Highs and Lows: Living With Anxiety and Depression
I have written a few times about the fact that I have a plethora of psychological, social, and physical disorders. A good friend of mine—one who, online, goes by the name Xena—pointed out that my ability to communicate is not just hampered in face-to-face conversations, but can unintentionally fail in spectacular fashion over text formats as well. She was not cruel, she was not judgmental. She was offering good, solid, heart-felt commentary on my choice of words when writing. Her comment to which I refer is at the end of my last article (Is Suicide Painless?).
It would be possible to read her comments as harsh. At another point in my depression, I might have done so. But her words are not harsh—they are merely critical. I know Xena well enough to know that this is meant as a healthy splash of cold water to the face. It is meant as a prodding to do better.
Many people have attempted such things, and often they fail. Some times they fail because, depending upon where I am in the middle of my ups and downs with depression and anxiety, I am incapable of being receptive. Other times, their advice is little more than "then don't do it that way." However, Xena has a way of cutting through my fog and telling me what I need to hear when I need to hear it. I have no idea if this is a skill she has or if it is just plain dumb luck. Your guess is as good as mine.
When Xena wrote this, I was receptive to hearing it. I was at a point where I could read that and see beyond the words; I could filter the meaning through the care I know she has for me and all of her friends.
But as yet, I am not at a point where I can speak to most people. I am not so far gone that I cannot write. And so I will take you—and most hopefully Xena and my daughter—through the three stages of my depression. These are in very general terms, and even within this black-white-grey outlook, there are a multitude of other shades between these points. But this should give you, the reader, some idea.
Where is your baseline?
Let us begin with some concepts. First, assume that there exists eleven bands (as shown on the graph above) on a scale describing the amount of darkness one has filtering their mental and emotional outlook.
On this scale, a healthy person has a 50% filter. As a result, they are not kept from seeing the world as it is, but the blinding effects of irrational optimism are kept at bay. Such a person is contented and in balance. Through this filter, the world they experience is neither too dark to appreciate, nor is it one dominated by a fairy-tale outlook. It is not particularly bright and given to false optimism; nor is it particularly dark and given to false pessimism. This is the normal, everyday, contentment that I am sure many people feel.
Depending upon their experiences day-to-day, their current state can vary by ±10%. If something particularly nice happens, they may have a more glowing, optimistic outlook for a while, having the filter reduced to 40% or so. It a particularly trying set of circumstances are presented, this person may become sad for a while as their filter increases to 60% or so.
Depending upon the individual, their could have greater degrees of swing. Perhaps ±20% or so. They get happier than most when good things happen; they get sadder than most when bad things happen. This does not have to be equal. A true optimist may have a range of -20% to +10% while a true pessimist may have the opposing -10% to +20% range.
The effect of depression, however, is to increase the filter permanently. In other words, normal for a depressive individual may be 60% or even 70%. And it is from this baseline that all events in their life are pushing and pulling them along the spectrum.
- Things going well? Good, because now you have achieved a 50% filter and can rest in contentment for a while, before things spring back to the baseline of 60-70%.
- Things going poorly? That's bad, because now you have achieved 80-90% and this sort of thing feeds on itself so you may be there a while. Eventually, you will return to the baseline of 60-70% but this will take time... time that often feels like it is moving more slowly now.
So what do I have? On this scale, I estimate my baseline is in the 70% band and my normal range is ±20%. As a result, I have times where my outlook is truly content and I have had times where my outlook is suicidal. Do not be fooled, however! When I attain 50% this does not mean I see the world the way most people do. It simply means I an not as prone to exaggerated reactions to negative stimuli.
It is when I am in this 70% band that I am most rational. I know this may seem strange. The idea that a dim outlook on life comes with rational thought can seen odd. But this is not a contradiction. While I am fully capable of intellectually knowing that the world is not as oppressive as it seems (something that took years and years of therapy to achieve), this does not change the fact that it still seems oppressive.
In order to explain this, let me tell you a story...
A Short Story
You are walking down the path. You can see the cracks in the concrete (or is it some other form of pavement?) and the various obstacles (e.g., mailboxes, street signs, fire hydrants; or are those trees, roots, vines?) but none of them are clear. They seem to appear out of nowhere sometimes. Most of the time, you are alright. All of your friends tell you that the path is not particularly dark nor is it particularly bright—it is a normal sidewalk along a normal street on a normal day.
