Trigger/Content Warning for depression and suicidal ideation.
One tenet of discipline I discovered this year: instigate self change or course correction without shame, blame, or loss of frame. Lucky me, I had a few different opportunities to do this.
First, after the news broke. I’ve said I became suicidal. I’ve talked about steps I undertook. That was because I changed. Change can happen to you or you can ignite it. In depression, the first often happens. I didn’t have suicidal ideation, then I found out we were moving, then I did have suicidal ideation. Change happened to me; I felt like I wanted to die even though I had been fighting so hard to live. That is disease process. It can also happen the other direction, especially when the disease loosens its hold for a second: a person with suicidal ideation can experience life affirming stuff. I can feel like I want to live even though my brain is telling me to die.
This is disease process. I’m not sure I would know what life looks like without depression, or the threat of it looming somewhere nearby, or the memory of it casting a long shadow toward the present, or the fear of it ambushing the future. In my very not-a-professional opinion, I’ve been depressed for as long as I can remember. With various snippets and bouts of real non-depression – I don’t even know what to call it, the opposite of depression.
I’ve likened it to Alzheimer’s, again in a not-a-professional way. Both are disease processes.The two disease processes also exhibit obvious differences in awareness of behaviors and consequences, degeneration, legal capacity, and treatment, among other things. However, in both, the capacity of the individual to see herself and her world clearly is limited. In both, there may be spots of absolute clarity, remembrance, and baseline health. In both, decision making can be negatively impacted. The struggle to understand why a person who acts on suicidal ideation does so is not all that different from the struggle to understand why a person experiencing Alzheimer’s behaves in the ways she does. Not for attention. Not out of ungratefulness or lack of faith. Disease processes have hijacked both brains.
For a long time, I’ve heard this debate between depression being a choice or, well, not a choice. Having depression = not a choice. The disease process = not a choice. But depressed people do make choices all the time. Lots of them are really, really sound, too. We go to a friend get-together when we’d rather stay in bed. We engage with the people who love us, even when we are afraid they are tired of us. We reach out into the abyss of the internet because we still reach somewhere. We get out of bed in the morning. We eat a meal. We refill a prescription and take medication and go to the doctor. We create and work and go to school plays. All of these are choices against the inexorable pull of depression. We cannot choose not to have it. We also cannot, much like you, choose not to have cancer or diabetes or heart disease or or or or.
So, how does a chronically depressed person course correct? CAN a chronically depressed person course correct?
In the spring, course correction for me looked like answering the phone when my husband called and telling him the truth about what I was thinking and opening myself to the help that was provided.
In summer, my course correction looked like allowing myself to find pleasure in the new things I saw and did, like the ocean and the swamp.
During the hurricane, my self change was all about letting go of my personal belongings I thought I may have moved all the way to Florida just to have destroyed. It was also about knowing that I didn’t know and allowing that to be, to sit beside me without crowding me.
When we moved back to Oklahoma in October, course correction became tricky. I felt like I should be only happy to the exclusion of all other emotions. It’s where we left many of our people, our schools, our church home, our house. I’d only been in Florida a little while and yet…I felt wistful. Like I hadn’t finished. Like I wanted to have a foot in both worlds. Keep everything safe and same in Oklahoma AND throw life to adventure in Florida. And it felt bad. It felt shameful to not just be happy.
Moving back wasn’t different from the other course changes in the way my disease and I interacted. In each case, I had myriad opportunities to blame myself and others, to shame the same folks, and to completely obliterate the frame for my wellness. I almost did all three in the spring. That’s why it was so scary. I did that less and less as the year progressed, as I became more well.
What’s hard now for me is parsing what’s disease process and what’s just plain old me. Cognitively, I recognize it comes down to control. In mid-spring, there seemed to be only one choice: death. And it pressed on me from all sides. In the late spring, summer, and fall, I saw the diverse choices and I stewed over them and I jousted with some and wrestled with others and picked my way through it. Mid-spring was depression. Late spring forward, that was me. Me being stubborn. Me being plucky. Me being fierce and afraid and tentative and solid and strong and desirous and plaintive and weak and all the things humans are. It was me.
If you have depression, know that I know there is another side. A side where choices aren’t clear even in their existence. Where everything feels simultaneously frozen and in the most massive storm of the world. There are ways out, but you need help. Maybe in the form of people or medicine or doctors or therapy or meditation or a combination. If you, like I, believe in God, let me be clear: the God I worship gave humans the tools and the minds to develop treatments for diseases, and God wants you to use what you need while you need it. [Congress, not so much, but that’s a different post.]
If you have never experienced what I’m talking about here, I’m starting to understand just how difficult it is to see that other side. But it is as real as anything you’ve ever known. And scarier than some.
The line between disease and health can feel tenuous at best and buried beneath lava at worst. Walk it. As closely as you can. Until you are so far on the health side you forget to look for the line. Keep that frame of wellness, without shame, without blame. THAT, my friend, is discipline.