By Tina Porter
In the Fall of 2014, when I knew the job I had held in a place I’d been working for 10 years was ending (though not yet officially), I did what anyone would do: I went on a trip with my mother and sister to Northern New Mexico.
Actually, this story starts much earlier. Does it start in April of that year when I am offered a demotion or no job at all and I take the demotion because we are in the process of closing on a condo for our daughters to live in while they attend Indiana University in Bloomington? Or a year earlier, when it is obvious I am struggling while juggling different roles and different requirements from different stakeholders?
Or does it start in 2009, when I take the promotion I think I want and that I am kind of good at, as it is defined in 2009 and three weeks later I am diagnosed with Lupus? Or does it start in 2008 when my father dies? Or in 1986 when I am a young woman at odds with her understanding of herself, or in 1976, when I am a teenager who doesn’t fit in and finds the options available unsatisfactory but I don’t know how to ask my mother or anyone for help?
In any event, in that fall of 2014, when I’m spiraling out of control in a job I have taken in order to be approved for that mortgage where every day my standing and my duties diminish (not to mention my self worth and dignity), my mother rented a condo at a ski resort in Northern New Mexico during the off season.
I have selfies from that trip. I remember taking them. I remember that it was difficult for us to get all our faces in the photos at once and when I said “duck down” to my sister (who is as tall as I am) my mother, who is much shorter, would duck down just as I hit the camera button, so we have many selfies with just the top of my mother’s head in them.
I remember laughing. I must have laughed.
I remember visiting the potter who was so excited to see us and show us what he was up to with his wood-fired kiln. He would fire three or four times a year because it was such a labor-intense process (he and his wife take turns tending the fire 24 hours a day) and we happened on it on one of those weekends.
I remember things about those days together, but it all still feels like I’m looking in on someone else’s memory, someone else’s vacation.
Did I know then that I was in the midst of a life-altering depressive bout?
At that point, I was doing all the things I was supposed to do. I was brushing my teeth and showering and fixing meals and putting on clothes and going out into the world and interacting with the masses.
I’m sure the depression started well before the trip to New Mexico—a place where the sky is so wide and blue that it makes you believe the universe was built just for you, and where the gorges are so deep and abundant in green and red and yellow that whatever doubt you had about the presence of God in the Universe is lifted, or at least that is how I had always experienced it. But that trip, in my memory, is mostly gray, mostly cold, and mostly me hiding the terror I felt at the thought of returning to my life as it was.
When the axe finally fell and I was cleaved from what was left of my job in December 2014, I left with the knowledge that I had no job and no idea what the next one would be. I held myself together through the holidays and into the new year. I pretended all was good and that things would come together for me, for my family, for our future.
And then it didn’t.
I spent days on the couch; days when it felt like an accomplishment to simply shower. My youngest daughter was still at home, in high school, and if my husband was out of town (which he was, a lot), I’d often go without eating until she got home—sending her to the grocery store or for fast food, while I stayed right there, in the couch, covered with blankets and cats, my computer, and the television remote controls.
I lied to my husband. I didn’t mean to. I just didn’t know what else to say, so I told him I would find work soon because my brain knew that was what needed to happen—I had that much of an understanding of reality. And yet.
This had never happened to me before. I had experienced depressive states before, but I was still able to do what was needed. Not this time.
I saw the wrong counselor, which did not help.
My minister recommended a group that does personal growth work and my husband and I did that work and it helped. I got out of the house; I made amends with people I had wronged; but the big reveal for me was when I realized I wasn’t going to get better through sheer willpower. No amount of personal development coaching can take the place of medication and the right therapist.
When I called to make an evaluation appointment before seeing the doctor who would prescribe medicines, they had to ask what they have to ask everyone. I don’t remember the exact wording, but they were asking me if I was considering suicide and when I paused too long, she asked again.
“I mean,” I said finally, “not this moment.”
“Have you thought about it?”
I don’t know about you but that’s not a question you hesitate on if the answer is no. So I had to admit out loud, that yes, I feel like being dead would be easier for me, but it would also be hard for my family, so I’m not doing anything about it. The thought that lingered, truly, was would my family be better with me here, in the couch, or out of the picture, completely. And this thinking triggered yet another round robin in my head that was, if nothing else, paralyzing. It was like I was stuck in a traffic circle and the exit choices were: die, couch, leave. And thus perpetuated a sense of my worthlessness.
I’m not telling this story for sympathy. I’m not even telling it because it needs to be told. I’m telling it because it is a part of my journey—a journey toward truth-telling that I hope will release me from feeling bad about feeling bad.
When I was diagnosed with Lupus, I was devastated, and in the next breath, I was relieved. It isn’t all in my head, I finally realized, it’s in my immune system. I won’t achieve what everyone else achieves, because I don’t have the reserves, the energy to do all the things. I had been right my whole life when my instincts said: it’s this or that, but not both (or all).
So learning that I had this immune disorder whose first and most common symptom was fatigue was kind of a release. I was not lazy: I was sick. And this is one thing I forgot when I was doing a job I loved but that required more energy than I had to give. I was telling myself the old story: I’m not trying hard enough; I’m not good enough. Worse, I am bad, worthless, and hopeless.
