A Post-Apocalyptic Life: On Getting (Somewhat) Better From Depression

depression photo

The comment policy for this post is different from my usual one. It’s at the end of the post. Content note: depression, obviously.

How do I live as a more-or-less healthy person, when I know I can get depression at any time?

My depression is chronic and episodic. When I total up the years of my life, most of them have been not-depressed, but I’ve had several extended bad episodes over the decades of my life. This last one, starting in fall 2012 when my father died and I was diagnosed with cancer, has been the worst and the longest by a long shot. I refer to it as Armageddon.

I’m starting to feel better. I haven’t had a significant depressive episode for a few months: I’ve had some depression-ish dips in my mood, motivation, and ability to focus, some stretches when my brain felt like it was wrapped in cotton. But for a few months now, those have been fairly short and easily handled. I think I’m getting better. And I’m starting to look at what that means, and how I’m going to live now.

See, I didn’t know I had chronic episodic depression until this most recent round of it. Before this, I’d seen myself as a mentally healthy person who’d had occasional episodes of situational depression. It took a fair amount of work, with both my therapist and my psychiatrist, for me to accept that my depression, while intermittent, is a lifelong thing. Yes, my episodes are situational in that they’re usually set off by external events — but once they get going, they’re self-perpetuating in exactly the way depression generally plays out. And not everyone responds to major traumatic life events with depression, several times throughout their life. The fact that I do means I have a chronic mental illness.

So now I know. And now I have to act on that knowledge. I have to be vigilant. I have to keep an eye on my self-care: I don’t have to be keeping at it constantly, throwing everything at the wall that I can muster in the desperate hope that something sticks, but I also can’t let it slide for very long. I have to keep an eye on my moods, make sure that tiredness and sadness don’t turn into depression, that laziness doesn’t turn into depression, that being exhausted and spending three days on the sofa after finishing a huge project doesn’t turn into depression. I probably have to stay on anti-depressants the rest of my life. And when major traumatic life events happen — especially when there’s more than one, my episodes are most often set off when there’s more than one trauma at a time — I have to get my ass back into therapy, and probably dial my meds back up. I have to be vigilant. But not too vigilant. Hyper-vigilance is itself not healthy. I have to be meta-vigilant about how vigilant I’m being.

And I’m not going to be the same person I was before Armageddon. Especially because this episode was so long, and so bad, I have to let go of any notion I had of “getting back to normal.” I am not getting back to anything. Being healthy, in this case, means letting go, and moving forward. A huge part of my recovery involves defining what my new normal is, and accepting it.

Some of that difference is okay with me. Actually, a lot of that difference is okay with me, and more than okay. My therapist and I have been talking about something called post-traumatic growth: for some people with PTSD or post-traumatic symptoms (I have the latter, I don’t know if I have the former), we can make meaning out of our trauma by making it a learning experience. I know that I’m a more compassionate person than I was before this last depression. I have more understanding of how life circumstances can fuck with people; more patience with people who don’t respond to trauma or illness with plucky, buoyant courage. I’m quieter, a better listener. I’m a different person than I was, and mostly I think I’m a better person.

But some of that difference is not okay with me. To make an analogy with non-mental illness or injury: Sometimes, we get sick or injured, and it takes a while to get better, but once we’re better we’re every bit as healthy as we were before. And sometimes, illness or injury takes a toll: we’re always weaker in that broken leg, our digestion is always somewhat delicate, our energy never quite returns to where it was before. I think mental illness may be the same. I don’t know if it will be for me. I don’t yet know if I’m always going to be a little more susceptible to low moods, brain fogs, lack of focus, loss of motivation, irritation, exhaustion. I think I probably am. I am for now.

I am also angry, and sad. Not at anyone in particular: intransitive anger can be just as much of a bugger as intransitive gratitude. These last three and a half years should have been some of the best years of my life. They were the years when my writing career finally took off and became what I’d worked towards for decades. During Armageddon, I published three books and started a fourth; I co-founded a local atheist organization; I co-launched a business. These should have been golden years, and I spent them in a fog at best and a black hole at worst.

I’m starting to cry right now, writing those words. That is really hard to accept. These should have been some of the best years of my life, they were unique and hugely important years in my life, and I am never going to get them back. I don’t know what to do with that, except grieve.

And I’m not sure what to do with my newly-found, newly-accepted identity as a person with disabling mental illness. I don’t know what to do with the mental illness community that has meant so much to me, that has helped me craft some goddamn meaning out of this shitstorm, that has given me so much support when I was crawling out of a black hole and trying to stabilize the balance beam I’d built over it. Do I still get to call myself depressed? Is that appropriative? And what does it mean to have chronic episodic depression and not be in the middle of an episode? In two years, what will it mean to be someone with chronic episodic depression who (hopefully) hasn’t had an episode in two years? I don’t know yet. I’m pretty much going to have to make it up.

I realize that it seems like I’m complaining about a good thing. I’m not. I’m getting better, and I’m happy about that. I know how lucky I am. I’m not complaining, except for the parts where I am. I’m just trying to figure this out.

Comment policy: If you yourself have depression or other mental illness, I welcome suggestions and perspectives on managing it as a chronic lifelong illness — but please frame them as what works for you, not as prescriptions for me or anyone else. If you don’t have mental illness, please don’t give advice of any kind. Thanks.

