This is part three in my series on depression (Part 1 here, Part 2 here). In the last post I focused mostly on my general history with depression, and in this one I will focus mostly on what depression is like for me. Depression can last anywhere from a few days, to a lifetime for some people. Regardless, it always takes many times that to recover most of the things you may have lost, or to just pick up the pieces of things you’ve let go.
I think that it’s important to go into what being depressed is like for me, because it could be important for someone to understand a friend/family member/loved one/etc who is also suffering from depression. That being said though, depression is a highly personal thing. The things that someone may be depressed about may seem mundane to you, but there’s usually a ton of stuff going on around the “main” issue. On the other hand, sometimes you just don’t know what the fuck is going on, or why you feel so bad, and that makes you feel bad. Also, the way depression affects people can be different. I am going to share my experience with depression, which I cannot claim to be how it effects everyone. I can only speak for myself.
When things are going well, I’m super productive. I’m usually on the move and fairly high energy. I’m able to tackle complex tasks with relative ease, and I actively want to be social. I also pick up new skills quickly, and love to learn and teach new things. At the best of times, I’ll only have a down day every couple weeks, or maybe a down week every couple of months. Eventually things can build up though, and then I’m in a serious depression that lasts multiple weeks or months.
An analogy for that moment things go wrong for me is pickles. One time I came home from work, and just wanted a pickle. I walked over to the fridge, and there inside the pickle jar sat. The problem was that it was empty. That’s a rather crappy thing, to put an empty pickle jar back in the fridge. I would have been angry at my roommate, but at the time I lived alone. While standing there with the fridge door open, I just stared at that empty pickle jar, the pickle juice still inside. Why the hell would I do that? When did I eat the last pickle? I don’t remember doing that. Why the fuck would I put an EMPTY pickle jar back in the fridge? Was I trying to save the juice? Why would I do that, that’s stupid!? Seriously though, what kind of person would eat the last pickle, and then just put the jar back in the fridge? Well, I clearly did it, what the fuck is wrong with me? On and on it went, and the depression spiral started.
Almost all of my depressions start in an equally mundane way. It’s not actually about the pickles, or that specific event. It could be having a flat tire, a bounced check/overdraft, the wrong thing said by a friend, or any number of things that would normally upset me for only a short period of time. Lots of people think it’s always the big events that cause depression, which can mostly certainly be true, but for myself I’ve found that it’s a small thing that sets the spiral off. I simply fail to let the small things go.
Unfortunately, I’ve had a number of legitimate crises in my life. The death of close family members, nearly dying myself, spending lots of time in a hospital and having to deal with physical therapy, financial problems, car accidents, friends and family members committing suicide, and any number of other major events that can cause severe depressions. All of those things contributed to, and were ultimately the major point of many depressions. However, during a crisis I handle myself extremely well. When I’m in an accident, I understand what shock is, and treat myself appropriately. When people die, I’m able to calm people down and take care of important things that have to be done. I’m able to handle the actual crisis, but it’s after things have started to settle down that I “run out of pickles”.
Once the spiral has started, it’s very hard to break out of. I start to beat myself up over silly things, and I start to ignore major tasks I need to do. I feel guilty about not doing the major things, and I stop doing the small things as well. I feel bad that I’ve not even started on the big thing, so why am I wasting time on this little stuff? The big thing is right there! Why am I not doing it!?
Eventually I stop doing things I love to do, because I feel anxieties about not doing one thing or another. At some point I escape into some anime, TV show, video game, book series, etc. Luckily enough, I’ve got an allergy to pot, and I don’t like to get drunk. So at least I’m not perpetuating things with substance abuse, but I know that it’s a huge problem for some of my friends. Escapism is my drug of choice.
At some point, people start to notice that I’ve dropped off the social scenes I’m part of. I stop going to events (even ones I started), I stop using social media, checking email, or doing anything that involves other people. For a while I’ll still manage to go out and get food with people occasionally, but I’m not generally inviting people over for dinner at that point. I’ll sometimes reach out to a close friend I feel comfortable with in talking about things, but at some point even that stops. Eventually I get to the point that I’m doing little more than consuming some form of media, cooking/eating, and sleeping. If I can manage it, I’ll not leave the house for weeks at a time. I’ve gotten really good at using the barest of things in my cupboard, and I can make a really good onion soup.
In most cases, I just let myself crash. I feel bad for a few days or weeks, and then I pop back up again. That’s mostly been my cycle for a long time. Knowing what my cycle is has helped me be productive. By letting myself crash, I’m able to get back into things with a renewed vigor. Life seems important again, and I pick up things that have dropped. I start going out again, and things get made.
I see my cycle as having two parts, consuming and producing. For a while I’m productive, but I get tapped out and have to re-charge. There are certain things that set these off 100% of the time. Anytime I’m at a major event like a hacker conference, Makerfaire, or hackerspace tour, I’ll have a post-event crash. It’s understandable, and perfectly healthy that I need a bit of personal time and space to deal with all that I have experienced. Eventually I process it, and feel amazing and hugely inspired.
The problem with my latest depression started a couple years ago, when I started to let these crash times go on for longer than needed. Instead of using that renewed energy to make something, I would use it to do something like play a difficult video game. Then I would feel bad that I had wasted some of my inspiration on something that didn’t yield a more permanent thing, and then I would fall back down into another consumption slump. Eventually I would get out of it, but I kept spending more and more time in that smaller cycle, never really getting out of it. At some point that became my default at-home state.
