A couple weeks ago, I had to get up early to go to a doctor’s appointment. The appointment was at ten-twenty a.m., but it was in the next big town, seventy-five miles away–about an hour and a half drive. Since I need a little time to get going in the mornings–and by “a little time” I mean a couple of hours–and we’d have to leave by quarter of nine, I asked my husband to wake me up at seven. (I don’t drive. I haven’t driven a vehicle in over ten years, I guess. I probably could if I had to or if I had my own car. But it’s been so long, and I hate the car we have, with its sticky standard transmission and awful steering. So when I have to go somewhere farther than I can walk, my husband drives me.)
I ended up getting up on my own at about six-thirty, which is an ungodly hour for me. I generally get up around eight, later if I’ve had a rough night, which is often. It wasn’t as awful as I expected it to be. As i drank my coffee and showered and got ready to go, I found myself wondering if I could make a habit of getting up earlier. If I set an alarm and got up earlier, I’d have more time. I could do more things. When I got to feeling physically better–I’ve had a recurring sinus infection for over a year that drains me entirely of energy when it hits; that’s what the doctor’s appointment was about–I’d have time to do yoga and clean my house and still be able to devote several hours to writing. I could even join the gym, maybe, if I could scrounge the extra $35 a month for the membership. Joining the gym, being more active, getting in better physical shape, is something I’ve been daydreaming about for a long time. Because of the recurring infections and the subsequent lack of energy, I’ve been largely sedentary for several years. I’m in the worst physical shape I’ve ever been in. I used to do Pilates and walk three to five miles five or six days a week. Now walking half a mile downtown to check the mail has me in a sweat and dragging my heavy body–I’ve gained almost 100 lbs, being sick–back home up the hill requires me to lie down for half an hour to recover. I don’t like it. I want not to be this way.
The notion of getting up earlier, having more time, lingered around the edges of my brain as we got in the car and drove out of town. As we passed the gym, I look through the windows and saw people using the weight machines, and I thought, “I could be there. I could be one of those people.”
By the time we hit the next town over, though, this idea had been replaced with a question: “Why? Why would I want to do that?”
And it was a question I couldn’t answer.
I’m not necessarily averse to the idea of more time. But I hate getting up to an alarm. I have ever since I was in junior high, maybe before; I can’t remember when I started getting up on my own instead of waiting for my mom to wake me. Getting up to an alarm has always meant getting up to face a day full of things I hate, from the horrible private school I attended, where the other kids made my life hell, to the string of garbage jobs I dreaded going to, day in and day out. Jobs that never paid enough, that had no future to them other than to repeat the same actions day after day until I could finally escape and go home to sleep and get up and do it all over again. Imagining getting up to an alarm, just IMAGINING it, gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
And what would I do with that time? Do yoga, join the gym? Why? What would that get me? Would being in better physical condition make any difference in my life? Not really. I’m too old to believe it would make any difference in my life. I’ve been there, done that, more times than I can count. I’ve been in good shape and bad shape. I’ve been thin and I’ve been fat, and it doesn’t make a difference. Being in better physical shape isn’t going to do anything at all to relieve our constant money troubles, the worry every day that this is the day I won’t be able to keep us afloat and we’ll end up living out of our horrible car. It isn’t going to miraculously restore my fertility so I could have the child I’ve always so desperately wanted. It isn’t going to make me less afraid or less lonely, or make my husband more romantic. It won’t make my books sell. That extra time, the things I could do with it: I don’t believe any of it would give me one damn thing that I want. And since it won’t give me one damn thing that I want, there is no reason at all for me to challenge my aversion to waking up to an alarm.
By the time we hit Rogers Mesa, about fifteen miles out of town, I was in tears. I realized I don’t believe anything in my life can change in any meaningful way. I have no power here. It’s a constant struggle to no beneficial end. It might be different if the things on which I considered spending that theoretical extra time had any value to me in and of themselves, but they don’t. I don’t like exercise for its own sake; I never have. I don’t get any kind of endorphin rush from it. It’s just tedious and emotionally loaded. On a good day I can do Pilates or yoga, and it’s okay, and sometimes the stretching of cramped muscles feels all right. On a bad day, there’s no question of forcing myself through the resistance. I’ve done that, and it only makes matters worse. Yeah, I like having a clean house, but what is a clean house going to get me? A prize? I hate dealing with it, and the mop makes my back hurt, and it all has to be done over again eventually. Losing the extra weight I carry around might be nice, but it wouldn’t change anything, not really. I’ve known that since high school, when I thought all my difficulties would disappear if I weren’t so fat, and I lost weight, and nothing changed, so I lost more weight, and more and more and more until I had to be hospitalized.
Nothing will change my life. I have no power. This was the moment when I realized I was in a bad depressive cycle. It had been coming on for a while, maybe all summer, certainly since the last round of sinus troubles laid me out. But that moment on Rogers Mesa was when I saw it. When I looked at my life and saw it would be the same forever and there was nothing at all I could do about it, and I could never have any of the things I want. And there’s really no reason at all for me to continue. Feeling this way, the idea of getting up an hour or two earlier every day seemed distant and laughable. Why in the world should I do that? Better to take the small pleasures I can count on: the softness of the pillow, the warmth of blankets, the safety of home.
