“Whatever you are feeling right now, there is a mathematical certainty that someone is feeling that exact thing. This is not to say you aren’t special. This is to say thank god you aren’t special.”Neil Hilborn
TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE, DEPRESSION, BINGE EATING, AND RAPE. Reader discretion is advised.
Left: Me at the height of my depression. Right: Me at the mentally healthiest I have ever been
I hate talking about this. Not because it is painful, but because it is exhausting. Which is really rather symbolic of what depression actually does to a person. But it is world suicide prevention day, and as a wounded healer, i find it to be really important to discuss this topic. People think that folks just wake up one day and decide to complete suicide. Sometimes, this can be true. But there are warning signs. Mainly, I feel that the only way to prevent suicide is to address the imbalance that ultimtely leads to it and that is depression. There is a huge misconception when it comes to depression. Many people think that when you have depression you just get really sad and wait for it to be over. I will talk about all of it here, and what my experience has been with it.
I have not always been mentally healthy and most days, I find myself wondering if I ever will be. Because even on my best days, I rarely actually feel like I am at my best. On my worst days, I am lucky if I can muster enough energy to get out of bed to drink some water. But depression really looks like so many other things too and it is painful and exhausting and it is repetitive and constantly wondering if there will ever be a day when life doesn’t hurt so badly. The best way that I can describe depression is not a cloud, it’s not constantly feeling despair. It’s the absence of feeling. It’s numbness. It’s not caring about anything, even when you want to or when you know you “should”. It’s forgetting to brush your teeth or your hair. It’s a total lack of energy and interest. It’s waiting for the days to pass in the hopes that “this shit just gets easier”. It’s mood swings and irritability that is expressed through interactions with those who love you most, but really you’re just mad at yourself “because why am I like this?”. It’s wondering what the point of everything is.
My “diagnosis” is clinical major depressive disorder. It is chronic. Which means all the time. My first encounter with depression was when I was a child. I don’t remember the exact age. My father had been diagnosed with cancer, for the second time and I don’t remember what led to it, but it was bad enough that my mother brought me to a therapist. I remember not knowing how to connect with this person and then becoming angry with myself for that. Throughout my life, I would try several therapists and eventually feel like “therapy just doesn’t work for me–I am too hopeless” (the irony of this is not lost on me). At this time, I developed severe anxiety. To the point where I would rip my clothes and my socks up. I would make tiny rolls of paper and rip that up and roll it back up. I became unable to sit still for any amount of time. Around fourth grade is when I was put on my first antidepressant. Zoloft. 11 years old. I don’t know what my primary care doc was thinking, but it had an adverse impact and so I stopped taking it. This led me to believe that “pills don’t work and I will never use medication for this again”. This is when I started with my next therapist. Once again–it didn’t work out and I stopped going.
This is when the bullying started. I went to Catholic school. The kids were mean. Really mean. I would get beat up, and shoved around and made fun of for being an artist. I wish I were kidding. I was an early bloomer. Full-chested at 11 years old, and my first period at the age of ten. My emotional and chemical balances were super out of whack. I took to my art as the thing to help me through it. I would watch other kids laugh and enjoy the company of one another and find myself feeling bitter at the ripe old age of 13. I tried to join in on things with them but never really felt like I quite belonged there. I turned to writing. I turned to art.
What i didn’t realize was how normal I was. That all of my insecurities were the insecurities of all the girls around me. That my body was telling me it was ready to live a life of fruitful growth, and that I did not need to hide. I wouldn’t realize this until i was 28. And It would get much worse before it got better.
Depression is different than being depressed. To be depressed is having symptoms of depression short term. Depression is deeper. Sharper. Thicker. Muddy. The time leading up to a deeper bout of depression is uncertain and scary. My awareness of it now, allows me to depict it as a circus bear in a tutu with a bowl of oranges on its head. The bear is riding a unicycle. But he is circling a ditch. And he is so busy worrying about the bowl of oranges on his head that he doesn’t realize the ditch is much deeper and much closer than he realizes until he falls in. There is a sinking feeling that happens when you notice you’ve lost your footing and suddenly you’re falling into that ditch whether you were ready or not. You don’t know how long you will fall, how deep or how the hell you’ll ever get out.
