Vitamin L Diaries: I’m Depressed. Are you?

I’m working with my happy light just off to my right. I will let it do it’s thing – bombarding my brain via my eyes with fake sunlight minus the bad UV rays. It’s one of several tricks up the sleeves of those of us with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) where the lack of natural sunlight can impair and impact our mood and mental health. This year has felt like a triple whammy – clinical depression, a global pandemic and SAD. Oh, I forgot to add the unprecedented events including and leading up to an attempted coup so that makes it a quadruple whammy. 

Mental health talk is slowly losing its sting, but there’s still a sting. How do I know? Because whenever I mention it anywhere publicly I get public comments AND private ones from Dear Readers who don’t feel comfortable sharing in a public comment about their own depression, whose loved ones and community still do not understand that we all should care about our mental health, whose churches will encourage them with toxic positivity to pray it away. Just because you talk about mental health doesn’t mean you have a problem, but if you can’t talk about mental health you won’t have any tools to help bring yourself or loved ones back to health.

So let’s talk about mental health

I want to be clear. I have no thoughts of self-harm. We need to make statements like that normal, normal and healthy for people to say them and for questions about self-harm to be normal and healthy.

For those of us in places will actual seasons, the December, January, February and sometimes March and parts of April are not all a Winter Wonderland (I’m looking at you my Dear Readers from warm, sunny places that think shoveling snow would be fun). They are cloudy, gloomy, cold and isolating. Because of the COVID19 pandemic isolation has taken on new levels. Our family has not entertained inside our home since February 2020. We haven’t had friends or family gathered around our kitchen table, a table that has uncomfortably fit 18 people. We haven’t hosted high school pre- or post-dance parties like we did in the fall of 2019 when 30 high schoolers feasted on carbs and left a trail of glitter, sequins, and corsages (parents we need to talk about how much money we spend on flowers for these kids) and socks from when the guys in the group slept over in the basement. 

So the happy light brings fake sun to help regulate our brains and sometimes we add Vitamin D supplements for added measure. For some of us, and definitely for me, medication (10 mg of Lexapro daily) keeps the other things going, and when I’m on top of it I do the other things – exercise, stay hydrated, limit screen time (ok, I’m not so good at this). 

But sometimes doing all the right things isn’t enough. It helps us keep from sinking further, but it isn’t enough because we can’t checklist our way out of depression.

It can feel a little like falling – that split second you experience the sensation of losing balance. But that split second is split into days and weeks and months of that sensation of losing your equilibrium, of losing a sense of balance and direction, of losing trust in yourself to make the right decision that could possibly break your fall but also break a bone or two in the landing. It’s feeling like you’re moving in slow motion as you are trying to right yourself and no single movement feels like it’s going to keep you from the inevitable crash because you can’t feel your body completely, you can’t see your surroundings completely, you can’t always understand your body or your surroundings at all.

Sometimes you…

  • Start missing deadlines or forget things or flake out, and then you feel horrible about yourself and want to crawl into a hole. So then you try to make up for that but that exhausts you or you stop trying. You can’t sleep or sleep too much and that makes you feel horrible and that horrible feeling can lead to anxiety or a deeper depression. It’s a vicious cycle.
  • Hit a wall. Last week I put on make up, dressed up, chilled a mini bottle of champagne, and celebrated the inauguration of our first but not last woman of color vice president – Madame Vice President Kamala Devi Harris and her running mate Mister President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. But for all the emotions and thoughts running through my mind and body I could not for the life of me cry. For me, that is a sign that my mental health is not tracking with my body and my emotions. And even my emotions felt numb, which I also fully recognize is part of healing from the grief and trauma of but not limited to the past four years.
  • Have to name it. I was telling myself it was a passing day of clouds, but the passing days have been weeks and months. I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Trouble falling asleep and then once I am finally asleep wanting to stay in bed for as long as I can get away with. The things that usually help (exercise usually perks me up) don’t help after days of trying and then the trying gets exhausting. I put on some extra weight during the months of sheltering in place, and that has made being comfortable in my own skin a challenge. It becomes a vicious cycle. I wanted it to just be in my head but that’s the thing with depression. IT IS IN MY HEAD. IN MY BRAIN. And I or anyone with depression can’t think it away. We have to name it and treat it.
  • Reach out. I told my husband and my friends that I’m on the struggle bus with my depression. I told them not because they were going to offer solutions and cures but because they could keep me in their actual, real, sincere thoughts and prayers. They check in, leave messages, send memes (please send all the Bernie memes, please), and text about the mundane and the daily realities. It helps me get through today’s six inches of snow and lack of actual sun.

