You know that singular feeling of standing on the beach as the waves come in, just enough to cover your feet? As the wave goes back out to sea, it creates a sensation of the earth literally shifting beneath your feet. While it can be disconcerting, depending on the pull of the wave, it’s not unpleasant.
Then there’s another kind of wave entirely. The kind of wave looks normal, but when you step into it, it sucks at your feet like death, jerking them out from under you pulling you under with sudden and terrifying power. An undertow is treacherous, unexpected and all too often undetectable… until it has you. As you become more familiar with the shore, the pattern of the waves and the weather, you can sometimes sense an undertow, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid it.
Depression is my undertow. Like many Americans – 0ne of 10, 80 percent who are un-diagnosed or untreated, according to Heathline – I never know when I awaken, what kind of day it will be. It’s never a solid-ground day.
If it’s a gentle shifting sand day, I can usually accomplish a few tasks – grocery shopping, talking with a friend on the phone, maybe even cooking a meal – but I still have to be careful to pace myself.
If it’s an undertow day – and it is, more often than not – I can know it before I even I swing my legs over the side of the bed and my toes touch the floor. Even as I lie there, prone on my mattress, I can feel the weight of the day, the force of the pull drawing me under. On those days, I do my best to accomplish two things: feed my cats and – eventually – write something on Facebook so my friends who worry about me know I’m still here. In the past, I was able to accomplish the former; not always the latter. The Richard Armitage US Facebook page I manage has changed that. Many days, the only reason I leave my bed is to find out what our members are talking about, or which posts are getting the most/best/worst/ reactions.
I’m not trudging along this beach alone and unaided. In fact, for the last seven years – since my clinical depression was finally diagnosed – I’ve worked with several doctors, therapists and countless medications. While my sessions with my doctors make me feel less like a freak, the meds they’ve prescribed have had a negligible or short-lived impact. I also have friends – thank you, Diane – who listen and empathize and, ultimately, have helped me keep my head above the deadly waves.
It’s a struggle.
Today is a shifting sand day, so I fed the cats and read for a bit. These thoughts about my depression have been swirling around in my head for a while. So, since it’s a day I can write a little, I’m trying to put them down to share. If you suffer from this illness, maybe knowing that someone else has these thoughts and these struggles will help you feel less alone. Or maybe you can show this to someone who loves you, but doesn’t understand the disease.
Today is a day that I might even be able to post bon mots on Facebook, which is where I can pretend to be well. I can log on, keep up with close friends and the interesting people I know, share a couple of interesting news items, make pithy – sometimes even witty or funny – comments, and log off. No emotional energy or capital required. On most shifting sand days, I can be a pretty good pretender…lots of people with depression are skilled actors, and would rather put on a cheerful face than see that dread “You have so much. What’s wrong with you?” expression in others’ eyes.
On undertow days, I still try to log on. I do this because if I don’t, my phone will be ringing within a day or so from friends who demand a response to ensure that I’m all right. On undertow days, I try to avoid status updates since “Today my depression is overwhelming” isn’t exactly the kind of pretend-positive personality I’m trying to project. Instead, I find something interesting from NPR or on the web from the New York Times or The Hollywood Reporter, or new photos of Richard Armitage to share. My introductory comments don’t require what would be obviously false cheeriness. I can be as dark as I want based on the gravity of the item.
On any day and every day, though, I avoid real people as much as possible. Email and Facebook are my guards. I find that personal interactions require far too much emotional and physical energy, and usually the undertow has me in its paralyzing embrace for days afterward.
This is why my friends and acquaintances learn that I’ll often agree that it would be lovely to get together for lunch or a movie, or a reunion of beloved colleagues, but then I rarely speak of it again, and never show up at the parties. This is a major change for me, considering my former profession, a change made solely as a self-protective measure; I worked in special events, media and community relations, and was very involved community and neighborhood life. But at one point, I realized that these activities were doing me more harm than good. With the first whisper of disagreement or conflict, I heard the waves rising and could tell that the undertow was already tugging at my legs. Isolation, I’ve found, protects me from that particular trigger.
So is this it? Is this how I’ll spend the rest of my life? I truly can’t imagine another 20-30 years of this kind of existence. Instead, on shifting-sand days, I continue to hope that the next medication will be the one that gives me daily shifting sands (of course, I’m realistic enough to not to expect solid ground). We have found one med that helps with my panic attacks, so I’m hopeful that we’ll find one someday that works with the undertow.
Depression unpredictable, but daily possibility and frequent presence of that dark, insistent undertow is no way to live. So I will pray that each of us finds the meds and counselor that will deliver those gentle eddies, and diminish, perhaps even eliminate, the suffocating darkness.
All photos taken by RA US at Edisto Island, South Carolina.