If you’re one of the few people who might be reading this, perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been away for a while. I wasn’t really abducted by aliens — that would have been all over the tabloids, right? — but I often feel as if I get transported to a place where I inexplicably lose time and all memory of what I was supposed to be doing.
It’s hard to know how to dive into this post, not because I don’t know what to write, but because others, especially Jenny Lawson and Wil Wheaton, have already said it better than I ever shall.
You know what would help? If you would read Mr. Wheaton’s speech to the Ohio branch of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness). Go ahead; I’ll wait. You can find the speech here: http://wilwheaton.net/2018/05/my-name-is-wil-wheaton-i-live-with-chronic-depression-and-i-am-not-ashamed/.
You’re back? Great. That was a pretty awesome speech, wasn’t it? OK: here we go.
I am Ruth Feiertag, and I live with Chronic Depression.
In many ways, my life has been very different from Mr. Wheaton’s. I rank among the least famous people on the planet. I do love Star Trek, but I never even got to be a neon-skinned alien with tentacles or antennae lurking, uncredited, in the background. But he and I do have some things in common. In my own way, I also have been fortunate. I have always had a place to live, enough to eat, clothes to wear, access to health care and decent schools, and almost all the books I wanted: you know, the basic necessities. I grew up in a stable home with parents and siblings who loved me. I went on to create a family of my own. Pretty damn lucky.
But like Wil Wheaton, I live with chronic depression and anxiety, what he aptly calls “the tag team champions of the World Wrestling With Mental Illness Federation.” (I also have myalgic encephalomyelitis, the condition formerly known as chronic fatigue, and a couple other door-prizes I’ve discovered or picked up along the way.) I’m offering up my story, in part, to add to my voice to the chorus1 of those trying to defuse the stigma around mental illness and, in part, to explain what happened to my Inktober tale.
Again like Mr. Wheaton, I got the message early and clearly that mental illness was a shameful character flaw, one that would redound to my family’s shame. My mother was particularly expressive on this subject. Over the years, even well into my adulthood, Mom told me that psychologists only mess people up, that they always blame the mothers (thank you, Dr. Freud), that they take children away from their parents — a prospect that frightened me horribly. People who have mental problems, my mom would say, need to be tough and get past to whatever they might be attributing their depression. Mom made it plain that if we ever sought help for mental issues, she would be the one to suffer.
To be fair, my mother’s fears were not entirely unfounded. She did have some damaging experiences, especially with school counselors who were quick to fault my mother for things beyond her control. It was not Mom’s fault that I was (am) shy and socially inept, tom-boyish and gawky, just as it was not her “fault” that I used to be tall for my age, liked books, and was good at catching lizards. My hair-cut, though — that was ENTIRELY Mom’s fault.
My anxiety manifested young. I got kicked out of nursery school for being so shy and anxious that I couldn’t make friends or interact with the other children. I remember standing on the margins of the playground, hoping equally that no one would notice me and that one of the other children would ask me to come play. I think I was there about three weeks before the teachers told Mom to keep me home. Mom attributed my behaviour to selfishness. There was a baby, and Mom said that I didn’t want to let her have time with him.
Grammar school was a little better. After all, public schools can’t kick out students for being socially awkward. I spent a lot of recesses tucked away in odd corners, reading. But my anxiety was still powerful enough to give me stomach aches. There was a day in first grade when I my stomach was cramping up painfully, but Mom insisted that I go to school anyway. She did tell me, however, to let my teacher know that if I didn’t feel better after a while, the teacher should let me call home.
Mrs. Persons was one of those firm teachers with high expectations and her opinion was immensely important to me. I was so shakingly nervous about conveying Mom’s message to her that I immediately burst into tears and couldn’t speak with any coherency. Mrs. Persons sent me to the nurse, the nurse called Mom, and Mom came to get me, and she was not amused.