I started to procrastinate more and more when ordering parts for kits, and leaving things for the last possible moment. I went from having things done weeks in advance, to getting things shipped to the event and finishing stuff up the day of. I was putting kits together for the next day after a full day at a conference had ended, and ended up working 2x as hard at events that I was already putting a ton of time into. That lead to me not getting any personal time during events, so it made the crashes back at home that much harder.
When I gave up my apartment, it was my hope that I could break this cycle. I was forcing myself to do the work that needed to be done. The problem was that every time I was left alone, I would hard-crash again. It got harder and harder to just deal with the daily stuff, and I eventually stopped. I fell woefully behind on emails, parts and inventory, managing order fulfillment, and all forms of basic communication that I basically live from. Every time I would try to do even the most basic and simple thing, I would run into this huge wall of anxiety, which would push me down further, and then I would just stop doing much of anything that required effort.
Eventually I got to Berlin, and spent the first couple weeks doing very little indeed. I was staying with the amazing Fabienne and SkyT, well past my welcome. Eventually I managed to find a room with another hacker. I was still a bit “on” as the Chaos Communications Congress was about to start, and especially as friends started to pour into town. I was able to prop myself up and get some of the stuff done in time for congress, but I had stopped doing the major things at that point. I had stopped working on the book I was writing for O’Reilly, and had started to ignore the “where are my kits” emails I was getting daily. Everything was weighing down on me, but I had to be social with people. I legitimately enjoy such events, and get a total high from all the amazing people and things involved. Even in my most depressed states, I can usually do quite well in conferences.
When CCC ended, friends were around for a few weeks afterwards, but I had already started to crash. Ultimately the last ones left, and when I was finally alone, I crashed hard. My roommate left for a month, and I didn’t leave the house for that duration. I generally have a well stocked kitchen, and I used every last stock in it. I left a couple times to go to the shop downstairs for things like rice and lentils, but by then it was after a full three weeks of being alone.
Eventually my roommate got back, and we started to talk about depression. When we realized we were just watching shows and playing games alone in our room, we started to hang out in the kitchen and do those things together. It was the first time I had been in such a deep depression alongside another in a similar state. It allowed us both to talk about things freely and openly. It helped a great deal in learning more about what was causing my depression. Everything from environment, things that had built up, and my own behaviors. Despite all the negatives, you really get a chance to think about things during a depression. It’s basically all I do, when I’m not trying to escape into something else entirely.
In the worst of it I will stop even getting out of bed. I stop eating or drinking, so that I don’t have to get up to use the bathroom. At some point all I’m doing is lying there inside of my own head. Often times in a fantasy world of my own creation. I’ve lived whole lifetimes just lying there in the dark, and upon reflections later, my fantasies are often just light veils covering the real issues I’m trying to deal with. I’ve gained a ton of insight from such things, but at great cost.
I’ve only been truly to the point of suicide just once, but once was all it took for me. The last stop for me is a complete and total apathy. I go completely numb emotionally, and just focus on logic. It’s in this state that nearly anything is possible. The first time I went to that dark abyss was the worst. I had decided that it was more logical that I end the pain before it started again. I was unhappy, and couldn’t see a way out of it. I woke up that morning, had a Dr. Pepper, and decided to end my own life. I was only 16.
Suicide Trigger Warning: The next two paragraphs go into the emotional detail of contemplating suicide. If that is a problem for you, then please skip the following two paragraphs.
We had a number of guns around the house, and I knew how to use them (growing up in a family that hunted). I decided that would be the quickest way, and since I was going to be alone for a while, the most sure way of ending things. I was sitting on the floor of my grandfather’s room, gun loaded, with the barrel in my mouth. I was practicing trying to pull the trigger twice before I lost motor function, hopefully two shots being more likely to kill instead of maim. I’m not sure how long I was there like that, but I heard my mother honk her horn, which was an indication that I should come outside and help her bring something in.
In that moment I had a rather profound realization, one that has permanently sealed off suicide as an answer for me. I realized that if my mother had heard the shot, she would have come in and seen what had happened. Being a nurse, she would have tried to revive me, and failing that, she would have most likely taken her own life shortly after mine. My sister would have been the next person to come in and discover us, probably both dead. This would have scarred her for life, and would have sent ripples of pain through the whole of my family and friends. I also realized at that moment how many people my own life affected, and how much damage I would have done to everyone else by taking my own life.
I have now known a few people who have taken their own life, and even more who have attempted, some of whom I was very close to. Having been there myself, I know it to be a truly selfish thing. I don’t really think it’s inherently a bad thing to be selfish, you have to be to live. I also think that people should be able to make their own decision as to whether they want to live or not, but I would really like people to think carefully about something so permanent. You have one life, don’t waste it. It gets better, it really does. When you are that far down, you only have one direction left to go.
When I finally get to the point of apathy, I’m able to do anything, but now instead of contemplating suicide, I go and get help. I’ll go to a crisis center, call a friend, anything to get away from there. There’s no anxiety in the way, so I can get myself to leave the house, or make a phone call. At that point I’m past being able to help myself, and once I was able to learn that I can lean on others, I’ve found that my friends are always there for me. At that point I go on medication, and just leave everything behind till I’ve dealt with myself. It can be freeing in so many ways to finally let go of all the anxiety and guilt and let it out to someone. Medication has been a huge help in my life. While it doesn’t fix the problems, it allows me to better deal with things. It takes the sharp edges off, and can allow me to climb over that wall of anxiety.
In this most recent major depression, I never quite got there. I touched it a few times, but I was able to turn back on my own. In my next blog post I’ll cover the ways I’ve found are most useful for me in getting out of depression, and how I got out of this most recent one.