Check out Part 1 here.
Content Warning: depression, emotional abuse, self-harm, suicide attempts
This is what depression has looked like for me. It’s a long story, and not a fun one, but I hope you’ll learn something from it, even if all you take away is that you’re not alone. It’s hard to tell this story without going into all the disorders because they all play in to each other, but I’ll try to keep it focused.
A “Brief” Synopsis
I first showed symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder when I was in first grade — six or seven years old. I completely shut down and didn’t speak to anyone unless I was asked a direct question, and even then it was probably a one-word answer; if I was around my father, I didn’t speak at all. I barely slept, and would only pick at my food. I had one friend I occasionally interacted with, but I preferred to spend my time lost in a book, where I could pretend I no longer existed as myself but as the characters I was reading. I never raised my hand in school or showed an interest in playing with other children. Every year a teacher would tell my mother, “Erica’s great to have in class but she’s so withdrawn.”
My parents divorced when I was about nine years old, and a year later I started to open up a bit. I was talking and making friends. I laughed for the first time, and got excited about things. We moved to a different town, and I was looking forward to a bright new future.
That bright new future held more depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder joined the party when I was a preteen or so, and by the time I was fourteen I was experiencing depression year-round again. It looked a little different than when I was a child: I was sociable and active, but also suspicious, reserved, and defensive. My self-esteem was at rock bottom, I was self-harming, and the “future” that my peers were excited about was an abstract concept I knew would never happen to me. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” was a question I couldn’t answer because I couldn’t see myself in ten years at all.
I started college when I was sixteen, and there I met my future ex-husband. He was manipulative and controlling, but so was nearly every other man in my life at the time, so I didn’t notice a difference. He joined the Army and we got married when I was nineteen, and I moved across the country to where he was stationed. After the marriage, he became more controlling and outright abusive, gaslighting me and preventing me from talking to family or friends. I had no privacy, no agency, and was house-bound, expected to be available at his whim. The depression became severe, and I attempted suicide twice when I was twenty. Only after the first attempt did he let me go to therapy and get on antidepressants. Thankfully, I got out of there a few months later — by that time, I was sixteen pounds underweight, everything I ate made me violently sick, and my hair was falling out in clumps. Was it stress? Trauma? Depression? Quite likely, it was all of the above.
My early twenties were spent rediscovering myself. I made new friends, came out of the closet, drank too much alcohol, lost my beloved cat, learned I couldn’t easily have children (if at all), experienced homelessness, started hiking, and traveled overseas. For much of it, I was still very depressed, often considering suicide. There were weeks — months, even— of happiness, but with the northern rain ever-present, Seasonal Affective Disorder often lasted over half the year, and the chronic Major Depressive Disorder rarely lifted. Working with dogs is what got me through that period.
I moved southward and spent a couple of years in California, where the winters are much more mild. I also started exercising frequently, which releases endorphins and is wonderfully effective in managing mood disorders. The depression was kept at bay, but I could feel it lurking around the corner, waiting to reemerge. Whenever I had a “low” day, I always wondered, Is this it? Is this the depression again?
At twenty-five, I realized the life I was living was unsustainable, so I made a big change and went back to college in my home state. My first quarter back in school was January 2020, and I was severely depressed and experiencing PTSD like I never had before. At one point, I looked in the mirror and legitimately couldn’t recognize who was looking back — she just looked like she hated me.
Honestly, I don’t remember large chunks of my life, and I’ll get into why in a moment. Even so, if I were to go into all the details I do remember, this post would be about three miles long. I’ll spare you — just know my life has not been a walk in the park.
The thing about having a mental disorder for most of your life is that it drastically changes the shape your life takes. Unfortunately, these aren’t often mentioned when people talk about depression, and these are things I wish I had known.
- Memory loss
Memory itself is deserving of an entire post that I hope to get to soon, but the reason I can’t remember much of my life is in large part due to how much of it was spent being depressed. Both during and after a depressive episode, memories don’t hold the right way. I barely recall anything that happened before I was twenty; I have to really think about anything I did as a child. I can tell stories my family has told me, but little else. What memories I do have are slippery, unwilling to be held and examined. It’s upsetting when my siblings will reminisce about our childhood, and the only thing I can contribute is, “I’ll take your word for it.” Memory loss is a common side effect of chronic depression.
- Social ineptitude
Since I spent most of my socially formulative years (grade school) in a book or a fantasy world, I didn’t really learn how to get along with kids my age. Middle school was rocky when it came to understanding how to interact with others. I have the advantages of learning quickly and being very good at reading people, but it took a quite a while to learn where I stood in the social hierarchy when my peers already knew how to negotiate their status — or at least, they knew how to make friends and get along with others. This isn’t to say neurotypical preteens have it easy; middle school isn’t fun for anyone. But knowing how to be appropriately social makes a big difference in the overall experience, and without that knowledge, it was an uphill battle for me.
- Becoming high functioning
With so much experience with depression, I became reasonably high functioning. This is handy when I want straight A’s in class but can’t eat for three days, or if I need to smile at work when I can’t bring myself to say hello to my best friend. People who are high functioning can hide their depression very well, and might even exhibit “atypical” behaviors, like being overly organized or needing to socialize more. They still feel depressed, but become adept at hiding it and working around their symptoms.
This year, I’ve been trying to be more honest with myself and others about what I’m feeling. Instead of saying, “Oh, I’m fine, just tired, life as usual,” I’ll try to say, “I’m not doing too well right now; I can go through the motions but there’s no meaning behind it.” Letting someone in during a depressive episode is extremely difficult under normal circumstances; after developing high-functioning habits, I now face the challenge of convincing someone I am depressed when all other signs point to the contrary.
I know the Depression Beast will follow me for the rest of my life. I’ve accepted that. I’m grateful I have known periods of time — however brief — when it was not with me. Thankfully, after years of therapy, trial and error, and experience, I have an arsenal of tools I can use to make the Beast less dangerous. It’s still there, but maybe it isn’t breathing as much fire as it did at first. Maybe.
In Part 3 I’ll go over some of the tools and the most instrumental things I learned to manage chronic depression. I want you to know this in your bones: you are not alone. As ever, if you have something you’d like to say, please reach out.