The first time I heard the word "depression" and understood it, I understood that I was depressed. I was probably about eleven years old, and it put a name to the thing that had been plaguing me for so long it seemed my defining characteristic. I can remember people, adults, telling me I couldn't be depressed— because I laughed and smiled so much. Adults also told me I wasn't depressed, I was just seeking attention, making a show of mental illness in order to gain something.
It made me feel completely invisible, as though nobody on earth knew me, or cared to know me. If they could look at me, see a person who felt utterly defined by suicidal thoughts and constant existential misery, and what they saw was a happy person who pretended at angst in order to gain false sympathy, what the fuck was the point?
I felt unknowable and alone.
Since then, I have gravitated towards other people who feel isolated. People with mental illnesses, neurological differences, sociological differences. More than twenty-five years into my depressive existence, I still see somebody in a crowded room who looks as though they don't even know how to breathe the same air and I think, You! You are my people. You and I will understand each other.
That hasn't always been the case, but more often than not, it is.
As I aged into my mental illness, I learned that depression is completely other than looking sad, than withdrawing from social situations or lapsing into bouts of self-loathing or self-harm. I've learned that it isn't a replacement personality, it's like a leak of colorless, odorless gas, slowly choking the life out of your regular, day-to-day self.
More recently, I've learned that depression is different when you are different. Not only because there are different flavors of depression, PTSD and PPD and chronic and bipolar, but because people change. The person choking on invisible gas reacts differently when they are in different situations. While I knew I was particularly badly off during my adolescence when I didn't sleep for a week at a time and wrote increasingly dire journal entries in increasingly elaborate secret codes, what worsening depression looked like as a new mom was playing puzzle games on my computer, editing dance videos, and binge eating sugar.
Even more recently, it looked like slowly disengaging from every commitment in my calendar. Not calling friends. Not answering emails. Not responding to texts.
It looked like sleeping fourteen hours straight.
So when depression looks different, when it is different, it takes different treatments. While I might have been able to break myself out of a depressive cycle when I was nineteen with a carefully curated day of hallucinogenics or a weekend music festival to reset my social functioning, that's not the kind of shit a grown-ass woman can get away with. As an adult, a parent to young children, you create a routine and then you are trapped in it. So a depressive episode of months can become a permanent family tradition.
How do you tell your kids you can't do the things you've been doing every day for six months, because those things were actually killing you?
I'm doing alright, I am genuinely doing better now than I was two months ago, but I also cannot honestly say it wasn't a low bar. To pull myself out, I'm doing something I've never really done before— I'm taking care of myself. Taking care of myself to a point that less than a year ago I would have considered excessive and pointless and even potentially toxic. I prided myself on being "low-maintenence" (a type of internalized misogyny that's been particularly hard to unlearn), and while it kept me from falling prey to a lot of marketing intended to make me feel ugly, it closed a lot of doors to ways to help me feel happier and more in tune with my own body.
I'm a thirty-four-year-old woman with thick curly hair, and for the first time in my life, I own a hairdryer with a diffuser. For the first time in my life, I have a skincare routine. I have lotion in my purses and on my desk and by the bed. I have different AM and PM toothpastes. I'm about to have my first pair of prescription sunglasses. I go out sometimes to get pedicures just because I want to have pretty toes.
It's been a steep learning curve, but I'm learning the difference between soaking in a hot bath to escape from my problems for an hour, and soaking in a hot bath and then really appreciating how soft my skin feels and how pleasant it is to be perfumed with sage and lavender and amber. I am learning that rituals, be they preparing a glass of absinthe or applying six different products to my face in a particular order, are calming, affirming, and healing.
I have no grand, unifying lesson here. I am learning, and I am at the bottom floor when it comes to self-care. Up until these recent months, my version of self-care was binging sitcoms while eating chocolates. I know that would have worked for 20-something Lea, but these are different times.
Do you have any self-care rituals that you find help you? Please share them here. I want to know, and I'd love to try.
And that, I guess, is how I know how much better I am than that low, low bar.
I'd love to try.
Read something less depressing here: The Tale of My Daughters' Penises
Read my most recent post here: The Best of All Possible Worlds: Lea sees the Time Knife
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