Opening Up, Closing Down

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm]

The truth about mental illnesses that many of us have learned is that they change you for good. Even after the symptoms are gone, the medication gradually reduced to nothing or stabilized at a dose that works, something remains. (And for many of us the symptoms are never entirely gone.)

Depression left my scaffolds–indeed, my very foundation–cracked. I’m okay, even joyful, much of the time. But it feels a little flimsy.

One of the ways this plays out in my daily life is that I have problems with intimacy. I don’t mean the sexual euphemism, but rather the ability to be vulnerable, to let people in, to be seen as you are, to be comfortable with closeness.

I am intensely uncomfortable with all of this.

I hate talking about myself, whether it’s positive or negative. I hate feeling like I need someone’s help to deal with emotions. I hate wanting someone’s help to deal with emotions even when I know I don’t need it. I hate the first time I tell someone I love them and I hate many of the subsequent times too. I hate it when people know that I miss them. I hate being visibly upset around someone, which means that if it’s at all possible to leave, I leave. I hate expressing any emotion besides joy and anger (which I rarely feel) to anyone. I hate it when someone says things to me in an attempt to build intimacy but I don’t know what to do so I say nothing. I hate when people notice emotions I didn’t intend to share. I hate when they tell me this as though it’s going to somehow endear them to me. I hate that there’s nowhere I can cry without being seen or heard by someone.

So relationships, whether platonic or romantic or sexual or some combination, are difficult.

Some people have difficulties like these for their whole lives, but for me, it happened as a result of depression. And, ironically, depression is also the thing that’s hardest for me to share with people.

During my nine years of depression–in fact, probably my whole life up to and including that–I was very different. My experience of mental illness was that it triggered a sort of leaking of thoughts and emotions. I literally lacked the ability to hold them in. They spilled out of my hands, like when I try to move a big pile of laundry from the washing machine to the dryer and little bits and pieces–a sock here, a tank top there–keep falling on the floor. I remember crying apropos of nothing on the band bus in 10th grade and telling my boyfriend that there’s no way to be happy when you hate yourself. Fifteen is old enough to know that this is not an appropriate thing to say. It didn’t matter. It just came out.

It’s not like I didn’t try to plug the leaks. In 6th or 7th grade, I decided to keep a record in my journal of “things left unsaid.” Each day I intentionally tried to shut myself up at some crucial juncture, and rewarded myself for it by writing it down in the notebook later–the thing left unsaid, the person I didn’t say it to, and the reason I didn’t say it.

Years later, what I learned about psychology and behavior change suggested that this could be quite an effective strategy for some people. But it didn’t help me much, because my problem wasn’t purely behavioral. When I looked at those entries later, I noticed how many of them had to do with hurt feelings. “Thing left unsaid: that I was upset about what _____ said about my outfit. Reason: because it wouldn’t make a difference.”

I tried so very hard, but everything hurt. If they couldn’t read it explicitly in my words, they read it implicitly in my face, my body, my tone. I couldn’t hide it. I gave up writing the entries within weeks because it was already too late, everything was leaking out and I couldn’t patch the holes fast enough. In college the dam broke completely, and everything from those little hurts all the way up to wanting to kill myself became common knowledge for those who interacted with me a lot.

For a while it was okay. I thought that being so open was keeping me going–and, as I’ll get to in a moment, it was important in some ways–but what it ultimately did was it completely broke me. It destroyed any sense of self-respect, independence, and competence that I had. When I confided my depressive feelings to someone, usually a partner, I felt like garbage. I felt so much more shame about the act of confiding than I ever did about the feelings I confided themselves.

If you’ve ever had to call the last person you want to speak to right now because they’re the only one available to talk you out of slashing your own wrists, then maybe you know what I’m talking about.

You have to reveal. You have to open up, in order to live. You have to tell it to the therapist and the psychiatrist and your parents and your partner and anyone else who is in any way responsible for your well-being.

You tell people the darkest most horrible things not because you trust them and want to let them see this part of you, but because you have no fucking choice.

And so the concept of “opening up” has been totally ruined for me, because I didn’t get to save it for those special, bonding late-night conversations with someone I feel ready to show myself to.

I had to do it.

Now I don’t.