Depression lies. Everyone in the mental health field says it. When I spoke of some of this struggle on Facebook, one of my friends said it. Depression lies. Sometimes, when I’m not in a depressive cycle or teetering on the edge of one, I believe it. But in the moment, I don’t believe it at all.
It doesn’t feel like a lie. It feels self-evident, like the awareness of gender or sexual preference or the shape of my mouth and eyes. Or deeper, like the faith that summer leads to autumn, which leads to winter, and the knowledge that the sun comes up in the morning and sets in at night, and will keep doing so no matter what I think about it. I don’t know how other people experience it, but for me it’s visceral, almost tangible, this truth. I am constantly, painfully aware of the pain in my center, a tight, nauseous feeling bordering on pain. The sensitivity of my skin, the way everything is too loud and too bright and too much. The way I want to curl into a ball and pull the blankets over my head to shut everything out.
I’ve done every cognitive therapy under the sun. The wisdom of the mental health professions would have you believe that you can change your depressive state by changing the negative thought patterns that lead to it. But it doesn’t work. At least, it doesn’t work on me. Because this isn’t about my thoughts. Yes, one might say that “nothing will change” and “I’m powerless” are thoughts. But you know what? Cutting that off and replacing it with, “I have power” and “I can change:” THAT feels like the lie. It’s like repeating an affirmation every day when you know it to be untrue. The belief, the understanding of my reality is so bone-deep, I can’t change it to something else any more than I can change the shape of my nose by wishing. It doesn’t work like that. It might be different if I had any experience at all of being able to make a concrete and lasting change that led to something better. But I don’t. Like Sisyphus pushing his rock uphill, it’s a constant struggle leading nowhere. And at the end of the day, the rock rolls right back down to the place from which it started.
I do my best. I try to be there for people. I try to converse, be supportive, have normal conversations. And yet, I am invisible. This is a demonstrable truth. No matter how many times I cook dinner for friends, no one ever cooks dinner for me. No one ever thinks, “I haven’t seen Kele in a while, so I’ll get in contact with her and see how she’s doing,” and then does it. If I mention I’m having a bad day, people might say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I wish I could do something.” And if I tell them something they could do, they say, “Yes, yes; of course,” and then they never do it. If I need something, I can’t count on it coming from anywhere but myself. It doesn’t matter if it’s something as small as the garbage needing emptied. I can’t rely on it to happen if I don’t take care of it. I don’t seem to make a mark. Sometimes it seems my own husband forgets I exist. Sometimes it seems I shout all my words into a well that returns echoes, but never answers.
I don’t know how much of this is the depression speaking and how much is the truth, right now. Right in this moment, I feel the truth of it like a lead weight in my stomach. I know a lot of it is early trauma, the way I was raised not to be loud, not to cause trouble, not to present problems or ask for help or get in the way. Raised to be negligible. Invisible. The way I faded away and nobody I should have been able to turn to for help even seemed to notice, until the day my mother came downstairs and found me asleep on the couch and thought I was already dead. And then she freaked. Not when it could have done any good. But after she believed it was too late.
Here’s a story: This weekend was the weekend of a festival in town, one with craft booths and music in the park, and wine tastings and studio tours and whatnot. This morning I thought, “Maybe I should get dressed and go tot he park. I mentioned it to my husband. We both thought it would be good for us to get out, get some air. I thought this in an abstract way, like it was something I should believe but didn’t really. When I imagined getting dressed and leaving the house, I felt sick. Still, I tried. I took a shower and put on a pretty dress. And then I sat on the toilet and cried and cried and cried. I came out of the bathroom and sobbed on my husband’s shoulder that I couldn’t do it, it was too much, all the sounds, the light, the people talking and enjoying the fair: They all pressed on my skin, physical, tangible. They hurt me, and I wasn’t even there yet. The pretty dress felt like I was wearing a stranger’s skin; it wasn’t me. It hurt me. It hurt me to pretend. I felt like I was being tortured, wiped out.
Eventually I took off the pretty dress and put my pajamas back on. I sat on the couch with a blanket over my body, and it didn’t hurt as much. I read a book, tuned out the pain. My husband brought me gyros and French fries from a diner. We watched TV for a while. I still hurt, especially when I focus on it, but it’s at a manageable level. I can sit here and write this. I can drink a cup of tea without drowning on my tears. I can decide that I’m in a bad place, and that Monday I’ll call and make an appointment to tell my doctor my meds don’t seem to be working as well as they once did. I can tell myself that depression lies, and I probably ought not to believe what it says. I can monitor my thought process and try not to dwell on the bad bits.
But in my heart, in that space in my chest at the center of my sternum, I still hurt. I breathe knives. I swallow the razor blade. It’s there, in my throat, and it’s not a lie. I swallow it, because there’s nothing I can do.
Again, and again, and again.