetic god reaching through my window just to beat me conscious.

The sun and I weren’t always on poor terms. As a teenager, I used to spend my summer weekends all over Idaho with my scouting troop, and every sunrise was a call to adventure. Our days were spent as best as boys could spend them, in forests and rivers, lakes and caves, and always our nights were spent huddled around campfires. At bedtime, we would take all our smoke and dirt and cram four of us into a three-man tent, wrapping up in sleeping bags with only our faces exposed. Sometimes we’d talk about careless things, and sometimes we would just listen to the crickets, falling asleep breathing in mostly gas and perspiration. Sunrise would bake the tent through the thin canvas, combining with the morning campfire to literally smoke us out — nose first — hanging on the earthy-sweet scent of ashes and pancake batter. It was so easy back then, to rise out of grogginess and see, bright under the sun, the whole world ready to play.

Today I see shadows on a plain wall, and I hear voices on the other side of the door, and I don’t think I can face them. The idea grips me, as if it were the thing that’s real and my own skin-and-bones body were the thought inside it. Earlier, the first time I woke up, I actually made it halfway out of bed. I tried to move, to stand — just stand! — but I could only manage to turn off the blaring alarm, and after several seconds of clenched teeth and fists, I gave in to the heaviness of my thoughts and retreated. That must have been hours ago and now I don’t even want to look at the time. Knowing how many hours I’ve wasted, again, never helps. But the afflicted mind doesn’t do itself many favors, and I eventually I reach out for the vintage clock on my nightstand. It’s not real vintage, just manufactured to look the part, red with an off-white face made to appear faded even though I bought it last week, with a single button on top for the alarm. I bought it because I wanted to feel simple, like if it was good enough for my father then it was good enough for me, because that’s the kind of father I had. The kind who would never hide from the other side of his bedroom door. Now, every morning, that clock screams at me to get up and every morning I really do try.

My father believes in grass stains on blue jeans and my mother knows the best way to wash them out. They made sure I had a big backyard to grow up in, and in that big backyard a big red trampoline. It was the closest thing a kid could get to flying. The mechanics were simple: Up and down. Hit the elastic as hard as you can, accelerate upward, feel the wind through your clothes, feel your insides chasing your outsides, pause at the top for one singular moment of weightlessness, fall back down to try and get even higher. Up and down. I only needed a few jumps to get high enough, to feel like I was hundreds of feet in the air, and still with every fall I wanted to go higher. Up and down. It was like chasing something, reaching for the elusive moment of total freedom at the very crest of every jump, when I could look out over the roof of our one-story house and see the whole world before me, like just maybe I could reach out and grab it. Up and down.

With some panic, I see the clock reads even later than I thought it would, and I need to get moving. No, I begin to recite the now-well-worn mantras in my mind, I do not need to do anything. I decide where today takes me. I am anxious, but I am not in danger. I can talk to people, but I cannot read minds. I can move forward, but I cannot predict the future. I am in the present, but my memories are not. I have done good and bad, and my faults are not my identity. Trying to out-think your own brain can be a lot like driving to get your car repaired. But Dr. Travis taught me well and I am practiced enough. If you can move, you can sit up. If you can sit up, you can stand. After a dozen or so renditions, I don’t feel any better, but I can move. I finally break eye contact with the wall and stand for the first time today. Tomorrow, I will probably feel the carpet between my toes, the surge of euphoria as I breathe deep and stretch like a big cat. Tomorrow I will feel awake, alive. But I am moving, and today that’s enough.

I used to be much worse. At the best of times, fighting depression and insomnia is mental warfare, and addiction leaves you defenseless. I don’t remember all the days and weeks I wasted, and I wish I could scrape out the blurry rest of it, now just wounds festering and septic in memory. At the lowest times, the things I was doing to myself didn’t even feel good. But when you’re down, and you’re down for a long time, you’ll try anything to get back up, you’ll do anything to shake the numbness, and you’ll put anything into your body because at least something feels like something. It doesn’t really seem like living if you can’t even feel it, so really I was just living. That’s the kind of thing you tell yourself when the shame comes after; of course, at the time I didn’t even get to think about it, I just got the cheapest, quickest fix to lift me out, no matter the damage. Up and down.

One night I felt something real. I felt the smallest sprinkle of cool little water beads sending shivers through my skin. I breathed, deeply, the dampening air and woke up for the first time in months. I looked up to the grey sky and felt the sting of raindrops on my eyes. I remembered the world, how clouds formed and drifted across the constantly turning earth. I smelled metal and concrete and wet grass. The drops got heavier, the sky got darker and I could no longer hold my head up against it. So I dropped, and my knees hit the pavement, and the pain was invigorating. I cried, and it felt good so I kept crying. My cries became pleas as I folded my arms and bowed my head to any god listening. I don’t remember the exact words I spoke but it’s the most honest I’ve ever been.

Anxiety does not mean danger. Depression does not mean defect. If you can stand, you can walk. A short walk to the bus stop, a few minutes on a bus, and now I’m across the street from the homeless shelter, waiting for the light to turn so I can go to work. Any other day and I would notice the cars passing in front of me. I would notice the grey sky above with rain clouds stretched overcast across the valley, framed by a backdrop of mountains whose peaks just graze their misty underbellies. Any other day, I would notice those mountains that are so tall yet keep the world from feeling too big. But today I am moving, and functioning, and today that’s enough. Today, the traffic light tells me to cross, and the shiver down my neck tells me the misty air is getting heavier. I turn up my collar, and I keep walking.

Nothing changed that day, on my knees, in the rain. Nothing ever changes in a moment. But if you can feel alive for one moment, you can fight to stay alive the next. Fight for long enough and you’ll get a win. I think that’s true for everyone, although I admit I always knew I would make it through the worst times, if only because I have enough money and family, and they have enough of both to go around. You can call it unfair, and it probably is, and it’s just the way things are. But it’s also the reason I keep getting up, keep walking, keep fighting: as I enter the shelter, through the double doors, I walk by the kitchen and I know a belly is full for the first time in days. Up the stairs, past the living quarters, first the east wing then the west, and I know a body has a bed for the first time in months. Around the desk, past an office, through my door, I sit at my desk and I smile for the first time all day.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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