An author I follow on Twitter posted this today:
Also, we have this big focus on being “happy”. Antidepressants don’t make you happy. They make you not depressed. Happy and sad don’t apply.
— Stephen Blackmoore (@sblackmoore) September 7, 2015
(Dear WordPress: Why must block quotes be so abominably large? Is it something about the theme I use?)
Anyway. The statement rang particularly true for me today, because I’ve been thinking about happiness, or rather, my lack thereof. For the past few years, since I found a medication that works on my depression, I haven’t considered happiness. The relief of not being depressed was so great, and such a difference from most of the rest of my life, that it seemed too much to ask for more. And, in fact, when I was still going to county mental health for regular med checks, I wasn’t encouraged to ask for more. The few times I did, the person I saw actively shut me down. “You might have to accept that this is as good as it gets.”
For a long time, that was enough. Being able to function, albeit in a minimal fashion, was enough. Now it may not be, and I don’t know what to do about it.
A close friend refers to depression as “a disease of motivation.” This makes sense to me. I have highs and lows, but those aren’t depression. Depression is the grey place where nothing happens and nothing matters. When I’ve had suicidal thoughts during a period of depression they’re not about escaping pain, because pain, like every other sensation, is blunted. They are, however, about escape. Escaping that grey place.
I think of depression like a waiting room in an uninteresting dentist’s office. There aren’t any magazines to flip through, not even old ones. There’s no art on the walls, not even bad art. The color scheme is bland. And after you’ve waited long enough for the dentist–he never does appear–you begin to lose your terror of the root canal, or whatever procedure you came for. But in its absence, there isn’t anything to distract you from the fact that you’re stuck in this boring room. You can’t barge into the depths of the office, but you can’t really give up and go home, either. After a time, you realize that the office is empty of anyone but you. There’s no receptionist, no hygienist. There’s only you in your uncomfortable chair, staring at the walls. Probably for a while you hope someone will show up and that your name will be called, and that prevents you from leaving. But in the end, you just accept that’s where you are and that’s where you’re going to be. Until you figure out that you cannot endure staring at those walls one second longer.
When the antidepressants kick in, it’s like the staff finally showing up. You go on and have your root canal. That part, starting to feel after not feeling for a long time, can be dangerous. It’s why sometimes people suicide after the antidepressant starts to work: all the pain comes back. (Which makes me wonder if depression might not be some kind of neurochemical defense mechanism for people prone to strong feelings. If you’re in pain, or in an impossible situation where you’re helpless to act, depression, not feeling, being distanced from your experience, can be a good thing for a while.) If/when you get through the root canal, you can go home. And then, you might experience an extended period of activity, cleaning and arranging your house, taking care of the chores that got neglected because you were stuck in that waiting room.
But after the chores are done, after the initial energy spurt wears off, maybe you find out you brought a piece of the waiting room with you.
This is where I am, I think. I’ve only just begun to look at it, so I can’t articulate, quite yet, the whys and wherefores. The way it manifests, though, is apathy. I’ve been going through a period of intense apathy (yes, I know: oxymoron) the past few weeks, and it’s made me look at how much apathy infects my everyday life. I remember being a person of strong feelings, once. I remember having passions and desires, and I remember those passions and desires influencing my actions. Like, “I don’t want my house to be a pit of slime, so I’m going to clean and mop every week.” Or, “I’m sick of the way my body looks; I’m going to get more exercise.”
Since the antidepressants, I don’t care so much about things. I haven’t mopped the kitchen since the 4th of July. I see the spot where I spilled coffee on the floor and I think, “Huh. Guess I should do something about that some day.” Then days and weeks pass. Or I notice that I get out of breath walking three blocks to the clinic. I don’t really like it, and I know that I could probably get in better shape with regular exercise. But it doesn’t bother me enough, and it doesn’t impact my life enough for me to take action. I don’t care enough. I don’t miss interacting with people in real life enough to go out of my way to leave the house. I don’t want anything enough to do anything about it. I don’t even care much about the book I’m writing. A couple of times a week I have a good day and I churn out a piece of a chapter, but it doesn’t compel me. Whether I finish the book or not doesn’t really matter.
There are probably a lot of factors that go into this. People do complain that being on antidepressants interferes with their creativity, so that might be part of it, at least as far as the writing goes. Since I’ve had some excellent writing experiences while I’ve been on antidepressants, I remain skeptical. Some of it, I’m sure, is old programming. I was thinking yesterday about how, so often in my life, things that make me happy or bring enjoyment have been derided, or taken away, or invalidated, to the degree that engaging in them was a real danger to my mental health. So maybe I’ve learned that the experience of happiness and enjoyment is dangerous.
But maybe some of it is left over from that damned waiting room.
A lot of those Internet quizzes you see have a question about “What one word would you use to describe yourself?” I don’t often see the word that would be my first choice: Survivor. For whatever reason, I am capable of doing whatever it takes to survive. (I can think of only one time in my life when this survival instinct shut off, and that’s when I was anorexic.) So, when that last, long, severe depression gripped me, I did what I had to do to survive it. I developed patience. Tolerance. I let go of hope. I stopped expecting things to get better. I existed.
(This, by the way, is why I purely HATE the dogma that to achieve happiness one must let go of expectation. For me, letting go of expectation implies I have no hope anything will improve. Why in the world would that be a path toward happiness?)
I’ve learned detachment, but without attachment, where’s the need to care? Even when I turned to Michael and said, “I can’t live this way anymore; I need help,” I had no investment in it. It was a thing I saw. I recognized my survival was threatened and did what I had to do to survive. But I didn’t really care.
Now I think it would be nice to care about some things and I don’t know how. I think sometimes that my capacity for caring got worn out by caring so much about so many things beyond my control, and now all I have left is this atavistic instinct to endure. If something isn’t an immediate threat to life and limb, I can’t muster the energy. I don’t know how to be attached to events. I don’t know how to care that smoking cigarettes is bad for me, or that I’ve gained so much weight that I don’t fit into my favorite clothes. I don’t know how to care about whether or not I’m healthy, as long as I’m not totally miserable. Misery, I know what to do with that. Once I get out of the misery, though…not a clue how to go any farther.
Or maybe I do have a clue. The other night, a show we were watching had a song in the soundtrack (it was “Rocket Man” by Elton John) that really affected me, hit me in my gut. I felt something. This is also an uncommon experience for me. I used to find music very affecting, but now it’s mostly just background noise. Anyway, this song affected me, and I thought of how a good combination of film and music is almost always affecting. So yesterday I sat down with Spotify and IMdB and started tracking down songs I’d heard in TV programs and thought, “Wow, that’s a great song!” It’s something I’ve meant to do for a while and hadn’t done yet, because while I can think of doing it in the moment, the idea dissolves as soon as the moment has passed.
I have a 90-song playlist, which I am playing as I write this. From time to time, I have stopped to listen, when a song catches my ear. I have a fleeting interest. Maybe it will grow into something. Maybe not.
I’ll let you know.