by Tess Adair
I had this friend in high school that I used to angst with. His name is Seth. Seth had a serious ongoing issue with depression; it was one of the things we bonded over.
Seth and I used to talk about something I call ebb and flow. See, depression isn’t static for everyone. For me, it’s always been something of a roller coaster. One day, I may feel down overall but neutral enough that I can get out and about, accomplish necessary tasks like grocery shopping. The next, I’ll feel this crushing combination of malaise and despair, to the point where that simple interaction with a cashier can seem overwhelming and impossible, and the sheer act of leaving the house can reduce me to nothing. And then maybe I’ll have a day where I feel completely fine.
Sometimes I’d even have a whole week, or a few weeks, where I felt fine.
Seth had weeks like that too. He said the longer any good period lasted, the more apprehensive he would feel--because each high was inevitably followed by a low, and they tended to be proportional in length and intensity. I knew exactly what he meant. I enjoyed my highs, but I hated them, too. I knew they would end, and on some level, they felt like a lie. Depression was real; everything else was pretend.
I felt this way pretty consistently throughout high school, and it only got worse in college. Eventually I got to a point where I accepted that I might feel this way forever. Depression might be something I'd have to deal with for the rest of my life.
But then a couple of things happened. After I graduated college, my mom decided to let me live at home an extra year so I could figure out what to do next. During that year, I lost about 60 pounds (and more later), worked at Target to make some money, finished my novel, and decided to move to Seattle with a friend from college.
Finishing the first novel gave me a strange sense of peace. Losing weight helped me feel accomplished (and alleviated some of the self-consciousness and self-loathing I’d been dealing with since adolescence,) and exercising provided me with a consistent mood boost.
And then I moved. I loved Seattle immediately, even though I had so little money when I first moved here that spending $20 on a desk was my greatest extravagance. Six months after my arrival, the friend I came with moved back home. I was sad and more than a little scared to see her go, but by virtue of a twist of fate, I didn’t end up on my own like I’d thought I would. Instead, I ended up with 4 new roommates, and I inherited a large and welcoming group of friends through them.
In some ways, I felt like a completely different person from the one I’d been in high school and college. Sure, I had all the same beliefs and ambitions, but my emotional state was completely alien to me. I had once hated my body so much that I felt compelled to avoid mirrors and cameras like they burned me; I’d felt so self-conscious, certain that everyone who saw me could feel only disgust for me, that parties were like an exercise in torture; I’d been so financially strapped that I’d worried I wouldn’t finish college, let alone accomplish anything else I wanted to do in my life.
But about 20 months after I graduated, most of that had changed. I no longer needed to avoid mirrors, and I could even stand to see pictures of myself. I actually enjoyed parties--and I found that I did pretty well at them. I didn’t yet make a lot of money, but I’d finished college and had fewer financial burdens, and I felt more confident about my future.
In fact, I went through something of a belated college-party-girl phase. I’d say I got a little drunk off my newfound extroversion. I went out to bars or parties almost every weekend; I spent most of my spare time socializing instead of writing; I went on dates with strangers, and I enjoyed them.
I wasn’t depressed anymore. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself; I’d lived with depression for so long, I wasn’t sure how to live without it (which is probably why my party phase lasted as long as it did.)
Of course, as much as I enjoyed the change, I knew from the get-go that it wouldn’t last.
Depression hadn’t disappeared. I could sense it, even if I wasn’t drowning in it. Just like the highs I’d had throughout high school (and rarely in college,) this happiness felt like a lie. A nice one, but a lie nonetheless.
Still, it lasted a while. I’d say I got a solid two years out of it.
And then, for no specific reason, I crashed.
I’d been taking pole dance classes for more than a year, and I agreed to participate in a small pole show, held primarily for families and friends of performers. I spent a month and a half training hard, almost every day. The performance went well, and afterward, I invited all my friends to come over to my house for a small after-party.
I regretted the party before it began. I’d felt all this buildup for the past month, but as soon as the performance was over, I felt depleted and exhausted. I wanted to enjoy the party, but I couldn’t. Everything annoyed me; everything felt like a burden.
I’d hoped that I was just tired. I’d hoped that I would feel better after I’d slept. I didn’t.
The low that followed lasted the next five months.
A part of me felt like I’d regressed. I’d hoped that getting completely lost in depression like this was a thing of the past, and that if I ever felt it again, I’d be able to fight it. I’d finally be strong enough to avoid the worst of it. But it returned full force, and how quickly it sank me was beyond demoralizing. Almost immediately, I came to resent all the things I’d loved the most, like parties and pole dance. Instead of elevating me like they once had, they took all my effort and left me drained and empty.
I couldn’t figure out what had changed, but the truth was, I wasn’t surprised. A part of me had been bracing for this for two years.
Ebb and flow. As long as the high lasted, it didn’t mean I was cured. The crash was inevitable.
The next five months were rough. I worked tirelessly, exerting energy I didn’t have, to try and make myself feel better. Almost everything failed. But I kept pushing.
When I was a teenager, depression seemed hopeless. I knew that I had good periods, but a part of me couldn’t enjoy them because they always ended. Technically, that hasn’t changed. But now that I’m standing on the other side of a two-year-long high, the one upside of hitting bottom again is that I’m finally able to see it a new way.
Sure, every high will be followed by a low, and that still sucks. But if that’s true, then every low may also be followed by a high. It’s a small but important distinction.
I’m not exactly on a high right now, but I’m not consumed by a low, either. I feel strained and tired a lot of the time, and joy remains absent from a number of activities that used to fill me with it. But I’m not clawing my way through a meaningless abyss. It’s more like I’m walking beside it, hovering over the edge, neither falling in nor escaping it completely.
It’s not my preferred state, but I can live with it. It’s kind of zen.
And I know another high will come. I just have to wait it out.