And not having to feels like freedom. It feels like victory. It feels like independence, finally. It feels like adulthood, although it shouldn’t. It feels like maturity, although it shouldn’t. It feels like wholeness. It feels like safety.

It feels like recovery.

So now I sit at the computer with words typed into the chat box–“I feel sad,” “I can’t stop crying,” “I miss you so much”–and I can’t send them. I want to send them and I don’t want to send them. Not wanting to send them almost always wins out.

In a way, intimacy was easy when I was depressed. I wore it on the outside and it created a sense of intimacy with many people almost instantly. New partners saw my neat little red scars so early on, too early on. “We’ll work on that,” said one, an aspiring psychologist. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” said another.

Now nobody has to see, and it’s almost impossible to want it any other way. Intimacy has gotten much harder. Perhaps mirroring my own style, new partners disclose little and so I lose interest in them quickly, convinced we have nothing in common besides politics.

Instead I write. The stress of work, the rush of falling in love, the little depressions that come and go, the grief of losing my old lives, the fear of the future–they sink into paper and that’s where they stay.

It’s lonely and isolating as hell, but it beats feeling opened up and exposed.

And now, although I’m known as someone who talks about depression a lot, I don’t really talk about it. I speak obliquely of it, the way someone might mention the passing of a loved one without ever speaking openly of their grief.

I can say that there is fatigue. I can say that it feels sad and numb and dark and hopeless. I can say that I wanted to die. I can say that my head was–still is, much to my constant disappointment–fuzzy and slow, memory useless, words perpetually at the tip of my tongue but left unspoken. I can write this blog post about how depression has affected my ability to desire, build, and feel intimacy.

But I do not ever, not anymore, tell you how it really feels. I will not make you listen to me tell you I hate myself I hate myself like I’ve never hated anything before and I wish I could rip my body and my mind to shreds–

No, I stay on a meta level. I’m comfortable talking about it conceptually.

But the feeling of depression itself? That is a dark room into which I want to go alone. I don’t want anyone knocking on the door trying to get me to let them in. I don’t want to have to hold their hand and guide them around the sharp corners they can’t see, because when I’m in that room, I need to be caring for myself. Not for anyone else.

Of course, it always starts out with them hoping to care for me, but that’s never how it ends up. People end up needing my support to navigate the nightmares in my own head.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the mental fortitude for that. Caring for one person–me–is enough.

Presumably, I don’t have to be stuck this way for my whole life just because I have/had depression. I’m hoping to start therapy again soon, for this and for other reasons. But for now, as I reflect on myself and my life at this very special (for me) time of year, it’s hard not to feel hopeless about all the little things I can no longer do, at least not without lots of anxiety and fear. Like tell someone how the stress actually feels. Or talk to someone about how powerless I feel in my work. Or ask someone if they can talk to me for a while to help me get my mind off of things.

In this way, and in many other ways, mental illnesses may never end, or may take much longer to end than we expect, and there is no hopeful cheery note for me to end this on.

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Opening Up, Closing Down
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7 thoughts on “Opening Up, Closing Down

  1. 1

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve also experienced a lot of spilling over of emotion and feelings of being out of control of my expression of them during the most “active” periods of my depression & anxiety, and that is always very overwhelming for me. I am also a survivor of an abusive relationship in which most of the abuse occurred during these “emotional dam burstings” – teaching me how to shut down pretty quickly. Now, when I speak about how I really feel, my voice shakes, I blush, and, quite often, I speak in the second person as a subconscious way of distancing myself – “it can really get to you!” (Score 1 for therapy for pointing that out.)
    I wish I had some answers about opening up and maintaining a sense of control in life (or, as you wrote, adulthood and maturity – and please forgive me if I’m drawing a poor connection there) while also creating and building intimacy, but (1) I really don’t, and (2) you didn’t ask for advice so it’d be presumptuous to share even if I did. I will say, since you mentioned it, that therapy is helping me some, and I hope that it helps for you as well, in whatever ways you need it to. Really – thank you so much for writing this. I wish you all the best and more in the continuing struggle.

  2. 2

    I recognize easily many of the elements you mentioned: welcome, old friends! Some others are unknown to me, as it is only to be expected (we are different people).

    One of the ways this plays out in my daily life is that I have problems with intimacy. I don’t mean the sexual euphemism, but rather the ability to be vulnerable, to let people in, to be seen as you are, to be comfortable with closeness. […] So relationships, whether platonic or romantic or sexual or some combination, are difficult.

