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When Your Depression Cycles Like a Perennial Plant

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I get my nails done every month. The nail artist places thin layers of acrylic, one after another, each one creating an impenetrable surface protecting my brittle, breakable nails. This act is a metaphor itself for depression and the ways “I’m fine, just tired,” or celebrations about work accomplishments, or posting pictures of myself and my cats creates a façade. I hide behind these words/actions, never letting anyone see the strategically, never pictured mounds of trash and dishes around my house, or obscuring that I have fully showered only twice in several months, or that I am numb, empty, and longing for death.

Aesthetically, my fake nails add length, creating a dramatic surface for the artist to hand-paint amazing creations on 10 tiny canvases. Each month, I search Pinterest to figure out what designs I want. Some months I choose designs I find beautiful: black and white geometric shapes, rainbow-colored anything, cats and plants, or letting the artist choose. May was Mental Health Awareness Month. I also happen to be extremely aware of my poor mental health and I wanted to capture this moment on my nails. I scrolled through “depression art” images to find some representation of what depression…what my depression experience looks like. Many familiar themes arise as I see images of people, head in hands, with dark monsters baring over them, semicolons transforming into birds, and masks depicting different societally acceptable emotions covering haunted, dark eyes. These feel simultaneously cliché and accurate, but they don’t fully capture my depression. I’ve been depressed off and on for the better part of a decade.

Like moths, my depression eats at my memories making it hard to remember more than how I feel in the present moment, creating a vicious cycle. If I feel good, I feel like I can do anything, push myself as hard as I want with minimal consequences. If I feel bad, it feels endless, like this is all my life is and can ever be. And so now, when I’m in a transitional phase between the bad and good times, my depression feels far away emotionally. The oversleeping, days in bed, intrusive thoughts, and all-encompassing emptiness are but a hazy recollection. So, I sit here, thinking about how to stop a cycle that I can hardly remember and how to represent my depression, something too complex for my memory, on my nails.

It is tempting to focus on the good I feel now. To depict the slow growth of seedlings as a metaphor for my slow progress towards healing. But this rosy picture creates false ideals about my depression. It suggests there is an end, a cure. While some people experience one depressive episode, my depression is an ever-present companion, cycling between dormancy and dominance.

Maybe my depression is like a perennial. These are plants that reemerge every year and lie dormant in the winter months. During the dormant season, the roots develop and strengthen out of sight, only to crest the dirt when conditions are optimal. The growth is slow and hard to notice but consistent. At its peak, the blooms open wide, noticeable to all until they slowly recede and die, lying dormant until next year. And while I don’t think I will ever be able to uproot my depression, I am empowered to look for ways to corral and influence its cycle to create conditions that slow growth and stunt the dominant season. And most importantly, the perennial always recedes at the end of its growing season. A perennial doesn’t bloom forever, and neither will my depression. If it is predictable that my depression will have dominant seasons, I can be confident that they will always be followed by a dormant season. There is hope in that.

Originally published: August 12, 2022
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