Cut forward a few years. I’m in college. I’ve just survived an abusive relationship. My uncle just died in a tragic car crash and my dog just died from cancer. At this point, the depression was so deep that even when i expected to feel sad, I couldn’t. I went numb. It hurt so much that I shut it off. Depression is dissociation as well. It’s living life like you’re watching a movie. You can see everything happening from outside of your body. It’s being so exhausted from the pain that you have to turn it off. Sometimes that means numbing your feelings. Some use substance, or sex. Some use art. Others just wait. I used art. I always had art. Art has always been my therapy, and my best friend. It’s always honest. It’s always a holding space and I never have to hear the bullshit.
It was at this point that I tried my fifth therapist. She was the first therapist I had met that I had seen that allowed me to feel felt. I can’t remember her name. But I can remember the impact she had on me. I was still vehemently against using medications but working out and exercise was not working for me anymore. Art was barely doing it. There’s that ditch again. I felt alone. I could sit in a room full of people and only be able to connect by using self-deprecating humor. I would hide behind my appearance, dying my hair, changing my makeup, complete style makeovers. I would do ANYTHING to hide the fact that I felt like I was a human shell. I stopped being able to laugh. But I kept going. I had to find things to hold on to. There were countless days that I spent in my bed. Thank god for my friends. My people, my community. My sister. These were some of the people that kept bringing me back when I would get too lost in my head. I came out of it and I committed to trying to make my life better. I got scared to keep going with therapy so I stopped. I kept using art. I kept asking questions. I had life talks with my professor. I graduated college.
In all of this time, I don’t suppose I ever really knew how to describe what I was feeling. I eventually stopped trying. I spent so much time thinking happiness would be a destination that I grew impatient with the present. This has taught me to be a firm believer that staying present allows you to drop some of the pressure of the future and the weight of the past.
Cut forward to the summer after college graduation. It was my third year working with New York State Summer School of the Arts as a Head Counselor. This work was hard work but it was gratifying work. I loved working with those kids and to this day am ever grateful. This was the summer however, that was a turning point for me. This was the summer where one of my students told me I was a safe space for him. It was right in this moment that I thought, I need to become an art therapist. I had spent my whole life thinking about how to make my own life better, and all of it came to a head when i realized my life would become better by helping others make their own lives better. Most therapists you know have experienced some serious shit in their lives. Just an FYI.
I got a new therapist. This is the one i see now and i have to say, this woman is a saint. I will never not say that. She introduced me to a concept I had never really understood. The power of asking questions.
I went to grad school. Second semester in, the same student who told me that I was a safe space for him died by completing suicide. It broke me. I felt grief unlike any other grief I had ever felt. “But he was so happy! So sweet! So Sunshiney!”. And that’s the thing. Depression does not just show up as a pain and suffering. In fact, most of the time those with depression go through every day overcompensating for how fucking miserable they are. They go out of their way to make a positive impact on people’s lives because they know how hard life is. They go out of their way to make others laugh because laughter is too hard to come by in their own lives. They go out of their way. Often times what happens with people who are contemplating suicide is this: They may start giving their possessions away. They may seem “off”. They may be really sad. They may be. Or they may be extremely happy one day. In fact, so much of the time, you will hear their loved ones say “ But I saw so and so yesterday and they were SO HAPPY!”. BY this time, the person has likely already planned their death out. They see an end in sight. They have accepted it and are looking forward to relief from their pain. I know this can be hard to hear, but this is the reality of it is and I need you to understand how HARD life has to be at this point for it to get to be this way. Because unless we know what the signs are, we cannot step in and help. Because people who are depressed aren’t going to reach out. A lot of the time they function just fine in the day to day and then go home and sleep the rest of the day off. Maybe they stop doing dishes for weeks at a time. Maybe they forget to eat or they eat too much.