    This one is familar. It’s always been like that. I was reading the list of things you hate (talking about yourself, being visibly upset, etc.) with a strange feeling of deja vu. The only thing that came to my mind was that I would probably use the word “fear” – not “hate” – as a primary description. Apart from this small detail, everything fits.

    My experience of mental illness was that it triggered a sort of leaking of thoughts and emotions. I literally lacked the ability to hold them in. […] In a way, intimacy was easy when I was depressed. I wore it on the outside and it created a sense of intimacy with many people almost instantly.

    This is what I would deem the main difference: there has never been such a period in my life. You describe telling people “the darkest most horrible things not because you trust them and want to let them see this part of you, but because you have no fucking choice.” It is something I sort of understand on a “meta” level; but I don’t know it from personal experience. For me, the rule was rather: you don’t tell people “things”. Never. It’s too dangerous and scary.

    In 6th or 7th grade, I decided to keep a record in my journal of “things left unsaid”.

    You don’t say! I still have mine from years ago. Sometimes, when everything seems dreary, I take it from the shelf and read it. Invariably it brings the wave of optimism: “you think it’s bad now? You really think it couldn’t be worse? Just see how wrong you are!”

    In this way, and in many other ways, mental illnesses may never end, or may take much longer to end than we expect, and there is no hopeful cheery note for me to end this on.

    Then I hope you don’t mind me ending on a cheery note? My own experience is that indeed some things never end. On the other hand, there were also significant changes.

    As it happens, at the moment I have someone I’m very open with (openness close to absolute). However, reaching this level was difficult and took more than 10 years of living together. Lots and lots of problems on the way (“how can you tell me these childhood stories only after so many years of marriage! Is that how you trust me!?” Or that one, also nice: “Why did I have to wait so long to learn who you are?!!”) … but still, it can be done. Isn’t this a cheery note? I would say: yes, absolutely, it is.

    Still, my relations with all the other people remain quite strained, uncomfortable, and formal, with the net being the only place where I can communicate (to a reasonable degree). As you said, some things never end.

  3. 3

    I don’t want to have to hold their hand and guide them around the sharp corners they can’t see, because when I’m in that room, I need to be caring for myself. Not for anyone else.

    Of course, it always starts out with them hoping to care for me, but that’s never how it ends up. People end up needing my support to navigate the nightmares in my own head.

    Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the mental fortitude for that. Caring for one person–me–is enough.

    Even apologizing in the abstract in this post is more apologizing than a person should have to do for this. A dark-minded person I know has shared practically nothing with his only close relative because their response to 1/100th strength of the pure darkness is to flip out, cry, and need consoling which he is obvy not up to supplying.

    Extending further, when people talk about their feels and probs, he has to refrain from comment because his are always 100 times as bad as the other people discussing stuff and he doesn’t want to have to engage the reaction to what he actually thinks.

    This is why I’m very short and quick to offer conversational outs when a situation with someone else calls for sympathy. Lots of people have these feelings to some extent and I want to let them know they don’t have to explain themselves to me or help me feel better about them feeling bad.

    I’m Mr. Handsoff. I can’t know, but I’m pretty sure I’m doing less harm this way.

  4. 4

    Well, of course it never ends, just as most physical disabilities never end. Many people will experience instances of circumstantial melancholy – and that will probably pass – but chronic major depression is a lifelong struggle, as sure as type 1 diabetes or fibromyalgia. Which is to say that it can be managed, there are good days and bad days, and it’s even possible to live a fulfilling life, with medical and/or therapeutic assistance. But it will always be there, lurking in the background. It sucks.

  5. 5

    ^Too damn right. We need actual cures. While I can only hold the feeblest hope they will happen within my lifetime, they seem possible. I think a lot of psychological disorders are still too poorly understood by medical science to allow much progress, much like how “IBS” is a useless catch-all term for a broad spectrum of conditions which are incurable and amount to “ur shit don’t work right. Good luck with that.”

    1. 5.1

      Thanks; personally, I doubt we’ll see a “cure” in our lifetimes, unless we hit the singularity or whatever. We know a lot about the body, but our ignorance of the brain and its workings is so comprehensive as to be almost total.

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