Your friends walk without issue. They see the cracks and the obstacles and they avoid them with relative ease. It still seems dark to you; you cannot see clearly. You reach to your face to see if you are wearing dark glasses or something, but this is not the case. You know this is a failing of your eyes.
Sometimes, but not always, if you concentrate and try really hard you can focus for a moment or two. In these moments, things become clear and you can see what you imagine others are seeing. In these moments you prove to yourself, on an intellectual level, that the path is not as dark as you imagine. It is well lit. It is a normal sidewalk along a normal street on a normal day. It is safe.
Knowing this on an intellectual level, however, does not change the fact that you still cannot see clearly those inconveniences without serious effort. And you cannot maintain that effort all the time. It is exhausting. But while you can muster the energy, you try and you appear to make some progress down the path.
Then you falter. It is nothing major, just an uneven crack in the sidewalk or a sign-post. You brush it off. But at the edges, it becomes harder to focus. You stumble over another crack or bump your leg on a potted plant; when you do, the world gets a little bit darker. It takes more effort to see the path ahead and to maintain the illusion that you see what your friends see.
You cannot focus any longer, so you decide to fake it. This still takes energy but not as much. You walk boldly and when you trip up you make jokes. Unfortunately, with each setback, the path becomes darker and harder to see. Eventually you fear progress because you can barely see anything.
People trying to help tell you: just try harder—as if you are not straining with all of your will to go forward. They tell you to just see the world as they do, as though you had some control over how your eyes see the world. They mean well, but at some point their advice becomes its own failure. Your inability to meet their expectations causes you to fall further into darkness. Until...
The world becomes a place made entirely of shadow. There is very little (if any) light you can see; if you can see some light, it appears distant and unreachable. Empty spaces of darkness and unknown become potential chasms, or potential speeding cars on streets you have to cross. You simply can no longer see the path. To you, there is no path. You start to wonder if there has ever been a path. Perhaps it was all an illusion. You curl up into a ball and try to shut out the images in your mind of what might be there.
Then comes the purge.
The darkness continues past what you can no longer see; although it continues to block your sight, it begins to blot out your hope. Then, once that is in check, it begins to wipe out your memory. Suddenly, you cannot recall the most basic details about the path. How wide is it? Is it paved and cracked with signs, or was it a dirt road with potholes and trees?
Grey to Black
When I reach the depths of despair, it is hard to imagine a time when this was not the case. All I can recall are the bad things, the failures, the regrets. Right now, as I write this and I have some rational thought functioning, I know that my drops into darkness are not permanent. While I sit within them, however, they appear as the sum total of my existence. I do not see a time when it was not true. I do not see a possible future when it will not be true.
You can vaguely recall cracks, but scale has been lost—they all seem cavernous in your mind.
You can vaguely recall obstacles, but their nature has been lost—what was once a fire hydrant has become something nightmarish that attacks you with high-pressure water; what was once a bend in the road has become a maze you cannot solve.
You search back, trying to remember a time when you were not scared and you cannot find it.
Time passes. How long? You are not sure.
You find it difficult to comprehend, but you start to recall things. Your memory has holes... what happened in those empty spots? You have no idea. Worse still, you have memories that do not make sense. Did those things happen? Who knows. The bad things you wish you could forget. The good things, you hold onto even after, at some future date, they are proven to have been nothing more than dreams. Your ability to look beyond the moment is returning. You reach out with your hands and fumble along.
Where are your friends?
You are not sure. You remember telling them to move on without you. Some wanted to stay, but you told them they would be happier without you. For some, you think back and realise you were cruel in an effort to make them go away. You fear a life with them where you can sink them into these abyssal trenches; you fear a life without them. You still believe that they would be far better off without you. But at least now you can see how that comes across.
How many times have you done this—telling people who care about you to get out of your life?
You lost count long ago, but each time it happens, it feels like a contradiction. When you remember telling them, a voice deep inside your head tells you that you are (were?) being cruel. Was that voice there the first time? If it was, could you hear it? Doubtful, but you are not sure. You are not sure of anything. Are you that cruel? Are you that person? Evidently, yes.