That still didn’t make it go away

I haven’t written in months, in part because I was slowly slipping into this depressed space where the depression is as alive and present as I am. Words require patience with and for myself, and when I’m depressed my inner critic becomes even louder. Another vicious cycle. After I hit “publish” I will get back to an overdue writing project that stalled in my mental darkness. I will teach a virtual yoga class and reconnect my mind and my body. But I’m finally writing to give space and voice to those of us who keep on keeping on in a state of depression, in a small or big corner of clouds and darkness. Some of us aren’t able yet to reach out for help or who haven’t yet been able to name what it is we are going through or who are still wrestling with the stigma of depression, anxiety, and mental illness. I’m writing this to remind myself and others that no matter where we are in our journey we are still here fighting, even if it’s with a whimper, to please stay present even in the clouds and darkness.

7 Comments

  1. Diana R Trautwein January 27, 2021

    Thank you for telling this important truth in such a vulnerable and powerful way. Truth telling is vital and you do it so very, very well.

    Also, I do have Bernie Birthday meme that my DIL assembled, but can’t for the life of me figure out how to post it here in a comment box. Happy to send it to you via email, but I don’t have your address. Mine is below.

    Reply
  2. Faye waidley January 27, 2021

    grateful for you Kathy and how even in your struggles you invite us in and want us to stand with you. That means a lot for some of us who see you as an example we hope someday to emulate. I know your vulnerability is not easy and it costs. Grateful for your continuous courage. You keep teaching me too to “raise my voice” and to persevere.

    Reply
  3. Kate January 27, 2021

    You’re calling a thing and thing and it’s a good look.

    Hi, my name’s Kate and I am RIGHT THERE WITH YOU, from the meds (Prozac) to the stingy-ness of stigma that has followed me since I was hospitalized for mental health in High School.
    People who don’t know me really closely wouldn’t know it because, for me, THAT IS PART OF IT. THE HIDING AND THE OVER-FUNCTIONING IS PART OF THE PROBLEM.

    Anyway, you’re never alone. We’re fucking brave for talking about it. That’s it – that’s the post.

    Reply
  4. Melody Hanson January 29, 2021

    You describe it so well — the free fall.

    Oddly comforting.

    Reply
  5. Chynnah McFadden March 19, 2021

    The missing deadlines and flaking out vicious cycle you describe is so deeply felt in me every day. I overcompensate to make up for times I’ve felt behind, and then slowly crumble into a mess as I try to keep holding up the bar I set for myself. I too gained weight during this pandemic, and it’s been wild seeing how much that has impacted me (lots to unpack around fatphobia).

    I appreciate you naming what indicators you have to help guide you on your journey back to being in touch with yourself. Not crying when I feel like there’s an emotional time going on is something I tend to not pay attention to…I just keep it moving and don’t give myself space for processing.

    Thank you for sharing this! Hopefully more talking about it will keep normalizing the general discourse on mental health, and abundance in resources will follow.

    Reply
  6. Eric William Lynch March 30, 2021

    Thank You so much for writing about these things. The world needs more of it.

    It makes me feel much less lonely to read someone writing about the same things I struggle with, depression, having worsening during certain seasons or times of the year (fall and winter are especially hard for me as a lot of my close friends work in or around schools so they get really busy when the school year starts, something about winter has also just made things worse as well, tho Im still figuring that out), wondering if I also have seasonal affective disorder, the spiraling inner self critic, the spiraling feeling in general.

    Being able to name about it and talk about it does make it feel a lot better. I feel inclined to mention, as a pharmacist and someone also currently being treated for depression who recently realized this was true for me, sometimes that emotional numbness you feel may actually be being caused BY the antidepressant. It’s a nuanced thing, sometimes it may look similar to a residual symptom of depression, but if you find yourself never feeling over the moon great or excited or upbeat and never feeling completely terrible, and those peaks and valleys used to be normal but now you dont have them, that might be from the Lexapro.

    The two main classes of antidepressants have both been known to cause this side effect, all SSRI’s and I believe most of the SNRI’s (so its not specific to just lexapro). It’s oddly not something thats talked about a lot, but its well documented in medical literature (there’s at least two large controlled studies where people have observed emotional blunting caused by many different antidepressants in patients, which is why a lot of antidepressants have this listed as a side effect and not just one). And I believe its mentioned in the package inserts for the medications as well. (The package insert is like an info sheet that goes with the medication that is produced by the company). The inserts are also heavily regulated by the FDA (and the FDA is suuuper cautious since its their job) so they dont let companies say theyre more effective than they are or say they treat conditions that they don treat, and anything that has even the slightest chance of ever happening as a side effect has to appear in them. So its made by the company, but not biased in the company’s favor :P.

