The Prozac Nation
For a long time, I was deeply unwilling to acknowledge a chronological divider in my life—pre-depression me, and post-depression me. By denying that there was a difference between pre and post-depression me—that it was not simply a tale of continuity—I was putting off grieving the person I was before the dark filter of depression came into my life. By refusing to grieve the older me or acknowledge that post-depression me was a different person with different priorities, I was constantly refusing to admit that depression was always going to be a part of me—in short, a curtain of delusion that I could simply “go back” to who I was, instead of accepting who I am. This is an attempt to differentiate a pre and post-depression me, and make sense of a year when everything in my life changed—every goal, every habit, every relationship—I had so meticulously cultivated took a backseat to the relationship I had long, almost unconsciously neglected—my relationship with myself.
Two days ago, I opened a book I had not opened for over three years. I wish I could say it was something meaningful and poignant, like Joan Didion’s tome on marital grief (“The Year of Magical Thinking”) or the dark humour of “Infinite Jest.” Alas, it was “World Order” by Henry Kissinger—an excellent read for the academic in me, but not quite what someone teetering on the edge of a depressive episode needs. As I was flipping through it, a Métro Paris ticket from 2011 fell out, along with a floodgate of memories—a trip taken with a close friend who died a couple of years after. I took the ticket, tacked it up on my desk, and as I sat looking at it—missing home so desperately I swear I could almost smell the familiar warmth of my grandmother’s kitchen, and thinking life would never be as good as it had been then—I asked myself: when did I become the person who has a 50/50 chance of not having the will to live when she wakes up in the morning?
I cannot pinpoint one moment or event when depression and anxiety came into my life and spread itself out over my mind and my ability to feel anything like a thick, poisonous fog, but I can pinpoint a year. It was the year when old friendships came to a close, and my plans to go to college far, far away from home matured. It was the year I found academic passions—which was exhilarating—and the year I realized how much my brother meant to me—I loved him unconditionally, not in the complicated way I love my parents. New goals, new fears. It was also the year I was just emerging from a medical battle that nearly killed me (and certainly broke my spirit in a way I could not yet process). It was the year I lost a close friend to suicide, the year I found the best friends I have today, and the year that marked the end of a wonderful relationship. It was the year my mother reached the pinnacle of her career, and my father had a heart attack. It was the last year of my life that I could remember being unconditionally happy.
That year, I began to wake up constantly with panic attacks, and after a while, just with the panic of anticipating a panic attack. It was the year when everything felt greyer and greyer, and each task more difficult than the one before. Hobbies were neglected, and getting up and going to school—during senior year, as we know, a crucial year—just a distant goal I could not bring myself to achieve. I felt nothing at all, and though I tried as hard as I could to maintain all my relationships—family, friends, colleagues—too many fell to wayside, victims of a tragic inability to care or feel—because if I opened myself up to feeling, I felt too much of other people’s pain. Emily Dickinson wrote:
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
And that is exactly how I felt all the time. I was high functioning—I had established goals and a largely consistent ability to achieve them exactly the way I wanted to. But the inability to feel, to want to feel, which was, is, a disease wholly on the inside, stole all the joy, the vitality, the emotional payoff that is the core of a will to live. And when I did muster up any energy to go out, Do Things, the anxiety would set in. Through a series of clockwork physical stress responses perfected by mother nature over millennia of incredible evolution, it would hold me down, knock me out just when I had got a second wind and was trying to get back up. Suicidal thoughts were, are, a constant feature of my everyday life, and the kindness I promised myself I would show everyone, was the hardest to show myself. The fragility of sanity was immediately apparent to me as depression and anxiety laid their roots into my life bit by bit—it took mere months to go from someone who was generally, unconditionally happy to someone who has to consciously struggle every day to make myself see that I have things to be happy about. It was that year that I admitted to myself, truthfully, for the first time, that a series of painful events—deaths, diseases, toxic family relationships, and so much more—stuck in my mind and memory like film dissolves tinged with the grey of grief.
Nobody can know depression until they reach it—descriptions like mine rarely capture the depth of the meaninglessness that depression forces you to grapple with for people who don’t know it firsthand, and to people who do, it resonates and yet feels oddly inadequate. But what is easier to comprehend than the vague, nebulous darkness that depression cloaks your life and ability to feel in is the journey out of it. It is long and arduous, and for most people, it is rarely anything like the linear progression of acceptance, medication, and counseling. A large part of this journey comes not from the outside, but from the inside, from a willingness to work on your own systems of feeling and thinking and opening yourself up to processing your feelings as they come, instead of pushing them down and away. I am not a writer, especially not a deeply personal one. But today, I am writing because two days ago, an old Métro Paris ticket that contains more of my grief on its two by four inch form than any book I could ever write pushed me to the edge of a breakdown, and I am open to processing how I am feeling any way I can.
Now? It has taken three years to get to a point where I am not “totally okay,” but willing and able to accept that I will never fit the normative conception of “totally okay.” The anxiety and depression come in waves and bouts that wash over me without warning, but to accept is to open yourself up to processing what you feel, and I am able to do that most of the time and mitigate its impact. My most prized personal progress, though, lies in walking through life with open arms—I am still a little afraid of feeling too much, but willing to feel other people’s pain, listen to their stories, do whatever I can for them only the way someone who has grappled with similar experiences can. Because I was, and sometimes still am, in their exact place, and then I too needed someone to feel what I was feeling, to tell me I was okay too. The key distinction between pre and post-depression me is a willingness to acknowledge and process my feelings as they came instead of prioritizing everything else above my emotional life, because even on my worst days, only I am my safe passage back to the “normal” world. The girl I was pre-depression? She is gone, and I accept that, but part of her is still here, and she is fighting like hell to remember that she wants to be alive, not dead.
Photo by Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas), 1939, oil on canvas, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City.