When I was younger, my dad would tell me that I was sorta like him – I never got too sad, but also never experienced the highs of overwhelming happiness. My emotions, like his, were always somewhere in the middle. He would get happy, sure, but never elated. He might get upset (and anger was certainly in his emotional vocabulary) but he rarely got inconsolably distressed. Growing up, I thought this was a totally normal personality trait I inherited; I thought a lot of people were similar.
In high school I was diagnosed with a mild form of depression. It finally clicked; that’s what my dad was talking about when he talked about his lack of mood swings. It wasn’t necessarily common, which I started to pick up on as I met and even befriended people who were the exact opposite. One of my best friends experiences every conceivable emotion in a given day, and it continues to be a hard thing for me to grasp. So that’s a common misconception – depression isn’t always feeling “down” as the name would suggest, but rather a lack of feeling any emotion – the highs or the lows. I don’t think I ever would have known, had I not been diagnosed.
Even so, when I was first diagnosed I rejected the idea. I didn’t want to be on any medication, I didn’t want to have a name for what I probably always knew was there. Luckily the psychologist who diagnosed me never really mentioned medication – he was all about natural remedies and gave me the rundown on what depression means and how to deal with it, sans drugs. I have to make sure I exercise, get enough sleep (but not too much), eat well (but don’t overeat), be careful with alcohol. Basic human needs and maybe common sense, sure. Except that when you’re depressed, all you want to do is lay around the house and sleep as much as possible. For me, I know I’m in an episode when all I want to do is sleep and when I don’t laugh quite as loud.
I know I’m come out of the shadows, however, when I can laugh hysterically again. As a baby, my mom tells me I would giggle uncontrollably to the point where everyone else in the room couldn’t stop laughing. Infectious, she called it. I was a happy kid. Later on, I wouldn’t realize the lack of laughter until I became hysterical again, until I was in the sun and out of the shadow. I remember one time early in my teenage years, I was in the car and something weird happened or my dad said something funny and I could not stop laughing. I laughed so hard I cried; so hard my stomach hurt. When I finally caught my breathe, I realize I hadn’t laughed like that in months, maybe even a year. I now remember that as the first time I came out of an episode. It’s comforting, in a way, to know I dealt with this thing before I even knew it was there. What other enemy can you defeat before you know it’s there?
The really messed up part is that I don’t even consider it an enemy; more of a companion, though nothing like Dexter’s dark passenger. I’ve written about it before, but it’s a delicate balance. When I’m depressed, my writing is usually better. I don’t know why, really. Maybe all the time I’m not spending with people gives me time to write; maybe the lack of emotion gives me some kind of clarity. It could be a lot of things, but writing is the one thing that brings me to some kind of peace with it, with my shadow.
Which, at a glance, is pretty cool right? Ok so general apathy whatever, but then my writing is (on average) a little better! Yay! Except I can’t control this thing, this shadow. It also makes my writing a little darker than I would prefer to be, normally. When I’m not experiencing it, I do everything to avoid it. I exercise, I sleep, I eat. I don’t feel it coming until it’s too late. It’s not like the flu. But when it does take over, I just sort of ride it out. I catch up on sleep, I write as much as possible. Even so, I don’t always know it’s happening until it’s over, so I can’t really take advantage of it, I just…exist through it. I don’t even realize my writing is good when I’m dealing with it. There’s just nothing I can do about it. At least, that’s how it feels. It feels like it won’t ever end. Somewhere, in the farthest reaches of my memory, I know it’ll pass. But I can’t make myself believe it.
A few weekends ago, I learned my maternal great-grandmother was diagnosed with depression after her husband died. In her lifetime, she also lost a brother and her son, both much too soon. To me, she’s always seemed happy-go-lucky, and I never knew her any other way.
After I was diagnosed, I never really talked to my dad about whether or not he thinks he has the same thing. We’ve talked about my depression, but never his.
This thing is coming at me from both sides of the family tree. Even if sometimes it’s born out of trauma rather than inherited – it exists. It’s there. I’ve embraced it, in a sense. Maybe because mine is mild, usually, I have that luxury.
It’s still scary, though. How will this thing change as I get older? Is the worst of it over, post-puberty? Is the worst yet to come – in the postpartum or menopausal stages of life? Will it ever go away?
Do I want it to?
Sometimes the ‘what ifs’ still get me.
What if I had ended that relationship any sooner? Would I have studied abroad? What if I studied something differently altogether? What if I stayed in school another year, what if I learned a language? Where could I be now – if I hadn’t narrowed the search, and limited myself just for you?
What if I ever told my childhood crush how I felt?
What if I ever demanded a relationship from the boy who wouldn’t commit?
What if I hadn’t sacrificed so much of myself for you? What if I don’t even realize the extent of what I gave up? Who would I be now, where would I be, without those sacrifices?
What if I don’t deserve any better? What if I keep repeating those mistakes? What if I can’t ever be the person I think I can be?
What if I don’t have all the potential I think I have?
What if I’ve already missed some chances I needed to take?
What’s the adult, real-life version of an academic advisor? Ya know, the person who tells you that you’re doing awesome, and then tells you exactly what classes to take next semester? They look at your resume, and tell you you’re awesome, but give you small tweaks to make your resume reflect that awesomeness, and make you seem even more awesome? Is there a life advisor somewhere I’m not aware of?
About a year ago, when I was sitting through Alumni Days – listening to successful, graduated alumni talk about life after college – one of them said something that just recently sort of hit me.
There are no semesters, no constant evaluation in life. There’s nothing, and I mean nothing to break up the monotony. In college – while it could be brutal – there were breaks. There were finals (brutal) but then you were done, and then you went to new classes with new people and new professors and new topics. Now, there are intense deadlines (brutal) but no breaks, and on Monday I return to the same tasks, with the same people, working on the same project. Nothing actually changes, nothing moves forward…
In college, once you pass XYZ1000, you move on to XYZ2000. You fail that class? Oh it’s cool, just take it again.
In life, you manage to complete something, and then you have to do that thing again. And again. And again. Maybe some small things are different, maybe after a year (or several…usually several) maybe, maybe, you get promoted and get to make more money to do those things. But fuck something up? You could get fired. You don’t get to try it again.
Essentially, the consequences for fucking up are greater, but the rewards are lesser. And there are no life advisors to tell you you’re awesome, or which projects to take on, or what the hell to do about your resume. Instead, the other adults just… let you flail around out there, watching you squirm. They probably enjoy it, too. Buncha jerks.
In college it was easy. Lots of little goals, a few big ones. They were all of relative importance, S.M.A.R.T., had deadlines. Do this assignment, study for this test, pass that class, eventually graduate.
My goals have all been met, the boxes checked. I graduated. I have a job. There are annual reviews, but it’s not the same as a grade, as a pass/fail.
I’ve been constantly evaluated my entire life up to this point. Now that the rest of my life is pretty open, I don’t know what my next goal is, that next thing I want to achieve.
But I guess there are still different tracks, like there was in high school. Some kids go to college, others start working, some start families. So I guess that’s where I am, 4 years later. Work on “settling down”? I already chose to work instead of continuing school, but I can always go back. But what if I want all of it? To be in the academic circles, to be successful in my career, and maybe even have someone to share it with? What are the small steps to reaching those goals? What are the deadlines?