My first thoughts of suicide were when I was in grad school. I had been living on my own. I had been raped about three weeks prior. I remember the exact night. I don’t remember the date. But I was absolutely hopeless. It was the first time that i couldn’t see the future. And if i could, i had decided it wasn’t worth it. I didn’t have a plan, but I also couldn’t feel anything. When I reflect on all of this, I realize that all the trauma I have experienced and inherited finally came crashing out of the floodgates. I told myself I wouldn’t deal with my student’s death until after grad school. I told myself I couldn’t let myself deal with the rape until after grad school. So instead I ate. I ate and ate and ate. Eventually i gained more weight than i had ever gained in my entire life. In addition to everything i’ve already mentioned, my depression has always looked like food binging and over consumption. I know I am depressed by my increase in food intake. I isolate. I stop wanting to see people. I give up on myself.
I can tell you what saved me: Curiosity and my community. This is why curiosity is so important to me. Because I was always way too curious about what would happen next to complete the act. It was 4:00 am. I was thinking about all the things that hadn’t managed to kill me, and how i wished they would have. I couldn’t sleep. I called three different hotlines that night. Finally, i called my parents. I couldn’t stop crying. My parents showed up at my apartment, and I cried. We came up with a plan. I would make an appointment to start taking meds. I felt desperate. I felt angry that it had to get to this point of desperation. But i did it. I got on 75 mg of Venlafaxine and I waited. I went to therapy as often as I could get in. I forced myself to make art. This is when I started relying heavily on boundaries and only doing what felt right in any given moment.
*I want to be very clear here. I used to think that medications were bad. I still think there is a huge factor of responsibility that comes with them. I do believe medications can help bring you to a baseline where you are actually able to focus on healing your pain. This is exactly what it has done for me. I know how stigmatized medications can be in the world of psychology. But they do play a role, just as any other medicine does, and if you feel you need to try medications to give you relief until you are able to tackle the underlying issues, then please, do not let anyone convince you otherwise. But do understand that the medications are a temporary fix for a long ass problem, and when paired with therapy, and changes in diet and exercise and sleep and social habits, there is a massive amount of success. This is coming from someone who was dead set against medications. But I really don’t think I would be here if I was not taking my medicine, going to therapy, and meticulously tracking the things that work for me and exploring my identity all in tandem. Sometimes we reach a point in life where we feel weak when we ask for help, or when we have to do the thing we said we would never do. This does not make you weak. This just means you are changing. Every version of you is good enough. You are not less than for needing help.*
The body holds on to trauma with everything it has. Even when you think you’re “over it”, you’re not. You feel it in your shoulders. You’ll notice you clench your jaw, or maybe you’re suddenly terrified of impact noises. Maybe the idea of someone being confrontational makes you have a panic attack. Whatever it is, it is real and it hurts. Until it doesn’t anymore. When I take time to think about how far I have come, I can’t help but be moved to tears. I still have my days. I call them “mushy days”. Days where there is leftover pain. Because like i said, depression is not a singular event. It is chronic and it creates brain fog. Maybe you’re more forgetful when you’re in a dip, or like you can’t pay attention to anything.
The trauma that I have inherited goes so deep it is in my blood. When i think about it that way, It is no wonder that every bone in my body hurts on some days. And when that happens, I accept that that day is going to be a slow one. It does not make me less than anything. It does not mean I am weak. It means I need to listen. Because my brain and my heart and my body are asking for something to allow for healing. So I listen. Whether it’s tea, or soft clothing, or a cold shower and forcing myself to stand outside in the rain. All of these things heal. All of these things create moments of tenderness that were never given to you in the first place. These are the things that allow softness. You do not have to be coated in a hard exterior all the time. Depression is what happens when trauma, and pain go unhealed. There is a reason it is hereditary.
You need to know that you do not need to be strong every day of your life. You do not need the pressure that is placed upon you to stand in the font lines for everyone around you all the time. You are allowed to rest. You are allowed to check in with yourself and explore your needs. You are allowed to do that.
I will never lie and say that it “just goes away”. It doesn’t. But there are ways to manage it. Sometimes it is clear and easy to figure out and other days it feels like you’re running uphill on a -40 degree day with a tornado coming right at you. Some days we are the circus bear and we fall in. Other days the bear’s circus friends help him out and others you create a ladder out of that unicycle and get your own damn self out. All are viable and all are okay.
There are a lot of things that depression has taught me. There are a lot of things I do to manage my depression. So I will talk about that here.
Things that work for me:
1) Telling people as soon as I wake up and notice I am feeling low.