Even worse, when I went back to school the next day, Mrs. Persons shamed me during circle time in front of the other students, chastising me for my “crocodile tears” and accusing me of lying about feeling ill. (That wasn’t even what I had been trying to tell her. I’d been trying to say that if I still felt ill later, then, Mom had said, I should get to call home.) Other than that one instance, Mrs. Persons was a wonderful teacher who encouraged me and celebrated my intelligence, but I realized that she felt I had been dishonest and, on some level, that I had made her look bad, and I was disappointed with myself, verging on being ashamed, for letting her down. I had been bad, not in need of understanding.
By junior high, I was talking with friends about whether I might be crazy. In high school, I would regularly miss a couple weeks of school due to a mysterious lethargy that my parents finally decided was caused by my allergies.
It wasn’t until after the birth of my first child that I saw a therapist. The beautiful cherub we brought home from the hospital turned out to be an adorable demon who didn’t — and as an adult, still doesn’t — need much sleep. For a year, I thought that my low mood was due to an exhaustion that would go away about the time our sleepless wonder went to college. All I had to do was hold up for another seventeen years…
Then, at the children’s used-clothing store up the street, I picked up a local parents’ newspaper that had an article on postpartum depression and I realized that sleep deprivation might not be my only problem.
This was back before health insurance had to offer behavioural health benefits and before we had money to spare for luxuries like counselling, so it was lucky that the article also listed organizations that would help new mothers find the support they needed. The local United Way found me a therapist and sent someone around to check on me every week or so until I regained my balance. It took only a few months, that time, for me to feel like myself again and to start to re-build my hopes and ambitions, and then to work to start bringing them about.
Over the next few years, I had bouts of melancholy that would come and go, but eventually the depression came to stay. I have now spent about a quarter-century living with the sadness, the self-doubt, and other emotional accessories that come with the second skin of melancholy.2
Because here’s what Mr. Wheaton’s speech doesn’t say: about a third of us who suffer from chronic depression are stuck with it. The drugs don’t work — all the ones I’ve tried had side-effects that made me worse, sometimes trip-to-the-ER worse — and counselling doesn’t scare away the depression either. (I have a brilliant therapist. While she hasn’t been able to disappear the depression, she does keep me from living under my covers.) And even those who do get relief from drugs or therapy usually find what some people call the Black Dog (not Sirius Black. This is a different black dog. Sirius Black would be cool) padding along beside them at times throughout their lives.
When my depression and fatigue become rampant, sometimes my mind walls off sections in an arbitrary fashion. And that’s what happened with my Inktober project. I kept up with writing the prompts, but not with typing up my ramblings and posting them. I have, slowly, over the past many weeks, gotten my Inktoberings into shape, and will start posting them, one every couple of days.3
So that’s where I’ve been, sorting out my mom’s estate (a Work In Progress) and living in my head (another WIP). But if you’d rather think I was abducted by aliens, go ahead. That would be a better story. Maybe I was aboard a UFO with aliens who found my Inktober efforts sufficiently amusing to let me bring my notebook and pens. Maybe the depression is just a cover story planted in my brain to account for my absence. Maybe I’m still on the ship and don’t know it, though I’d expect space-travelling aliens to have better WiFi than what we have at our house…
1. Mr. Wheaton, in addition to his NAMI speech, blogs about his depression (and other matters). Sarah Marsh, in the NAMI newsletter, tells us that “Mental Illness Should Not Be A Secret” in a story much like Mr. Wheaton’s. In one of the Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail, Rion Amilcar Scott discusses the depression-troll that sits on his shoulder and has become a companion. And the Queen of Mental Illness, Jenny Lawson, thebloggess, writes about her own struggles on her blog and in her hysterically funny book, Furiously Happy. (I was going to quote something pertinent from the appendix in the middle of her book, but I couldn’t choose just one.)
2. I do have moments of joy, especially when my children come home, but also after a trip to the bookstore, or during an outing with friends.
3. I saddled poor Hannah with my chronic fatigue, sadness, and self-doubt, mostly to give a plausible reason for the days I couldn’t think up a plot-point.