You are moving forward, albeit slowly. You are not cognizant of the first moment you can see the path, but at some point you can see it and you have memories of having been seeing it for a while. It is still dim, and it takes a little effort to focus, but it is manageable.
You look around and you can see a few friends and acquaintances who stayed behind. You smile at them than thank them for waiting. Inside you are seething and screaming at yourself for having held them back. You try to tell yourself that it was their choice, but this is not as helpful as you hope.
A few of them you fear you will go on hurting. You try to slowly distance yourself until you can reach a point where they become acquaintances... or even memories. How many of these have you had? Countless! Waverly Edwards, Vivian Green, The Hynek family...
You will come to miss them, but in the end, you believe (on both an emotional and rational level) that this was for the best. As the world settles into a place you can deal with rationally and emotionally, you start to see further ahead. You see some of the friends who are like emotional safe-ports for you that went on after you pushed them away.
You run to them. So much energy needed to do this, but it feels good. Things seem right.
Grey to White
Like with the deepening of the darkness, rational thought can go as the world becomes brighter. Where I was once unable to see a time without darkness, as I reach the height of my mood I begin to imagine a world without darkness. What I cannot see was not there, because my vision is perfect. I block out the idea that this, too, shall pass. I feel as though I am finally cured. I have been known to come up with quasi-rational for the insight I have finally achieved that has allowed me to break the cycle of darkness.
You try to catch up. Some you reach; others remain out of reach. In the initial joy of getting back to each person you catch up with, you find an optimism that was not there before. You regather your support system; you start to feel capable.
You take side trips, exploring the world around you. You reach out and even make new friends. With each new person in your life, you feel energized and as if all it well. You make plans... some of them relatively long term.
The first cracks in the facade will be small: you missed a deadline because your estimate of the time it would take to do the work was overly optimistic; someone who promised to get you something was unable to do so for reasons wholly understandable but you feel slighted or ignored; an argument erupts over a simple misunderstanding and you find yourself taking the blame for everything, even those things that are out of anyone's control.
You try to deal with each of them as a minor setback. You adjust. But with each adjustment, your ability to see the path is diminished. You struggle to hang on. You focus. You try. Others tell you to try harder, or just get over it.
The path starts to seem a dark place, but all of your friends are telling you that the path is not particularly dark, nor is it particularly bright—it is a normal sidewalk along a normal street on a normal day. You fear that you are not as cured as you had thought. This fear causes the darkness to come in more quickly.
One day, you realize that you cannot see the path—not clearly, anyway. You start to complain that the road you are on seems dark; you tell some of your friends that you cannot see clearly all of the cracks and obstacles in your way. Your friends walk without issue. They see the cracks and the obstacles and they avoid them with relative ease. It still seems dark to you; you cannot see clearly. You reach to your face to see if you are wearing dark glasses or something, but this is not the case. You know this is a failing of your eyes.
I spend a lot of time in the darker parts of my cycle these days. Rational thought is difficult to maintain. Concentration fades. My headaches and migraines get worse and more frequent. As I write this, I deal with a continuous headache, and 3–5 migraines per week, each lasting 1–4 hours.
This has been the basic cycle (with some exceptions and variation) for as long as I can remember. As I look back, I can see signs that this was how I was as early as the age of 10 or so. Most certainly by the time I was in high school. Interestingly, it was evident in my 9 years 5 months the Navy as well, but given personnel changes and command changes, it was something that went largely unnoticed.
Note however, that the cycle is not perfectly circular. Sometimes I will go do a baseline—dark—baseline—dark cycle, getting none of the lighter periods at all. Although not completely unheard-of, I almost never do a baseline—light—baseline—light cycle. In recent years, the highs of my life have often been very brief with a quick return to the baseline and the occasional quick trip back into darkness...
I love my daughter. We have been apart so long that I have a tough time talking to her when I am at baseline; it is impossible when I am in the depths; and I have not had a true high in my mood for so long, I have no idea how a conversation with her would be in such a state. But I love her.
I have tremendous respect for Xena. She is one of two people in my life that, if they tell me the sky is not blue but is lime-green, I am as likely to have my eyes checked as to question their observations. Thank you Xena for prodding me. I plan to call my daughter as soon as this is posted.