2) Breathing. Focusing on my breathing and various other grounding tools.
3) Singing. I sound like a dying whale but it heals.
4) Smoke and Water cleansing. Drinking water. Bathing in water. Water. Sitting by it. Looking at it.
7) Family. My partner.
8) Sitting outside with my eyes closed.
9) massaging my face
11) writing, art, movement, stretching
12) cooking a delicious meal
13) researching my ancestors–understanding my community, and where I come from. It has helped me feel connected to the world in ways I cannot explain.
14) Laughter. I literally LOVE looking at baking fails. Cry laughter is so real with that.
15) Distraction. No joke, I play Zoo Tycoon and Nancy Drew games like a mother.
16) Listening to slam poets ( Neil Hilborn is AMAZING for this)
18) Soft textures–clothes, blankets, pillows.
19) Podcasts ( Hey,Girl-Alex Elle specifically)
20) Curiosity and Chocolate
Things that depression has taught me.
1) Patience & Acceptance. With myself. With the world. With the seasons. With Loss. Depression comes when it wants to, but if you pay attention it does have a pattern. It has taught me the importance of cycles and how to accept when those cycles begin so that I can plan and prepare ahead of time.
2) Gentleness is the best medicine. I used to be so hard on myself for my depression. But the best treatment works slowly and over time, with soft and subtle changes. Abruptness is almost never the way.
3) Healing is a community job. It takes a small village to build something strong, and that includes the people within it. Find your people, and be people for someone else.
4) Healing is coming home to yourself every damn day with the deliberate intention of loving who you are no matter how you wake up. It’s making peace with your body, with your mind and with your spirit.
5) Things that are out of our control are not things that deserve the time. You can only control your next step. If you have a big plan, your very next step is the most important one. Focus on that. You can’t get five steps ahead without that one. So slow the hell down.
6) Not every day will be your day. There will be days where getting out of bed is the biggest thing you do and that is okay. Your worth is NEVER tired to what you produce or do in a day. You being here is plenty. Any person that tells you otherwise is not your people.
7) It is hard work. Somedays you’ll be all about it and others will have you saying fuck it. And Both are fine.
8) Take. Care. of. Your Vessel. Clean food. Clean sheets. Clean hair. It makes a world of difference.
9) Break it down. If it seems too big, simplify. What can you do right now? My dearest friend Lena always used to ask me “What can you do right now?”. And I swear it has helped me understand how to prioritize in ways that have literally saved the day at times. You don’t have to tackle everything today. Try one thing.
10). Be. Fucking. Curious. Curiosity is planting seeds for tomorrow, and in order to see the plant grow, you need to keep going. You need to wake up. Those seeds need you. Ask yourself questions. What do you want for dinner tomorrow? What is the weather tomorrow? Who invented the pillow? What is the distance from China to England? Get into the habit of asking questions. Then ask yourself more questions. Ask yourself about the quality of your questions and how you can improve them. My reason for this is that this instills a sense of awe and wonder. The most important question you will ask yourself every day is “What do I need today to safely make it through?”. The reason questions and curiosity are so important is that it leads to creative solutions to difficult and temporary problems. It can serve as a grounding distraction. But mostly it allows you to plan for the future and the present in a way that keeps you involved and engaged actively in your own life. It allows for reconnection. This is what has saved my life.
There is so much more I could say on all of this but this may be my longest post ever. I hope that on this day, you are safe, and comfortable and healthy. And if you’re not any of those things, I hope you are able to be gentle with you.
Ever curious, with warmth and love–
** If you or someone you know is having suicidal ideation, thoughts or considering please call:
National suicide prevention line:1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line — Text Hello to 741741
YouthLine — Text teen2teen to 839863, or call 1-877-968-8491
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline — 1-800-422-4453
National Domestic Violence Hotline — 1-800-799-7233
National Deaf Domestic Violence Hotline — 1-855-812-1001
RAINN — 1-800-656-4673
The Trevor Project — 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678
Trans Lifeline — 1-877-565-8860
- LGBT National Hotline — 1-888-843-4564
- LGBT National Youth Talkline — 1-800-246-7743
- LGBT Senior Hotline — 1-888-234-7243
SAMHSA National Helpline – 1-800-662-4357