    You can read package inserts for any medication at https://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/

    In advance, let me say, (for anybody reading this) please dont let anything you read there stop you or anyone else from taking your/their medications as prescribed without having a serious conversation with your doctor first. If you have any questions about your medication, please please please first ask your doctor [and/or a pharmacist, we specialize in medication knowledge and our opinion is free 🙂 ]. Reading the list of side effects or warnings and precautions is a great way to freak yourself out without any real benefit. Like I mentioned before, every side effect with even the remotest chance of happening (I’m talking like, one in billions kind of chance here), even stuff that is theoretical (even purely theoretical) (i.e. they’ve never actually seen it happen in a patient, but they think it maybe has the potential of happening) goes in the package insert.

    Now with that caveat out of the way…

    I take Lexapro and Wellbutrin for my depression, and have taken both of them for a half a year at least now, and recently started tapering off the Lexapro, while continuing Wellbutrin (a different antidepressant that does not affect serotonin).

    I recently went through this evaluation of myself, and really the patient is the only one who can make this judgment because its so nuanced, and found that I wasnt as expressive or emotive as I usually was, I was just, ‘meh’ all the time. And this was well after the worst of my initial depressive episode had stabilized (more than a year after the initial episode had stabilized) It was weird because it wasnt quite anhedonia, (loss of interest or pleasure in activities, which is a symptom of depression), things were interesting and rewarding now, they improved when I had started Lexapro in the first place and improved again when I added Wellbutrin to my regimen about 8 months later. But I just like wasnt excited or gregarious or vivacious, which is where I usually am (I’m normally very excitable lol). I was functioning but I wasnt quite … me. I was never even really happy, I was just ehhhh I’m alright at best, and that itself was actually really saddening for me.

    It was almost worse in a way to just feel ‘meh’ all the time. My emotions would just get stuck at a level of stress, and I couldnt experience any emotional peaks or valleys to let it out and get catharsis. I was just stuck being stressed all the time, I couldnt cry, (I used to be able to cry easily, all the time, almost on command if I needed to in order to process stuff, but i couldnt cry anymore oddly), couldnt get angry to scream into a pillow and let myself really feel all my feelings so i could let them pass. It was like i just got stuck, emotionally constipated.

    I decided after discussing with my doctor that it would be helpful for me to discontinue the Lexapro (by starting to taper it off, abruptly stopping and not taking any medication at all can lead to serotonin withdrawal (flu-like symptoms, not fun) and is not recommended). I noticed a difference almost immediately, and my parents did as well. I felt much more excited, lively, energetic. Since starting to taper off the medication I’ve been much more emotional all around, but its actually a plus! Now I can feel my feelings and they actually pass, instead of just getting stuck at a high level of stress.

    Its also been helpful for me, because now I can actually access the full depth of my feelings, and start to process thoughts and feelings I couldnt access before. I can pull the feelings and the thoughts that accompany them out into the open of my mind now and work to change them (I couldnt before because the feeling wasnt intense enough for me to discern what it was and name it, it was just a constant general feeling bad or sad). And now that I can do that, Ive actually gotten a lot better overall! I’m starting to access and reframe a lot of the unhealthy thinking habits I adopted while I was depressed that I couldnt identify because I couldnt see the emotional effects of because those effects were blunted by the medication. Its led to a TON of heavy but sorely needed processing, and I feel like I’m better for it. I’m finally getting to the juicy stuff ive been trying to get to in therapy for literal years and the improvements are incredibly rewarding. When I started tapering off the antidepressant, I was finally able to start having days again where I actually was like, yeah I felt happy today. Not constantly meh, not stressed, not general bad/sad oppressive feeling, actually just… happy. (It was one of many emotional moments for me lol).

    So everyone’s condition is different, I cant tell you what the right thing for you is, like i said the patient is the only one really who can figure out this sort of thing, its incredibly nuanced, but maybe its worth thinking about or asking your doctor about. This sort of side effect of antidepressants is very specific to them, and its management is very much in the realm of what would be good to ask a psychiatrist their opinion on (if you’re not already seeing one), as its something theyve likely seen and have experience in figuring out. Wish you all the best!

    Reply
  7. Meghan Adrian April 3, 2021

    Praying for you. Things are hard. many blessings,

    Reply

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