Some things happened while I was on the couch: I wrote poetry and posted to my blog. My friend urged me to apply to be an artist in the Community Supported Art program she and another artist coordinated. When I met the other artist, I knew from the moment I saw her that I would attach myself to her forever. I had two artist friends now. And then they selected me to be one of their artists and then I met even more artist friends. And we held a poetry reading and people came and a piece I wrote was selected for an anthology of writers who are being both parents to young children and children to aging parents. And these were very good things to happen.
And I met more artists and became friends with them on Instagram and Facebook and I saw all the lovely colors leaching back into my life and I found I was content more than I was malcontent.
But I still didn’t have a job. I wasn’t making any real money from my writing.
People leave jobs all the time, I told myself. People are fired and get new ones—why can’t you find the one you want or even the one you can tolerate?
To say “I couldn’t” was both a truth and a lie at the same time.
Trying to describe a depressive state like the one I was in to someone who has never experienced it is difficult. You try to gather metaphors, like there are bricks on my chest and I’m drowning in six inches of water. And people want to tell you things like, “Stand up and knock that brick off you.” And it isn’t helpful.
What is helpful to me, I finally realized, is to remember.
Remember the blue of the sky in September. Remember the feel of a baby sleeping on my shoulder with her sweet breath puffing into my neck. Remember the awful “granny” dress I made my mother make for a junior high dance and how I had that awful perm because–the 1970s. Remember the way I felt when I said “I do” and “for better or worse.” Remember the taste of watermelon on a hot summer day. Remember what it feels like to laugh so hard I wet myself a little over something as stupid as a dream about beat-boxing. Remember what it is to gather with friends who know me well and those who don’t quite yet, but are willing to show up to give it a try. Remember what it is like to go to church and it feels like I belong. Remember, as Alice Walker so wonderfully instructed us to, the color purple. Remember to write it all down. And, mostly, remember what it is like to feel awful without feeling like I AM awful.
I make my husband crazy sometimes (a lot of the times) because it seems things are always, always going wrong. Before this years-long bout of depression, I often cooed, “It’ll be okay,” and he glared back and ask “how?”
I’ve never had a really good answer to that. In the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the protagonist says, “It will all work out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out, this is not the end.” That’s about as close to a good answer as I have.
There is no one answer. And there is no guarantee that I am going to get any more productive than I am right now, but I know I’m not in the trenches anymore, or deep in the cushions of our couch.
My friend KC and I have decided to become pen pals. The first letter he sent was a cartoon he drew, and then a small card on which he wrote: “Keep letting the love in. Because when you let it in, you’re giving it out.”
I have that card up on the bulletin board above where I write, along with a piece of art created for me by an artist friend that says, “Storyteller,” and two photographs created by my friend Liz because she knew I liked them, and the sign I wore on my back when I marched on Washington in January 2017 that has a quote from Maya Angelou (“We are Living Art/ created to help others/ to hang on, stand up, forbear, continue”) and the names of 60 or so people who wanted me to carry them with me on the march.
There is no one way to salvation from depression, but the first step I needed to take was to remember. I had to remind myself what I’ve known all along: I’m a lousy administrator, but a very decent poet and if I continue to measure myself by what I am not rather than by what I am, then I am going to miss out on a lot of wonderful things. And, I need to know that depression is not going anywhere. It as much a part of me as my hazel eyes. But it does not have to define me any more than my eyes do.
Somewhere before I stopped working, I forgot who I was and where I was going. I’ve started to remember and recognize myself in the eyes of my beloveds. And even when sorrow lurks, I see it, let it be it, and feel it when I need to, but I don’t say any longer that it is me.
I will not say I am cured of depression; but I will say I’m present.
I couldn’t say that of my trip to New Mexico with my sister and my mother, nor of my months on end in the couch.
I’m present; I’m letting the love in; and I’m hopeful that I’m also letting it back out.
This has been hard and the consequences of this depression—the immediate consequences—for my family have been grave, a word I don’t normally use, but as I say it I realize that the consequences could also have been a grave. And I chose depression, instead.
I credit that to no conscious decision but the deep down knowing that somewhere under all of those bricks on my chest was a beating, creative heart that kept me going even though it looked like I had stopped.
There is still room to change circumstances, but I couldn’t begin to consider how until the color, the music, and the love found the cracks in my broken soul and eased themselves in right there next to the gray and the numb and brought back that insanely hopeful woman who says “it’ll all work out” without the slightest idea of how. I look in the faces of those I love, those family and friends who brought laughter and color and said “behold, this is for you” and hope tells me what depression never could: this is not the end. And to that, I say, amen.
Tina Porter’s writing has appeared on the online publications Brain, Child and BluntMoms and in the anthology, Here in the Middle. She keeps a self titled blog where she posts “love letters for living” that include prose and poetry. She recently collected a group of her poems in the book, Beginner Prayers. She is a Unitarian Universalist who writes about faith and social justice, parenting, and mental health. She is currently working on a memoir inspired by her recent diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder at the age of 55.