Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Therapy, part 1: the times I didn't ask for help

Photo by Kristaps Bergfelds

I first recall the heaviness beginning to descend upon me fiercely the summer before eighth grade, on vacation in the Rockies with my parents and brother. The family reunion had been over for a couple days, and now the four of us were spending some time in the national parks. It was afternoon. We had come back from our hike, and dinner was not for another hour, and it all felt so underwhelming, so disappointing, so empty. I didn’t like the vacation or the food or the expectations or the loneliness or the ennui of summer, and most of all I didn’t like the me I inhabited.

A month later, a few weeks into school, the excitement of new classes and new friends and new activities beginning to wear off again, a hurricane rolled through Maryland that left us home from school for two days. Soccer was cancelled. Piano lessons were cancelled. And I lay in my bed for hours, writing in my journal and crying and feeling myself left alone with my thoughts far too long. The melodramatic short story I wrote in that hurricane, about a woman lost in a rainstorm, determined to carry on, is surely one of the great masterpieces of adolescent angst.


As long as I had been aware of my parents as real humans, I had begun to know the story of my dad’s depression, starting in childhood and most severe in his early thirties. I had come to know it as a story of the past, for it seemed, both in the way he spoke of it and in my own experience of my father’s humor, joy, and energy, that it was completely healed.

What happened next—years later, it seems—was that one day as I was talking to my father, he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that because of his own and his mother’s history of depression, he had been concerned that my brother or I might inherit this propensity. He had watched us closely since we were small and had discerned, to his delight, that we had not inherited this curse. Though certainly I did not suffer in the severe way he had as a child, his statement clanged a dissonance inside me. It didn’t feel true to my experience. 

Funny—that is how I remember it happening. But going through emails, I discovered recently that this is what really happened:

It was midway through college, I was at a break in a relationship and in the midst of a total re-evaluation of all I thought I knew. My faith in God, that solid rock that had brought me through every previous challenge, was now a one-handed grip on a fraying rope. I told my dad, and he sent me an email in which he asked, “Might you be depressed? Though I watched you closely as a kid and you never seemed to have inherited my cyclical major depression, I know mental health can affect one’s life and faith. It’s okay if you’re depressed, and it’s okay to get help.”

Funny how we hear the things we want to hear. Then, I wanted a quick fix for loneliness and doubts, not a lifelong journey with mental health. Now, I wanted to remember this story as a long history of voices telling me I was fine, I didn’t need help. Turns out it was my own voice all along. I have always been the one telling me I didn’t need help.


Later on in college, when that relationship ended for the final time, after friendships had become even more fraught and anger had replaced disbelief as the mode of my faith, I noted the quantity of my tears and the changes in my usually robust appetite, and I wondered if I should see a counselor. The google search “am I depressed” turned up myriad online quizzes and evaluations, and some said I might be mildly to moderately depressed, and some said I was fine. Some days I thought I was depressed, and some days I thought I was fine.

At the end of most every quiz, after all the questions about appetite and sleep and hopelessness and self-harm, there was a question worded something like this: “Have any of the above symptoms affected your ability to carry out the activities of your life?” And I would look at my grades and my work and my unchanged outward appearance, and I would check “No.”

I think part of me wanted to get help, find someone to talk to, explore the idea of therapy. But the other part told me that it was self-indulgent to go to a counselor when (according to the internet) I wasn’t even depressed.

Besides, I was still pulling up my pants every morning. And I had learned that to be functional is to be okay. I didn’t yet understand that in mental health, there is more than functional. There is healing and growing and maybe even some version of whole.

But functional has a power over me, and for several more years after that it wielded its scepter: I lived in Tanzania for a year, the year of gulping teary fits, thoughtless peanut-butter gobbling, the feeling of being utterly alone. But of course that was just what it was like to live abroad, right? And it went away when I sang with the girls in the evenings. I moved back to Maryland and there were months of desperate phone calls to college friends. But of course that was just reverse culture shock and learning to be an adult, right? And it went away when I found the new friends and the garden and the laughter.


Finally, I met my match. In 2012 in the course of one week I went from single to married, city to country, community to isolation, employed to unemployed. It was too much all at once, I suppose. My mother-in-law had bought us an expansive, welcoming brown couch as a wedding gift, and it opened each afternoon to swallow me. I would binge on Netflix and chocolate chips and watch the afternoon fade, too apathetic to get up and turn on the lights. And all of the things from before—the desperate phone calls to friends, the feeling of being utterly alone, the teary fits, the weariness of being me—they all came back at once and threatened to undo me.

They certainly undid some of me. But even as I found a functionality in Cherokee—a job, a way of writing and running to get by—I felt in my own self that this was different. This thing was deeper than just adjusting to marriage and a rural place that was hesitant to accept me. I waited, as weeks turned to months and beyond, hoping for a ritual or a garden or a new friend to rescue me out of it. When they did not come I blamed my own failure, a failure to be outgoing enough to make people love me or spiritual enough to conquer the dark.

We moved to Durham, and I started anew, and I hoped those feelings would depart with new routines and new friends and new purpose. And although slowly built a network of people I desperately love and trust, yet still I would leave the library each day angry at myself for not trying harder. Still I would end up at home feeling sad and lonely, unable to focus or even get off the couch. I would panic as I looked ahead to a weekend without social plans.

My second summer in Durham, I interned as a chaplain, an experience full of  meaning and friendship. And then one day in a group meeting, pressed to explain my emotions, everything all seemed to collapse around me and I found myself crying under a table, begging to be left alone, my mind repeating over and over "I just want to not be me. I just want to not be me."

And I finally admitted to myself that it was time to ask for help.

Want to know what happened next? You can read part 2 here.

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