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A Post-Apocalyptic Life: On Getting (Somewhat) Better From Depression
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12 thoughts on “A Post-Apocalyptic Life: On Getting (Somewhat) Better From Depression

  1. 1

    I had an extremely bad cycle of depression 2 years ago complete with suicide attempt and hospitalization. Fortunately, in this downward spiral, I found an amazing therapist. We have been working through Brene Brown’s books – The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. I’m definitely not the same now as I was 2 years ago.

    I feel that I am happier and stronger, but getting to this place was really scary. As I worked through issues, my capacity for happiness and love grew, but on the flip side, the distance to fall got further. It’s risky to be happy. Especially with chronic depression.

    Also, I still identify as being mentally ill. I still take my medication. I know without active effort on my part, I could easily slip back into a depressive episode. To use an overused metaphor, a diabetic is still a diabetic even when their blood sugar is properly managed. I still have depression even when it is in remission. Which sucks, because I want it to be gone, but it never will be because my brain is wired that way.

    I’m glad you’re feeling better.

    PS. On an unrelated note, thank you for publishing Why Are You Atheists So Angry? It pushed me out of the floundering deist category and solidly in with the Atheists.

  2. 2

    I’ll be honest… I still haven’t figured this one out.

    I have depression, anxiety, and C-PTSD (the latter is not a DSM diagnosis, but it fucking should be, so I’m claiming it, damnit. Standard PTSD is not a good match for the kind of chronic issues that result from long-term emotional abuse, but I 100% have identifiable PTSD symptoms.).

    With therapy, and drugs, and rigorous self-care, I am a pretty highly functioning person most of the time. I am lucky as hell to have a great job, and I manage to adult fairly well.

    But I live in fear of the next crash, always. Even though my crashes have been less severe and life-altering as I’ve gotten older, made my life more stable, and had more therapy (trauma-focused therapy, in particular, made a huge difference… drastically dialing down the deep sense of worthlessness I’ve carried since I was a child lessens the effort I have to expend day-to-day staying out of depressive thought patterns), I’m still afraid.

  3. 3

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Bloggess, but you may be interested in checking her out sometime (at, natch, http://thebloggess.com/ ). Jenny is an amazing (and amazingly funny) woman who deals with some mental illnesses, including depression. Her mantra, “Depression lies”, is simple on the surface but profoundly true. Please be aware that some of her posts may be triggering, as she writes very openly and honestly about what it’s like inside her head.

  4. 5

    I just want to quickly say thank you for this. I’ve enjoyed your writing and your insights for years, but this hits home in a much more personal way. May we all have continued mostly-success on the long road.

  5. 6

    Hi Greta,
    I can definitely sympathize with your situation. I have suffered from severe depression and anxiety my entire life. At one point things got so bad that I gave up on my PhD in Neuroscience. My worst times were, believe it or not, triggered by a Batman movie a few years ago. Luckily, a residential treatment program helped me get better.

    One of the ways I have coped, even through the worst of times, has been by reading. I especially love the escape from reality of reading a good erotica book. In fact, one of my favorites is your book Bending. I hope you keep writing more like it, because not only does it help you feel better, but your work really inspires and helps me. Keep,up the good work!

  6. 7

    It helps to know that you are not alone in experiencing these things. Hearing you and many others speak of their own struggles helps me cope with my own, even if only a small way. Thank you.

    The stigma against speaking of mental illness can contribute to a downward spiral of silence, shame, and isolation. But I know that talking about my own struggles has helped a friend seek the help they needed.

    The launch of The Orbit prompted a lot of introductory posts from writers here and at FTB and it struck me how many writers mentioned depression and related forms of mental illness. I’m not sure what this means, but I appreciate the honesty, trust, and care being exhibited in the atheism/social-justice corner of the internet.

  7. 9

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve suffered from depression off and on since adolescence and I’ve been downward spiralling depression for a couple years or so now. I don’t have any good advice for getting better, but I’m glad that you’re starting to.

  8. 10

    I have depression. I’ve had it for so long that my therapist and I are taking this amazing not-actually-majorly-depressed period of my life that as been the past two years to completely rebuild a whole lot of maladaptive coping mechanisms I developed in order to survive being a teenager and becoming an adult.

    I think of it like any other illness. My diabetic friend has to monitor his insulin. My friends with food allergies have to pay attention to what they eat and how their food is prepared. I have to monitor my mood. Just because I haven’t had a major eposide in two years doesn’t mean I don’t have the potential for it. Just because my friend with a peanut allergy hasn’t had to use his epi-pen in ages doesn’t mean he doesn’t carry it with him.

    I wish I had something really inspiring to say about feeling like you haven’t enjoyed your success because of the depression (as a long-time reader, it makes me so happy to see all the incredible things you’ve done). When I find myself mad at the ways depression has dampened my experience of the world, I remind myself to be happy proud that I’m alive, and holding down a job that pays the bills, and maintaining friendships. But depression almost took all those things from me at one time or another, so there’s a lot there for me to work with to bring my immediate mood up. I can’t change how I felt but I can be happy that I am here, now.

  9. 11

    I have arrived in the era of ‘Post-desperation’. I feel a lot better. Depression and anxiety have shadowed me all my life, but I found it most severe when I was “Pre-desparate”; In the cynical but hopeful era maybe.

    Many thousands of pills later and a graduate of cognitive therapy, it has only been since I have given up hope of a better world, that my world has gotten better.

    I view this as a sad irony.

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